You’ll hear a lot of investment advice about how you can’t time markets.
Trying to buy low and sell high, manipulating your investment holdings to maximize your gains, is frowned upon. It’s far better, the advisers say, to park your money in an investment and hold it for the long term.
But while that can be true for some assets and at various times, it isn’t always true that you can’t make greater gains by timing the market, nor is it true that timing doesn’t play a role in successful investing. In some cases investors may only figure that out in hindsight, but being able to be in the right place at the right time is what separates the extraordinary investors from the merely average.
When You Start (and Stop) Makes a Big Difference
Given the history of boom and bust cycles in stock markets, when you begin to invest can make a big difference in your investment performance. That’s especially true in the 21st century, which has seen stock markets make massive moves both up and down, but with little to show for it for many investors.
Let’s take the example of a typical investor putting money into an employer-sponsored 401(k) plan. As with any investment, the lower you can buy when you start investing and the higher you can sell once you need to liquidate your investments, the better off you will be.
But if you had started working in 2000 or 2001, or in 2007 or 2008, you would have started investing near the top of a stock market bubble. And if you had continued to add to your investments every month, you would have invested into a bear market, meaning that each subsequent investment would have lost money and wouldn’t have started earning you gains for months, if not years. If you had started investing near the top in 2007, those initial investments wouldn’t have reached the same level again until 2013. If you had continued making investments through the bottom of the market in 2009, those investments at the bottom would have made you money in the mean time, but probably not enough to boost the overall performance of your portfolio.
Likewise, those who were looking to retire around that time also faced the difficulty of perilous timing. If you were looking to retire in the 2007 to 2009 time frame, you faced the prospect of having to liquidate investments during one of the most illiquid markets in recent history. The Dow reached its nadir in March 2009 at 6,500 points, a level that it hadn’t seen since 1997. Not only were 12 years of gains on pre-1997 investments erased, but all the investments you had made between 1997 and 2009 would now have been in the red. Decades worth of saving and investment was erased within a little over a year.
The ‘80s Are Over
So much investment advice is predicated on the performance of stock markets during the boom period between about 1982 and 2000. Aside from Black Monday in 1987, stock markets by and large marched relentlessly upward from the early 1980s to the beginning of the 21st century. Investment account balances continued to rise, making huge gains. From around 875 points at the end of December 1982, the Dow rose to nearly 10,800 points by December 2000, an average annual increase of nearly 15%.
That was one of the origins of the buy and hold theory of investing. Warren Buffett adheres to that theory, and touts the advantages of buy and hold over the long term, albeit a longer term (76 years) than most investors will actually be able to stick to. And over the medium term (15-20 years), many investors can make out well, assuming they get in and out of the market at the right time and have the good fortune of investing in a healthy market climate.
Stock Markets Don’t Grow Consistently
But stock markets over the course of the years have been anything but consistently healthy. We all know, of course, of the stock market crash of 1929. It took the Dow 25 years to get back to its 1929 levels. From there on out it more than tripled between 1954 and 1966, getting up to nearly 1,000 points before spending the next 16 years trading in a range between about 600 and 1,000 points. From 1982 onward it saw a 12-fold increase, but the last 18 years have only seen the Dow increase about 2.5 times, not nearly the same rate of growth as throughout the 1980s and 1990s. And of course, most of that post-2000 growth has occurred in the past two years.
Suffice it to say, if you were one of the early baby boomers who was able to benefit from and reap the gains from investments made between 1982 and 2000, you benefited quite handsomely. If you retired post-2008, or if you’re part of a younger generational cohort that only started investing post-2000, you haven’t seen nearly the gains that previous generations made.
Despite the mainstream financial media’s insistence that stocks are the best way to invest, that isn’t always the case. As we’ve seen, how your stock investments perform can be highly dependent on when you’re able to start investing. When you start looking at stock performance over the 30-50 year periods that most investors are looking at for their own investments, stocks often don’t really stick out as anything special.
Gold Has Outperformed Stocks
Since the United States government closed the gold window in 1971, stocks have actually been outperformed by gold. Gold has increased by 7.6% per year since that time, versus 7.3% for the Dow and the S&P 500. Gold’s performance in the 21st century is even better, with an average 9.6% increase per year, versus 4.8% for the Dow and 4.1% for the S&P 500.
And while past performance is no guaranteed indicator of future performance, gold’s history as a store of value and a safe haven asset in times of financial turmoil should mean that gold will continue to perform for investors into the future. Particularly in an investing environment that has seen stock markets lose thousands of points already this year and the possibility of another crash in the coming years, gold can serve well to protect existing gains and defend against future losses.
Trevor Gerszt is America's Gold IRA Expert, CEO of Goldco Precious Metals, and holds a position on the Los Angeles board of the Better Business Bureau.
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