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Don’t follow the crowd into cash

Benjamin Felix

It’s easy to imagine that when markets are declining everyone is selling their stocks and hiding cash under their mattresses. Sensationalist news reports will often reference increasing cash balances as nervous investors rush for the exits. While this perception is common, it misses half of the story; for every seller there must be a buyer. Cash isn’t piling up everywhere while everyone waits on the sidelines. For each nervous seller running for the hills, there is a level-headed buyer capturing the equity premium.

When contemplating the action of selling investments to hold cash in anticipation of a market crash, one must consider the following:

Do you know more than whoever is on the other side of the trade? Someone is happily buying the securities that you are in a hurry to sell. In 1980, 48% of U.S. corporate equity was held directly by households, and by 2008 that number had dropped to 20%*, meaning that the someone buying your securities is likely a skilled professional at a large institution; do you know something they don’t?

When are you going to get back in? Markets deliver long-term performance in an unpredictable manner. Over the 264 months from January 1994 – December 2015, a globally diversified equity portfolio returned 8.51%** per year on average. Removing the five best months reduces that average annual return to 6.46%. That is a 24% reduction in average annual returns for missing 1.9% of the months available for investment. Peter Lynch famously stated "Far more money has been lost by investors preparing for corrections or trying to anticipate corrections than has been lost in corrections themselves."

Should you have been in the market to begin with? If you need your cash in the short-term, it probably shouldn’t be invested in stocks and bonds. If a portfolio has been properly structured to meet a specific financial goal, it should remain in the market regardless of the market conditions. Portfolio volatility can be controlled by selecting an appropriate mix of stocks and bonds, not by jumping between stocks and cash.

A positive investment experience is largely dictated by discipline. There is no evidence that market timing results in better returns, and plenty of evidence that it is detrimental. While it may sometimes seem like everyone is going to cash to avoid a downturn, they’re not. Those choosing to go to cash are effectively being exploited by those taking a disciplined approach, rebalancing into stocks when stocks are declining.

*Investment Noise and Trends, Stambaugh http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2374103

**Dimensional Returns 2.0

Original post at pwlcapital.com