Attempts to time the market rarely pay off for investors, but those the key to success could lie in lowering your expectations.
Timing the market with your gut will cost you
It's the dream of every investor, from the hopeful beginner to the most experienced trader. Time the market correctly and riches will come your way. Invest at the bottom and sell at the top and you will make a killing.
Almost every investor has tried timing the market at some point. The temptation is just too great. But few have got their timing right and nobody manages it consistently.
You're tempted right now, aren't you? Maybe you think shares can't fall much further and now is a great time to pick up stocks on the cheap.
Or perhaps you think the next big crash is upon us and you plan to pick up dirt. The truth is that nobody knows what will happen next, especially in these volatile times. Trying to time the market will drive you crazy.
The human brain just isn't up to the task, says Tom Stevenson, an investment commentator at Fidelity Worldwide Investment. "We have a deep-rooted desire to run away from danger. That is a sensible survival mechanism when you are hunting on the Savannah because if you don't run away, you might get eaten. But it doesn't work for investing."
Human beings are psychologically primed to sell at the bottom of the market, when they are scared, and buy at the top, when they feel safe. "They should actually be doing the reverse; walking towards danger with their eyes open because that is the point of maximum opportunity," Mr Stevenson says.
The best recent example of this was the collapse of the US investment bank Lehman Brothers in September 2008. Investors who spent the next few months walking towards danger with their eyes open will have reaped their rewards when stock markets rebounded sharply from March 2009.
They were in a small minority. Everybody else was fleeing in terror, terrified of being eaten.
Few of us will ever time the very bottom of the market, Mr Stevenson says. "When things look really bleak, you probably won't have the courage to invest. By the time markets look attractive again, you will have missed the best part of the recovery. For good psychological reasons, it is almost impossible to get it right."
And this brings us to the second problem. Just because shares have fallen, it doesn't mean they can't fall even further. If you think you have spotted the moment of maximum fear to invest, only for shares to plunge again shortly after you have parted with your money, you may not feel so brave next time round.
Timing the market will drive you crazy because you are trying to achieve the impossible, says Clem Chambers, the founder of the stocks and shares website Advfn.com. "If you could successfully time the market, again and again, you would make infinite amounts of money and everybody else would go bust. Nobody has done that, no matter how clever they claim to be."
So what about the likes of George Soros, who have made billions from getting the big calls right? Or the dozens of economists who have built their reputations by claiming to have predicted the credit crunch?
They didn't time the market, they called it, which is a different thing, Mr Chambers says. "If you claim shares are overpriced and markets must fall at some point, that is calling the market. It can be done if you're clever. And patient. But if you claim shares are overpriced and the market is going to crash on Tuesday, that's timing. And it can't be done, not consistently."
The shorter the timescale, the harder it is to get your timing right. "If you say shares will crash at some point in the next five years, you might just be right. If they say they will crash in the next 15 minutes, you will probably make a fool of yourself."
This doesn't mean you should give up timing altogether. Just lower your expectations. "I started buying shares shortly after Lehmans collapsed because markets had fallen so far," Mr Chambers says. "Markets kept on falling, so I lost money. I called the bottom of the market on several occasions over the next few months and was wrong every time. Yet I made money in the end, by hanging on until markets recovered the following year."
Buying into a plunging share or market is known as catching a falling knife. As the phrase suggests, it is a dangerous trick to pull off.
Today's volatile stock markets make life tough for investors, says Rob Worthington, the vice-president at JP Morgan Asset Management. "Some people will be tempted to make a short-term profit by leaping on the upswings and avoiding the downturns, but this is a dangerous game to play. The lucky winners shout about their successes, but tend to keep quiet about their losses."
Chasing short-term profits is tempting, but folly. "If you had invested US$1,000 [Dh3,673] in the FTSE All-Share in October 2000, you would have had a healthy $1,330 after 10 years. But if you had missed the top 10 days during the decade, you would have ended up with just $720. The problem is that nobody knows when the best 10 days will be. The only way to be sure of finding them is to stay invested in the market."
Investors who try to time market movements have to process an infinite amount of information, Mr Worthington says. The euro zone crisis, US unemployment data, Indian food price inflation, the Chinese property boom, next year's US presidential elections, French and German elections, and a host of other political, economic and social events will all affect what happens next.
"If you are tempted to time the market, you are effectively claiming that you know, say, what Europe's leaders will do next and how their electorates will respond. You can't know this. So, in fact, you are taking a gamble," Mr Worthington says.
Don't despair, because some things can be modelled with a fair degree of accuracy. "In the next 10 years, over half the Japanese population will be of retirement age. Computer models can accurately predict how many hip and knee replacements they will require. They will look to established western companies to supply them. Investors might want to target those companies," Mr Worthington says.
In China, just 6 per cent of mothers use disposable nappies. "As the economy grows and their quality of life improves, that figure will increase. Again, this trend can be predicted with some accuracy."
Nobody can name the exact time and date when investors will cash in on these trends. "But if you invest for five, 10 years or preferably longer, you will eventually reap the benefit," Mr Worthington says.
A rusty old stock market adage states that it is "time in the market that counts, not timing the market". If you can't get your timing consistently right (and frankly, you can't), you just have to give it time, says Danielle Smith, the area manager for financial consultancy PIC in Dubai. "If you have a long-term outlook, you don't need to worry about short-term volatility. Chopping and changing in line with every fresh piece of economic news is a recipe for disaster."
The key to success is to build a portfolio containing a balanced mix of shares, cash, bonds and property, which will perform well at different stages in the cycle. "Diversification is the key to success. Placing all your assets into one type of investment is risky - you might make large gains, but it also exposes you to the possibility of large losses."
If current market volatility is giving you sleepless nights, you might want to de-risk your portfolio. "Contact your financial adviser to make sure you are comfortable with where your money is invested and get a full night's sleep," Ms Smith says.
Following every shift in the value of any shares or funds you hold is a recipe for madness, says James Thomas, the regional director at Acuma Wealth Management in Dubai. "If you sell every time they fall, it is also a recipe for losing a lot of money."
You only actually lose money when you sell, at which point you crystallise your losses. "It may be painful looking at all the negative numbers on your computer screen, but in volatile markets you can recoup your losses very quickly."
If you are generating an income from your portfolio, remember that dividends are based on the number of shares you hold, rather than their current value. "Your income will remain the same, regardless of the current market value of those shares, so you can ignore daily share price movements," Mr Thomas says.
Don't be distracted by day traders who try to time the market to their advantage. "To do this, you really need to be watching your investments every single minute. It becomes a full-time job, and a highly risky one."
To avoid going crazy, work out why you are investing, for what reason, and for how long. "Decide how much risk you are willing to take and structure your investments accordingly," Mr Thomas says.
Instead of embarking on a fruitless attempt to time the market, Mr Stevenson at Fidelity recommends doing the exact opposite. "The best way to keep your sanity is to eliminate the emotional aspect by mechanising the investment process. Save a regular amount, month after month, year after year. That way you don't have to worry about timing at all. You will look back after a decade and be delighted with the results."
You still dream of timing the market, don't you? You still kick yourself for all those missed opportunities when you just knew that stock markets were set to rebound, but somehow failed to act. Don't be hard on yourself. Almost everybody else missed them, too. There is only one way to time the market consistently right. And that's with the benefit of hindsight.
A far saner strategy is to buy shares when they look good value and hang on for the long-term. Time is on your side. Timing isn't.