It’s a question we’ve all asked in our darker moments of late: Why not just put all of our investments in cash, 100 percent, just for a little while, until things calm down?
Some people already seem to be acting on that instinct. In the first six days of October (through Monday), investors pulled $19 billion out of mutual funds that invest in United States stocks, matching the outflows for the entire month of September, according to TrimTabs Investment Research.
“What clients are looking for is safety,” said John Bunch, president of retail distribution at TD Ameritrade. “They are seeking solutions that are backed by the federal government. Specifically, F.D.I.C-insured money funds and certificates of deposit. All of it is under the umbrella of, ‘Am I safe and insured?’ ”
By fleeing for the comfort of safe and insured, however, investors with a time horizon beyond a few years may be doing real damage to their long-term finances. If you’re tempted to make a big move to cash right now, you’re doing something called market timing. It’s an implied statement that you’ve figured out the right moment to get out of stocks — and will also know the right time to get back in.
So let’s dispense with the first part straightaway. The right time to move out of stocks was a year or so ago, before various stock indexes the world over fell by one-third or more.
If you missed that opportunity, you’re hardly alone.
But if you sell now, you’ll be locking in your losses. And once you’re in cash, there isn’t much upside. In fact, with interest rates low, you’re likely to lose money in cash, because inflation will probably eat up the after-tax returns you earn from a savings or money-market account.
A guarantee of a small loss may sound good right now. But if you’re not bailing out of stocks once and for all, how will you know when it’s time to get back in? The fact is, any peace of mind you gain by being on the sidelines now will turn into a migraine once you see how much you can harm your portfolio over time by missing just a bit of any rebound.
H. Nejat Seyhun, a professor of finance at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan, put together a study in 2005 for Towneley Capital Management, where he tested the long-term damage that investors could do to their portfolios if they missed out on the small percentage of days when the stock market experienced big gains.
From 1963 to 2004, the index of American stocks he tested gained 10.84 percent annually in a geometric average, which avoided overstating the true performance. For people who missed the 90 biggest-gaining days in that period, however, the annual return fell to just 3.2 percent. Less than 1 percent of the trading days accounted for 96 percent of the market gains.
This fall, Javier Estrada, a professor of finance at IESE Business School in Barcelona, published a similar study in The Journal of Investing that looked at equity markets in 15 nations, including the United States. A portfolio belonging to an investor who missed the 10 best days over several decades across all of those markets would end up, on average, with about half the balance of someone who sat tight throughout.