2016's Intial Market Decline Dilemma

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I don’t normally, or have not thus far, responded to market sell-offs.  And, I am not typically a big believer in lengthy market commentary. But, this year’s start and market decline looks to be the worst in sometime, at least since the 2009 decline.  So, I wanted to offer encouragement to potential and current Pacific Capital Works clients that the plan we have in place, see your Investment Policy Statement (IPS), is a winning strategy.  And, if we stick to it, and don’t get caught up in the market movements, we will achieve our goals, which is the reason we are investors in the first place.

 While it is tempting to believe that there are those who can predict bear markets and, therefore, sell before they arrive, there is no evidence of the persistent ability to do so. On the other hand, there is a large body of evidence suggesting that trying to time the markets is highly likely to lead to poor results.  For example, a study on the performance of 100 pension plans that engaged in tactical asset allocation (a fancy term for “market timing,” allowing the purveyors of such strategies to charge high fees) found that not one single plan benefited from their efforts. That is an amazing result, as even random chance would lead us to expect at least some to benefit.

One way to deal with these down turns is think about similar historical outcomes that resulted positively in the last 89 years (1926-2014):

  • There were 33 years (or 37% of them) in which the S&P 500 Index produced a loss during the first quarter. By the end of 18 of those years (or 55%), the S&P 500 had produced a gain. Of those 18 years, the highest return occurred in 1933, when the S&P 500 returned 54%. The best performance during the last three quarters in each of those years was also in 1933, when the S&P 500 returned 79.2%. The last time the first quarter ended in negative territory but full-year returns turned positive was just recently, when in 2009, the first quarter finished with a return of -11% and went on to recover for full-year gains of 26%.
  • There were 31 years (or 35% of them) in which the S&P 500 Index produced a loss during the first six months. By the end of 11 of those years (or 35%), the S&P 500 had produced a gain. Of those 11 years, the highest return occurred in 1982, when the S&P 500 returned 21.4%. The best performance over the last half in each of those years was also in 1982, when the S&P 500 returned 31.7%.
  • There were 24 years (or 27% of them) in which the S&P 500 Index produced a loss during the first nine months. By the end of four of those years (or 17%), the S&P 500 had produced a gain. Of those four years, the highest return occurred in 1982, when the S&P 500 returned 4.0%. The best performance over the last quarter in each of those years occurred just recently, when in 2011, the S&P 500 returned 11.8% over the last three months.

 As Warren Buffet stated about the simplicity and the difficulties of investing .  The simple part is that the winning strategy is to act like the lowly postage stamp, which adheres to its letter until it reaches its destination. Similarly, investors should stick to their asset allocation until they reach their financial goals.  The reason investing is hard is that it can be difficult for many individuals to control their emotions (greed and envy in bull markets, and fear and panic in bear markets). In fact, I’ve come to believe that bear markets are the mechanism by which assets are transferred from those with weak stomachs and without an investment plan to those with well-thought-out plans—meaning they anticipate bear markets—and the discipline to follow those plans.  A necessary condition for staying disciplined is to have a plan to which you can adhere. But that’s not sufficient. The sufficient condition is that you must be sure your plan avoids taking more risk than you have the ability, willingness and need to take.