Category: Market timing

Sell in May and Go Away – Should You?

If you’ve been investing for a while, it is very likely you’ve heard the “Sell in May and go away” adage many times. This time every year, all major financial media outlets publish their own pieces on it. The recommendations in such articles range from “it is nonsense – stay invested” to “it’s true and really improves returns”, often also including the very popular “but this year is different”. Where is the truth? Is “Sell in May” just a myth, or does it have a sound foundation? What should you do?
Sell in May and Go Away Origin
It is not known who came up with it first and when. The saying is based on (perceived) stock market seasonality and it generally means that market returns tend to be higher in the first months of a year and lower in the next months. Therefore, it is better for an investor to sell stocks in May to avoid the weaker period that follows.
Unfortunately, the saying is very vague about the exact timing. Should you be selling on the first day of May or the last? Or the 8th May, for instance? Additionally, if you sell your shares, when should you buy them back?
You will find several different variations and interpretations of the saying. Probably the most popular version is one that divides the year into two halves, one running from November to April (better returns – hold stocks) and the other from May to October (stay out). Others suggest you should stay out of the market until year end. Yet another version is “Sell in May and don’t come back until St Leger Day” (the September horse race, or the end of summer).
Are the Returns Really Different?
Despite its vagueness, the “Sell in May” adage (particularly the May to October version) is indeed based on some statistically significant differences between stock market returns in different parts of the year (seasonality). Various studies have been done working with different time periods and stock indices in different countries. Many of them have concluded that there are parts of the year when average historical returns have been higher and volatility lower than in other parts of the year. The month of May seems to be the dividing line between the good and the bad period, although exact date, as well as extent of the return differences, depends on the markets and years included in the research.
In short, historical data suggests that market returns tend to be weaker in the months starting with May, so the “Sell in May” saying does have some foundation. Does it mean you should sell? No, and there are several reasons why not.
Lower Returns vs. Negative Returns
While much of the research shows that returns tend to be lower in summer and early autumn, that doesn’t mean stock investors are, on average, losing money in that period. Although the market declined in some individual years, if you were holding stocks from May to September, May to October, or May to year end every year in the last 20, 30 or 50 years, you would have made money in the end.
When deciding whether to sell in May or not, do not compare the average or expected stock market returns to those in the other period. They must be compared to the alternative use of your capital.
To Sell or Not to Sell in May
When making the decision, you are comparing two scenarios:
1. Stay invested in the stock market. Your return is a combination of the increase or decrease in stock prices and dividend yield (do not underestimate dividends).
2. Sell stocks, invest the money elsewhere (often a savings account or a money market fund) and buy stocks back at some point. Your return is the interest earned, but you must deduct transaction costs, which can be significant and sometimes higher than the interest earned. Furthermore, buying and selling will have tax consequences for many investors.
Returns of option 1 are less predictable and can be very different in individual years, as they depend on the stock market’s direction. Returns of option 2 are more stable, but with transaction costs and today’s low interest rates they will be extremely low or even negative. It’s the good old risk and return relationship.
If your time horizon is long and the outcomes of individual years don’t matter, option 1 (staying in stocks), repeated consistently over many years, will most likely lead to much higher return than option 2. If your time horizon is short (for example, you are approaching retirement), you should consider reducing the weight of stocks and other risky investments in your portfolio – not just in May, but throughout the year.

Possible Brexit Consequences and Your Portfolio

Whether you support Leave or Remain, you may be wondering how leaving the EU (or staying in) can affect your investments. Will British stocks underperform if the UK leaves? Will the pound continue to be under pressure until the June referendum, but recover if people vote to stay in the EU? Is there anything you can do to prepare your portfolio for either outcome?
The Brexit referendum is a typical example of an event with known timing (23 June) but unknown outcome. Plenty of these occur in the markets on a regular basis, including corporate earnings, macroeconomic data or central bank policy announcements. While this one is obviously of extraordinary significance, the underlying principles of market psychology still apply.
One of these principles is that anticipation can result in as much volatility as the event itself (if not more). In other words, when investors know that something is going to happen, or might happen with a certain non-zero probability, the market often “reacts” before the outcome is announced. In line with the Efficient Market Hypothesis, prices immediately reflect all available information.
The pound has weakened by 9% against the dollar and by 11% against the euro in the last 3 months. It seems like big part of the damage has already been done. Will it depreciate further? It is impossible to predict.
When anticipating an event, sometimes the market overshoots and then corrects, making a counterintuitive move when the actual outcome is finally known (like the pound strengthening after the referendum even if Leave wins). The saying “buy the rumour, sell the fact” comes to mind. Sometimes it’s the opposite. Other times it’s completely random. No one can tell before it happens.
With the above being said, there are two things we consider highly likely:
Firstly, until the June referendum we will probably continue to see increased volatility in the pound’s exchange rate (saying nothing about the direction). As the first days have confirmed, the debate will be heated. New questions and new fears will arise. Both camps will achieve small victories and suffer small defeats. The perceived probability of leaving the EU will change as new opinion polls will come out.
Secondly, given the high profile and non-stop media coverage of the matter, the economic significance and consequences of Brexit are probably exaggerated at the moment by both the Remain supporters (doom and gloom if we leave) and the eurosceptics (prosperity guaranteed if we rid ourselves of EU bureaucracy).
Contrary to what it may seem, the world has not come to a standstill, waiting for the UK to decide. There are other events and other factors which will continue to influence the economy, the stock market and the currency, before and after the referendum. Some of them will probably have much greater effects than Britain leaving the EU – possible candidates include oil price (the FTSE is energy heavy), interest rates, slowdown in China or the US, wars (e.g. Ukraine, Syria) getting worse and spilling over, or shocks in the financial sector. This time last year, it was Grexit, not Brexit, dominating the headlines. The fact that no one talks about Greece at the moment does not mean that the sovereign debt problem (in Greece and elsewhere) has been resolved. It can strike back at any time and hurt British banks and the economy even if we are already out of the EU.
The above does not mean that consequences of a possible Leave vote will be negligible or non-existent. However, they are too complex for anyone to understand and forecast. We don’t know the referendum outcome. If it’s Leave, we don’t know how the future arrangement will look (in any case, the UK will not cease to trade with Europe). Most importantly, the global economy and external factors will definitely not remain constant, further complicating any predictions.
Therefore we believe that avoiding panic and sticking to your long-term investment strategy is the best course of action. Remember that trying to outsmart and time the market rarely leads to superior results.

Bear Market Coming? Stick with Your Strategy

Following a multi-year rally, 2015 wasn’t particularly successful in the global markets and, so far, the start of the new year hasn’t been any good either. The UK’s FTSE 100 index is below 6,000, lowest in more than three years. It’s times like this when various doomsday predictions start to appear, warning against events “worse than 2008”, using words such as “crash” and “meltdown”, and pointing to factors such as rising interest rates, growing political tensions, China, rising commodity prices, falling commodity prices and many others.
The truth is that no one really knows what is going to happen. Not the TV pundits, not the highly paid bank strategists and stock analysts, not even the Prime Minister or the Bank of England Governor.
That said, when you have significant part of your retirement pot invested, it is natural to feel uneasy when you hear such predictions, especially if they come from an analyst who got it right last time and correctly predicted some previous market event (he was lucky).
When the markets actually decline and you see your portfolio shrinking in real time, the concerns may become unbearable. Fear and greed get in charge, both at the same time. It is tempting to think about selling here and buying the stocks back when they are 20% lower a few months from now. Easy money, so it would seem. Nevertheless, that would be speculating, not investing. The problem with the financial industry (and the media) is that these two are confused all the time.
Time in the Market, Not Timing the Market
While some people have made money speculating, academic research as well as experiences of millions of investors have shown that it is a poor way to save for retirement. When a large number of people take different actions in the markets, some of them will be lucky and get it right purely due to statistics (luck). However, it is extremely difficult to repeat such success and consistently predict the market’s direction with any accuracy.
In the long run, the single thing which has the greatest effect on your return is time, not your ability to pick tops and bottoms. The longer you stay invested in the market, the more your wealth will grow. You just need the patience and ability to withstand the periods when markets fall, because eventually they will recover and exceed their previous highs.
Time Horizon and Risk Tolerance
The key decision to make is your risk tolerance – how volatile you allow your portfolio to be, which will determine your asset allocation. While personality and other personal specifics come into play, the main factor to determine your risk tolerance is your investment horizon. The longer it is, the more risk you can afford and the more volatility your portfolio can sustain. If you are in your 40’s and unlikely to need the money in the next 20 years, you should have most of your retirement pot in equities. If you are older and closer to retirement, your portfolio should probably be more conservative, because you might not have the time to wait until the markets recover from a possible crash. It is important to get the risk tolerance and the asset allocation right (an adviser can help with that) and stick with it.
How to Protect Your Portfolio from Yourself
Because the above is easier said than done, here are a few practical tips how to protect your retirement pot from your emotions and trading temptations:
1. Have a written, long-term investment plan. It is human nature to consider written rules somehow harder to break than those you just keep in your head. It is even better if you involve your adviser to help you create the plan. Not only is an adviser better qualified and more experienced in the investment process, but another person knowing your rules makes them even harder to break.
2. Do not check fund prices and the value of your portfolio every day. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t review your investments regularly. But the key is to make these revisions planned and controlled, rather than emotion-based. You will be less likely to make impulsive decisions, which more often than not are losing decisions.
3. Maintain an adequate cash reserve. This should be enough to meet any planned short-term expenditure and also provide a reserve for unexpected expenses. It will help you avoid the need to encash investments at a time when investment values are low.

Would you like to discuss this article with an adviser?

The Seven Roles of an Advisor

What is a financial advisor for? One view is that advisors have unique insights into market direction that give their clients an advantage. But of the many roles a professional advisor should play, soothsayer is not one of them.

The truth is that no-one knows what will happen next in investment markets. And if anyone really did have a working crystal ball, it is unlikely they would be plying their trade as an advisor, a broker, an analyst or a financial journalist.

Some folk may still think an advisor’s role is to deliver them market-beating returns year after year. Generally, those are the same people who believe good advice equates to making accurate forecasts.

But in reality, the value a professional advisor brings is not dependent on the state of markets. Indeed, their value can be even more evident when volatility, and emotions, are running high.

The best of this new breed play multiple and nuanced roles with their clients, beginning with the needs, risk appetites and circumstances of each individual and irrespective of what is going on in the world.

None of these roles involves making forecasts about markets or economies. Instead, the roles combine technical expertise with an understanding of how money issues intersect with the rest of people’s complex lives.

Indeed, there are at least seven hats an advisor can wear to help clients without ever once having to look into a crystal ball:

The expert: Now, more than ever, investors need advisors who can provide client-centred expertise in assessing the state of their finances and developing risk-aware strategies to help them meet their goals.

The independent voice: The global financial turmoil of recent years demonstrated the value of an independent and objective voice in a world full of product pushers and salespeople.

The listener: The emotions triggered by financial uncertainty are real. A good advisor will listen to clients’ fears, tease out the issues driving those feelings and provide practical long-term answers.

The teacher: Getting beyond the fear-and-flight phase often is just a matter of teaching investors about risk and return, diversification, the role of asset allocation and the virtue of discipline.

The architect: Once these lessons are understood, the advisor becomes an architect, building a long-term wealth management strategy that matches each person’s risk appetites and lifetime goals.

The coach: Even when the strategy is in place, doubts and fears inevitably will arise. The advisor at this point becomes a coach, reinforcing first principles and keeping the client on track.

The guardian: Beyond these experiences is a long-term role for the advisor as a kind of lighthouse keeper, scanning the horizon for issues that may affect the client and keeping them informed.
These are just seven valuable roles an advisor can play in understanding and responding to clients’ whole-of-life needs that are a world away from the old notions of selling product off the shelf or making forecasts.

For instance, a person may first seek out an advisor purely because of their role as an expert. But once those credentials are established, the main value of the advisor in the client’s eyes may be as an independent voice.

Knowing the advisor is independent—and not plugging product—can lead the client to trust the advisor as a listener or a sounding board, as someone to whom they can share their greatest hopes and fears.

From this point, the listener can become the teacher, the architect, the coach and ultimately the guardian. Just as people’s needs and circumstances change over time, so the nature of the advice service evolves.

These are all valuable roles in their own right and none is dependent on forces outside the control of the advisor or client, such as the state of the investment markets or the point of the economic cycle.

However you characterise these various roles, good financial advice ultimately is defined by the patient building of a long-term relationship founded on the values of trust and independence and knowledge of each individual.

Now, how can you put a price on that?

Top 10 Investment Guidelines

The media would have you believe that a successful investment experience comes from picking stocks, timing your entry and exit points, making accurate predictions and outguessing the market. Is there a better way?

It’s true that some people do get lucky by making bets on certain stocks and sectors or getting in or out at the right time or correctly guessing movements in interest rates or currencies. But depending on luck is simply not a sustainable strategy.

The alternative approach to investment may not sound as exciting, but is also a lot less work. It essentially means reducing as far as possible the influence of fortune, taking a long-term view and starting with your own needs and risk appetite.

Of course, risk can never be completely eliminated and there are no guarantees about anything in life. But you can increase your chances of a successful investment experience if you keep these 10 guidelines in mind:

Let the market work for you. Prices of securities in competitive financial markets represent the collective judgment of millions of investors based on current information. So, instead of second guessing the market, work with it.

Investment is not speculation. What is promoted in the media as investment is often just speculation. It’s about making short-term and concentrated bets. Few people succeed this way, particularly after you take fees into account.

Take a long-term view. Over time, capital markets provide a positive rate of return. As an investor risking your capital, you have a right to the share of that wealth. But keep in mind, the return is not there every day, month or year.

Consider the drivers of returns. Differences in returns are explained by certain dimensions identified by academic research as pervasive, persistent and robust. So it makes sense to build portfolios around these.

Practise smart diversification. A sound portfolio doesn’t just capture reliable sources of expected return. It reduces unnecessary risks like holding too few stocks, sectors or countries. Diversification helps to overcome that.

Avoid market timing. You never know which markets will be the best performers from year to year. Being well diversified means you’re positioned to capture the returns whenever and wherever they appear.

Manage your emotions. People who let their emotions dictate their decisions can end up buying at the top when greed is dominant and selling at the bottom when fear takes over. The alternative is to remain realistic.

Look beyond the headlines. The media is by necessity focused on the short term. This can give you a distorted impression of the market. Keep up with the news by all means, but you don’t have to act on it.

Keep costs low. Day to day moves in the market are temporary, but costs are permanent. Over time, they can put a real dent in your wealth plans. That’s why it makes sense to be mindful of fees and expenses.

Focus on what you can control. You have no control over the markets, but in consultation with advisor acting in your interests you can create a low-cost, diversified portfolio that matches your needs and risk tolerance.

That’s the whole story in a nutshell. Investment is really not that complicated. In fact, the more complicated that people make it sound the more you should be sceptical.

The truth is markets are so competitive that you can save yourself much time, trouble and expense by letting them work for you. That means structuring a portfolio across the broad dimensions of return, being mindful of cost and focusing on your own needs and circumstances, not what the media is trying to sell you.

Who would predict the price of oil?

The price of crude oil has fallen around 40 per cent since a recent peak in June this year. This has a profound effect on economies and markets around the world as the cost of manufacturing and transporting goods falls along with oil producers’ income and the currencies of oil-rich countries.
The theory goes that consumer spending will rise because people have more disposable income; that inflation will fall as the price of goods eases; and that companies with high energy bills will become more profitable. If lower prices hold, the effect might become political and environmental as the balance of world power shifts from oil exporters to oil importers, and the impetus to develop cheaper clean energy wanes. Oil seeps so deep into the global economy you might think that to be a successful investor you need to have an accurate view on its price and its impact on asset prices. But you would be wrong.

No-one with an opinion about oil knows whether their view is right or wrong, and only the changing price will confirm which they are. Market prices are a fair reflection of the balance of opinion because they are created by many buyers and sellers agreeing on individual transactions. As an investor you can take a view of whether that balance – that price – is right but, like all other people with an opinion, you have no way of knowing whether you are right or wrong until the price moves.

Knowing this, it seems irrational to take a view (or a risk) on something so random as the direction of the oil price. In fact, why would one take a view on anything related to the changing price of oil; the US economy, for example; or the price of Shell; or Deutsche Post; or anything else?
The rational approach is to let capital markets run their course and to have a sufficiently diversified portfolio that allows you to relax in the knowledge that, over time, you will benefit from the wealth-generating power of your investments as a whole; without risking your wealth on a prediction that might go one way or the other.