A battle of wits with the market

Williams 150 X 150Dan Williams, CFA, CFP, Investment Analyst

One of the greatest temptations of investing is trying to increase investment performance by continuously buying stocks right before they go up and selling stocks right before they go down. As a theoretical matter “timing the market” seems simple as in retrospect the overreactions or ignorance of the markets are clear. Yet, in practice, the task is regarded mostly as a fool’s errand as the timing always seems to be off.

The extremes of market movements relative to economic reality is not a new observation. In his 1949 book, “The Intelligent Investor,” Benjamin Graham asked readers to imagine themselves as a partner in a business with a fellow named “Mr. Market.” On a daily basis, Graham’s Mr. Market becomes wildly optimistic or pessimistic about the business’ value, therefore, is always trying to sell out or buy you out. Graham notes that an investor finds himself in that very position when he owns a listed common stock. The problem is that we are not separate from Mr. Market. Rather, we all contribute a little of ourselves to create this Mr. Market and what he feels, we collectively feel. When he is panicking and wants to sell, so do we. When he is euphoric about market prospects and wants to buy, so do we.

Additionally, Mr. Market is smart most of the time as he knows just about everything we collectively know, and given available information is approximately right about most stocks most the time. This is the oversimplified basis for the Efficient Market Hypothesis (EMH) that states that the market incorporates all relevant information efficiently and accurately into market prices. So what is to be done?

Timing the market

 
As always, I find a movie to reference. This time I am drawn to a scene in “The Princess Bride” where our protagonist, Westley, sits down to play a game of wits with the mastermind bandit, Vizzini. In the scene, two glass of wine are poured, Westley poisons one glass of wine, but mixes up which is which and places both glasses on a table. Vizzini then gets to pick which glass to drink from and Westley is compelled to drink the other. Vizzini, after thinking and overthinking all of the factors to consider and even switching the placement of the glasses on the table while Westley is distracted, takes a drink from one of the glasses and drops dead. We then find that Westley had actually poisoned both glasses and had previously made himself immune to the poison used. Therefore, the whole game of wits was moot.

Similar to trying to beat the market through market timing, the battle of wits Vizzini was engaging in was with himself. Westley instead played the game right by avoiding the game of wits by doing work beforehand. This is exactly what Graham prescribed for investing.

Graham felt through the deep fundamental analysis of individual securities an investor could know with a reasonable degree of confidence what the price/value of a security should be. This value is adjusted to new information that fundamentally changes the business prospects, but most often the investor just patiently waits for Mr. Market to make a mistake. Like Westley, the intelligent investor just waits for Vizzini to drink.

The moral of the story is that to outperform the market you must either do your homework (independent analysis to make yourself immune to the poison of market noise) or do not play the game at all (buy and hold a proper asset allocation and ignore the market noise). In neither case, do you try to use your own emotional intuitions to outthink and time the market.

The views expressed are those of Brinker Capital and are not intended as investment advice or recommendation. For informational purposes only. Brinker Capital, Inc., a Registered Investment Advisor.