BUZ LIVINGSTON: Sometimes nothing is a cool hand

Published: Sunday, January 5, 2014 at 05:09 PM.

Surfing the net on Christmas brought an unexpected surprise. 

USA Today’s Christmas edition ran a Motley Fool column that piqued my interest.  For those unaware of The Motley Fool, the Gardner Brothers, David and Tom, brought it to life over 20 years ago.  Both enjoyed writing, financial and otherwise, using a Shakespearean character as their inspiration.  In “As You Like It” the Bard’s “motley fool” was a court jester, a position allowing the jester/fool an opportunity to speak truth to power. 

I owe a huge debt of gratitude to The Motley Fool. First the website and online community inspired me during my career change then they put me on their payroll.  So I had to click on the headline.  After all, “99 Percent of Long-term Investing Is Doing Nothing, the Other 1 Percent Could Change Your Life” grabs your attention.

Using data going back to 1900, they took three scenarios and looked at the numbers.  One investor put $1 in the S&P 500 index every month without fail, another investor stopped investing when a recession began and started back when the recession ended.  Mr. Typical, the last investor, stopped investing six months after the recession began and didn’t resume until six months after the recession ended.  The numbers will stagger you. 

The first strategy, staying invested all the time, stomped the other two. I wish I could say like Georgia stomped a foe, but the 2013 Bulldogs laid low.  Back on message: Staying invested yielded over $270,000 versus slightly less than $160,000 and a little more than $145,000, respectively for the other models.

Astonishingly, only 10 percent of the time from 1900 explains two-thirds of the difference in returns and only 5 percent more than half.   From the great bull market in 1993 through the two Bush-era market collapses to today, only 24 days account for all of the S&P’s growth.  Blogger/market analyst Eddy Elfenbein (Crossing Wall Street) notes the rest of the time was a net loss. 

Most investors and advisors follow some deviation of the latter two strategies. Advisors perhaps marketing themselves with a clairvoyant skill set often claim marketing timing skills.  Cocktail chatter can mean bragging about beating the market but you can’t do that with index funds. Time in the market beats timing the market. 

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