So, if market timing is a mirage, what can you do? Here are five alternative options that make more sense — and none requires you to possess a crystal ball.
1. Take a long-term perspective
“The historical data support one conclusion with unusual force,” the index fund pioneer Jack Bogle once wrote. “To invest with success, you must be a long-term investor.” Instead of trying to time the ups and down of the markets, why not simply change your time horizon? Over the very long term, patient investors have almost always been rewarded. Of course, not everyone can take the long view. Those, for example, who are about to retire or who need to access their money in the next two or three years, don’t have that luxury. But if you don’t need it for, say, 15 years or more, you can afford to look at the big picture.
2. Construct a portfolio for all market conditions
Everyone should have a balanced asset allocation — certainly a mix of stocks and government bonds, and perhaps property as well — that matches their capacity for risk. A defensively-minded person may only have 50% of their portfolio in stocks, with the rest in bonds. The right mix also depends on your age, goals and circumstances. Whatever your risk capacity, diversification is key. Spreading your risk across different asset classes and geographies will reduce the impact of a steep decline in one particular market. Ultimately, it’s your asset allocation that is going to be the most important driver of your investment outcome.
3. Periodically rebalance your portfolio
Generally, the less you tinker with your portfolio the better. That’s not to stay you shouldn’t touch it at all, but any changes you do make should be done in a strategic, structured and disciplined way that reflects your needs and circumstances. A good discipline to adopt is to rebalance your portfolio periodically, to restore your original asset allocation. This means, every year or so, selling sone of the winners and buying some of the losers. It seems counter-intuitive, but effectively it forces you to sell high and buy low, which is just what you should be doing. It’s a much better strategy than falling victim to knee-jerk responses to the latest bout of market volatility, which inevitably involves emotional, short-term decision-making.
4. Drip feed money into the market
Another option, if you really are worried about the stock market and want to reduce your risk, is “dollar (or euro) cost average”. Say, for example, you have a sizeable sum of money — an inheritance, say — that you want to invest. Instead of going all in and investing the full amount in one go, you can drip feed small amounts into the market over a period of time. Incidentally, financial economists don’t think this approach makes much of a difference from an investment perspective and you might end up with slightly lower returns. But it’s a useful way of helping you sleep at night and minimising regrets.
5. Increase the size of your reserve
Finally, another strategy to consider is to hold a larger cash reserve — either within your portfolio or in another account. Everyone should hold enough cash to cover around six months of living expenses, in case of unexpected medical bills, or losing a job, for example. But nervous investors may prefer to hold rather more than that. The advantage of increasing your cash reserve is that, in the event of a market downturn, you can see it as a buying opportunity and use your extra cash to increase your market exposure.