The Case Against Market Timing

April 11, 2023
Co-Chief Investment Officer Justin Reed discusses market timing. He explores its allure and pitfalls, stressing our belief that the adoption of a value-oriented, bottom-up investment approach, along with a long-term investment horizon and prudent rebalancing plan, is a far more compelling investment strategy.

“There are only two types of people: those who can’t market time, and those who don’t know they can’t market time.” – Terry Smith (Fundsmith)

Heading into 2022, many investors were optimistic about the equity markets. All major asset classes generated positive results in 2021. Equities reached record highs, and the S&P 500 index returned 28.7% on a total return basis. As of year-end 2021, the S&P 500’s 10-year annualized return stood at 16.5%, compared with its long-term average return of about 11.9% (1928 to 2020). In addition, investors felt that inflation was “transitory,” that the worst of the supply chain disruptions were behind us as COVID-19 came under control, and that global growth remained on track for solid gains. It appeared to many investors that this combination of circumstances would lead to positive market performance in 2022, albeit less than what investors realized in 2020 and 2021.

With this as background, imagine if one of our Brown Brothers Harriman (BBH) colleagues could then have accurately predicted the macroeconomic and political events of 2022. Even if this was possible, it would be difficult to describe a forecast for 2022 that would be as dire as the actual events, including:

  • Russia’s invasion of Ukraine leading to record-high energy and food prices for Europe and many emerging markets
  • Continued supply chain disruptions due to labor shortages and China’s zero-COVID policy
  • The fastest increase in interest rate hikes by the Federal Reserve in 40 years to tame inflation that reached 40-year highs
  • Rising risks of a global recession

A prediction of just a fraction of the turmoil of 2022, coupled with the known performance data from 2021, would have likely led many investors to move most liquid assets to cash as a result of this information.

Time in the Market vs. Timing the Market

Of course, investors would love to be able to time the market perfectly, investing at market bottoms and moving to cash at peaks. Unfortunately, such market timing is challenging for all investors, no matter how sophisticated. We adhere to the adage that “it is about the time in the market, not timing the market” that allows investors to best position themselves for strong long-term results. A long time horizon that benefits from the power of compounding is much more impactful, and generally more successful, than the mirage of market timing.  

The case against market timing is strong and supported by a large body of research conducted by BBH as well as academic studies. We believe that instead of trying to time the market by monitoring broad market, economic, or political indicators, investors should utilize a bottom-up, fundamental approach with a long-term horizon to select high-quality individual securities trading at a discount to estimates of intrinsic value.1 Such an approach is the most reliable way to generate attractive long-term returns. In addition, investors are also well served by implementing a thoughtful, programmatic rebalancing strategy that optimizes the benefits of such actions with the potential tax consequences.

What Is Market Timing?

We define market timing as the speculative strategy of making buy or sell decisions based on predictions of short-term market price movements. Importantly, market timing decisions are based on estimating the returns of the market (or corresponding index), such as U.S. large-cap stocks, rather than a particular security.

Market timing strategies can involve several different approaches. One approach employs using nonfinancial indicators to predict market movements. For example, one may attempt to predict what may happen to U.S. equity markets if a given presidential candidate were to win an upcoming election. Such an investor may determine that the risk of an unfavorable candidate winning the election warrants staying out of the market until the election is resolved.

Another approach involves the use of technical indicators, such as historical stock prices. In this case, an investor engaging in market timing might notice that the MSCI ACWI has generated positive returns for the past five years and thus may decide to wait for the “bubble” to burst.

Yet another common approach is timing based on historical market valuations. An investor utilizing this approach may make valuation comparisons across time or different markets. For example, one might compare the S&P 500’s price-to-earnings (P/E) ratio today vs. its P/E ratio in 2009 or the MSCI Emerging Markets Index’s current P/E ratio. While keeping track of each of these data points can be helpful, attempting to make entry or exit decisions based on them is likely to be detrimental to long-term returns. There are simply too many other variables that influence market returns over the short to medium term. It is also difficult for anyone to make accurate predictions on such macro issues over a long period of time.

What Is the Allure of Market Timing?

Despite the abundance of evidence suggesting that market timing is a futile exercise, its allure persists. Why? One hypothesis is that this strategy is a response to the legitimate realities of investing as well as behavioral biases. Specifically, all investors can see how beneficial it would be if one could predict market movements and adjust a portfolio in advance of those movements. If it were possible, doing so would allow one to dramatically outperform the gold standard of a buy-and-hold strategy over the long term. For example, if an investor could exit asset classes that were going to generate poor performance over the next year and rotate into asset classes that would generate strong performance over the same period, he would enhance returns, avoid market volatility, and curtail losses.

Looking at the nearby chart, the “all-knowing” investor would have moved out of developed international and into small-cap equities at the end of 2015, only to rotate into emerging market equities at the end of 2016. In theory, that investor would be able to generate returns at a level rarely attained.

If we assume that for the past 15 years, from 2007 to 2022, at the end of each year the investor was able to rotate 100% of her portfolio out of the highest-returning asset class for that past year and rotate into the highest-returning asset class for the following year, she would have generated an annualized return of 23.8%, gross of fees and taxes, meaningfully outperforming the otherwise impressive 9.2% annualized return of U.S. large caps over the same period.

Despite this return potential, we rarely hear of people that have accumulated vast sums of wealth this way. As Peter Lynch said, “I can't recall ever once having seen the name of a market timer on Forbes’ annual list of the richest people in the world. If it were truly possible to predict corrections, you’d think somebody would have made billions by doing it.”

Table of Year Asset Class Table of Returns to Date; 2007 - 2023. Source: Bloomberg.

2007: 39.4% MSCI EM, 11.2% MSCI EAFE, 7.0% Bloomberg Barclays US Agg Bond, 5.5% S&P 500, 5.0% Bloomberg Barclays US T-Bills, 3.4% Bloomberg Barclays Municipal, 1.9% Bloomberg Barclays HY Corp, -1.6% Russell 2000.

2008: 5.2% Bloomberg Barclays US Agg Bond, 2.4% Bloomberg Barclays US T-Bills, -2.5% Bloomberg Barclays Municipal, -26.2% Bloomberg Barclays HY Corp, -33.8% Russell 2000, -37.0 S&P 500, -43.4% MSCI EAFE, -53.3% MSCI EM.

2009: 78.5% MSCI EM, 58.2% Bloomberg Barclays HY Corp, 31.8% MSCI EAFE, 27.2% Russell 2000, 26.5% S&P 500, 12.9% Bloomberg Barclays Municipal, 5.9% Bloomberg Barclays US Agg Bond, 0.3% Bloomberg Barclays US T-Bills.

2010: 26.9% Russell 2000, 18.9% MSCI EM, 15.1% S&P 500, 15.1% Bloomberg Barclays HY Corp, 7.8% MSCI EAFE, 6.5% Bloomberg Barclays US Agg Bond, 2.4% Bloomberg Barclays Municipal, 0.2% Bloomberg Barclays US T-Bills.

2011: 10.7% Bloomberg Barclays Municipal, 7.8% Bloomberg Barclays US Agg Bond, 5.0% Bloomberg Barclays HY Corp, 2.1% S&P 500, 0.1% Bloomberg Barclays US T-Bills, -4.2% Russell 2000, -12.1% MSCI EAFE, -18.4% MSCI EM.

2012: 18.2% MSCI EM, 17.3% MSCI EAFE, 16.3% Russell 2000, 16.0% S&P 500, 15.8% Bloomberg Barclays HY Corp, 6.8% Bloomberg Barclays Municipal, 4.2% Bloomberg Barclays US Agg Bond, 0.1% Bloomberg Barclays US T-Bills. 

2013: 38.8% Russell 2000, 32.4% S&P 500, 22.8% MSCI EAFE, 7.4% Bloomberg Barclays HY Corp, 0.1% Bloomberg Barclays US T-Bills, -2.0% Bloomberg Barclays US Agg Bond, -2.6% MSCI EM, -2.6% Bloomberg Barclays Municipal.

2014: 13.7% S&P 500, 9.1% Bloomberg Barclays Municipal. 6.0% Bloomberg Barclays US Agg Bond, 4.9% Russell 2000, 2.5% Bloomberg Barclays HY Corp, 0.1% Bloomberg Barclays US T-Bills, -2.2% MSCI EM, -4.9% MSCI EAFE.

2015: 3.3% Bloomberg Barclays Municipal, 1.4% S&P 500, 0.5% Bloomberg Barclays US Agg Bond, 0.1% Bloomberg Barclays US T-Bills, -0.8% MSCI EAFE, -4.4% Russell 2000, -4.5% Bloomberg Barclays HY Corp, -14.9% MSCI EM.

2016: 21.3% Russell 2000, 17.1% Bloomberg Barclays HY Corp, 12.0% S&P 500, 11.2% MSCI EM, 2.6% Bloomberg Barclays US Agg Bond, 1.0% MSCI EAFE, 0.4% Bloomberg Barclays US T-Bills, 0.2% Bloomberg Barclays Municipal.

2017: 37.3% MSCI EM, 25.0% MSCI EAFE, 21.8% S&P 500, 14.6% Russell 2000, 7.5% Bloomberg Barclays HY Corp, 5.4% Bloomberg Barclays Municipal, 3.5% Bloomberg Barclays US Agg Bond, 0.8% Bloomberg Barclays US T-Bills.

2018: 1.9% Bloomberg Barclays US T-Bills, 1.3% Bloomberg Barclays Municipal, 0.0% Bloomberg Barclays US Agg Bond, -2.1% Bloomberg Barclays HY Corp, -4.4% S&P 500, -11.0% Russell 2000, -13.8% MSCI EAFE, -14.6% MSCI EM.

2019: 31.5% S&P 500, 25.5% Russell 2000, 22.0%, MSCI EAFE, 18.4% MSCI EM, 14.3% Bloomberg Barclays HY Corp, 8.7% Bloomberg Barclays US Agg Bond, 7.5% Bloomberg Barclays Municipal, 2.3% Bloomberg Barclays US T-Bills.

2020: 19.9% Russell 2000, 18.4% S&P 500, 18.3% MSCI EM, 7.8% MSCI EAFE, 7.1%  Bloomberg Barclays HY Corp, 7.5% Bloomberg Barclays US Agg Bond, 5.2% Bloomberg Barclays Municipal, 0.7% Bloomberg Barclays US T-Bills.

2021: 28.7% S&P 500, 14.8% Russell 2000, 11.3% MSCI EAFE, 5.3% Bloomberg Barclays HY Corp, 1.5% Bloomberg Barclays Municipal, 0.0% Bloomberg Barclays US T-Bills, -1.5% Bloomberg Barclays US Agg Bond, -2.5% MSCI EM.

2022: 1.3% Bloomberg Barclays US T-Bills, -8.5% Bloomberg Barclays Municipal, -11.2% Bloomberg Barclays HY Corp, -13.0% Bloomberg Barclays US Agg Bond, -14.5% MSCI EAFE, -18.1% S&P 500, -20.1% MSCI EM, -20.5% Russell 2000.

2023 (YTD): 8.5% MSCI EAFE, 7.5% S&P 500. 4.0% MSCI EM, 3.6% Bloomberg Barclays HY Corp, 3.0% Bloomberg Barclays US Agg Bond, 2.8% Bloomberg Barclays Municipal, 2.7% Russell 2000, 1.1% Bloomberg Barclays US T-Bills.

Several behavioral finance concepts also help to explain market timing’s allure. Hindsight bias is people’s tendency to remember their own predictions of the future to have been more accurate than they were in reality. This often leads people to conclude that they can more accurately predict future events than is warranted.

In his book, “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” Daniel Kahneman presents a useful example of this bias in practice. Heading into the great financial crisis in 2008, there were few investors who thought there may be an impending crisis. Now there are “far too many people who claim to have known well before it happened that the 2008 financial crisis was inevitable,” despite the fact that the “crisis was unknowable.” Such thinking may lead otherwise well-intentioned investors to be overconfident in their market timing abilities.

Another behavioral bias that helps illuminate the allure of market timing is loss aversion, which is the tendency for people to weigh losses larger than gains when directly compared against each other.2 Loss aversion helps to explain why some investors, after concluding that the market is frothy from a valuation perspective, consider holding off on investing and waiting for a pullback. Investing and then watching your portfolio drop by 5% feels more painful than the corresponding happiness if the portfolio had gone up 5% over the same time period. All else being equal, this bias can lead investors to market time by inappropriately keeping their portfolios in cash even though investing the capital is typically the more prudent decision to make.

Arguments Against Market Timing

The Unpredictability of Market Cycles

We believe that market timing is a fundamentally flawed approach for several reasons. First, the timing and magnitude of relative performance differentials (between asset classes) and market cycles are inherently unpredictable. In the short term, swings in investor sentiment and the related impact on valuation multiples often drive large swings in performance, but there are no durable or repeatable strategies to predict such changes.

For example, we know of no reliable way to have predicted that U.S. small-cap equity would be the best-performing asset class in 2016, followed by emerging markets equity as No. 1 in 2017. How could anyone predict that an increase in the Russell 2000’s P/E ratio would contribute almost 15% to the index’s 2016 performance, or that it would contribute 18% to the performance of the MSCI Emerging Markets Index the following year?3

Longer term, larger market cycles are often driven by macroeconomic factors (e.g., interest rates and inflation), “bubbles,” or financial crises, yet history has shown that forecasters are not adept at predicting these events either. The following table shows the S&P 500’s 10 worst drawdowns and the surrounding events related to the decline. Categorizing the nature of the precipitating events for these drawdowns illustrates that, by their nature, the events are relatively unpredictable occurrences. A handful of investors always seem to avoid a single market drawdown, but the evidence shows that it is nearly impossible to do this consistently over time. Thus, after accounting for all market timing trades (successful and unsuccessful), the long-term track record of those who engage in market timing seems to be almost universally poor.

Market Peak
Category Peak-to-Trough
S&P 500 Return
1/11/1973 Inflation Shock, OPEC Oil Embargo Inflation (44.8)
11/28/1980 Volcker/FOMC Interest Rate Hikes Monetary Policy (20.2)
10/5/1987 Black Monday Computer-Driven Selling, Investor Panic (31.3)
7/17/1998 Asian Currency Crisis, LTCM, Russia Default Financial Crisis (19.2)
9/1/2000 Tech and Telecom Bubble Bubble (47.4)
10/9/2007 Housing Bubble, Global Financial Crisis Bubble, Financial Crisis (54.8)
7/7/2011 Debt Ceiling, U.S. Credit Rating Downgrade Sovereign Downgrade (18.4)
7/21/2015 China, Energy, Manufacturing Recession Country and Sector-Specific Stress (12.6)
3/4/2020 COVID-19 Global Pandemic Pandemic (28.4)
1/2/2022 FOMC Interest Rate Hikes/Inflation Monetary Policy (23.9)
2022 peak-to-trough uses 9/30/2022 as trough.
Data as of 3/31/2023.
Past performance does not guarantee future results.
Source: Bloomberg and BBH Analysis.

Timing Buy and Sell Decisions

Even if we assume that one can predict events that will lead to market declines, he or she must also predict the correct time to buy and sell. Investors who predicted the tech bubble in the late 1990s or the housing bubble in 2005-06 still had to decide when to sell. 

In hindsight, the tech bubble was well underway in fourth quarter 1999 (the Nasdaq was up 48%) but continued to climb another 84% before peaking in March 2000. Investors that were smart enough to predict the bubble then had to hold on until it burst. Similarly, the housing bubble was in full swing by 2005; however, prices did not crack until early 2007, and the stock market did not peak until October 2007. The market then lost 15% but did not sell off in earnest until the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy almost a year later in September 2008. To be successful, investors need to time their trades well, but then also have the temperament to hold on while the market marches higher.  

Additionally, investors who are so lucky as to have sold prior to a market peak still need to decide when to buy back into the market. There are likely many more investors that have sold at the right time than those that have sold and reinvested appropriately. While investors are busy taking a victory lap for calling the peak correctly, the market can bottom and come roaring back more quickly than expected.

The 2020 market environment provided the perfect example: The S&P 500 bottomed on March 23, 2020; however, it rallied almost 18% in the next three trading days. The market continued to recover and had regained its prior high by mid-August, roughly six months after its prior peak.

Taxes and Transaction Costs

Yet another reason to avoid market timing is that it causes the realization of unnecessary taxes and transaction costs. While this is more of a concern for taxable investors, even tax-exempt investors must be mindful of transaction costs, as trading in illiquid asset classes during volatile markets can lead to steady leakage from long-term returns. For taxable investors, the bar for market timing is even higher because paying taxes disrupts the process of compounding.

Impairment of Returns

An overwhelming body of empirical evidence suggests that the overall odds of succeeding with a market timing strategy are low. Morningstar’s annual “Mind the Gap” study of investor returns, for example, found investors earned about 9.3% per year on the average dollar they invested in mutual funds and exchange-traded funds over the 10 years ended December 31, 2021. This was about 1.7 percentage points less than the total returns their fund investments generated over that span. This shortfall, or “gap,” stems from poorly timed purchases and sales of fund shares, which cost investors nearly one-sixth the return they would have earned if they had simply bought and held.4

What Can Investors Do?

Market timing, in its various forms, is clearly not a strategy that will maximize returns over the long term. So, how can investors better position their portfolios to generate strong long-term returns? We believe that maximizing long-term returns starts with a thoughtful, consistently applied investment philosophy and that the following principles are foundational to achieving strong long-term results:

  • A value-oriented, bottom-up approach emphasizing deep diligence
  • A focus on capital preservation
  • A disciplined and patient style of investing
  • A long time horizon

This philosophy leads us to invest in managers who are concentrated and only invest in securities they know extremely well and where they have a differentiated perspective.

As a result, our managers do not own the market (e.g., they are not “closet indexers” that closely track the index and charge active management fees), nor do they make investment decisions based on shorter-term broad market, economic, or political indicators. Instead, their portfolio reflects the portfolio manager’s conviction level in a limited number of individual securities, based on assessments of the discount each security is trading to an estimate of intrinsic value. 

The BBH Approach to the Market

Charlie Munger once said: “The first rule of compounding is never to interrupt it unnecessarily.” A central tenet of BBH’s investment approach is a long-time horizon. We believe that we will be more successful investing on behalf of our clients by letting our investments compound in value over time and sticking to our intended asset allocation plan, as opposed to timing our investments into and out of markets.

As shown in the chart below, which measures the percent of rolling time periods that are positive or negative for the S&P 500, a longer investment horizon is associated with an increased probability of generating positive returns. Thus, investors should take some comfort that with an appropriate time horizon, the wind will be at their back.

Horizontal Bar Chart titled "Percentage of Positive Versus Negative S&P 500 Rolling Returns" between December 30, 1927 - March 31, 2023. Source: Bloomberg as of March 31, 2023. X axis: Percentage of Positive versus Negative S&P 500 Rolling Returns. Y axis: years. Number of Positive Period: 1 year, 16,270, 3 years, 18,143, 5 years, 10,032, 10 years, 18,952. Number of Negative Period: 1 year, 7,407, 3 years, 5,034, 5 years, 4,643, 10 years, 2,479.

In addition to a fundamental, bottom-up investment philosophy, we believe that a thoughtful approach to rebalancing helps to best position portfolios for long-term success. Rebalancing back to asset allocation targets, assuming that a client’s risk and return goals are unchanged, is an important exercise.

It is helpful to recognize that while rebalancing involves trading, it has a different purpose than market timing. The primary objective of rebalancing is to keep a portfolio aligned with the client’s desired risk tolerance, and our preferred method is to set thresholds around asset class targets and rebalance only when those have been breached.

Thoughtfully implementing such a programmatic approach eliminates the otherwise difficult and subjective challenge of figuring out when to rebalance and removes the temptation to make rebalancing a thinly veiled attempt at market timing. Rebalancing often entails selling higher-returning asset classes (equities) and buying lower-returning investments (fixed income). Despite this, some academic studies still find that a well-designed, consistently implemented rebalancing strategy, in addition to its risk mitigation benefits, is associated with higher returns in volatile markets. A 2008 study in the Journal of Financial Planning, for example, found that an opportunistic rebalancing strategy during the 13-year period from 1992 to 2004 was associated with higher pretax returns than a buy-and-hold strategy.5

In conclusion, we believe that the adoption of a value-oriented, bottom-up investment approach, along with a long-term investment horizon and a prudent rebalancing plan, is a far more compelling investment strategy than market timing.

If you would like to learn more, please reach out to a BBH relationship manager or a member of our Investment Research Group.

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1Intrinsic value is an estimate of the present value of the cash that a business can generate over its remaining life.
2Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky.
3Bloomberg. Adjusted P/E on positive earnings went from 19.1x on 12/31/2015 to 21.9x on 12/31/2016.
4Morningstar. "Mind the Gap 2021."
5Daryanani, Gobind. “Opportunistic Rebalancing: A New Paradigm for Wealth Managers.” Journal of Financial Planning. January 2008.


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