• Abri du Plessis - Executive Director Gryphon

Can markets be timed (or, the cost of FOMO?)

The South African investment market has matured to the point where it is now generally accepted that, when it comes to stock picking, active asset managers struggle to consistently keep up with the index. As a matter of fact, over any time frame, far less than 50% of the active asset managers manage to outperform the index. This means that the odds are not even for beating the market; it is a loser’s game that even most gamblers would not entertain. Index tracking is the answer; efficient index tracking at a low cost.

In single asset class portfolios, such as equities, value is not only added by selecting the winning stocks, but also by adjusting cash levels, sector selection, factor weighting (“smart betas”), etc. It is debatable whether these tweaks in single class portfolios do not actually add more value than stock selection. In other words, asset allocation also adds value to single asset class portfolios; i.e. by adjusting cash and/or sector allocation and/or factor weightings depending on how the asset manager interprets the market cycle.

Which raises the eternal investment myth, “It is impossible to time the market”…

This misconception is costing investors dearly and has given investment advisers and asset managers a place to hide for not doing part of their job. It is commonly pointed out that investors cannot afford to be out of the equity market at any given time because “we cannot read the market” and the market may run, and investors will then lose out on the market run. And thus, common practice is to sit through market downs, whether it’s only a correction or a more serious market crash, rather than be out of the market and risk missing out on the upturn.

Distinction should be drawn between primary and secondary cycles. Primary cycles are usually on average 5-7 years long; approximately 4-5 years of markets moving up (generally called bull markets), followed by a market crash which usually lasts 1-2 years (generally called bear markets). These bear market cycles or market crashes (commonly defined as >20% market drawdown) usually take about 2 years to return to pre-crash levels. This is as opposed to a market disturbance or secondary cycles which occurs during the bull market phases. The secondary down cycles are generally called corrections, with declines greater than 10% but less than 20%, are short in duration (rarely longer than 3months) and usually sentiment driven. The graph below illustrates the occurrences of bear markets in the SA equity market in the past.

Given the magnitude of bear markets, it is prudent that they are not ignored and endured if it is possible to avoid them. Corrections can be ignored because their effect is quickly erased in a raging bull market.

Yes, equity is the asset class of choice to keep up with inflation over time. And yes, it is the asset class one should be invested in for longer through any market cycle. But it is this relative stellar performance of equities over time that has bailed out those advisors and asset managers not doing their jobs properly. By keeping investors in the equity market at all times because of the adherence to the myth that it is impossible to time the market, is a disservice to investors. If an investor has time, there is less risk in remaining in the equity market throughout bear markets, because after about 2 years or so their equity investment should be back to pre-crash levels. But what if the market crashes at an inopportune time for an investor i.e. just when he needs cash and needs to sell out of the market?

The investment community has come up with an ‘acceptable way’ to address this problem and this is called Risk Management.

What risk management does, is it disperses risk. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Multi asset funds are thus a varying combination of different asset classes depending on how the portfolio manager reads the market and balances the risks he associates with each class at that point. The myth that the market cannot be timed has resulted in multi asset funds (or their managers) varying only slightly in the allocation spread regardless of the market cycle.

What this does is make all investors average. It is defensible to be wrong, as long as you are not too far wrong or too different from the average.

But, by the mere fact of adjusting the allocation of assets, asset managers/financial advisers tacitly admit that it is possible to time the market. There is more than enough empirical evidence that proves that more value is added by asset allocation than stock selection. If it is acceptable to adjust asset allocation spreads only slightly, it becomes more of a passive investment style, which should be charged accordingly. Investors should start asking what exactly they are paying for; split the costing of stock selection, asset allocation, how much for advice, etc.? If asset allocation tilts are only slightly different from the average and do not vary aggressively dependent on the market cycle, the fee model applied should be similar to those of passive funds or as charged by fixed allocation balanced funds.

Risk profiling investors is another concept that the investment community came up with in what I believe is an abdication of their job. I believe that to propose that people ‘of an age’ should be more invested in income products to protect them against the risk of the equity market is a fallacy. Those ‘aged’ investors need as much protection against inflation as the young guys. And vice versa; the younger investor should be just as protected against the erosion of bear markets. But this a topic for another article...

The Gryphon investment philosophy supports the opinion that, in an efficient market like ours, as well as in sizable portfolios, it is easier, more reliable and consistent to add value through asset allocation than by stock selection. We believe it is possible to time the market! That is, to time the market from an asset allocation perspective, not timing stock selection. For the investor not wanting to be average in the multi-asset space, the Gryphon Prudential and the Gryphon Flexible funds offer something completely different.

Over time, and many cycles, the factors that most reliably drive markets have been identified, researched, implemented…and experienced in real life. What we’ve learned is that it is possible to reasonably consistently call the primary market cycles. Although it may also be possible to read the secondary market cycles, we have not yet been able to identify reliable factors that consistently predict these cycles accurately. As indicated, normally these secondary cycles are short in nature, around 3 months long and not more than 10% in size. These cycles are usually driven by greed and fear, and create a lot of noise in the market