Timing the market: You may think you're right, but you don't know

  • Article by: ROSS LEVIN , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 23, 2012 - 3:13 PM

A client called in early June to tell me that his friend in Florida had told him to get out of the stock market.

Now I love my Florida clients, but they often seem to get their investment, medical and most other types of advice from their friends and neighbors -- most of whom are experts in subjects about which they know very little.

My client didn't get out of the market and so far the friend has been wrong. But the fact is, most of us are often wrong about forecasts in areas where we actually have expertise. Whether it is a political pundit, a market prognosticator or a sports columnist, one of the things that we can certainly be right about is that they are going to be wrong with some prediction.

"The whole reason it's possible to be wrong is that, while it is happening, you are oblivious to it," writes Kathryn Schulz in her book, "Being Wrong."

Think about it. If we knew we were wrong, then we would be right. When we are dealing with events in the future, we'll be wrong because we overweight or underweight variables; we can't possibly consider all the components in a complex system, and we are blind to things that are in contrast to what we are expecting. We are wrong about the past because our minds don't record events, they interpret them.

So if you accept that we are going to be wrong (and if you don't accept it, you are probably wrong), then what can you do about it?

First, frame things in the context of beliefs versus knowledge. Clients who called desperate to get into the Facebook initial public offering ''knew'' that the stock was going to double on the first day. Clients who called needing to get out of the market a few weeks ago ''knew'' that the world was a mess and that the stock market was going to crash.

Ironically, if a client would have sold out of the broader market to buy Facebook stock, they would have caused what they most feared. It is important to acknowledge that you can only believe something is going to happen, you cannot know it.

Second, remember that most things are reversible. I was talking to someone who dropped out after a year of law school to pursue a different interest. Not only did this save her the costs of law school, but it potentially saved her from years of working in a field in which she wasn't suited. She may have regret down the road. But the regret would most likely come from imagining how her life would have been different had she finished law school, rather than remembering how disinterested she was in the profession at the time she was studying. She also can always go back to law school. When we get rigid, we get stuck. When we get stuck, we close our minds to other possible outcomes.

Third, play devil's advocate. Schulz writes, "Mistakes arise from the gap between our inner picture of the world and the world as it really is."

One way to deal with this is to look at issues from a variety of angles. If we rush to solve a problem, we may not be answering the right question. One of our clients was wondering about whether she could afford a new home. If we just ran the numbers, we might never get to why she was even interested in moving and what she was hoping to get from the move. By more fully exploring the issue, we could determine whether a move was the right thing, regardless of how affordable it was.

Fourth, think incrementally. Don't think about getting completely in or completely out of the stock market unless you need the money in the next three years. You have to be perfectly right to make those giant calls. Instead, adjust your portfolio within ranges. This means that if the market goes straight up, you are destined to trail it a bit; if the market goes straight down, you won't lose as much. Since you can't really know which way the market is going in the short term, moving all in or all out is simply gambling. If you can't handle volatility, then you must accept 10-year returns of less than 2 percent. Does that really fit your goals and plans?

Remember: You don't need to be right if being wrong doesn't hurt you much. Someone from Florida told me that.

Spend your life wisely.

Ross Levin is the founding principal of Accredited Investors Inc. in Edina. He is a certified financial planner and author of "The Wealth Management Index." His Gains Losses column appears on the last Sunday of the month. His e-mail is ross@accredited.com.

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