During the last quarter of 2018, the TSX/S&P Composite declined 10.11 per cent on a total return basis while the first quarter of 2019 the TSX/S&P Composite posted gains of 13.27 per cent on a total return basis.
When the stock market takes a sharp downward correction, the natural response from investors is to try to anticipate the decline and sell off before this happens.
It sounds easy when you are looking in the rear view mirror. Timing when you are in or out of the markets is in essence basing your investment strategy on a speculative approach rather than a disciplined investing approach that incorporates a long-term vision and goals. Short-term emotional thinking can cloud long-term investment decisions.
The best way to illustrate the challenges of trying to time the stock market is by looking at an investor who is currently fully invested.
Mr. James has $1 million invested in a non-registered account and is currently earning $35,000, or 3.5 per cent, in annual income (primarily dividend income and minimal interest income). In addition to this income, Mr. James’s investments have averaged 4.5 per cent annually in capital gains over time.
The total annual average rate of return is the sum of both of these parts — the income and capital gains. The total average annual rate of return over the last five years has been approximately 8.0 per cent annually.
Mr. James decided that he wanted to be a market timer. By market timer, I mean that he felt he could predict the direction of the stock market and would sell his investments if he anticipated a decline in the markets.
If Mr. James sells off his investments and converts his portfolio to 100 per cent cash, then his income will drop to $16,000 per year, assuming that savings accounts are earning 1.60 per cent.
The downside to savings accounts is that interest income is fully taxable each year in a non-registered account. Mr. James currently has the majority of his investments earning tax-efficient dividend income with some tax deferred growth. As a result of the difference in taxation between interest income and dividend income, the impact on income would be even greater than 1.90 per cent (3.50 to 1.60).
For purposes of this article, we have assumed that both interest income and dividend income are equal. In additional to the differential in the income lost, Mr. James would not have potential for capital gains while out of the market.
Mr. James should also factor in that if all of his investments are sold then he would have to report all the realized gains on his investments and lose the deferral benefits that exist with non-registered equity investments. If you have stock that has increased in value, you do not have to pay tax on the capital gain until it is sold.
If Mr. James has a stock that has declined in value and he realizes a loss then he has to use caution when timing transactions. He must wait at least 30 days before repurchasing a stock sold at a loss or risk violating the superficial loss rules and having the original loss declined.
From an income standpoint, Mr. James will immediately see his dividend/investment income drop $19,000 a year ($35,000 to $16,000). He will also possibly be losing capital growth on his portfolio. The potential tax liability, superficial loss rules and loss of income are the easy components to quantify for Mr. James. It is the change in the capital side or growth that is the tough part to compute in order to determine if Mr. James made the right decision to liquidate.
If the markets increase, Mr. James clearly made a mistake. He will have lost the differential in the income and the capital growth. If the markets remain flat, Mr. James still made a mistake with the differential as his income will drop $16,000 a year.
If the stock market goes down, it’s not necessarily a given that Mr. James will benefit from having liquidated his account.
If Mr. James makes a correct prediction that the stock market declines then for him to benefit he has to also make another correct timing decision to buy back into the market at lower levels to potentially be better off.
If the markets decline and Mr. James does not have the insight to buy back in (before it rises back to the level that Mr. James originally sold at) then he would still be worse off. In essence Mr. James has to make two correct timing decisions: (1) selling before the markets decline, and (2) buying back before they rise.
Mr. James should also factor in the timing in which he feels his predictions for the market will unfold. To illustrate this component we will assume no transaction costs, only the income component (we will exclude capital changes) and no tax impact to the trades for simplification purposes.
The difference between the current income Mr. James is earning of 3.5 per cent and the new income of 1.60 per cent if he converts everything to cash is 1.90 per cent. Depending on how long Mr. James is out of the market impacts how much the stock market would have to decline to make the strategy of going to cash successful.
Let’s assume that Mr. James waits six months, one year, two years and three years before buying back into the stock market. If every year Mr. James is losing 1.90 per cent in income then the longer he waits the greater the stock market has to decline. At the six month point, the markets would have to decline 0.95 per cent (1.90 x .5) or greater, at the one year point the markets would have to decline 1.90 per cent (1.90 x 1) or greater, at the two year point the markets would have to decline 3.80 per cent (1.90 x 2) or greater, and at the three year point the markets would have to decline 5.70 per cent (1.90 x 3) or greater.
Making two correct short-term timing decisions against a stock market that has a long term upward bias is not as easy as it may seem. The markets can rebound incredibly fast — the 13.27 per cent increase in the first quarter of 2019 is only one example. From a psychological standpoint, most people would have the tendency to fear that the markets will decline further after the 10.11 per cent decline in the last quarter of 2018. Most investors would not have had the natural tendency to purchase investments at the beginning of this year. Sticking to a long term disciplined strategy helps deal with the short term quarterly swings of the market.
Kevin Greenard CPA CA FMA CFP CIM is a portfolio manager and director of wealth management with The Greenard Group at Scotia Wealth Management in Victoria. His column appears every week in the Times Colonist. Call 250-389-2138.