Time, Not Timing, Is What Matters | American Funds

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Investing Fundamentals

Time, Not Timing, Is What Matters

Investors learning how to invest in the stock market might also ask when to invest. Knowing when to invest, however, isn’t as important as how long you stay invested.

Trying to navigate the peaks and valleys of market returns, investors seem to naturally want to jump in at the lows and cash out at the highs. But no one can predict when those will occur. Of course we’d all like to avoid declines. The anxiety that keeps investors on the sidelines may save them that pain, but it may ensure they’ll miss the gain. Historically, each downturn has been followed by an eventual upswing, although there is no guarantee that will always happen. Trying to avoid risk could itself be risky, since it’s impossible to know when to get back in.

The chart below shows two hypothetical investments in the S&P 500 over the 20-year period ending December 31, 2016. Each investor contributed $10,000 every year. One investor somehow managed to pick the very best day (the market low) of each year to invest. The average annual return on that investment would have been 8.82%. The other investor was not so lucky and actually picked the worst day (market high) each year. Even with the worst investment timing, the average annual return would have been 6.58%. At the end of 20 years, the cumulative investment of $200,000 had a value of $399,055.

So even selecting the worst day each year to invest, someone who continued investing in the market over the past 20 years would have come out ahead. It’s important to note that regular investing neither ensures a profit or protects against a loss. However, the tables below illustrate how regular investing can be beneficial.

Timing isn’t critical to long-term success:

 

Best-Day Investments
(Market Lows)
Date of
Market Low
Cumulative
Investments
Total
Value

1/2/1997

$10,000

$13,403

1/9/1998

20,000

30,682

1/14/1999

30,000

49,411

12/20/2000

40,000

55,362

9/21/2001

50,000

60,730

10/9/2002

60,000

58,693

3/11/2003

70,000

89,610

8/12/2004

80,000

110,841

4/20/2005

90,000

127,407

6/13/2006

100,000

159,229

3/5/2007

110,000

178,822

11/20/2008

120,000

124,751

3/9/2009

130,000

174,561

7/2/2010

140,000

213,318

10/3/2011

150,000

229,277

1/3/2012

160,000

277,353

1/8/2013

170,000

380,093

2/3/2014

180,000

444,075

8/25/2015

190,000

461,312

2/11/2016

200,000

528,805

Average annual total return (1/2/97–12/31/16): 8.82%

Worst-Day Investments
(Market Highs)
Date of
Market Low
Cumulative
Investments
Total
Value

12/5/1997

$10,000

$9,878

12/29/1998

20,000

22,611

12/31/1999

30,000

37,368

3/24/2000

40,000

42,693

1/30/2001

50,000

46,092

1/4/2002

60,000

43,538

12/31/2003

70,000

66,019

12/30/2004

80,000

83,200

12/14/2005

90,000

97,103

12/15/2006

100,000

122,379

10/9/2007

110,000

138,528

1/2/2008

120,000

93,678

12/28/2009

130,000

128,379

12/29/2010

140,000

157,742

4/29/2011

150,000

170,395

9/14/2012

160,000

207,442

12/31/2013

170,000

284,595

12/29/2014

180,000

333,346

5/21/2015

190,000

347,726

12/13/2016

200,000

399,055

Average annual total return (12/5/97–12/31/16): 6.58%

Sources: Thomson Reuters and S&P 500 Index

Riding It Out

Note that the hypothetical investors above didn’t pull out of the market, but stayed the course for 20 years. That perseverance helped improve the chances that they would come out ahead. In fact, history has shown that positive outcomes occur much more often over longer periods than shorter ones.

Over the past 89 years, the S&P 500 has gone up and down each year. In fact 27% of those years had negative results. As you can see in the chart below, one-year investments produced negative results more often than investments held for longer periods. If those short-term one-year investors had held on for just two more years, they would have experienced nearly half as many negative periods.

And the longer the time frame — through highs and lows — the greater the chances of a positive outcome. Indeed, over the past 89 years, through December 31, 2016, 94% of 10-year periods have been positive ones. Investors who have stayed in the market through occasional (and inevitable) periods of declining stock prices historically have been rewarded for their long-term outlook.

History has shown the longer the period, the greater the chances of a positive outcome:

Year One-2017_chart-01
Year Three-2017_chart-01
Year Five-2017_chart-01
Year Ten-2017_chart-01

Sources: Thomson Reuters and S&P 500 Index

The Best in the Worst of Times

The past decade has been unsettling for many investors. The recession of 2008–2009 made some investors so fearful, they stopped contributing to their accounts — or even withdrew their money at market lows, thus locking in the losses. They may have thought sitting out for a while seemed like a good strategy. But trying to avoid the worst drops means also missing the opportunity for gains (and frequently investors get out too late to avoid the worst of the decline). The chart below shows what would have happened to a hypothetical investment of $1,000 in the S&P 500 in the decade of 2007 through 2016 if an investor had missed the best days of that period.

If the $1,000 investment hadn’t been touched through the full period, it would have grown to $1,579 — with an average annual return of 4.67%. But missing just 10 of the best days in that period would have put the investor in negative territory, losing 20% of the initial value.


The more missed best days, the steeper the loss:

13.55.14-2017-chart-02

Source: S&P 500 Index

Of course, investors could also leave the market and miss the worst days. However, studies show that people generally stop investing when the market is down, after an especially difficult downturn, and they return after the market has already begun to bounce back.

Rather than trying to predict highs and lows, it’s important to stay invested through a full market cycle. Focus on the time you stay invested, not the timing of your investments.

The S&P 500 Index (“Index”) is a product of S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC and/or its affiliates and has been licensed for use by Capital Group. Copyright © 2017 S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC, a division of S&P Global, and/or its affiliates. All rights reserved. Redistribution or reproduction in whole or in part are prohibited without written permission of S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC.

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Investments are not FDIC-insured, nor are they deposits of or guaranteed by a bank or any other entity, so they may lose value.

Investors should carefully consider investment objectives, risks, charges and expenses. This and other important information is contained in the fund prospectuses and summary prospectuses, which can be obtained from a financial professional and should be read carefully before investing. 

Certain market indexes are unmanaged and, therefore, have no expenses. Investors cannot invest directly in an index. 

Regular investing does not ensure a profit or protect against loss. Investors should consider their willingness to keep investing when share prices are declining.

Terms and Definitions
A market capitalization-weighted index based on the results of approximately 500 widely held common stocks.