In the last year, interest rates have fallen dramatically. At the end of the 3rd quarter in 2018, the yield on a 10-year note from the U.S. Government was 3.05% and today it stands at 1.68%. This decline in interest rates is unusual, but not unprecedented. Given the vast resources of the world’s largest money managers, banks, insurance companies, and universities, surely someone saw this coming.

By and large no one did, and, unless we see a rise in yields in the fourth quarter, no one will be very close. The data above comes from the Wall Street Journal Economic Forecasting Survey. Each month, the WSJ surveys over 50 economists on a wide variety of things, one of which is what they expect the U.S. 10-year Treasury bond will be yielding at a future date. The chart shows what each economist predicted, versus what actually happened.

The difficulty in forecasting rates is well shown by looking at yields at the end of June. Nine months prior, the world’s leading economists’ predictions ranged from 2.75% to 3.94% with an average of 3.40% and a standard deviation of 0.28%. The actual yield on June 30th was 2.00% or 5 standard deviations below expectations. A 5 standard deviation variance should happen 1 out of every 3.5 million times, or effectively never, when events are normally distributed. This reinforces what we already knew:  markets aren’t normal, and people can’t predict them.

As we’ve seen here with interest rates, it is very difficult to time markets, getting in or out at the right time to take advantage of the market’s next move. Smart and highly compensated people who work on large teams with unrivaled access to data spend all day trying to forecast the market. And still, they are wrong as often as they are right.

The best-case scenario for average investors trying to time the market is that it will insert an element of chance into their financial lives. For those willing to accept a materially less comfortable retirement for the chance at having a relatively lavish retirement, market timing may make sense. But that is not most people, and the universe of investors who try to time the market on average underperform for the following reasons:

  1. Excessive Costs: Market timing requires buying and selling positions which comes at a cost. Every time you transact a security you cross a bid/ask spread and some securities come with a fee to trade. While small individually, when done repeatedly these little costs add up. Some use options to time the market. Options are a terrible investment over the long run. Options trading is like playing in the poker room at a casino. With every bet you make, there is someone else on the other side. The only one sure to profit is the house.
  2. Holding Cash: Most who try to beat the market end up holding an unnecessarily large amount of cash for extended periods of time. As cash is a poor long-term investment, this generally reduces returns.
  3. Poor Decisions: Theoretically, every future movement in the market is random, securities are efficiently priced, and investors should not be able to pick winners or losers. Still, there is data that shows the average investor who trades frequently has an uncanny knack of buying high and selling low. The psychology of investing is difficult for anyone to master and frequently instincts work against investors.

The markets future movements are unknown, even to “experts.” Timing the market or picking stocks will usually hurt your wallet, not to mention the mental stress that comes with it. Having a long-term strategy and sticking with it is the best way to build wealth in the long run and to position yourself for an enjoyable retirement.