Here's a question I'd like answered: Is investing a science with strategies and tactics that improve from year to year, eventually becoming nearly foolproof so that the professional investors who take the time to study them become better and better at it? Or are the frequent changes we see in investment strategies part of a random, mostly dysfunctional journey in which some investors seem to be on the leading edge today, only to tumble into disgrace and obscurity when the cycle turns?
I recently read two books on the topic of how to invest in this new-era market. One was written in 2010, one in 2011. Do the past two and a half years, during which we've observed one of the most stunning crashes in the history of the market, provide any new answers to these questions? Any new proof of what works and what doesn't work?
This period-since September 2008-has seen the most active discussion on market strategies that I've heard in my 30 years of covering investing and financial planning. Two different schools of thought have emerged from the crisis. They are not new, but an affirmation of strategies that have existed for nearly a century.
The consensus of both is that we don't have to throw up our hands and play a game of darts to choose investments. Rather, there is something that investors can know, some strategies that they can use. Not surprisingly, both rest on consistency. Consistency always beats knee-jerk reactions. And consistency depends on the financial advisor's ability to convince the client-and himself-that he is practicing a strategy that will help grow the portfolio and protect it against loss.
So let me tell you about the books in the hope that they will clarify your own positions and help you see how to talk with clients about investing. I first received Leslie N. Masonson's book, Buy-DON'T Hold: Investing With ETFs Using Relative Strength To Increase Returns With Less Risk, published by the Financial Times Press, in 2010. Masonson is one of the financial planners/investors who sent an e-mail to me last year when I wrote a column about modern portfolio theory versus technical analysis. Masonson has written several books on investing, including one called All About Market Timing (2003). His books have received mostly good reviews on Amazon.com, so I don't think he's a flash in the pan. Buy-Don't Hold was the number two book in the mutual fund category on a recent day. The other book I will talk about was number one in the same category on the same day.
Like many avid investors, Masonson became interested in investing when he was a teenager and his grandmother gave him one share of Pan Am stock. That was in 1957. He also wrote a book on day trading. I know that many financial planners view day trading and market timing as a formula for disaster. I'm not comfortable with them myself because I don't have the necessary time and discipline to carry them out. However, I've wanted to address the topic with guidance from someone who is esteemed in that field. I spent some time (on the phone) with Masonson this winter, trying to get a better grasp on his method.
In his book, Masonson says: "My goal is to provide you with a non-emotional, systematic approach to investing that will make money in bull markets and protect your portfolio in bear markets." When I spoke to him, he was not confident about the stock market's future going forward. "After this 100% recovery since March 9, 2009, this market will face reality and come tumbling down," he said. "This has been the fastest rise in history. So expect the downswing to be nasty." He says he is 100% in cash.
Masonson takes issue with most passive investing, or buy-and-hold, strategies. For example, he says that rebalancing a portfolio on a particular date makes no sense because certain asset classes might have long periods of outperformance. "Selling them arbitrarily on a fixed date because they went up more in relationship to the total portfolio and buying other asset classes that have not done well is a backward way of investing." The better approach is to "invest in the right asset classes at the right time and switch to other asset classes as they start outperforming the current classes."
I don't see how any investor could disagree with this. The problem for most of us, or perhaps I should say for me, is that we don't have the foggiest notion of how to identify the "right time." Those who use technical investing, like Tom Dorsey at Dorsey Wright Associates in Richmond, Va., have studied this field for decades and have the sophisticated tools necessary to make that decision. They also have the confidence of many advisors.
Some say that advisors who teach the DWA method, like Ric Lager in Minneapolis, have helped them to understand the analysis and they have had much better investing results because of it. Some, like Charles Scott of Pelleton Capital Management in Scottsdale, Ariz., say they would not still be in business if it were not for DWA's tutoring on point-and-figure analysis and the results they have achieved with it. I wonder, though, how many advisors who don't study with a master can do this sort of investing on their own and how much time it might take them. It sounds as if it requires nerves of steel. I also wonder if all the negative publicity about technical analysis comes because of its use by investors who don't have a firm hold on it.