Why physicians should never try to time the market

I read a Facebook post asking what people were doing about a recent market drop. As much as I watch the market (very rarely), I didn’t know the market had dropped until I read that comment. This question was raised on a site that is constantly teaching people that there is no way to time the market. Those who follow me always agree with this concept, until the market drops, then they sing a different tune.

Why can’t people follow their convictions when the rubber meets the road? Since there is no way to time the market, there is no point in spending precious time following the market. The only reason to follow the market is to be watching for the right moment to make a move, which is the definition of timing the market. If a person is watching the market every day or every week, they still don’t really believe that timing the market isn’t possible. It is time to act like we believe that statement to be true. Here’s how. (Stick around to the end for some of my favorite market timing quotes.)

People are constantly asking the question; is now the right time to (fill in the blank)? Whether the market is falling, rising, or flat, I hear that question. The question is most frequently asked regarding buying houses, refinancing houses, or buying and selling stock.

The implication of this question is that someone has the ability to predict the future. Since no one knows when the market is at its top or bottom, or when interest rates are at their highest or lowest, or when house prices are at their upper or lower limit, please stop trying to predict the future. You can’t, I can’t, and neither can anyone else, so stop asking if now is the best time for one of these events.

If you have asked any of the following questions in the last few years, then you are still trying to time the market.

“Mortgage interest rates are down to 3.5%, is now a good time to refinance my house?”

“I just got a lump sum of money and want to invest it. Is now the right time to invest? Should I invest it all at once or spread it out to get dollar-cost averaging?”

“Should I move to a bigger cash position now?”

“The market seems a bit volatile, should I wait to invest?”

“Housing seems to be at a peak; I think we will wait to buy a house until after prices come down.”

“Since the government is about to cut interest rates, shouldn’t I use an adjustable-rate mortgage so my interest rate will go down when the market changes?”

“I would like to buy my first rental property. Should I wait until after the market correction?”

It is always the right time to buy mutual funds and houses, since both of these items should be purchased for the long haul. Where the market is when the purchase is made is negligible. If you are price-sensitive, you are trying to buy for the short term which often doesn’t work and is very risky.

Mutual funds and houses are not to be bought for the short term. That is called gambling (market timing) and is the reason residents should never buy houses; they should rent. We shouldn’t be gambling with our future; we should be investing in our future. That means thinking long term. In the long term, buying is always the right answer. Whatever the current market, 30 years from now it will be higher.

I learned long ago that I was not able to time the market. I once did a stock-picking exercise with my seven-year-old son to teach him about the market. His chosen portfolio outperformed mine by a big margin. I also noticed that my account with limited investment options, which was used as a buy and hold account, outperformed the account I used to make “smart” stock picks. Once I finally proved to myself what others had been trying to teach me for a long time, I finally got the message and stopped wasting my time trying to time the market.

Since I no longer follow what the market does, the stock market was down for a few weeks before I knew it had a downturn. Nothing was different in my life for not knowing. I wasn’t planning to make any financial changes with the information, so I no longer waste any of my precious time following the market.

Consider the following before deciding to invest:

Am I investing in my future? If the answer is yes, then it is the right time to buy.

Set up your retirement account to make automatic purchases with each paycheck.

Make the purchase an index fund in the market of your choice.

If you are also buying bonds, pick a bond mutual fund that will be automatically purchased with every paycheck.

Don’t constantly look at your portfolio, be patient, and let the investments grow.

There will be times that the market drops. Don’t look at your account balance, because there is nothing you will be changing due to a change in the market. When the market is down the stocks you are buying automatically are being purchased at a lower price.

There will be times that the market is hitting a new high. Again, don’t look at your account balance, because there is nothing you will be changing. Just continue making your same long term investments.

As busy professionals, we do not have the time to be fussing about things we can’t do anything about. We should spend our precious free time with our family or having fun with our hobbies, not worrying about the state of the market. In the long run, those who worry and watch the market closely, who are continually buying and selling will usually end up with less money in their account than those who put their finances on autopilot and enjoy life.

When you know you don’t need to worry about the market, you can rest easy. I was recently hiking the Camino de Santiago and was, for the most part, off the grid for six weeks. No phone, no TV, no internet except to keep up with my email, post some pictures, and respond to followers in the evenings. I didn’t once think about my retirement plan holdings during that hike. That is freedom.

What if I was hiking and worrying about the market, but couldn’t do anything about it? What a waste of energy that would have been.

Those who are worried about the market are not free. They are a slave to the market. The market is deciding if they will have a good day, or need to rush to buy or sell stocks. Don’t be a slave to your portfolio.

Make a decision that once and for all, you will stop playing the “time the market” game. Then stop looking at the market. Act with the conviction that you know you can’t time the market, and neither can anyone else. You won’t believe how freeing that is not to care what the market does. Set up an automated path to wealth and then stay on track. Ride out every storm and live a full life without worrying about the market.

Set and forget is the best plan for your investment accounts. When something changes in your life, then you can revisit the plan. One change that creates a need to revisit our plans is retirement. Once that starts, we go into a new mode and set in place a new plan to remove money rather than invest money. But once the new retirement spending plan is set up, then quit looking and trust the plan.

One of my favorite quotes from Warren Buffet is: “Our favorite holding period is forever.”

That attitude will create great freedom in your life. If your holding period is forever, then you will never need to look at your holdings again. If you are looking for a reason to sell, you are timing the market. Time to grow up into your adult investing self and stop trying to time the market. Your future self will love the extra time and peace of mind it creates.

How about your investing self. Do you say, “it’s impossible to time the market,” yet watch the market closely? Are you ready to stop the madness? I’m glad I did.

Cory Fawcett is a general surgeon and can be reached at his self-titled site, Dr. Cory S. Fawcett.  He is the author of The Doctors Guide to Starting Your Practice RightThe Doctors Guide to Eliminating Debt, and The Doctors Guide to Smart Career Alternatives and Retirement.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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