It’s been almost a year since the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic in response to the spread of COVID-19. As we discussed in our recent portfolio performance review 2020, no one could have predicted the extraordinary events of the past year or the markets reaction to them.
The market crash in February and March 2020 was the worst since 1929 as the gravity of the pandemic crisis became clear. Then, the markets came roaring back with extraordinary speed and ended the year at all-time highs.
It was a year like none other in memory and provided a remarkable lesson on the importance of disciplined asset allocation and the danger of trying to outguess the markets by jumping in and out of investments in hopes of cutting your losses or maximizing your gains.
That’s called market timing and researchers have found it to be one of the worst wealth-destroying mistakes you can make. For example, the Dalbar research firm found that poor trading decisions caused the average U.S. equity fund investor to earn annual returns that were 4.7 percentage points below those from the S&P 500 index in the 20 years to the end of 2015.
People who try to time the market are often driven by a fear of losses or a desire to make big profits, but as we’ve seen in dramatic fashion this year, it’s impossible to forecast where the markets are headed.
The danger becomes clearer when we dig a little deeper into recent market trends. Growth stocks in general—and big tech stocks in particular—produced by far the best results in 2020. In the U.S., large and mid-cap growth stocks returned 36% versus just 1% for value stocks—the largest divergence ever recorded.
Skyrocketing prices have captured the imaginations of many investors who have bought into tech stocks and other hot investments like electric car maker Tesla and cryptocurrency Bitcoin. Meanwhile, others are dumping their stocks because they fear a speculative bubble has inflated of the kind seen during the dot.com era of the late 1990s.
Which side is right? A rational investor doesn’t have to engage with either. The antidote to the stress of worrying about current market conditions is a portfolio that is broadly diversified across asset classes and geographies and a patient, long-term perspective.
We make no judgment about whether U.S. growth stocks are in a bubble, but we do observe that value stocks and markets in other parts of the world are currently trading at far lower valuations. The beauty of diversification is that when one market is falling, others will be performing relatively better.
The real danger in investing is not missing out on a hot sector bet or suffering through a market correction. It’s making poor decisions in the heat of the moment that can lead to a permanent loss of capital.
Our discipline of sticking to diversified asset allocation may not produce the excitement of jumping on the latest zooming tech stock or cryptocurrency, but it has been proven to be the prudent way to build wealth over the long term.