Buy and Hold Is Dead … Did It EVER Work?

Is There a Better Way to Allocate Stocks?

CNBC, Market Watch, Forbes, Kiplinger, Wall Street Journal, CNN Money, The Street, Mark Cuban and others say that buy and hold is dead.

Lubos Pastor of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and his colleagues have recently documented that buy and hold may never have been a viable investment strategy.

Wall Street Journal columnist Brett Arends wrote in 2010:

For years, the investment industry has tried to scare clients into staying fully invested in the stock market at all times, no matter how high stocks go…. It’s hooey…. They’re leaving out more than half the story.

Leading economist Robert Shiller strongly hinted at this possibility in research which he published 30 years ago.

As attorney, tax expert and financial writer Rob Bennett told us:

The story in brief is that Yale University Economics Professor Robert Shiller published research in 1981 that turns our understanding of how stock investing works on its head. Shiller’s findings let us all obtain far higher returns at greatly reduced risk. The problem is that, by the time Shiller published his research, many big names had already endorsed Buy-and-Hold (which was based on research discredited by Shiller). So the big shots in the field have been ignoring and then even covering up Shiller’s findings for 30 years now.

The thing that I have done that no one before me has done is to explain the
practical IMPLICATIONS of Shiller’s findings. Even Shiller has never done this.

Shiller’s book (“Irrational Exuberance”) is fantastic, but it is all theory. He never tells investors WHAT TO DO. He has explained why in public interviews. He has said that he would be branded “unprofessional” by the experts in this field if he were to do so.

Shiller and many others have been keeping their mouths shut about the practical implications of his theory for three decades now.

Wall Street Journal’s Arends explained:

Consider the data from Professor Robert Shiller at Yale University. He tracks something known as the “Cyclically-Adjusted Price-to-Earnings Ratio.” (These days it is also known as “the Shiller PE”). This compares stock prices with after-tax company earnings, but only after adjusting those earnings to take account of the fluctuations of the economic cycle. This helps avoid the distortions commonly found when you compare stock prices to a single year’s earnings.

At the peak of a boom, earnings are artificially inflated, while at the trough they are artificially depressed. The Shiller PE smooths that out.

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Can’t time the market? It was clear as a bell that investors should have gotten out of stocks in 1929, in the mid-1960s, and 10 years ago. Anyone who followed the numbers would have avoided the disaster of the 1929 crash, the 1970s or the past lost decade on Wall Street. Why didn’t more people do so? Doubtless they all had their reasons. But I wonder how many stayed fully invested because their brokers told them “You can’t time the market.”

Bennett’s website provides endorsements for his stock timing theories, and argues that the prevailing buy and hold dogma helped to cause the financial crisis:

The story is that the true cause of the economic crisis was the reckless promotion of Buy-and-Hold Investing for 30 years after the academic research showed that there is zero chance that it can ever work in the long term.

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The short form of the story is that the stock market was overvalued by $12 trillion in 2000. This is public information. All in the field acknowledge that stock prices over time revert to the mean (John Bogle calls this an “Iron Law” of stock investing). So those who were paying attention to valuations knew in 2000 that within 10 years or so close to $12 trillion of spending power would disappear from our consumer economy. An economic crisis became inevitable once we permitted stock prices to rise so high. We should tell people to lower their stock allocations when prices rise to insanely high levels both to protect their own retirements and to protect the general economy from collapse. We should encourage Valuation-Informed Indexing, described in a Guest Blog Entry I wrote for the Free From Broke site titled A Better and Less Risky Way to Invest in Stocks.

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Dallas Morning News Columnist Scott Burns spilled the beans in a June 2005 column he wrote about my showing that the numbers used by most financial planners to help us plan our retirements are wildly wrong. Burns observed that the reason why we see few media reports about the errors in the retirement studies even though they will cause millions of middle-class people to suffer failed retirements in days to come if they are not corrected is that: “It is information most people don’t want to hear.” The “experts” (who see themselves as being in the business of selling stocks, not of giving independent and accurate investing advice) encourage us to follow dangerous strategies, and, once we do so, we become so emotionally invested in the strategies that we become hostile to hearing the realities.

Many big names have seen the merit of the new investing ideas. Carl Richards, owner of Clearwater Asset Management and author of the Behavior Gap blog, told me: “I have read everything I can about Valuation-Informed Indexing, and I agree with you that Buy-and-Hold Passive Investing is extremely problematic… I value and respect the passion, hard work and research that you have put into this very important issue…. I think what you are doing has huge value.” Rahiv Sethie, a professor of economics at Barnard College, Columbia University said of me: ”Rob Bennett makes the claim that market timing based on aggregate P/E ratios can be a far more effective strategy than Passive Investing over long horizons (ten years or more). I am not in a position to evaluate this empirically but it is consistent with Shiller’s analysis and I can see how it could be true.” Wade Pfau, Associate Professor of Economics at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo, Japan, researched the question and learned that “Valuation-Informed Indexing provides more wealth for 102 of the 110 30-year periods” in the historical record. Bill Schultheis, author of The New Coffeehouse Portfolio exclaimed upon discovery of my web site: “Holy Toledo! This is great stuff!”

A calculator at my site called The Stock-Return Predictor will let you see with numbers why Buy-and-Hold is so dangerous. The calculator runs a regression analysis of the historical stock-return data to show the most likely 10-year annualized return starting from any of the various possible starting-point valuation levels. In 1982, the most likely 10-year annualized return was 15 percent real. In 2000, it was a negative 1 percent real. Given that the value proposition of stocks changes dramatically with big price changes, there is obviously no one stock allocation that can work for any investor at all times. Investors need tools like this to learn when they need to change their allocations.

I don’t think it should be too hard to understand why The Stock-Selling Industry desperately wants to keep tools like this out of the hands of middle-class investors. All industries would like their customers to believe that their product is worth buying at any possible price. But when too many become convinced that Buy-and-Hold can work, the insane level of overvaluation that follows causes an economic crisis (this has happened four times in U.S. history now — we have not since 1900 had an economic crisis that was not preceded by a time of insane stock overvaluation and we have not had a time of insane overvaluation that did not produce an economic crisis). There comes a point when marketing considerations need to take a back seat to preservation of our free market economic system, which cannot survive if all middle-class investors see their retirement savings wiped out (the historical data shows that we are likely to see another 65 percent price drop from where we stand today in the event that stocks continue to perform in the future anything at all as they always have in the past).

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The tool that is used by those informed about valuations to predict long-term returns (short-term returns cannot be predicted — it is true that short-term timing does not work) is “P/E10″. The P/E10 value is the price of the S&P index over the average of the last 10 years of earnings. Yale Economics Professor Robert Shiller (author of Irrational Exuberance) has been showing with research for 30 years now that P/E10 can be used to effectively predict long-term returns. Arends pointed out in an earlier article that: “This ratio [P/E10] has been a powerful predictor of long-term returns” and that “valuations is by far the most important issue for investors.”

A graphic that compares the Year 20 Annualized, Real, Total Return v. the P/E10 that applied on the day the index fund was purchased is here. The same graphic for 10 years out is here. A graphic comparing how investors following a Buy-and-Hold strategy would have fared over the entire historical record compared with those following a Valuation-Informed Indexing strategy is here. Norbert Schenkler, the financial planner who prepared the graphic, concluded that: “The evidence is pretty incontrovertible. Valuation-Informed Indexing…is everywhere superior to Buy-and-Hold over 10-year periods.” The one exception found by Schenkler, the late 1990s, no longer applies since the onset of the stock crash (the graphic was prepared prior to the crash).

Shiller used the P/E10 tool to warn us of the economic crisis that began in 2008 in his book (published in March 2000). He said that in the event that stocks performed from 2000 forward as they always have in the past: ”The real losses could be comparable to the total destruction of all the schools in the country, or all the farms in the country, or possibly even all the homes in the country.”

I’ve collected a number of quotes from leading experts in the field who have expressed grave doubts about Buy-and-Hold here. I’ve collected 20 studies showing that valuations affect long-term returns and that thus Buy-and-Hold can never work in the long term here. If you prefer taking in information by listening rather than by reading, I have recorded 200 podcasts addressing various aspects of the question. They are available for downloading here. I post updates on developments relating to this story daily at my twitter feed here.

Check out Bennett’s stock market valuation calculator.

Note: We are not investment advisers, and lack the experience and historical knowledge of securities returns to be able to comment on Bennett’s system.

We encourage investors to judge for themselves.

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  • Anchard

    The disappointing thing about the Shiller smoothed P/E is how difficult it is to find as a retail investor – it makes much more sense to use than the P/E that you get from your online broker or public sources, but good luck finding it.

 

 

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