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Looking Backward at A “Perfect” Investment

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“If I only had a crystal ball.” Every investor has probably made this wish from time to time.

We would all like a way to avoid the emotional pain and anxiety that are sure to come when our portfolios lose value due to inevitable market downturns.

Surely a perfect investment would spare us that pain. Suppose a mutual fund manager with a crystal ball knew which 10% of the 500 largest U. S. stocks would earn the highest returns for each upcoming five-year period. Investing only in those stocks should ensure gain with no pain.

According to an article by Bob Veres, editor of Inside Information, someone has looked back over more than 80 years to track such a hypothetical perfect fund. Alpha Architect, a research company, divided the 500 largest U.S. stocks into deciles and imagined a fund investing in only the 10% known to have the highest returns for the next five years. Beginning January 1, 1927, the hypothetical portfolio was adjusted every five years. If you could have purchased it then and held it to the end of 2009, you would have earned just under 29% a year. Lots of gain, no pain at all, right?

Except for the particularly bad bear market that started in 1929, when you would have seen your investment plummet 75.96%. Or the one-year period starting at the end of March 1937, when the fund would have fallen more than 44%.

Or the nine more times over the years that the fund dropped by 20% or more. It lost 22% in 1974 when the S&P 500 was up 20%. In 2000-2001 you’d have watched it plummet 34% while the S&P 500 was only down 21%. Or how about the 20% drop from the end of September through the end of November 2002, at a time when the S&P 500 was sailing along with a 15% positive return.

Yes, the long-term returns in this “perfect” investment were amazing. The full ride, however, offered many opportunities for anxiety and even terror, when investors would have been strongly tempted to bail.

Alpha Architect concluded that even if God—who presumably doesn’t need a crystal ball to have perfect foresight—were running this mutual fund, He would have lost a lot of investors. During the rough patches, many would have lost faith in His management skill.

Investors who are ultimately successful learn to hang on through thick and thin, knowing that markets eventually recover. Yet even if we could choose a perfect investment, staying with it for the long term is a challenge.

One of the reasons market declines are so frightening is that they happen much faster than market gains. Ben Carlson, author of A Wealth of Common Sense: Why Simplicity Trumps Complexity in Any Investment Plan, looked at all the bear markets and bull markets going back to 1928. The bull market rallies averaged 57% returns, while bear markets averaged losses of 24%. The bull markets lasted an average of 474 days. The bear market drops were more intense, compressed into an average of just 232 days before the next upturn.

Even when, by percentage, the gains far outweigh the losses, the more gradual pace of the bull markets doesn’t attract our attention in the same way as the heart-stopping downturns of bear markets.

Veres calls the Alpha Architect research “a lesson in humility and patience.” We can’t look into the future with a real crystal ball. However, looking back at market patterns with an imaginary one can help us protect ourselves from our own tendency to bail out in the face of adversity.

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