No time to time the market with cash windfalls

Thought of the day

by Chief Investment Office 12 Feb 2019

For many wealthy individuals the sale of a business is a key turning point in their lives. When markets are uncertain, as they are today, it can be difficult to know when to put the resulting cash windfall to work. But one thing is for sure: staying in cash over the long term is almost certain to be harmful for your wealth. Since 2009, the purchasing power of cash has declined more than 15% in the US, for example, exceeding the inflationary experience in the 1970s.

In a new report we look at some strategies investors with cash windfalls can deploy to help them achieve their long-term goals.

  • Going straight into the market: This can feel uncomfortable for many investors, given the risk of investing near a market peak. But financial theory would suggest that putting a deposit to work straight away is often the best option, since risk assets typically trend higher. The S&P 500 trades within 5% of a record high 60% of the time, and only 12% of the time more than 20% below its last all-time high. So the cost of waiting for a pullback, which can take months or even years to materialize, can be high.
  • Phasing in: Of course, with large deposits the potential cost of bad market timing is greater. Since World War II it has taken an equity only portfolio just over two years (26 months) on average to recover from a trough back to a prior market high. This would be a distressing wait for an investor who has mistimed a large windfall investment. The potential for such an eventuality would be mitigated by investing directly in government bonds – which are less volatile – and phasing into riskier assets – known as "dollar cost averaging." We believe the best strategy is to establish a set schedule, and to accelerate each phase-in tranche if there is a market dip of at least 5%.
  • Put selling: A put-writing strategy enables investors to earn a premium by giving others the right to sell them a security or exchange-traded fund (ETF) at an agreed-upon price – typically a discount to the current market price. If the market does not fall, the option expires worthless, and the put-writer keeps the premium. If the market falls, the put-writer – who had been intending to increase exposure to equities anyway – ends up taking delivery of the stock. While this strategy is not without its drawbacks, it can mitigate the drag on returns as an investor gradually enters the market.
  • Buying call options: The biggest risk of any phase-in strategy is "opportunity cost," where markets rally sharply, resulting in forgone gains when the investor eventually buys at a higher price. Call options are one way to help defray this opportunity cost.
  • Using structured investment products: As an alternative to directly purchasing option strategies or other derivatives, some investors may be willing to fully commit their cash upfront in exchange for a structured investment that provides some combination of these strategies' characteristics. For example, some structured investments limit upside participation in an underlying index, in exchange for downside protection, a fixed coupon payment until maturity or other features to adjust the likely distribution of returns.So recipients of a large lump sum should consider a range of options before putting their money to work, and avoiding just sitting on the sidelines in expectation of a market correction. For more detail on this subject, see our recent report: "How should investors deal with lump sums?"

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