Market Timers in S&P 500 Pay a High Price for Perfect Prescience

About $22 trillion of wealth was created in U.S. stocks, roughly the country’s total annual output. An exchange-traded fund tracking the airline industry has more than doubled. At least 45 companies in the S&P 500 have surged by more than 200%, including Tesla Inc., up almost 700%.

A lot of things have gone right for stock bulls in the 12 months since equities bottomed after the Covid-19 crash. And there’s a chance you would’ve missed it all if you somehow managed to sell with perfect foresight at the top.

It’s an old observation -- don’t try to time the market -- with particular resonance today, amid a rally that has pushed the S&P 500 more than 16% above its previous peak. That’s the biggest increase of its kind ever recorded in the U.S. stock market at the first anniversary of a bull market.

In other words, missing last year’s meltdown would’ve kept bulls from losing almost a third of their investment, but potentially at the cost of missing a particularly epic rebound.

“It’s just a great reflection of how futile trying to time the market really is,” said Elliott Savage, portfolio manager at YCG Investments. “You’ve had just such enormous stimulus and then this new cohort of retail investors come in and it’s led to very surprising results that I don’t think anyone, if they’re honest with themselves, would’ve predicted.”

The lesson may be of interest today, a reminder of the hazard of trying to call the market top, after the S&P 500 surged 76% from its 2020 trough. With stocks falling victim of bond market turmoil and President Joe Biden mulling tax hikes for corporate America, the case for caution is building.