Buy and Hold: How to Perpetuate Your Investment Losses

by : Ulli G. Niemann

A recent cartoon in my daily newspaper showed two guys sitting in a bar. One is saying to the other: “I did learn something from my to diversify my investment losses."

While this struck me as funny, there is certainly an element of truth to it judging by the number of tragic e-mails and phone calls I have received over the past couple of years.

This was brought home even more so by a reader who responded with strong disagreement to one of my articles. I advocate a methodical, disciplined approach to investing in no-load mutual funds. It keeps me invested during up markets and on the sidelines during down markets. It was exactly this approach that got me and my clients out of the market in October, 2000 and put us back in to take advantage of the April, 2003 upswing.

Judging from the reader’s e-mail it appears that he works for a major bank and is adamant about Buy & Hold and Dollar Cost Averaging. Maybe it's the approach he has chosen and he doesn't like hearing that the emperor is wearing no clothes. Nothing personal, honestly, but I find it incomprehensible that anyone, after the bear market and the financial disasters most people experienced, can even consider such theories. The results are just too black & white.

Here are his three main points:

  1. "There is no real feasible way to know whether the market is going to be up or down and when exactly to invest.

  2. "The only logical way for an investor to make money is through the buy and hold approach. This method is used by Warren Buffett and he has consistently beaten the best with an average annual return of 29%.

  3. "Dollar cost average helps to hedge against the ups and downs of the market; moreover, one should have been buying up stocks during the last 3 years, though I do agree with your cashing out at in 2000. I do not wish to insult you, but that seems to me more luck than intuition."

It appears that the only thing that I can agree with him on is, as he says, there is no reasonable way to "know" whether the market is going to be up or down. However, this statement also underscores that he is not familiar with trend tracking methodologies and the idea that one does not need to "know" or "predict" in order to make profitable investment decisions.

I've put together the composite for my trend tracking index in the 80s and it has consistently served me and my clients well by getting us into and out of the markets in a timely manner.

The reader cites Warren Buffett's success. Sure, he is legendary, but remember that he made most of his fortune during one of the greatest bull markets. He is probably now considered beyond good and evil. But what about the numerous stories in the press over the past 3 years of the heavy losses he sustained in Coca Cola and other stocks, by stubbornly holding on to this positions. When you have enough money invested in a wide range of holdings, you become almost bullet proof. Do you fit in that category?

Furthermore, Buffet has resources available that the investing public simply does not have. Saying that he is successful only because of his buy and hold approach, and everyone following this technique will be too, is an oversimplification and does not factor in all the issues.

How many non-millionaires have enough spare capital to keep buying and holding and buying some more while stocks plummet? How long can they wait for the upswing when their cost-averaged holdings will start to show a profit? Do the math! Yes, the market will eventually turn up. But will it recover enough fast enough to reverse your losses in time to do you any real good? If you're 20, then maybe. If you're 60, who knows?

I have received countless e-mails and phone calls from individuals who have been led astray by brokers, financial planners and others using buy-and-hold and dollar cost averaging. Stories abound of retirees having to go back to work just because someone told them that "the market can't go any lower" or "let's dollar cost average."

As for his last point, when I gave the signal to cash out on October 13, 2000, it had nothing to do with either luck or intuition. I had no clue how good of a call that would be; I simply let my indicators be my guide. They pointed to a sell, we considered, and then followed through based on our experience. We held true to our philosophy and kept our emotions, speculations, fears or greed out of the equation. This disciplined approach is what I advocate.

This year it has led us to buy back into the market on 4/29/03. And my detailed analysis and evaluation of a range of funds led us to select some of the best; my top fund being up some 50%.

So, not to be cynical, but to me dollar cost averaging is just a way to spread the pain over a longer period of time and to cloud the obvious with the hope the market will turn around tomorrow. After all, it can't go any lower. Can it?