Fence-Sitting: The Elusive Art of More Data and Pullbacks
The world of financial markets is full of fence-sitters, especially in the professional realm. Why? Well, for starters, fence-sitting provides the luxury of never being wrong. If fence-squatting observers do nothing and provide no opinions, then they cannot by definition be wrong or mistaken. Why should a professional put their neck out for an economic, sector, or investment specific forecast, if there is a potential of looking stupid or losing a job?
For many, the consequences of possibly being wrong feel so horrendous that participants choose instead to sit on the non-committal fence. In most cases, the fence posts on any financial issue or investment align along the comfort of consensus thinking. Unfortunately, consensus thinking has a limited shelf life, because the views held by the majority are constantly changing. Repeatedly modifying personal opinions to match consensus views may prevent the bruising of egos, however, this naïve strategy can be destructive to long-term returns. Here are a few examples:
Consensus View: New Normal tech stocks will continue explosive growth; Consensus Outcome: Wrong; Investor Net Result: Losses and/or Lost Profits.
Consensus View: Home prices will rise forever and leverage is beautiful; Consensus Outcome: Wrong; Investor Net Result: Losses and/or Lost Profits.
Consensus View: Greece and European collapse to cause a double-dip global recession; Consensus Outcome: Wrong; Investor Net Result: Losses and/or Lost Profits.
Consensus View: U.S. credit downgrade will be bad for Treasuries and rates; Consensus Outcome: Wrong; Investor Net Result: Losses and/or Lost Profits.
Consensus View: Uncertainty surrounding election bad for equities; Consensus Outcome: Wrong; Investor Net Result: Losses and/or Lost Profits.
Consensus View: China’s slowing growth and real estate bubble expected to cause a global double-dip recession; Consensus Outcome: Wrong; Investor Net Result: Losses and/or Lost Profits.
Consensus View: Impending fiscal cliff bad for equities; Consensus Outcome: Wrong; Investor Net Result: Losses and/or Lost Profits.
Consensus View: Debt ceiling debate bad for equities; Consensus Outcome: ???; Investor Net Result: ???.
Consensus View: Looming sequestration bad for equities; Consensus Outcome: ???; Investor Net Result: ???.
In recent years the market has continued to climb a wall of worry, but will this year be different? We shall soon see.
Placing the concern du jour aside, if consensus fears coalesce around a specific upcoming event, chances are that particular issue is already factored into existing expectations and price structures. Therefore, rather than wasting personal “worry” bandwidth on those fears, investor anxiety should be dedicated to less prevalent but potentially more impactful unknown concerns. Or if you need clarification about the unknowns to worry about, perhaps Donald Rumsfeld can clarify the situation by highlighting the risk of “unknown unknowns”:
I Love Data and Pullbacks!
When faced with apprehension or uncertainty, many fence-sitting investors revert to wanting more data or waiting for a better price. For example, I often hear, “I love stock XYZ, but I want to wait for the earnings to come out,” or analyst day, or share buyback announcement, or merger closing, or restructuring, etc., etc., etc. For strategists and economists, they are famished for the next critically irrelevant weekly jobless claims number, Federal Reserve policy minutes, ISM monthly manufacturing data, or latest consumer confidence figure.
More data for fence sitters is not sufficient. I often listen to stock-pickers say, “I love XYZ stock, but not at the current $52.50 price, but I’ll back up the truck at $51.50!” Okay, so you’re telling me that you think the stock is worth +40% more, but you want to litigate the purchase price over $1?!
Sadly, there is a cost for all this fence-sitting: a) if good news comes out, investment prices catapult higher and the investor is stuck with a pricier investment; b) if bad news comes out, that long-awaited price pullback is usually not acted upon because fundamentals have now deteriorated; or c) in many cases the price grinds higher before the long-awaited jewel of information is disseminated. The net result is further fence-sitting paralysis, which paradoxically is not helped by more information or a price pullback.
The other reason fence-sitters say or do nothing is because articulating a gloomy thesis simply sounds smarter. For instance, saying “The reason I’m on the sidelines is because we are in a secular bear market due to the debasement of our currency as a result of inflationary Fed monetary policies,” sounds smarter and more compelling than “Stocks are cheap and are already factoring in a lot of negativity.”
Investing is an unbelievably challenging endeavor, but for those fence-sitters with an insatiable appetite for more data and elusive pullbacks, I humbly point out, there is an infinite amount of information that regenerates itself daily. In addition, there is nothing wrong with having a disciplined valuation process in place, but if your best investment ideas are predicated on a minor pullback, then enjoy watching your returns wither away…as you sit on your cozy fence.
Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®
Plan. Invest. Prosper.
DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients hold positions in certain exchange traded funds (ETFs), but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in any security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC Contact page.