Time Arbitrage: Investing vs. Speculation
The clock is ticking, and for many investors that makes the allure of short-term speculation more appealing than long-term investing. Of course the definition of “long-term” is open for interpretation. For some traders, long-term can mean a week, a day, or an hour. Fortunately, for those that understand the benefits of time arbitrage, the existence of short-term speculators creates volatility, and with volatility comes opportunity for long-term investors.
What is time arbitrage? The concept is not new and has been addressed by the likes of Louis Lowenstein, Ralph Wanger, Bill Miller, and Christopher Mayer. Essentially, time arbitrage is exploiting the benefits of moving against the herd and buying assets that are temporarily out of favor because of short-term fears, despite healthy long-term fundamentals. The reverse holds true as well. Short-term euphoria never lasts forever, and experienced investors understand that continually following the herd will eventually lead you to the slaughterhouse. Thinking independently, and going against the grain is ultimately what leads to long-term profits.
Successfully executing time arbitrage is easier said than done, but if you have a systematic, disciplined process in place that assists you in identifying panic and euphoria points, then you are well on your way to a lucrative investment career.
Winning via Long-Term Investing
Legg Mason has a great graphical representation of time arbitrage:
The first key point to realize from the chart is that in the short-run it is very difficult to distinguish between gambling/speculating and true investing. In the short-run, speculators can make money just as well as anybody, and in some cases, even make more profits than long-term investors. As famed long-term investor Benjamin Graham so astutely states, “In the short run the market is a voting machine. In the long run it’s a weighing machine.” Or in other words, speculative strategies can periodically outperform in the short run (above the horizontal mean return line), while thoughtful long-term investing can underperform.
Financial Institutions are notorious for throwing up strategies on the wall like strands of spaghetti. If some short-term outperforming products spontaneously stick, then the financial institutions often market the bejesus out of them to unsuspecting investors, until the strategies eventually fall off the wall.
Beware o’ Short-Termism
I believe Jack Gray of Grantham, Mayo, Van Otterloo got it right when he said, “Excessive short-termism results in permanent destruction of wealth, or at least permanent transfer of wealth.” What’s led to the excessive short-termism in the financial markets (see Short-Termism article)? For starters, technology and information are spreading faster than ever with the proliferation of the internet, creating a sense of urgency (often a false sense) to react or trade on that information. With more than 2 billion people online and 5 billion people operating mobile phones, no wonder investors are getting overwhelmed with a massive amount of short-term data. Next, trading costs have declined dramatically in recent decades, to the point that brokerage firms are offering free trades on various products. Lower trading costs mean less friction, which often leads to excessive and pointless, profit-reducing trading in reaction to meaningless news (i.e., “noise”). Lastly, the genesis of ETFs (exchange traded funds) has induced a speculative fervor, among those investors dreaming to participate in the latest hot trend. Usually, by the time an ETF has been created, the cat is already out of the bag, and the low hanging profit fruits have already been picked, making long-term excess returns tougher to achieve.
There is never a shortage of short-term fears, and today the 2008-09 financial crisis; “Flash Crash”; debt downgrade; European calamity; upcoming presidential elections; expiring tax cuts; and structural debts/deficits are but a few of the fear issues du jour in investors’ minds. Markets may be overbought in the short-run, and a current or unforeseen issue may derail the massive bounce from early 2009. For investors who can put on their long-term thinking caps and understand the concept of time arbitrage, buying oversold ideas and selling over-hyped ones will lead to profitable usage of investment time.
Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®
Plan. Invest. Prosper.
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