By PATRICK CAIRNS
There is a famous encounter between JP Morgan and a young investor that is almost certainly apocryphal, but is still worth repeating.
Finding himself in the presence of the great financier, the young investor supposedly asked for Morgan’s opinion on the future direction of the stock market.
Legend has it that Morgan replied simply: “Young man, I believe the market is going to fluctuate.”
Stating the obvious
The answer may appear non-committal, but it is also wise. The stock market has always been unpredictable in the short term, and it is likely that it always will be.
One might say that Morgan was therefore stating the obvious. Yet, people are constantly convincing themselves otherwise.
Anybody who has read or watched the financial news will know that there is no shortage of ‘market experts’ willing to make predictions about where the market, and even individual shares, are going next.
If 2020 taught us anything, however, it should be little attention we should pay to anybody who thinks they can accurately foresee the future.
Most obviously, nobody making predictions about stock markets at the start of the year was factoring in the impact of a global pandemic. Although there was already news of a strange virus infecting huge numbers of people in China, nobody expected the worldwide impact it would have.
However, as one country after another announced lockdowns to protect people from Covid-19, it became obvious that this was going to be the most significant story of the year. All the predictions that had been made about markets were quickly rendered useless.
In those early months, the key lesson for investors was that the risks that have the biggest impact on markets are always those nobody sees coming.
The panicked selling in late February into March came about because nobody knew what was going to happen to economies, individual incomes and corporate profits. It was an illustration of just how powerful a force uncertainty can be.
Yet, this was not the most important lesson that investors could learn from the year overall.
Imagine that somebody had, in fact, been able to predict with perfect foresight what would happen in 2020. Not only could they forecast the massive and tragic impact of Covid-19, but also the political upheaval in the US, the brinkmanship around Brexit, and the growing international tensions between China and the west.
Imagine that they presented all of this to one of those ‘market experts’ at the start of the year, and asked them what impact all of this was likely to have on shares.
No rational person would have taken all of that and forecast confidently that the S&P 500 would end 2020 at a record high, having gained over 16% in 12 months.
In fact, reporting from Bloomberg in January last year shows that even when the ‘experts’ were expecting a normal, even reasonably positive year, they weren’t predicting double-digit stock market returns.
A long-term view
Yet, that is how the year turned out. Despite all of the turbulence of 2020, the S&P 500 had one of the 15 best years it has had since 1980.
This truly illustrates the inherent futility in trying to make predictions about the stock market in the short term.
Firstly, no one really knows what is coming. Even the most benign market conditions can be completely disrupted by something unforeseen.
But secondly, and even more significantly, even if one knew exactly what is going to happen in the world, there is no way of knowing how the market will react.
That is why the only way for a true investor to approach the stock market is by taking a long-term view. That is not five years, or even 10 years, but being invested over decades.
It is only over these extremely long periods that the stock market offers any certainty. That is that if you buy stocks and stay invested, you will always earn the benefits over time.
One of South Africa’s most respected financial journalists, PATRICK CAIRNS is a trusted commentator on the world of investments and the quirks of behavioural finance. Over more than a decade he has built a reputation for keeping the industry honest, and putting the interests of investors first.
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