Investing is a pursuit best liberated from short-term analysis that tends to mislead more than edify. But 2016 was one of those rare years that provided a lifetime’s worth of education in a brief period.
Here are the three big investing lessons of 2016 that can be applied to good effect over the long term:
1) Discipline works.
January was greeted with panic-inspiring headlines like, “Worst Opening Week in History.” While hyperbolic, the truth in headlines such as these may have been more than enough to scare off investors frustrated by seemingly unrewarded discipline in recent years.
With threats of international instability (Brexit) and domestic volatility (historically wacky election cycle), there were ready reasons to cash in even the most well-conceived investment plan, opting for observer status over participant. But to do so would’ve been a huge mistake.
Indeed, the S&P 500 logged an impressive 11.9% for the year, with small- and value-oriented indices pointing even higher.
2) Diversification works.
How can a simple, balanced 60/40 portfolio have better outcomes than investors who try to “beat the market”? Through diversification. In 2016, a portfolio that invested 40% in watching-paint-dry short-term U.S. Treasuries — and that also diversified its equity holdings among asset classes that evidence indicates expose investors to outperformance — had a good chance of matching or even topping the S&P 500’s return for 2016.
Ordinarily, translating any single year’s performance into a lifelong investment strategy would be a regrettable mistake, but in 2016 the market mirrored the historical evidence suggesting that certain factors direct us to particular investment disciplines worthy of emulation. Or in simpler terms, stocks make more than bonds, small-cap stocks make more than large-cap stocks, and value stocks make more than growth — and it may be a good idea to reflect this in your portfolio.
3) Prognostication doesn’t work and punditry doesn’t help.
“Man plans and God laughs,” according to a Yiddish proverb. No, I’d never attribute divinity to the imperfect market, but I’m happy to attribute fallible humanity to those who attempt to divine the market’s next move.
Every year, Wall Street oracles discern what the market will do through notoriously errant forecasts. Every day, an endless stream of talking heads rationalize the meaning of past market moves and presume to postulate its future direction. More often than not, they’re just plain wrong.
Or, as my colleague Larry Swedroe bluntly advises, “You should ignore all market forecasts because no one knows anything.”
Great Britain’s exit from the European Union was supposed to unhinge the global economy, but most have already forgotten the meaning of Brexit. The market then sent clear signs that it preferred one presidential candidate over the other, followed by a rash of recessionary predictions in the case of an upset. But the markets processed the monumental election surprise before the next day’s market close — doing precisely the opposite of what the “smart money” said it would do.
I don’t mean to suggest that the market will always ignore macroeconomic events and political surprises in search of higher ground. But.
The market is going to do whatever the heck it wants, regardless of the balderdash-du-jour pundits and prognosticators say it will do. It will peak when it “should” plummet and it will sink when it “should” sail.
The market’s most predictable trait is its unpredictability. But that, of course, is why we also expect a higher long-term reward for enduring the market’s short-term risk.
Again, there is more danger in drawing too many conclusions from a single year’s worth of market history, but these lessons learned in 2016 are worthy of application every year.
This commentary originally appeared January 14 on Forbes.com