Attempting to Avoid a Recession: Fortune or Folly?

July 25, 2019

We’re often asked the question, “If there’s a recession on the horizon, what should investors do about it?”

Snapshot

  • Conventional wisdom says you should never time a recession. We explored this by examining thousands of hypothetical scenarios.
  • Our analysis showed that the odds are not in our favor when attempting to avoid losses associated with recessions.
  • It’s important to remember that maintaining a disciplined investment strategy can help weather any market storm that may be on the horizon.

We’re often asked the question, “If there’s a recession on the horizon, what should investors do about it?” Inside the circles of investment professionals, conventional wisdom says you should never try to time a recession. Getting the timing right on not just one major decision point, but two — when to exit the market and when to reenter — is both ambitious and risky. Yet we can’t help but sympathize. It’s natural to wonder whether there is some way to avoid the pain of a downturn. Is there a realistic basis to think that trying to time a recession is a chance worth taking?

To explore this possibility, we looked at the last 13 recessions dating back to 1937 — and considered a range of sell-and-buy scenarios surrounding their official start and end dates, as determined by the National Bureau of Economic Research (or NBER, a private, non-profit, non-partisan organization). The timing of our hypothetical decisions to sell out of the market and buy back into the market varied by up to eight quarters before and after each actual recession start and end date. This gave us a grand total of 2,577 scenarios to consider, as highlighted in Exhibit 1.

Exhibit 1: Endless possibilities

Chart 1: Endless Possibilities

Recession Start and End Date plus/minus up to 8 quarters

While eight quarters may seem like a fairly wide margin of error, keep in mind that many of today’s investors have been anxious about recession since 2018 — a recession that has yet to arrive in 2019 and is, in our view, still nearly two years away (see our most recent Economic Outlook for the rationale). That’s our best guess anyway. But it’s anyone’s guess really, and that’s the point. Also, based on the 13 economic cycles we considered, expansions have ranged anywhere from one year to 10 years, with a standard deviation of 10 quarters; it therefore seems that plus-or-minus eight quarters is a reasonable starting point.

But for the sake of argument, we also narrowed the margin of error to just plus-or-minus four quarters (rather than eight), putting the spotlight on 853 scenarios — a smaller subset of the 2,577 scenarios. To assess the outcome of these recession-dodging scenarios, we used the S&P 500 Index as “the market” and we assumed that cash gets stuffed under that mattress, earning no return, when out of the market. We found this smaller group of 853 scenarios averaged a loss of nearly 10% relative to remaining fully invested through the downturn. Only about one-third of attempted dodges were successful (producing a positive return relative to staying fully invested). And the magnitude of losses, on average, exceeded that of gains by a multiple of 1.5 times.

On average, it turns out that market timing is a losing strategy — even when reducing the margin of error.

What can we learn from these hypothetical attempts to avoid being hurt by a recession? On average, it turns out that market timing is a losing strategy — even when reducing the margin of error. In fact, further shrinking the margin of error to plus-or-minus two quarters (rather than four) left us with the same lesson: Investors tend to be more successful when they remain fully invested throughout recessions. Exhibit 2 shows the average returns for different margins of error.

Exhibit 2: No good time to market time

Chart 3: No good time to market

Analysis uses official business cycle dates, as determined by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), and compares cumulative returns of the S&P 500 Index over various time periods surrounding the 13 recessions since 1937. S&P 500 Index returns prior to 3/4/1957 provided by Bloomberg based on S&P 500 Index methodology. Source: NBER, Bloomberg, SEI. As of 5/31/2019.

Nobody can predict the future

If any reasonable forecasting ability exists in the world of investing, it probably resides within the economic cycle rather than the market cycle. The bravest of economic forecasters may suggest that an economic cycle is relatively well-behaved, exhibiting steadier trends and clearer relationships between macroeconomic variables. However, even if we accept this to be true, predicting its turning points is particularly challenging. As one macroeconomist has put it, “The record of failure to predict recessions is virtually unblemished.” This was the sentiment that Prakash Loungani expressed in his 2000 research report for the International Monetary Fund, “How Accurate Are Private Sector Forecasts: Cross-Country Evidence From Consensus Forecasts of Output Growth”—which he then echoed in subsequent updates: “Can economists forecast recessions? Some evidence from the Great Recession,” Ahir and Loungani, 2014; “How Well Do Economists Forecast Recessions?,” An, Jalles and Loungani, 2018.

If economic cycles are difficult to predict, market cycles must be next to impossible. Relative to macroeconomic indicators such as gross domestic product, inflation and employment, the behavior of financial markets can be faster-moving, noisier, more driven by sentiment, and detached from economic fundamentals. Even if we could make accurate recession forecasts, it remains unclear whether we could profit from our predictions (as illustrated by the 3% average loss across 13 recessions depicted in Exhibit 2). And the speed and efficiency with which markets incorporate new information unfortunately make it increasingly difficult to forecast any financial variable that would have more direct linkage to potential profits. It’s a “catch 22” of financial markets: The clearer it is that you could profit from an accurate forecast of a financial variable, the more difficult it is to accurately forecast in the first place. Essentially, to successfully time markets, you have to be a better forecaster than the market as a whole. That’s a very high bar.

Suffice it to say, we think our analysis is more than fair; examining various windows that surround actual recession dates already builds in a generous amount of hindsight. When attempting to avoid the losses associated with recessions, the odds are simply not in our favor. Exhibit 3 helps to bring this into focus.

Exhibit 3: An Uneven Playing Field

Exhibit 3: An Uneven Playing Field

Analysis uses official business-cycle dates, as determined by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), and compares cumulative returns of the S&P 500 Index over various time periods surrounding the 13 recessions dating back to 1937. S&P 500 Index returns prior to 3/4/1957 provided by Bloomberg, based on S&P 500 Index methodology. Source: NBER, Bloomberg, SEI. As of 5/31/2019.

Looking at the same 2,577 scenarios and subsets thereof, Exhibit 3 shows that the majority of attempts to avoid a recession leave investors worse off than if they had simply stayed put. And, importantly, the magnitude of the loss when you get it wrong far outweighs the gain if you somehow manage to beat the odds and get it right: On average, losses are larger than gains (relative to staying fully invested) by a multiple of about two times in many cases. Not only are there steep consequences to getting the timing wrong, the rewards do not appear to be adequate compensation for the risk.

Consider, for example, the roughly 1,600 scenarios that got the timing right within plus-or-minus six quarters: We lost over two-thirds of the time, with an average loss of almost 30%. In the remaining one-third of positive scenarios, we averaged a gain of about 15% — half the magnitude of average losses.

Staring at a chart of past performance, it’s deceptively easy to think that market peaks and troughs are obvious. The influence of hindsight can easily start to create the perception that they’re also easy to spot going forward. But identifying tops and bottoms as markets are moving in real time is a completely different story. It’s very difficult and can be costly, as opportunity costs of missing late-cycle returns or potentially sharp rebounds can stack up quickly. (We explored this at the end of 2018 in our paper, “The U.S. Bull Market: Is it Time to Get Out?”) Exhibit 4 shows late-cycle returns in the two years leading up to each of the last 13 recessions.

Exhibit 4: Opportunity or Opportunity Cost?

Exhibit 4: Opportunity or Opportunity Cost?

Analysis uses official business-cycle dates, as determined by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER). S&P 500 Index returns prior to 3/4/1957 provided by Bloomberg, based on S&P 500 Index methodology. Source: NBER, Bloomberg, SEI. As of 5/31/2019.

Some other interesting observations from the analysis:

  • If we followed a reactive strategy for which we were two quarters late on both the exit and re-entry, the average loss was 23%. This is an intuitive strategy to test, given the conventional way of identifying a recession by observing two consecutive quarters of negative gross domestic product readings.
  • If we sold six quarters ahead of a recession (perhaps roughly where we sit today), the average loss across all re-entry scenarios within just plus-or-minus two quarters of the recession end date was 16%.
  • Generally, performance has varied inversely with length of time out of the market, which also means the window to get it right is quite narrow. We do not find this surprising given that markets have a positive expected return over time.

Staying Diversified, Staying Invested

To more grizzled investors, we may be preaching to the choir. But to the more skeptical (or just plain curious) among us, we hope this analysis will provide renewed confidence that maintaining a disciplined investment strategy can help weather any storm that may be on the horizon. For those who manage to stay the course, the data show the playing field is tilted in their favor.

We’re not suggesting that the answer to our original question is “do nothing.” In fact, actively-managed portfolios have already budgeted for a prudent amount of room to maneuver without straying too far from their strategic positioning. And, more importantly, if a portfolio has somehow drifted toward a more concentrated mix of investments over the course of an expansion, taking the opportunity to diversify may help mitigate recession-related losses. When signs of a downturn emerge, it can also serve as an important reminder for investors to review their goals and investment objectives — making sure that portfolios are taking the minimum amount of risk possible, while remaining appropriately positioned in pursuit of those goals and objectives.

Index definition

The S&P 500 Index is an unmanaged, market-capitalization-weighted index comprising 500 of the largest publicly traded U.S. companies and is considered representative of the broad U.S. stock market.

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Important Information

This material represents an assessment of the market environment at a specific point in time and is not intended to be a forecast of future events, or a guarantee of future results. This information should not be relied upon by the reader as research or investment advice and is intended for educational purposes only.

There are risks involved with investing, including loss of principal.

Information provided by SEI Investments Management Corporation, a wholly owned subsidiary of SEI Investments Company. Neither SEI nor its subsidiaries is affiliated with your financial advisor.

Index returns are for illustrative purposes only and do not represent actual fund performance. Index performance returns do not reflect any management fees, transaction costs or expenses. Indexes are unmanaged and one cannot invest directly in an index. Past performance does not guarantee future results.