On Baseball and Market Timing

It looks easy when you see ballplayers at the stadium or on television catching a fly ball. It seems this is what we did when we were kids. It’s really, “We could be down there. There isn’t that much separating me from Bo Jackson or George Brett. I could be there. I could do that.” You have the illusion. Baseball fosters illusions. Baseball fosters hopes. Baseball inflates us. Baseball lies to us seductively and we know we’re being seduced and we don’t complain.

-John Thorn, Baseball, 1994

With baseball season delayed due to the pandemic, I recently spent a relaxing Sunday evening watching an episode of Ken Burn’s legendary documentary “Baseball.” The above quote struck me for a two reasons.

  1. Baseball DOES look easy, yet I doubt many non-professionals could make contact with a slow 90 MPH fastball even if they had 50 chances. Even fewer people could hit the ball fair (instead of fouling it off) and probably none could do it consistently. I haven’t even mentioned pitches with movement yet, like a curveball or a slider. The same holds true for sports like tennis or golf. What amateur can return a top-ranked player’s serve or who can sink long puts with any consistency? Some things are a lot harder than they look.
  2. Timing the market is a lot harder than it looks. I won’t go into why this is, except to say that it is questionable whether anyone can do it and the professional consensus is that it should not be attempted. Yet, like baseball, many observers believe that they can do it. Below are what some of the most successful investors have to say:

First of all … an investor must understand that they probably will not be able to play the game well. They probably will not be able to decide how to move in and out of things. In order to be successful in the markets, it is more difficult than getting a gold medal in the Olympics. You wouldn’t think about competing in the Olympics, but everybody thinks they can compete in the markets. But there’s more money competing. It’s like a zero-sum game and there’s more money doing it, and the worst thing you could do is think you can time all of these movements. I guarantee you, the game is a tough game. We put hundreds of millions of dollars into the game every year. And it’s tough. So what the individual investor needs to do is know how to diversify well. So the word that I would — Know how to diversify well and in a balanced way. ”

-Ray Dalio, TED Connects, 2020

I never have the faintest idea what the stock market is going to do in the next six months, or the next year, or the next two.”

-Warren Buffet, Fortune, 2001

…if I have noticed anything over these 60 years on Wall Street, it is that people do not succeed in forecasting what’s going to happen to the stock market.”

-Benjamin Graham, interview, 1976

Market timing, defined as a short-term bet against long-term policy targets, requires being right in the short run about factors that are impossible to predict in the short run.”

-David Swensen, Pioneering Portfolio Management, 2000