It is a fact that we can use the market’s trend as an ally in the buying and selling of our stock positions. This is possible because the market signals when it is starting a new bullish trend or a new bearish trend. You can know whether or not the market will support you if you bet on a stock rising, or on a stock declining. Investors can learn to time the market profitably.

A few years ago, there were many news articles about “Market Timing” and the notion that it is illegal. In their ignorance, reporters blurred the difference between illegal and legal “timing.” The illegal form of timing was in reference to the way some portfolio managers bought mutual funds. Legal fund investing involves making purchases before the market closes (when the closing price of the fund is not yet known). You purchase with the knowledge that the price of fund shares will be determined at the close of market. It is illegal to buy mutual fund shares after 4 p.m. at 4 p.m. prices. The illegal activity that was in the headlines involved “investors” doing just that. They were being granted yesterday’s prices on securities known to have already moved up overseas. Rather than market-timing the correct term for the activity is late-trading. In describing this activity, then New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer said “Late trading is unambiguously criminal.” Actually, there is no real timing going on except that shares were bought late at earlier prices. For example, they lock in a 4 p.m. price of a U.S.-based fund (after 4 p.m.) that holds foreign shares whose prices are “stale”–that is, they were current at the time of the foreign market’s prior close but were not yet marked up by the fund to reflect market gains after the foreign market re-opened. Then they sold those shares at the marked-up prices. It is illegal for funds to permit these “under-the-table” transactions. To do so is to cheat other investors.

However, true “market timing” is not illegal. In fact, it is highly regarded among some professional investors as an effective way of improving risk-adjusted returns in portfolios of mutual funds and stocks. I have used these techniques and have found them to be quite effective. Legitimate “market timing” involves the use of probability models and various algorithms to make investments when risk is low (or when the probability of continuance of a new up-move is high), and sell them when risk is high (or the probability of continuance of a new down-move is high). That is, market timing is a legitimate tool used for “timing” purchases and sales with a goal of optimizing risk-adjusted returns for a portfolio. Its roots are in models of momentum, probability, and statistical analysis. It is not the same thing as the procedures known as “fast-trading” or “rapid trading.” Theoretically, positions could be held for many months or even years. This form of “timing” can be very profitable and of lower risk than buying and holding through a market’s gyrations…and it is legal.

Most professionals warn investors against market timing. That’s because most investors haven’t got a clue about how to do it correctly. They feel the market is going up so they invest. They are afraid the market is going to fall so they sell everything. Most of the time, they sell when they should be buying or buy when they should be selling. For the vast majority of investors, market timing is a road map to disaster. This tendency to market time is also manifested even among some investors who hire professional advisers. They call their advisor and say “take me out of the market…I don’t feel good about it.” In doing this, they are overriding the advisor’s disciplines and models and imposing on the investment process the rule of emotion (trading disciplines can be designed to make a profit whether the market is trending up or down). The author received calls like this when he was in the investment advisory business. Emotions are almost always out of sync with what should be done in the market. Those who act this way are attempting to time the market without the tools necessary to do the job right. Even though the advisor may have the tools and discipline to do the job right, the client says, “don’t use them…we’ll use my feelings instead.” This kind of investor is like the pilot who finds himself flying in the fog. Rather than using his instruments (the best way to get to a destination under the circumstances), he decides to ignore his instruments and fly by the “seat of his pants.” The outcome is almost certain to be disastrous. A pilot in the fog can feel that the airplane is rising when it is actually flying level. To compensate, he is likely to put the plane into a shallow dive, and end up smashed on the side of a hill. He may feel the plane is veering to the left when it is actually veering slightly to the right. To compensate, he may head out over the ocean rather than toward his destination. By the time he realizes he is over water, he may be too low on fuel to make it back. In the same way, people who invest by how they feel are not using the proper guidance instruments. They underestimate what it takes to move in and out of the market advantageously. Professionals use instruments (indicators) to guide their timing of purchases and sales. Advisers, traders, and investors with the most consistently profitable transaction record rarely base any market decision on their feeling about the market.

An example of a single indicator that might be used in concert with others involves two simple moving averages. More specifically it involves the 10-day and 20-day simple moving averages of a market index. A person would simply watch for the 20-day moving average to rise after the 10-day moving average has crossed it to the upside. The fact that the 10-day average is above the 20-day average tells you that the shorter-term trend is supporting that of the longer-term trend. That is, there is not currently a significant trend developing that is counter to that of the 20-day average and that might cause the direction of the 20-day average to reverse. A person could use the opposite configuration of these moving averages to signal that a bearish stance is appropriate. Of course, this moving average crossover system is an example of only one of the tools that might be employed. To determine whether the market will support a bullish or bearish stance on investments, a variety of tools could be used.