Time Arbitrage: Investing Vs. Speculation

by: Wade Slome, CFA

Originally Published December 17, 2016

The clock is ticking, and for many investors that makes the allure of short-term speculation more appealing than long-term investing. Of course, the definition of "long-term" is open for interpretation. For some traders, long term can mean a week, a day, or an hour. Fortunately, for those that understand the benefits of time arbitrage, the existence of short-term speculators creates volatility, and with volatility comes opportunity for long-term investors.

What is time arbitrage? The concept is not new and has been addressed by the likes of Louis Lowenstein, Ralph Wanger, Bill Miller, and Christopher Mayer. Essentially, time arbitrage is exploiting the benefits of moving against the herd and buying assets that are temporarily out of favor because of short-term fears, despite healthy long-term fundamentals. The reverse holds true as well. Short-term euphoria never lasts forever, and experienced investors understand that continually following the herd will eventually lead you to the slaughterhouse. Thinking independently, and going against the grain is ultimately what leads to long-term profits.

Successfully executing time arbitrage is easier said than done, but if you have a systematic, disciplined process in place that assists you in identifying panic and euphoria points, then you are well on your way to a lucrative investment career.

Winning via Long-Term Investing

Legg Mason has a relevant graphical representation of time arbitrage:

Source: Legg Mason Funds Management

The first key point to realize from the chart is that in the short run, it is very difficult to distinguish between gambling/speculating and true investing. In the short run (left side of graph), speculators can make nearly as much profits as long-term investors. As famed long-term investor Benjamin Graham astutely states:

In the short-run, the market is a voting machine. In the long-run, it's a weighing machine."

Or in other words, speculative strategies can periodically outperform in the short run (above the horizontal mean return line), while thoughtful long-term investing can underperform. Like a gambler/speculator dumping money into a slot machine in Las Vegas, the gambler may win in the short run, but over the long run, the "house" always wins.

Financial Institutions are notorious for throwing up strategies on the wall like strands of spaghetti. If some short-term outperforming products randomly stick, then financial institutions often market the bejesus out of the funds to unsuspecting investors, until the strategies eventually fall off the wall.

Beware o' Short-Termism

I believe Jack Gray of Grantham, Mayo, Van Otterloo got it right when he said, "Excessive short-termism results in permanent destruction of wealth, or at least permanent transfer of wealth." What's led to the excessive short-termism in the financial markets (see Short-Termism article)? For starters, technology and information are spreading faster than ever with the proliferation of the internet, creating a sense of urgency (often a false sense) to react or trade on that information. With 3 billion people online and 5 billion people operating mobile phones globally, no wonder investors are getting overwhelmed with a massive amount of short-term data.

Next, trading costs have also declined dramatically in recent decades to the point where brokerage firms are offering free trades on various products. Lower trading costs mean less friction, which often leads to excessive and pointless, profit-reducing trading in reaction to meaningless news (i.e., "noise"). Lastly, the genesis of ETFs (exchange-traded funds) has induced a speculative fervor, among those investors dreaming to participate in the latest hot trend. Usually, by the time an ETF has been created, any exploitable trend has already been exploited. In other words, the low-hanging profit fruits have already been picked, making long-term excess returns tougher to achieve.

There is rarely a scarcity of short-term fears. Currently, concerns vary between Federal Reserve monetary policy, political legislation, Middle East terrorism, foreign exchange rates, inflation, and other fear-induced issues du jour. Markets may be overbought in the short run, and/or an unforeseen issue may derail the current bull market advance. However, for investors who can put on their long-term thinking caps and understand the concept of time arbitrage, opportunistically buying oversold ideas and selling over-hyped ones should lead to significant profits.

Disclosure: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients hold positions in certain exchange traded funds (ETFs), but at the time of publishing had no direct position in any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC Contact page.

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