OK, this is totally in the “don’t try this at home” department, because people a lot smarter than me have tried to do this and failed miserably. With that disclaimer out of the way…
I recently made the decision that I needed to rollover the funds in my old employer’s 401k plan (not the one I just got laid off from, the one I quit four years ago). After careful research, I actually went against my previous advice and opted for a target-date retirement fund from Vanguard. I was very impressed with the asset mix and expense ratio of the fund, and in an effort to simply my holdings a bit I deemed it a good investment option. The one wrinkle in my plan to transfer the funds to a rollover IRA was that my old custodian, Fidelity, would only send the funds via a check made out to the new custodian mailed to my home address, which I would need to mail in to Vanguard once I had received it. Believing I could turn the check around quickly and I wouldn’t miss that much market action in the process, I went ahead with the rollover and had the check sent.
Well, mother nature had other plans for my rollover timeline. I made the request to withdraw the funds on September 10, three days prior to Hurricane Ike making landfall here in the Houston area. A result of the hurricane was that we were without power for nearly two weeks, meaning I could not go online to complete the application for the new account at Vanguard and print the necessary paperwork to mail in until September 26. Adding in the time required to ship the paperwork, the check was not received until today, September 29. Per Vanguard’s policy, the new investment would be purchased based on the closing price on the day the check is received.
Luckily for me in this instance (and not considering the damage done to the rest of my retirement funds that we didn’t rollover into this account), this means the investment will be purchased after today’s horrific 7.59% decline. Assuming that I had been able to invest the funds on the same day of the withdrawal request, I would have been able to purchase shares of the Vanguard Target Retirement 2045 fund at a price of $12.97 per share. Purchasing after today’s close I am purchasing at a price of $11.81 per share, meaning that I was inadvertantly able to avoid a loss of 9.10% simply by not being invested for about the last two weeks. Considering the amount of the rollover, this means I was able to avoid a loss of over $4,200.
Like I said before, do not try this at home. This was purely dumb luck. A lot of really smart people have tried before to time the market and guess high and lows and have failed badly at it. As stomach-turning as it can be, the best strategy is just to stay in the market. Yes, you may suffer losses, but the historical trend is for long-term gains, which you are likely to miss out on by trying to time your trades just right.