Folks that watch the market very closely have a bias toward action. They become bored and restless and want to do something even when conditions are not favorable. This inclination leads to the most common advice in a bear market: to build positions by averaging into them.
In theory, this is a great idea. No one can time the market with great precision, so a good way to build a position is to make smaller buys over a more extended period of time and hopefully end up with a pretty good average entry price.
There is no disputing the wisdom of entering positions incrementally, especially in a poor market, but executing this strategy can be challenging. The most common mistake is to average into a position too big and fast. When positions are too large in a poor market, there is an increased risk of panic selling.
The problem is that market participants tend to have a very strong tendency toward premature action. They want to act, and they also want to try to time the exact lows, and the combination of the two tendencies is that they act too early.
Buying Later Rather Than Early Is Better
In previous columns, I have discussed my view that buying later rather than early is better. If you buy after a low has occurred, there are precise support levels, and there is more likely to be sustained upside momentum. When you buy into the teeth of a decline, you have to hope that the downside momentum is about to stop and reverse. When the market is oversold, there can be some good countertrend bounces, but it is extremely hard to predict market lows prospectively.
Averaging into positions in a bear market probably causes more significant damage to accounts than anything else. The big danger is that the timing is wrong, and the position becomes uncomfortably large and refuses to bounce. This evokes strong emotions and causes panic reactions.
It is also essential to recognize that there is a risk that maybe you are betting on the wrong stock. Not every stock that sinks in a bear market will rebound when conditions improve. If you keep adding as it goes lower, you are setting yourself up for a major loss. This is another reason why it is important to look for some strength before you add to a position.
I am a big fan of an incremental approach to trading and investing, but far too many people do it wrong. They are too focused on buying weakness and trying to time the bottom. You have to be willing to add into strength and not just on weakness. People tend to want to buy weakness because there is the illusion that they are getting a bargain, but in investing, you make the big money not by buying the low but by buying a sustained uptrend.
This is a critical point that most market participants overlook. Just because a stock has found a low doesn't mean it will go up very much. Buying low isn't a great strategy if there isn't any significant high to sell in a reasonably short time frame.
I highly recommend using the 'average in' strategy, but I would amend it in two ways. First, use short-term volatility to trade the position. If you catch a bounce, then reduce the position and look to rebuy as conditions improve. Second, look to build the core position on strength rather than weakness. Don't just endlessly buy as the price goes lower. Make the stock prove that it has some relative strength before you trust it.
Averaging into a position is standard bear market advice, but it has to be done right to be effective.