Dollar cost averaging (DCA) is an investment strategy that aims to reduce the impact of volatility on large purchases of financial assets such as equities. Dollar cost averaging is also called the constant dollar plan (in the US), pound-cost averaging (in the UK), and, irrespective of currency, unit cost averaging, incremental trading, or the cost average effect.
By dividing the total sum to be invested in the market (e.g., $100,000) into equal amounts put into the market at regular intervals (e.g., $1,000 per week over 100 weeks), DCA seeks to reduce the risk of incurring a substantial loss resulting from investing the entire lump sum just before a fall in the market. Dollar cost averaging is not always the most profitable way to invest a large sum, but it is alleged to minimize downside risk. The technique is said to work in markets undergoing temporary declines because it exposes only part of the total sum to the decline. The technique is so called because of its potential for reducing the average cost of shares bought. As the number of shares that can be bought for a fixed amount of money varies inversely with their price, DCA effectively leads to more shares being purchased when their price is low and fewer when they are expensive. As a result, DCA possibly can lower the total average cost per share of the investment, giving the investor a lower overall cost for the shares purchased over time.
However, there is also evidence against DCA. Finance journalist Dan Kadlec of Time summarized the relevant research in 2012, writing: “The superior long-term returns of lump sum investing [over DCA] have been acknowledged for more than 30 years.” Similarly, decades of empirical research on DCA have found that it generally does not function as promoted and is usually a sub-optimal investment strategy.
Some investment advisors who acknowledge the sub-optimality of DCA nevertheless advocate it as a behavioral tool that makes it easier for some investors to start investing a lump sum. They contrast the relative benefits of DCA versus never investing the lump sum.
In dollar cost averaging, the investor decides on two parameters: the fixed amount of money to invest each time and the time horizon over which all of the investments are made. With a shorter time horizon, the strategy behaves more like lump sum investing. One study found that the best time horizon when investing in the stock market in terms of balancing return and risk is 6 or 12 months.
One key component of maximizing profits is to include the strategy of buying during a downtrending market, using a scaled formula to buy more as the price falls; then, as the trend shifts to a higher-priced market, to use a scaled plan to sell. Using this strategy, one can profit from the relationship between the value of a currency and a commodity or stock.
The pros and cons of DCA have long been a subject for debate among both commercial and academic specialists in investment strategies. While some financial advisors, such as Suze Orman, claim that DCA reduces exposure to certain forms of financial risk associated with making a single large purchase, others, such as Timothy Middleton, claim DCA is nothing more than a marketing gimmick and not a sound investment strategy. The financial costs and benefits of DCA have also been examined in many studies using real market data, typically revealing that the strategy does not deliver on its promises and is not an ideal investment strategy.
Recent research has highlighted the behavioural economic aspects of DCA, which allows investors to make a trade-off between the regret caused by not making the most of a rising market and that caused by investing into a falling market, which are known to be asymmetric. Middleton claims that DCA helps investors enter the market, investing more over time than they might otherwise be willing to do all at once. Others supporting the strategy suggest the aim of DCA is to invest a set amount, the same amount one would have had one invested a lump sum.
The original popularized definition for dollar cost averaging came from Benjamin Graham’s The Intelligent Investor. It was defined as “investing a set dollar amount in the same investment at fixed intervals over time.” In recent years, however, a second definition for dollar cost averaging has arisen. Namely, that dollar cost averaging is a contrasting investment strategy to lump sum investing. Whereas lump sum invests a large amount of money today, dollar cost averaging spreads that lump sum over a period of time.
This confusion of terms is perpetuated by some articles (AARP, Motley Fool) and specifically noted by others (Vanguard, clarified in a later paper). The argued weakness of DCA arises in the context of having the option to invest a lump sum, but choosing to use DCA instead. If the market is expected to trend upward over time, DCA can conversely be expected to face a statistical headwind: the investor is choosing to invest at a future time rather than today, even though future prices are expected to be higher. But most individual investors, especially in the context of retirement investing, never face a choice between lump-sum investing and DCA investing with a significant amount of money. The disservice arises when these investors take the criticisms of DCA to mean that timing the market is better than continuously and automatically investing a portion of their income as they earn it. For example, stopping one’s retirement investment contributions during a declining market on account of the argued weaknesses of DCA would indicate a misunderstanding of those arguments.
Continuous automatic investment is more like lump-sum investing in that the investor invests the funds as soon as they are available, in contrast to DCA where the investor withholds available funds from the market.
The weakness of DCA investing applies when considering the investment of a large lump sum; DCA would postpone investing most of that sum until later dates. Given that the historical market value of a balanced portfolio has increased over time, starting today tends to be better than waiting until tomorrow. However, for the average retirement investor’s situation, where only small sums are available at any given time, the historical market trend would support a policy of continuous, automatic investing without regard to market direction.
- ^de:Durchschnittskosteneffekt, Retrieved 2009-01-12
- ^Chartered Retirement Planning Counselor Professional Designation Program, College for Financial Planners, Volume 9, page 64
- ^Kadlac, Dan. Is Dollar Cost Averaging Dumb? Time, Nov. 15, 2012, accessed 11 October 2016
- ^ Jump up to:ab Constantinides, G.M. A Note on the Suboptimality of Dollar-Cost Averaging as an Investment Policy. The Journal of Financial and Quantitative Analysis, Vol. 14, No. 2 (Jun., 1979), pp. 443-450
- ^ Jump up to:ab Greenhut, J.G. Mathematical Illusion: Why Dollar-Cost Averaging Does Not Work. Journal of Financial Planning, Vol. 19, Issue 10 (October 2006), pp. 76-83
- ^John Knight and Lewis Mandell, “Nobody Gains from Dollar Cost Averaging: Analytical, Numerical and Empirical Results,” Financial Services Review, 2(1), pp. 51-61, 1992
- ^Statman, Meir (18 June 2015). “Dollar Cost Averaging: A Behavioral View”. Wealthfront. Retrieved 25 November 2020.
- ^Jones, Bill. “Do Not Dollar-Cost-Average for More than Twelve Months”. Retrieved 2009-01-05.
- ^“Dollar cost averaging graph”. Retrieved 2014-08-28.
- ^Explaining the riddle of dollar cost averaging Hayley, S Cass Business School report 2010
- ^“Archived copy”. Archived from the original on 2009-01-01. Retrieved 2009-02-13.
- ^Middleton, Timothy (2005-01-04). “The costly myth of dollar-cost averaging”. Archived from the original on September 10, 2005. Retrieved 2009-01-05.
- ^Knight, J.R. and Mandell, L. Nobody Gains From Dollar Cost Averaging: Analytical, Numerical And Empirical Results. Financial Services Review, Vol. 2, Issue 1 (1992/93 pp. 51-61
- ^ University of Buffalo report
- ^“Dollar Cost Averaging: A Technique that Drastically Reduces Market Risk”. Retrieved 2009-03-22.
- ^“The hidden benefit of an automatic investing program”. Retrieved 2009-05-02.
- ^“Don’t Make a Million-Dollar Mistake”. Retrieved 2009-05-02.
- ^“Dollar-cost averaging just means taking risk later” (PDF). p. 4. Retrieved 2013-01-28.
- ^“Invest now or temporarily hold your cash?” (PDF). Vanguard Research. 2016. p. 2. Retrieved 4 April 2020.
- ^“Long Term Returns (a survey of studies)”. Retrieved 2011-03-13.
Ofer Abarbanel is a 25 year securities lending broker and expert who has advised many Israeli regulators, among them the Israel Tax Authority, with respect to stock loans, repurchase agreements and credit derivatives. Founder TBIL.co STATX Fund.