By TODD KOCKELMAN
An old stock market dictum says that spring is for profit-taking, or at least a time to reduce your exposure to equities.
In the classic market psychology, you "sell in May and go away," with the belief that stock prices will plateau or retreat in spring and summer, and then you return to stocks in the fall, taking advantage of bargains and factors that will encourage a hot fourth quarter.
In the last several years, we have seen all kinds of stock market behavior, some of it extraordinary. So is there any credence to this approach now?
The argument for "going away." Over the last 12 months, investors who held to this belief made out pretty well. From May 1 through Nov. 1, 2011, the Dow lost 6.7 percent. From November 2011 through April 27, it gained 10.7 percent.1,2
If we open a historical window – specifically, "The Stock Trader’s Almanac" – back to 1926, we see the S&P 500 rising 4.3 percent on average during May through October and gaining an average of 7.1 percent from November through April.3
Unsurprisingly, STA editor-in-chief Jeff Hirsch is an advocate of the "sell in May" approach. So is Sam Stovall, who is of course the chief equity strategist at S&P Capital IQ. As Stovall just noted to "Forbes," since 1945 the S&P 500 has gained just 1.2 percent during the average May through October run yet advanced 6.9 percent during the average November through April period.1,3
While these numbers are pretty compelling, you know what they say about statistics.
Is the argument principally flawed? If you do sell in May, where do you put your money after dumping those stocks? The strategy assumes you know of a better place – an alternative to equities offering greater yield and less risk.
Larry Swedroe, director of research for Buckingham Asset Management, recently told CBS MoneyWatch that the "sell in May" approach amounted to "pure randomness." He made his claim by running numbers in calendar years from 1950 through 2007 with the hypothesis of reinvesting money pulled out of equities into 30-year Treasuries during the assumed 6-month market lull. According to his research, the "buy and hold" crowd would have outperformed the "sell in May" crowd in the time frames 1950-2007, 1980-2007 and 1990-2007, with the "sell in May" adherents triumphing in the time frames of 1960-2007, 1970-2007 and 2000-2007.3,4
The case for staying in the market. Even if the performance numbers mentioned in the fourth, fifth and sixth paragraphs of this article were absolutely predictable annually, what would the compelling argument be for ditching stocks? Gains would still occur in spring and summer; they would just be lesser gains.
Let’s go from hypothesis to reality, specifically what is occurring right now. An investor wanting a divorce from risk for the next six months could decide to bail from stocks and put the assets into short-term Treasuries and money market accounts. Would it be worth it? Maybe not. According to Bankrate.com, 6-month Treasuries were yielding 0.14 percent as of April 27 and money market accounts were yielding 0.46 percent. Throw in brokerage charges and taxes you might incur from selling, and getting in and out of equities may look less attractive.1
Once you’re out, when do you get back in? What if mid-October brings a rally? Do you jump in and buy? What if the bears show up at the start of November? How long do you wait for what might be the market low?
Moreover, who’s to say that U.S. economic indicators (or even global ones) might be better than expected this summer? What if the EU arranges a manageable fix for Spain’s debt dilemma? What if the real estate market shows signs of heating up in the coming quarters? What if the Fed opts for more easing?
If the "sell in May" strategy sounds more like market timing to you than anything else, it does have some history supporting it – history worth considering. The fact remains, however, that history is no barometer of future stock market performance.
2 – money.cnn.com/data/markets/dow/ [4/27/12]
3 – www.cbsnews.com/8301-32778_162-57423130/why-sell-in-may-doesnt-work-for-investors/ [4/27/12]