You’ve probably heard the adage “sell in May and go away.” It’s a nice little rhyme, and it does have a basis in the market’s seasonal patterns. Over time, the stock market as a whole has typically been weaker from May to October than it has from November through April. Going back to 1950, the Dow is just about flat May to October but up over 7% on average from November to April.
On the other hand, that’s certainly not the pattern every year, and bailing out of stocks altogether for such a long period of time is tricky. For one thing, you have to figure out the right time to get back in. And this year in particular, there’s another historical trend at work that muddies the waters: the Presidential election. Going back to 1950, the S&P 500 has moved higher in the last seven months of Presidential election years 13 out of 15 times, according to Stock Trader’s Almanac.
Also important, first-quarter earnings-reporting season, which lingers into May, has been solid so far, with nearly three-quarters of companies beating expectations. In addition, housing, which was the biggest cause of our economic problems, looks close to bottoming out, European debt contagion risks remain largely contained at the moment, and anemic interest rates are supportive of demand for stocks — many of which pay higher dividend yields than CDs, savings accounts and bonds.
My strategy is simple: I like to make sure I’m properly diversified and that my portfolio is in balance with my desired allocations. I also make sure the stocks I own are the strongest opportunities with specific catalysts in place to drive the stocks higher.
That said, “sell in May” isn’t a bad way to go for stocks you’re not sure about. As an example, let me share a few of the stocks on a list I just put together for subscribers to my GameChangers advisory service.
Many of these stocks have shrinking margins, bleak revenue outlooks, face increased competition and could be affected by a cautious consumer as well. At best, I expect them to be dead money for a long time; at worst, they could drag your portfolio down.
Stock to Sell #1: CMG
Chipotle Mexican Grill (NYSE:CMG) has had a great run — up 200% over the last two years. But the company now faces a number of challenges. One is potential market saturation, which would lead to a decline in its record revenue growth. There’s also a new emphasis among consumers on homemade meals as well as upgraded supermarket takeout food.
In short, Chipotle must deal with labor-cost pressures, unstable commodity/food expenses and customers who are concerned about prices. International growth is Chipotle’s big plan, but it’s not clear yet if its spicier foods will translate as well in international markets as menus of competitors such as McDonald’s (NYSE:MCD) and KFC (NYSE:YUM).
Stock to Sell #2: DNKN
Dunkin Brands Group (NASDAQ:DNKN) has put up some good numbers recently, but I’m leery of several things, including the company’s huge debt load and ownership structure. DNKN is a “controlled company,” with over 80% of its ownership in the hands of three private-equity firms (Bain, Carlyle and Thomas H. Lee), which always raises the concern that private-equity owners will want to “cash out.”
In addition, Dunkin Brands faces a tough challenge in its efforts to do better in the afternoons and evenings and unseat Starbucks, the currently leader at those times of the day. DNKN is also not cheap, trading at more than 25X expected 2012 earnings. I think a more reasonable valuation would be around 16X, which would be closer to $20 a share.
Stock to Sell #3: DTV
DirecTV (NYSE:DTV) is expecting to face rapidly increasing programming costs, in large measure because the company has had to fork over ever-increasing amounts of cash to keep exclusive National Football League content for its NFL Sunday Ticket package.
Not surprisingly, DirecTV has said that customer growth should slow as a result of higher costs, and management recently signaled a shift in focus toward “customer retention” rather than heavy promotions to draw in new subscribers. Equipment subsidies and marketing costs now top $800 for each customer acquired, and it takes about 18 months for DirecTV to get that money back.
In addition, more content is available online, so more people are turning to the Internet for programming. That hurts DTV more than competing cable companies that offer high-speed Internet access along with phone and television service.
Stock to Sell #4: RSH
Radio Shack (NYSE:RSH) is struggling with competition from giants such as Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN) and Best Buy (NYSE:BBY). The company met analysts’ expectations in its fourth-quarter report, but that came on the heels of four straight earnings misses, and first-quarter results announced April 24 went back to being another miss.
Part of the problem is that a higher percentage of the company’s sales are coming from mobile products, which carry very low margins, and changes at Sprint have also impacted results. In addition, in early March, right as the company was searching for a new lead advertising agency, Executive Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer Lee Applebaum abruptly left the company. I would stay away from the stock until there’s a clearer picture of where the company is going.
Stock to Sell #5: SHLD
Sears Holdings (NASDAQ:SHLD) just keeps reporting lower sales and profits. With its poor customer service and consumer concerns about the quality of its appliances and other onetime A-level items, the retailer is on a downward path.
CEO Eddie Lampert has been scrambling to raise cash and calm investor fears, and he does have a history of igniting investor interest from time to time. To stay afloat with enough cash flow, Sears has been trying to sell or spin off stores. One well-respected Wall Street analyst called the process “a controlled liquidation of its chain,” and I agree. While the move sent SHLD soaring more than 20% and put rumors of bankruptcy to rest, in the end, Sears looks to be on its way to another cash-flow crunch.
You can’t run a business by selling off assets. Sears needs to address its fundamental problems and find a buyer that can provide synergistic upside. Meanwhile, the company has too big of a struggle ahead at a time of high unemployment, shrinking credit and competitors doing a better job both online and in big-box stores.