The saying “sell in May and go away” is an assumption that summer months will either see stale results or sell-offs. The times to buy are after the fall, in the fall, and early in the year, before the optimism of spring.
But for investors, it’s the economic season that matters, not the growing season, and the economic season you want to avoid is “fall,” which can happen at any time.
At the bottom of this story you will find a list of all the stocks I owned as of April 27. If you buy the adage “sell in May and go away,” then it would make sense for me to dump all these dogs until we get a good shake-out in the market. Dump the Amazon.com, Inc. (NASDAQ:AMZN). Dump the Apple Inc. (NASDAQ:AAPL) Dump it all and buy them back in October, or even November.
But what does the evidence suggest?
Summer Falls in Economic Spring
During three of the first four years of the current economic recovery, which began in 2009, the old saying made sense. Shares fell sharply during the second quarter of 2010, during the third quarter of 2011, and again during the second quarter of 2012.
The seasonal pattern did not hold during 2013 and 2014, and those were the current recovery’s best years. The 2015 drop began in August but accelerated in September, after traders came back to work, and the negative pattern was repeated over that Christmas, taking the S&P 500 down to 1,829 in February 2016.
Last year’s rally went through the summer, pausing only during the presidential election campaign before resuming right afterward.
Statistically, maybe the best time to sell in May is during the third year of a president’s term of office. Both 2011 and 2015 had sharp summer sell-offs, the latter (as noted) coming late in the summer. Except … stock prices held up during the third and seventh year of President George W. Bush’s term, his worst years being 2002 and (of course) 2008.
The Problem Is Timing
The fact is that “sell in May and go away” is mostly a trader’s saying, and it makes sense. Traders need to be keeping a constant eye on their holdings. They must be ready to pull the trigger at a moment’s notice, either on news or even on rumors.
The problem for investors is timing your summer sale. Recent market sell-offs have been all over the calendar, with peaks occurring in late August of 2015, September of 2014, and May of 2012. But the market quickly recovered from all those falls.
The lesson, to this investor, seems clear. Buy good stocks and only worry about recessions, not seasonal trading patterns.
Getting out any time during the first half of 2008 would have saved you an enormous amount of financial grief. But “buying the dips” of the slower dot-com collapse, in 2000 or 2001, would have left you a lot poorer — that market didn’t see its final bottom until March 2003.
It’s the economic season that matters, not the annual season. The current recovery has gone on practically nonstop since early 2009. Recoveries don’t have to end because they get old, they end because people get greedy and stupid.
Sell the Recession
Right now, I am seeing an awful lot of stupid, both among New York traders and Washington policy makers. Propping up failing sectors like oil while punishing growth sectors like technology, which need unfettered access to human capital, makes no economic sense to me. With the S&P 500 trading at 17.5 times earnings, very near its 1999 level, hyper-bullish comments about any stock (unless it has something new to offer and the company is small) get my spidey-sense tingling.
My bottom line is that it is, indeed, time to lighten up and prepare for winter. The problem is it’s hard for me to suggest you “get out” when I can’t say what you might get into. Cash? Bitcoin? Gold?
My current retirement account shows 15% cash. Stocks represent 47% of my portfolio, the rest being in domestic and international mutual funds. That’s a pretty conservative allocation.
But because after eight years of gains I now have something to lose, it’s going to get more conservative.
Dana Blankenhorn’s Portfolio
|Alibaba||BABA||Charles Schwab||SCHW||Kinder Morgan||KMI|
|Amazon.com||AMZN||Global Payments||GPN||Restaurant Brands||QSR|
Dana Blankenhorn is a financial and technology journalist. He is the author of the political polemic Saving Trumpistan, Restoring Democracy, available now at the Amazon Kindle store. Write him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter at @danablankenhorn. As of this writing, he owned all of the aforementioned securities.