One of Wall Street's best known adages is the old "sell in May and go away" seasonal trick. The idea is that the six months starting in May -- including the normally listless summer months -- are among stocks' poorest performers of the year. By taking risk off the table and enjoying time at the beach, investors could be well served on both fronts.
The folks over at the Stock Trader's Almanac popularized the strategy in 1986 and put hard numbers behind the old Street folklore: A $10,000 investment in the Dow Jones industrials compounded to $816,984 for November through April in 64 years vs. a $221 loss over the same period for May through October.
In recent years, the pattern has become a little muddled. So, what should investors expect in 2015? Should they sell and go away?
Jeff Hirsch of Almanac Trader notes that between 1965 and 1984 the market was down this month 15 out of 20 times. But from 1985 through 1997, May was the year's best month, gaining ground each time. Since 1997, the Dow has climbed higher in May only seven times in the past 17 years, including in 2013 and 2014.
Will 2015 make it three positive May performances in a row?
The market has stalled over the last few months as investors have chewed on the likelihood the Federal Reserve will move to raise interest rates sometime this year for the first time since 2004. Those expectations have been pushed back by the economy's weak 0.2 percent growth in the first quarter. And the slack doesn't seem to be just weather-related: The Atlanta Fed's GDPNow real-time estimate for second-quarter growth is tracking at just 0.9 percent.
And investor sentiment is extended. According to calculations by Ed Yardeni of Yardeni Research, the Investor Intelligence Bull-to-Bear Ratio's 52-week moving average has reached its highest level ever since the data series started in 1987.
But the two big dynamics that have driven stocks higher this cycle -- an accommodative Fed and the flow of capital back to investors via share buybacks and dividends -- look set to continue.
The futures market is already increasingly pricing in no Fed rate hikes this year given the GDP growth slowdown, below-target inflation, a lack of wage inflation and the problems the dollar's newfound strength are causing. Thursday's personal income and expenditures data suggests the April retail sales report will be soft -- adding further evidence to the case that the economy is still too fragile to warrant a rate hike.
As for capital return, the Financial Times highlighted a few weeks ago that shareholders of the largest U.S. companies are set to receive a record $1 trillion in cash this year. Last year, the total was $904 billion.
Hints from Fed officials in the days to come that they're in no hurry to start their policy tightening campaign -- moving their expectations into alignment with where the futures market already is -- could help stocks beat the odds this month.