Should You "Sell in May & Go Away?"

Should you follow the oft-cited market adage that says investors should “Sell in May, and Go Away”?  – Probably not.

But there are some interesting strategies that could be employed by active investors to best take advantage of the potential total return impacts that seasonality has on the equity markets, and long-term investors are wise to consider more important factors that should influence investment decisions—including individual investing objectives, risk constraints, and tax circumstances.

Since 1945, the S&P 500 has returned a cumulative 6-month average of just 1.4% from May through October on a price return basis. That compares with a stronger 6.7% average gain from November through April. Additionally, the S&P 500 has generated positive returns only 64% of the time from May through October, and 77% of the time from November through April. This outperformance is seen not just in large-cap stocks (as measured by the S&P 500), but also small-cap stocks (as measured by the S&P SmallCap 600) and global stocks (as measured by the S&P Global 1200).

Of course, it should be obvious that there are many caveats to this calendar-based trading pattern, and the “sell in May” adage doesn’t account for the uniqueness of each period: the economic factors, business cycle, and market environment that differentiates now from the past. For instance, returns have varied widely, not only between the November through April and May through October periods, but also within these time frames. It should also be noted that rigidly following any investing philosophy without considering your unique investing goals and risk constraints is not a wise strategy.

According to a study done by Stock Trader’s Almanac, the seasonality factor may provide an opportunity for sector rotation, especially for investors willing to be a bit more nimble. Rather than exit the market, you could factor in seasonal patterns that have developed in recent years to your decision-making process.

Since 1990,there has been a clear divergence in performance among sectors between the two time frames—with cyclical sectors out pacing defensive sectors during the “best 6 months.” Consumer discretionary, industrials, materials, and technology sectors have notably outperformed the rest of the market from November through April.

Alternatively, defensive sectors have outpaced the market from May through October over the past 29 years. For example, the health care and consumer staples sectors have recorded an average increase of 4.9% and 4.4%, respectively. That compares with a 1.8% gain for the S&P 500.

The seasonal aspect of “sell in May” has received some additional attention this year as we have just completed the “best 6 months” period. Trade disputes, the Fed indicating that rate cuts do not appear on the horizon, and some softer earnings results have pushed stocks off their April highs by roughly 5%, as of the end of May. That follows a 5% rally for stocks from November 1, 2018 to April 30, 2019.

This short term pattern however does not indicate in any way the future direction of the markets, and as always, you should evaluate each investment opportunity on its own merit rather than solely focusing on how it has performed in the past. Any decision you make should be made within the context of your specific investing strategy and you individual time horizon and risk tolerance parameters.

About the Author

Randy has more than 15 years of experience managing financial assets for individuals, retirement plans and businesses. Randy joined YHB | Wealth Advisors in January of 2018 and serves as the Director of Wealth Management.  Prior to entering the professional wealth management field, he enjoyed building entrepreneurial business ventures from start-up to eventual sale and providing accounting services for public and private firms.