Month: May 2016

Sell in May and Go Away – Should You?

If you’ve been investing for a while, it is very likely you’ve heard the “Sell in May and go away” adage many times. This time every year, all major financial media outlets publish their own pieces on it. The recommendations in such articles range from “it is nonsense – stay invested” to “it’s true and really improves returns”, often also including the very popular “but this year is different”. Where is the truth? Is “Sell in May” just a myth, or does it have a sound foundation? What should you do?
Sell in May and Go Away Origin
It is not known who came up with it first and when. The saying is based on (perceived) stock market seasonality and it generally means that market returns tend to be higher in the first months of a year and lower in the next months. Therefore, it is better for an investor to sell stocks in May to avoid the weaker period that follows.
Unfortunately, the saying is very vague about the exact timing. Should you be selling on the first day of May or the last? Or the 8th May, for instance? Additionally, if you sell your shares, when should you buy them back?
You will find several different variations and interpretations of the saying. Probably the most popular version is one that divides the year into two halves, one running from November to April (better returns – hold stocks) and the other from May to October (stay out). Others suggest you should stay out of the market until year end. Yet another version is “Sell in May and don’t come back until St Leger Day” (the September horse race, or the end of summer).
Are the Returns Really Different?
Despite its vagueness, the “Sell in May” adage (particularly the May to October version) is indeed based on some statistically significant differences between stock market returns in different parts of the year (seasonality). Various studies have been done working with different time periods and stock indices in different countries. Many of them have concluded that there are parts of the year when average historical returns have been higher and volatility lower than in other parts of the year. The month of May seems to be the dividing line between the good and the bad period, although exact date, as well as extent of the return differences, depends on the markets and years included in the research.
In short, historical data suggests that market returns tend to be weaker in the months starting with May, so the “Sell in May” saying does have some foundation. Does it mean you should sell? No, and there are several reasons why not.
Lower Returns vs. Negative Returns
While much of the research shows that returns tend to be lower in summer and early autumn, that doesn’t mean stock investors are, on average, losing money in that period. Although the market declined in some individual years, if you were holding stocks from May to September, May to October, or May to year end every year in the last 20, 30 or 50 years, you would have made money in the end.
When deciding whether to sell in May or not, do not compare the average or expected stock market returns to those in the other period. They must be compared to the alternative use of your capital.
To Sell or Not to Sell in May
When making the decision, you are comparing two scenarios:
1. Stay invested in the stock market. Your return is a combination of the increase or decrease in stock prices and dividend yield (do not underestimate dividends).
2. Sell stocks, invest the money elsewhere (often a savings account or a money market fund) and buy stocks back at some point. Your return is the interest earned, but you must deduct transaction costs, which can be significant and sometimes higher than the interest earned. Furthermore, buying and selling will have tax consequences for many investors.
Returns of option 1 are less predictable and can be very different in individual years, as they depend on the stock market’s direction. Returns of option 2 are more stable, but with transaction costs and today’s low interest rates they will be extremely low or even negative. It’s the good old risk and return relationship.
If your time horizon is long and the outcomes of individual years don’t matter, option 1 (staying in stocks), repeated consistently over many years, will most likely lead to much higher return than option 2. If your time horizon is short (for example, you are approaching retirement), you should consider reducing the weight of stocks and other risky investments in your portfolio – not just in May, but throughout the year.