Mitch's Mailbox

May 8th, 2024

Sell In May And Go Away?

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Charlie N. from Norman, OK asks: Dear Mitch, I know that the “sell in May and go away” strategy probably doesn’t work all the time. But in an election year, wouldn’t you agree that there could be a lot of volatility in the run-up months, which would make selling in May a more viable strategy? Thanks for your thoughts.

Mitch’s Response:

Thanks for writing, Charlie. I’m going to split your question into two parts, first addressing the “sell in May and go away” adage and then addressing volatility in the lead-up to a U.S. presidential election.

I came across some data recently that seemed to confirm the ‘sell in May’ adage. A study looked at large-cap stocks from 1950 to 2000 and found that the months outside the May – October period delivered annualized returns of 19.62% with average volatility of 12.44%. During the summer months, however, annualized returns fell to 6.72% with higher volatility – 14.14%. In short, substantially lower annualized returns with higher risk.1

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Looking at those same large-cap returns more recently, in the 2000 to 2023 timeframe, the adage holds up but not as compellingly as before – and with more risk. The annualized return outside of the May – October timeframe was 13.29% with 17.50% volatility, compared to an 8.64% return during the summer months with 14.31% volatility. In short, the returns were still better for large-cap stocks outside of the May – October period, but volatility has been higher more recently.

The “sell in May” adage seems to be focused on the first data set when returns are substantially lower during the summer months with significantly greater risk. But what’s often missing from all “sell in May” commentary is that returns are still positive in the May – October period. While I understand that history suggests the risk/return dynamics are not as attractive in the summer months, there’s not a compelling case here to abandon a long-term strategy in favor of market timing.

What’s more, if we look back at S&P 500 returns in each calendar month going back to 1926, we find that stock market returns over the 6-month summer stretch (rolling) have been positive in 71 out of those 98 years, or 72.4% of the time. May has been positive 64% of the time, and July has historically been the year’s strongest month. I want to reiterate my earlier point that markets don’t run on calendars. Compelling probabilities of success simply aren’t there, in my view, and are certainly not strong enough to warrant short-term timing decisions for investors pursuing long-term outcomes.

When emotions are running high, focusing on the long-term view and sticking to your course is best.

Instead of making decisions the “sell in May” adage, I recommend taking an exclusive look at our guide, How Market Timing Can Affect Your Retirement Plan3, which explores behavioral traps and offers potential solutions to common mistakes, like trying to time the market, that many investors make.

If you have $500,000 or more to invest and want to learn how you may be able to avoid these mistakes today, get your free copy by clicking on the link below.

Disclosure

1 Wall Street Journal. May 1, 2024. https://www.wsj.com/finance/investing/sell-stocks-may-summer-investing-1638a639?mod=finance_feat5_investing_pos4

2 ZIM may amend or rescind the “How Market Timing Can Affect Your Retirement Plan” guide for any reason and at ZIM’s discretion.

3 ZIM may amend or rescind the “How Market Timing Can Affect Your Retirement Plan” guide for any reason and at ZIM’s discretion.

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This material is being provided for informational purposes only and nothing herein constitutes investment, legal, accounting or tax advice, or a recommendation to buy, sell or hold a security. Do not act or rely upon the information and advice given in this publication without seeking the services of competent and professional legal, tax, or accounting counsel. Publication and distribution of this article is not intended to create, and the information contained herein does not constitute, an attorney-client relationship. No recommendation or advice is being given as to whether any investment or strategy is suitable for a particular investor. It should not be assumed that any investments in securities, companies, sectors or markets identified and described were or will be profitable. All information is current as of the date of herein and is subject to change without notice. Any views or opinions expressed may not reflect those of the firm as a whole.

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