Ah, it's spring again, when we put winter coats in storage and try to keep the pollen from making us sneeze. And it's when some of us lighten up on stocks. That's right, it's "sell in May and go away" time on Wall Street. Though the calendar hasn't quite turned, I think now's a good time to lock in some of your gains.
That doesn't mean selling everything -- I can't stress that enough for the many "black or white" thinkers among you -- but it does mean trimming your stock holdings, or shifting some of your equity allocation to more defensive areas. "Sell in May and go away" is really a way to lower risk at what is traditionally the rockiest time of the year for stocks. And this year, besides the usual seasonal considerations, some fundamental and technical indicators suggest it may be prudent or investors to pull in their horns.
For one, the economy has hit a speed bump. Although housing and auto sales remain bright spots, an uptick in jobless claims followed the horrendous March employment report. In March, retail sales showed their biggest drop since last June, and the University of Michigan-Thomson Reuters consumer confidence index fell to a nine-month low. The Conference Board's Leading Economic Index declined 0.1% in March, its first negative number since last summer.
"The biggest challenge remains weak demand, due to nervous consumer sentiment and slow income growth," said Conference Board economist Ken Goldstein. But the rollback of the payroll tax holiday and cuts from the dreaded sequester may be taking their toll. Also on the horizon: the Affordable Care Act, whose major provisions go into effect next year, creating additional uncertainty.
Meanwhile, as of Monday, 103 companies in the S&P 500 have reported earnings. About half had beaten analysts' earnings per share estimates, but fewer than 50% had topped revenue projections. "Corporate America has seen better," summed up MarketWatch's Jonathan Burton.
Clearly, four years into an economic recovery, earnings growth is slowing. So, the first quarter was the strongest for stock buybacks since Birinyi Associates started tracking them in 1985. If you can't boost EPS naturally, you can always reduce the number of shares outstanding, right? And then there are the technical indicators, which are worrying even bullish analysts. Ron Meisels, who has been publishing Montreal-based Phases & Cycles for more than four decades, believes that the market's "major uptrend is intact," but that a correction is coming.
Meisels recently warned subscribers that "time is running out. The S&P 500 is overbought and the index is at a distance above its 200-day moving average that is associated with pullbacks." The 200-day moving average -- an average of prices over the last 200 trading days -- is used by technical analysts to determine where the market's support levels are.
Lack of Conviction Among Buyers?
Meisels is particularly concerned about "negative divergences" -- lack of conviction among buyers even as prices rise. "The number of [New York Stock Exchange] stocks making new 52-week highs on April 11 (the day of the S&P 500's new all-time intraday high) was 397, which is much fewer than the over 450 new highs that occurred several times earlier in the current rally," he wrote.
He's looking for "a healthy correction" that could push the S&P 500 down to support at 1,445 to 1,450. That would be a 9% decline from its April all-time closing high of 1,593.37. (Support for the Dow Jones Industrial Average is around 13,500, he writes.) After the correction, however, he expects "another major rally sometime in the second half of 2013."
S&P Capital IQ technical analyst Mark Arbeter, whose early warning on stocks we flagged here a few weeks ago, just wrote "there has been a lot of weakness under the surface" of the rising market, with "a series of lower highs and lower lows over the past couple of months." Bellwether indexes like the Dow Jones Transportation Average, the S&P Small Cap 600, and the Philadelphia Semiconductor Index also look overbought, he warned. (I'm concerned that late-cycle defensive sectors such as healthcare, utilities, and consumer staples stocks have led the market higher.) Arbeter, too, is looking for a correction back to the 1,470 area.
And then, of course, there's the calendar. According to the Stock Trader's Almanac, the five best months for stocks are all between November and April. If you invested $10,000 in the Dow starting in 1950 and kept the money in stocks only from November to April each year, you would have had $684,073 by the end of 2011, vs. a loss of $1,024 if you invested only from May through October. And this year, the post-election year, is the weakest in the four-year presidential election cycle, according to Almanac Editor In Chief Jeffrey Hirsch.
Of course, we may not see a correction at all. Tuesday's big move looked like a market that has nowhere to go but up. But we've rallied 17% since November alone, and it can't go on forever. That doesn't mean getting out of stocks entirely. That's almost always a bad idea. But it could mean taking some profits, cutting your stock allocation by 5% to 10%, and waiting for a better opportunity to buy.
Sometimes, the best advice is "no guts, no glory." And sometimes discretion is the better part of valor. I think the latter makes more sense now.