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S&P 500: Time to Sell in May & Go Away?

Last Updated September 23, 2020 1:53 PM
Stephanie Bedard-Chateauneuf
Last Updated September 23, 2020 1:53 PM
  • Applying the “sell in May and go away” investment axiom has been historically profitable.
  • But selling in May hasn’t worked in recent years.
  • It could work this year as the recent market rally runs out of gas.

There’s an old trading adage that says to “sell in May and go away.” This investment strategy consists of selling stocks in May and re-entering the market in early November. It’s based on the belief that the market produces lower returns from May to October.

So, is it time to sell in May?

May Is Often A Good Time To Sell, But Not Always

The stock market has historically generated lower returns during these six months:

stocks, may to october
May through October have historically been the worst six months of the year. | Source: LPL Financial Research 

Since 1950, the S&P 500 has been up only 1.5%  on average for the May-October period. November to April is the best six-month period, with an average return of 7%.

But the strategy doesn’t work every year. In some years, the market produced high and positive returns. This has been the case for seven of the past eight years.

It’s not always time to sell in May, as the S&P 500 had positive returns in seven of the past ten years. | Source: LPL Financial Research 

In 2013, for instance, the S&P 500 Index posted a return of 10% from May 1 through October 31.  In 2017, the return was 8% for that period.

So, investors who systematically apply the “sell in May” strategy could miss big gains some years.

Selling in May Might Work This Year

The year 2020 is unique because of the coronavirus pandemic. The Dow crashed by about 30% in March from its February high but has rebounded sharply since. The U.S. stock index has dropped by about 10% from November 1 to April 30.

LPL Financial Senior Market Strategist Ryan Detrick explained :

Stocks are up more than 30% from the March lows, suggesting a well-deserved pullback during these troublesome months is quite possible.

It’s hard to tell where stock markets are headed. Some think that the bear market is over and that the rally will continue, while others believe there will be another crash.

Due to uncertainties surrounding the path of the coronavirus and the speed at which the economy will recover, the market might not have hit bottom yet.

But we cannot know for sure if and when a crash will happen.

It’s tempting to look for ways to improve our returns and limit our losses when we invest. But taking a short-term view like the “sell in May” adage is probably not the best way to have superior returns over the long term.

Taking a long-term view, looking for quality stocks that will produce higher returns over the years, and not worrying too much about what’s going on in the short term seems to be a better investment strategy.

For those worried about a stock market crash, buying stocks in defensive sectors such as consumer staples looks like a better strategy than selling all stocks. However, investors who have a low-risk tolerance might prefer to stay out of the market.

Disclaimer:  The opinions expressed in this article should not be considered investment advice from CCN.com.