Should you ‘Sell in May and Go Away’?

Sell in May and Go Away Strategy
April is the past, and May is here. “Sell in May and go away” is an old saying that investors repeat every year without giving any actual belief to. Should they?

“Sell in May and go away” is a popular maxim in the market. Investors noticed that some stocks are underperforming over the summer when they compare their performances to the winter period. The stock market summer-period starts in May and finishes at the end of October. The six-months period from November to the end of April is known as the winter period in the market.

Sell in May and go away is a strategy which investors use to sell their holdings in May and come back again in November to invest. They usually sell their holdings in late spring, sellings are not in May exactly.  But nevermind. We have “Sell in May and go away” as a well-known saying in the market.

A lot of investors find this strategy is more comfortable than staying in the markets over the whole year. They believe that when warm weather occurs, volumes are lower and the number of market participants is also lower. Investors hold that vacations may cause trading to become riskier and, at least a lifeless period in the market.

Where the saying “Sell in May and Go Away” came from

The old custom among English aristocrats was to leave the city of London and spend their vacations in the countryside and come back to London in early autumn when St. Leger’s day is. So the full phrase is: Sell in May and go away, and come back on St. Leger’s Day which is in September. For British aristocrats, it was a very important day because it was a race day for pureblooded horses as a final part of the British Triple Crown competition.

Later, traders from America adopted the habit of going on long vacations after Labor Day. Moreover, they adopted this phrase as an investing saying. What is really interesting, all data from almost the whole of the past century confirmed the theory behind this strategy.

For example, in the span of 60 years, DJIA reported average returns of 0,3% during the period from May to October. In contrast, in the same span of 60 years, the average return was 7,5% from November to April.

But despite the historical background of this seasonal trading pattern in disparity in performance during summers and winters, it looks that it isn’t relevant in modern times. In recent years, some excellent runs occurred during the summers, the stock markets were very dynamic and generated lucrative gains to the investors who stayed in the market. 

Some markets closed higher in May and rose in June giving an increase of over 50% from the end of June until the end of January. So, the phrase “Sell in May and Go Away” isn’t correct anymore.

“Sell in May and go away” strategy 

Some investors use this phrase as a strategy to manage a portfolio over the summers based on the perception that markets underperform during summer. They believe that lower trading volumes from May till October can boost share price volatility and weigh on stocks also. Selling off in May is a method to react to the slowdown. Our suggestion is to look at facts before you adopt this strategy.

The strategy requires the stock allocation before and throughout the summer months to protect your portfolio against seasonal changes in trading. That means you would sell off stocks you own in May, then stay out of the market for the summer. When the autumn comes you would buy stocks back.

In an academic study of the saying “Sell in May and go away,” we found that from 1998 to 2012 the returns from November to April surpassed the returns generated from  May to October by nearly 10%.

Maybe this strategy is good because you’ll be out of volatility that might occur during summer, so you would be able to protect your portfolio from losses caused by volatility. Also, when you reinvest in autumn and do it just before stock’s upward trend you’ll probably generate better returns. The problem might occur when to seek what stock to buy and when to do that. In other words, timing the market is the key question.  

That can be a critical part because timing the market isn’t a precise science. Actually, it is difficult for even the most skilled investors.

The other benefit is that you would have a chance to re-evaluate your portfolio and remove losing players. But for this to do, you must have a great understanding of the market subtleties. For example, how a particular stock acts during different periods of the year. 

For long-term investors, this strategy might be irrelevant but investors with a shorter horizon or for active traders it can be very profitable since they have a more active approach to investing.

Drawbacks of this strategy

Sitting out the stock market during the summer and having a long, long vacation might seem attractive, but you have to be cautious. What if there is the potential to miss out on great opportunities? The 

This strategy is based on past trends. But here is the key problem. Not all investments or stocks will act according to this date-based investing, that to say.

The “Sell in May and go away” strategy neglects the performance of particular assets or prevailing market or economic circumstances, changes in interest rates, or inflation, for example. Also, as you already know, everything and literally anything may influence the stock market. It might be the political atmosphere, natural disasters, change tariffs, etc. For instance, you sold your stocks in May but they hold strong during the summer. What the consequence can be? It will cost you your gains. No one has the ability to predict what the market will do during a few months.

The impact on your portfolio is very important also when we talk about the “Sell in May and go away” strategy. It is very important, even if your stocks hold steady, to invest constantly, which means, you shouldn’t avoid summer investing. Otherwise, your portfolio could be hurt. 

Time is probably the most influential tool you have as an investor. This is all about compounding interest and how long you are invested. That is the power of the time. If you go in and out of the market you will lessen the chance for your portfolio to grow. Also, to compound.

The “Sell in May and go away” strategy can cause increased trading costs. Yes, online brokerages offer commission-free trading, but not all of them. Also, free trades could be set for stocks or ETFs but what if you sell options in May?  When you buy them back later, the fees could be higher which could lead to lower returns.

Maybe the most important drawback of this strategy is that it could go against you. For example, the volatility is increasing in May and you decide to get out of the market because you’re panicked. Well, in June, for example, stock rebound, the prices increase. What do you have? You’ve missed the opportunity to get the returns.

Bottom line

Instead of “Sell in May and go away” strategy, sometimes rotation is a smarter move. This means, to not sell your investment and cash it out. It is better to diversify your portfolio to the assets that could be less influenced by the seasonal slow market growth. For example, the health or high-tech sector.

For retail investors with a long-term objective, a buy-and-hold strategy continues as the best choice.

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