Why 'Sell in May' Looks So Alluring in 2020

Every year, there is a recurring mantra of “Sell in May and go away!” This is the belief that investors should exit the stock market ahead of summer and not return until the fall. After the bear market panic ended in March, April’s stock market gains were the strongest one-month performance in more than 30 years. Even if investors choose to hold on to all of their stocks, it is important to consider why “Sell in May” matters.

Was it coincidence or fate that set the first trading day of May 2020 with a broad-based stock market sell-off? It is likely impossible to trust seasonal trends every year, but there is some precedent for why so many investors do actually sell in May and go away. In the 2020 recession, the tax season also will come this summer. This is also the weakest economic year in a decade.

Before the coronavirus prompted the COVID-19 pandemic-induced recession, the public was looking forward to summer. The economy was strong, unemployment was low, the stock market was a raging bull and trade between the United States and China was supposed to start picking back up. Then you-know-what hit the fan.

24/7 Wall St. has evaluated several fresh market strategist calls that have come in on May 1, 2020, and in the few prior days. Not all of the investing and economic strategists are touting a “Sell in May” mantra.

Despite the atrocious economic numbers, trillions of dollars of economic stimulus have brought the belief that the economy will recover as it has from all prior recessions. The S&P 500’s gain of about 12.7% in April is impressive enough, after looking at the SPDR S&P 500 ETF Trust (NYSEARCA: SPY). Still, that is dwarfed by the 34% gain that the S&P has seen since the panic-selling lows on March 23, 2020.

The current investing climate is one in which many institutional investors are just as confused as retail investors. It’s not normal for a raging bull market to die and turn into a bear market with a deep recession in less than 45 days. It’s also not normal for an immediate V-bottom in the stock market in which the major indexes recover two-thirds of those sharp losses in a period of about five weeks.

Unemployment’s peak has not even been seen yet, and second-quarter GDP could easily be down 20% or more. The stock market often acts as a forecasting judge for what the economy will be in the months ahead. That said, the so-called efficient-market hypothesis has proven over and over that modeling in all relevant data is just not accurate.

With such a dominance of the top five companies in the S&P 500 having roughly a 20% weighting, it’s imperative to see where the strengths and weaknesses are., Inc. (NASDAQ: AMZN) was down almost 7% and challenging $2,300 late on Friday. Jeff Bezos may have been positive long term, but it’s expensive to dominate the economy in the COVID-19 recession, even if analysts were overwhelmingly positive ahead of its earnings. Meanwhile, Apple Inc. (NASDAQ: AAPL) slid over the course of the trading day after its earnings report, but the analysts were positive enough that some would think Apple would be a $400 stock had the recession not come along.

Not all strategists looking forward are paying attention to the classic “Sell in May and go away” mantra. There is still a very mixed view for the economy, and it’s still a very active debate over whether the stock market has jumped too far ahead of the economic fundamentals.

In a note to investors on May 1, Canaccord Genuity equity strategist Tony Dwyer cautioned that the recovery may not be as robust as the equity market might indicate. He said:

The equity market appears to be hoping for a sharp “V” shaped recovery on Fed liquidity measures that have supported corporate credit. The US Treasuries, bank lending, and financial conditions suggest that while the economy can likely avoid further free-fall, the recovery is likely to take longer than the equity market believes. In my view, this remains a time to not guess. The Fed has backstopped the worst-case scenario, but it is likely to be a very long road to recovery, which means we don’t need to chase historic rallies. Our plan remains the same – get more offensive as the market pulls back as long as credit maintains its improvement. We don’t look for any pullback “level” but instead focus on the character of credit as weakness unfolds.

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