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Will Stocks Sputter in Spring? 4 Things to Watch

April 28, 2017
Investing, Investing Strategy
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“Sell in May and go away.” It’s a Wall Street cliche.

The advice, which purportedly dates back to old England, suggests investors sell stocks in May and return after September. Why? To avoid a period of potentially higher volatility when traders focus on getting to the beach rather than placing trades.

The market’s late-April jump, reminiscent of the euphoria-filled rally earlier this year, followed a multi-week lull. The Standard & Poor’s 500 index fell for much of April, and May historically is the second-weakest month for returns, with average declines of 0.2% since 1928.

Whether the sell-in-May adage will play out this year remains to be seen, but there’s plenty to keep investors engaged. Here are four things they’ll be watching:

1. Trump’s emerging policies

As Donald Trump approaches his 100th day in office, investors still are trying to determine whether his presidency will accelerate U.S. economic growth as promised. Any signs of tangible progress on his campaign promises — from tax reform to infrastructure spending — could give investors reason to push the market higher again.

“The Trump factor is predominating any seasonal market patterns right now,” says Timothy Ghriskey, chief investment officer of Solaris Asset Management. “If any of his initiatives are voted in by Congress and enacted, we’re likely to see a Trump 2.0 rally, which would overwhelm any of the potential ‘sell in May and go away’ effect.”

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U.S. stocks remain attractive for investment, even amid relatively high valuations, which is why investors are giving Trump a pass for now, Ghriskey says. “Given that everything is on the come, the market is very unlikely to correct significantly.”

Tax reform is up next. Trump has promised “massive” cuts for businesses and individuals alike, and this week released the broad outlines of a tax proposal to achieve these goals. Also of note: The president’s first foreign trip is scheduled for May 25 in Brussels for a meeting of NATO heads of state and government.

2. The Fed’s next move

The Federal Reserve’s Open Market Committee convenes for the third of eight scheduled meetings this year on May 2-3. While investors don’t anticipate the central bank will raise the federal funds rate, Fed Chair Janet Yellen has said “every meeting is live,” meaning such an increase could happen at any time.

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Focus has shifted to the Fed’s balance sheet. Policymakers in March discussed the need to begin shrinking the central bank’s nearly $4.5 trillion balance sheet that swelled as a result of buying securities in the wake of the financial crisis. While several central bankers said such a plan should be “conducted in a passive and predictable manner,” some investors question how it will affect the pace of future rate increases — and the markets.

One of the biggest holders of U.S. Treasurys starting to sell could prove to be one of the “monumental” events of the year, says Dave Haviland, managing partner of Beaumont Financial Partners and portfolio manager of Beaumont Capital Management. He questions how the bond market — and interest rates — will fare, as well as the potential impact on the stock market.

Additional clues could come when the minutes to the forthcoming meeting are released May 24.

3. Clearer signals on data

The postelection rally bore Trump’s name, but better economic reports also supported much of the gain in stock prices. More recently, there’s been a disparity between “soft” data — forward-looking surveys, primarily — and backward-looking “hard” data.

This disparity has tempered some enthusiasm on Wall Street, as investors try to ascertain which data set best depicts current economic growth. Soft data — including manufacturing and consumer sentiment surveys — have been fairly strong, Ghriskey says, while hard data such as payroll gains and GDP have been a bit weaker.

A disparity between expectations and reality could be to blame. Some businesses may have ramped up hiring or business investment in anticipation of better economic growth under Trump, only to pull back — like the stock market has — as they await the president’s policies, Ghriskey says.

New economic reports could provide further clues, with the much-watched employment report scheduled to be released May 5.

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4. Global concerns

As events such as Brexit have illustrated, the U.S. stock market doesn’t operate in a bubble. From elections to commodity prices, there’s always potential for volatility from abroad.

The S&P 500 jumped after the first-round results of the French presidential election, which helped ease concerns the country might leave the eurozone. The final round is scheduled for May 7, with centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron facing off with nationalist Marine Le Pen.

Meanwhile, oil prices are back in focus. With oil trading around $50 a barrel, investors are looking for confirmation of whether supply cuts will be extended into the second half of the year. If they are not, oil could take a hit. That decision will come at a meeting of oil-producing nations scheduled for May 25.

Why go away?

The stock market has been a bit boring, marked by low volatility and until recently, little reason to push stock prices higher or lower. So the old wisdom to sell in May and relax the summer months away on the beach might hold.

But a lack of enthusiasm can quickly turn. Bullish sentiment — that stock prices will increase in the next six months — fell to the lowest level since the election in late April before jumping again to a two-month high, according to a weekly sentiment survey by the American Association of Individual Investors.

Why hang around? While one month’s events may not provide all the clarity investors seek, they certainly won’t want to ignore whatever finally breaks the market out of its lull.

Anna-Louise Jackson is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: [email protected]. Twitter: @aljax7.