August has traditionally been a slow month in financial markets, for two reasons:
–Europe, including European factories and stock markets, pretty much closes up for the month and everyone goes on vacation
–on this side of the Atlantic, high-level Wall Streeters head for the Hamptons, leaving behind cellphone numbers and assistants who have less authority to make independent decisions–and who certainly don’t execute changes in strategy.
Yes, in today’s world the EU is much less significant than it used to be and Industrials as a group are a mere shadow of their former selves. But the vacation effect is still a powerful soporific.
In September, mutual fund/ETF minds turn toward the end of the fiscal year, which occurs on Halloween.
Mutual funds/ETFs are special-purpose corporations. Their activities are restricted to investing; they’re required to distribute to shareholders as dividends each year virtually all of the profits they recognize. (In return for these limitations, they’re exempt from corporate income tax on their gains.)
About thirty years ago, with government encouragement, the industry moved up the end of its fiscal year from December to October. This gave funds two months post-yearend to put their books in order and get checks in the mail in December, so the IRS could collect income tax from holders on those distributions in the current year.
Because of this, fund/ETF preparation for the October 31st yearend typically begins in early or mid-September. It invariably involves selling.
For reasons that completely escape me, mutual fund holders like to receive distributions. They regard it as a mark of success. And they seem to like a payout of around 2% -3% of asset value.
For most of the year, the tax consequences of their decisions are not in the forefront of portfolio managers’ minds (strong industry belief is that taxes are tail that shouldn’t be allowed to wag the portfolio dog). As a result, distribution levels most often require fine-tuning. This means either selling to realize an additional gain, or selling to realize an additional loss. Either way, it means selling.
At the same time, this occurs close enough to the end of the calendar year that PMs often use the opportunity to begin to make major portfolio revisions in anticipation of what they think will play out in the following calendar year. This means more selling.
October often sees the beginning of a rally that lasts into December, as the fiscal yearend selling pressure abates. Accountants play a role here, as well. Every organization I’ve been in requests that PMs avoid trading, if possible, during the last two weeks of the fiscal year. That’s to avoid the possibility that a trade has settlement problems and isn’t completed until the beginning of the following fiscal year. PMs mostly play only lip service to requests like this, but it does ensure that purely tax-related selling is over by mid-month.
a(n important) footnote
Like any other corporation, if a mutual fund/ETF has net losses, it carries them forward for use in subsequent years. Virtually every fund/ETF has been saddled for years with large tax loss carryforwards generated by large panic redemptions at the bottom of the market in 2008-09. These had to be offset by realized gains before a distribution would be possible.
Last year was the first time that enough funds/ETFs had used up losses and were able to make distributions. During the second half of last September, the S&P 500 fell by about 5%, before rallying from early October through late November.