why September is usually a bad month for US stocks

It has to do with taxes on mutual funds and ETFs, whose tax years normally end in October.

That wasn’t always true.  Up until the late 1980s, the tax year for mutual funds typically ended on December 31st.  That, however, gave the funds no time to close their books and send out the required taxable distributions (basically, all of the income plus realized gains) to shareholders before the end of the calendar year.  Often, preliminary distributions were made in December and supplementary ones in January.  This was expensive   …and the late distributions meant that part of the money owed to the IRS was pushed into the next tax year.

So the rules were changed in the Eighties.  Mutual funds were strongly encouraged to end their tax years in October, and virtually every existing fund made the change.  New ones followed suit.  That gave funds two months to get their accounts in order and send out distributions to shareholders before their customers’ tax year ends.

getting ready to distribute

How do funds–and now ETFs–prepare for yearend distributions?

Although it doesn’t make much economic sense, shareholders like to receive distributions.  They appear to view them as like dividends on stocks, a sign of good management.  They don’t, on the other hand, like distributions that are eitherminiscule or are larger than, say, 5% of the assets.

When September rolls around, management firms begin to look closely at the level of net gains/losses realized so far in the year (the best firms monitor this all the time).  In my experience, the early September figure is rarely at the desired target of 3% or so.  If the number is too high, funds will scour the portfolio to find stocks with losses to sell.  If the number is too low, funds will look for stocks with large gains that can be realized.

In either case, this means selling.

Some years, the selling begins right after Labor Day.  In others, it’s the middle of the month.  The one constant, however, is that the selling dries up in mid-October.  That’s because the funds’ accountants will ask that, if possible,  managers not trade in the last week or so of the year.  They point out that their job is simpler–and their fees smaller–if they do not have to carry unsettled trades into the new tax year.  Although the manager’s job is to make money for clients, not make the accountants happy, my experience is that there’s at least some institutional pressure to abide by their wishes.

Most often, the September-October selling pressure sets the market up for a bounceback rally in November-December.




technical analysis in the 21st century

A reader asked last week what I think about technical analysis.  This is my answer.

what it is

Technical analysis in the stock market is the attempt to predict future stock prices by studying current and past patterns in the buying and selling of stocks, stock indices and associated derivatives.  The primary focus is on price and trading volume data.

Technical analysis is typically contrasted with fundamental analysis, the attempt to predict future stock prices by studying macro- and microeconomic data relevant to publicly traded companies.  The primary sources of these data are SEC-mandated disclosure of publicly traded company operating results and government and industry economic statistics.

what the market is

The stock market as the intersection of the objective financial/economic characteristics of publicly traded companies with the hopes and fears of the investors who buy and sell shares.  Fundamental analysis addresses primarily the companies; technical analysis primarily addresses the hopes and fears.

ebbing and flowing

To be clear, I think there’s an awful lot of ridiculous stuff passing itself off as technical “wisdom.”  The technical analyst’s bible (which I actually read a long time ago), the 1948 Technical Analysis of Stock Trends by Edwards and Magee, is now somewhere in my basement.  I’ve never been able to make heads nor tails of most of it.

On the other hand, in the US a century ago–and in markets today where reliable company financials aren’t available–individual investors had little else to guide them.

the old days–technicals rule (by default)

What individual investors looked for back then was unusual, pattern-breaking behavior in stock prices–because they had little else to alert them to positive/negative company developments.

I think this can still be a very useful thing to do, provided you’ve watched the daily price movements of a lot of stocks over a long enough period of time that you can recognize when something strange is happening.

the rise of fundamental analysis

Starting in the 1930s, federal regulation began to force publicly traded companies to make fuller and more accurate disclosure of financial results.  The Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) of 1974 mandated minimum levels of competence in the management of pension plan assets, laying the foundation for the fundamentals-driven securities analysis and portfolio management professions we have today in the US.

past the peak

The rise of passive investing and the rationalization of investment banking after the financial crisis have together reduced the amount of high-quality fundamental research being done in the US.  Academic investment theory, mostly lost in its wacky dreamworld of efficient markets, has never been a good training ground for analytic talent.

The waning of the profession of fundamental analysis is opening the door, I think, to alternatives.

algorithmic trading

Let’s say it takes three years working under the supervision of a research director or a portfolio manager to become an analyst who can work independently.  That’s expensive.  Plus, good research directors are very hard to find.  And the marketing people who generally run investment organizations have, in my experience, little ability to evaluate younger investment talent.

In addition, traditional investment organizations are in trouble in part because they’ve been unable to keep pace with the markets despite their high-priced talent.

The solution to beefing up research without breaking the bank?  Algorithmic trading.  I imagine investment management companies think that this is like replacing craft workers with the assembly line–more product at lower cost.

Many of the software-engineered trading products will, I think, be based on technical analysis.  Why?  The data are readily available.  Often, also, the simplest relationships are the most powerful.   I don’t think that’s true in the stock market, but it will probably take time for algos to figure this out.

My bottom line:  technical analysis will increase in importance in the coming years for two reasons:  the fading of traditional fundamental analysis, and the likelihood that software engineers hired by investment management companies will emphasize technicals, at least initially.





Tesla (TSLA), me and momentum investing

Why should a company fundamentals-driven investor have a problem with momentum investing?

Two reasons:

–momentum investing is a reactive strategy, and

–one that focuses on the past price movement of the little pieces of paper (or electronic impulses) that trade in the secondary market.

In contrast, fundamental investing is a predictive strategy based on the idea that the price of the paper/bits will ultimately be determined by the value of the underlying company.  Among fundamental investors, value investors believe that the key is the worth of the company as presently constituted (but perhaps running more smoothly than it in fact is).  Growth investors think the key is in early recognition of novel and unexpected profit positives that will fully emerge only in the future.


What kind of a thing, reactive or predictive, is my formula for TSLA of:   buy at $180 and sell at $250?  In a sense, I’ve got some fundamental underpinning.  My back-of-the-envelope figuring suggests nothing is likely to happen inside the company Tesla over the next couple of years that could possibly justify more than a $250 price.  And I’m willing to sell at that price even though the stock is still exhibiting positive price momentum.

But how did I get the $180?

What I’ve really done is to take a chart of the stock and draw a line that runs through the lows of the past four years or so and to conclude that this line forms the bottom of a channel (with something like $250 as the top) that TSLA has been navigating itself through since late 2013.  Yes, at $180 I have better potential for upside than I do at $250.  But that’s more a fact about arithmetic than a deep insight into corporate operations at Tesla.

In sum, then, the fundamental underpinning of at least the buying are pretty lame.

So I guess I have to say that there’s a healthier dose of momentum in my fooling around with TSLA than I might like to admit.  On another non-fundamental note, though, this ensures that my California son and I stay in regular contact.

D0w 20,000

The question is whether having a badly constructed, information-poor stock market index achieve a round-number milestone has any significance.

It’s no secret that I’m not a fan of the Dow.  But I am of two minds:

–On the one hand, the Dow Jones Industrial Average, which is what we’re talking about, has been around for a very long time.  It has somehow deflected all attempts over my investing career to replace it in the media with an index that’s more useful, like the S&P 500.  So there’s at least a vague association in the public’s mind between Dow achievements and general economic prosperity.

–On the other, the minute you hear a media pundit use the Dow to interpret the ebb and flow of stocks in general, you know he’s clueless.

The best I can say is that if the Dow can remain higher than 20,000, doing so will have some small positive psychological value.  So I’ll take it.



Dow 20,000, S&P 2260

I’m not a fan of the Dow.  It’s a weird index whose main virtues are that, way back when, it was the financial media’s first try at measuring the US market and that, despite its peculiarities, it’s easy to calculate.  It’s no longer a useful gauge of US stocks, however.  So it’s never used by professionals, only by media people who have little industry background.  (One caveat:  the Dow indices are now controlled by the same people who own the S&P–who now have a vested interested in keeping the Dow alive, despite its drawbacks.)

Still, it’s striking that for the past six weeks 20,000 on the Dow has shown itself to be a strong point of resistance to the US stock market’s upward movement.  The equivalent figure for the S&P 500 is 2260, not a memorable number.

Whether the resistance level is 20,000 or 2260 makes little economic or financial difference.  Psychologically, however, 20,000 is much more daunting, I think, than 2260.  This is especially so now that the US stock market has risen far above former highs.

My bottom line is that, whatever number you choose, the post-election rally has run into its first substantial roadblock.  It’s also at least thinkable that the Dow is developing, at least for the moment, more relevance than I’m willing to give it credit for.  This would suggest that the balance of market power is shifting away from professionals to individual investors who have little stock market experience.    I find this hard to believe, but it’s something I should keep an eye anyway.


today’s S&P 500 trading will be interesting

The S&P 500 closed on Wednesday at 2119, after touching 2120 for a moment mid-day.  That’s within an eyelash of the 2124 and 2128 daily closing highs of last July and the intraday high for the index of 2132 made at the same time. (Note:  I’ve always thought intraday figures are more important than closing, even if they’re a tiny bit more effort to look up. That’s not the consensus view, though.  Arguably, that makes them even more important.)

This is the best attempt the S&P has made since then to test the old highs–which have so far proved firmly resistant to being bettered.

Yesterday, the market rallied from intra-day lows to close down, but not badly down, from Wednesday levels.

In the pre-market today, the S&P is showing the most significant weakness it has in a while, although we’re still talking about just over a half-percent.  We also know that dabblers in the pre-market are often derivatives traders who exert little influence on how trading in the stocks themselves plays out.  So pre-market action may have little predictive value.

In any event, I think that today’s trading might give us some insight into what the general mood of the market may be in coming weeks.


–a breakout above the current historical index highs would be a very bullish sign.  But that might be like expecting a pony for your birthday, just too much to ask.

–a reflex decline, where short-term traders, having determined that the market can’t go higher, try to push prices down to see how far they can decline

“backing and filling,” which is what technicians often call a sideways market, where stocks bob around in the space between–in this case–the May levels of 2050 or so and the new ground of 2100+ while they gather strength for a further advance.

If I had to pick one of the three right now, I’d select the third.  One twist, though.  It seems to me that as the market struggles higher, it is also reorienting itself further toward secular growth themes, specifically Millennials vs. Boomers and internet vs. physical presence.  I expect that process to continue, no matter what the overall market direction.