a Fall stock market swoon?

Over the past thirty years, the US stock market has tended to sell off from late September through mid-October, before recovering in November.  That historical pattern has some brokerage strategists predicting a similar outcome for this fall.

Why the annual selloff?

It has to do with the legal structure of mutual funds/ETFs and the fact that virtually all mutual funds and ETFs end their tax year in October.

1.  Mutual funds are a special type of corporation.  They’re exempt from income tax on any profits they may achieve.  In return for this tax benefit, they are required to limit their activities to portfolio investing and to distribute any investment gains as dividends to shareholders (so the IRS can collect income tax from shareholders on the distributions).

2.  All the mutual funds and ETFs I know of end their fiscal years in October.  This gives their accountants time to get the books in order and to make required distributions before the end of the calendar year.

3.  For some reason that escapes me, shareholders seem to want an annual distribution–even though they have to pay tax on it–and regard the payout as a sign of investment success.  Normally management companies target a distribution level at, say, 3% of assets.  (Just about everyone elects to have the distribution automatically reinvested in the fund/ETF, so this is all about symbolism.)

4.  The result of all this is that:

a.  if realized gains in a given year are very large, the fund manager sells positions with losses to reduce the distribution size.

b.  If realized gains are small, the manager sells winners to make the distribution larger.

c.  Because it’s yearend, managers typically take a hard look at their portfolios and sell clunkers they don’t want to take into the following year.

In sum, the approach of the yearend on Halloween triggers a lot of selling, most of it tax-related.

not so much recently

That’s because large-scale panicky selling at the bottom of the market in early 2009 (of positions built up at much higher prices in 2007-07) created mammoth tax losses for most mutual funds/ETFs continue to carry on the books.  At some point, these losses will either be used up as offsets to realized gains, or they’ll expire.

Until then, their presence will prevent funds/STFs from making distributions.  Therefore, all the usual seasonal selling won’t happen.

how do we stand in 2014?

I’m not sure.  My sense, though, is that the fund industry still has plenty of accumulated losses to work off.  As a general rule, no-load funds have bigger accumulated unrealized losses than load funds;  ETFs have more than mutual funds, because of their shorter history.

This would imply that there won’t be an October selloff in 2014.

Even if I’m wrong, the important tactical point to remember is that the selling dries up by October 15 -20.  Buying begins again in the new fical year in November.

 

 

 

 

 

why September’s such a bad month for stocks

welcome to September 2011

This year, September has opened to a mini-swoon in world stock markets caused by a poor jobs report in the US, worries about the government suing banks over past sub-prime mortgage sins, and general panic about Greece (the EU political “plan,” if you’d call it that, appears to be to let the situation deteriorate to the point that voters will be grateful for even a painful rescue and not kick out the politicians who caused the problem in the first place).

the annual September equity decline

Who knows how long this downdraft will last–as I’m writing this, global equities appear to be rallying a bit, but this isn’t the normal seasonal decline in stocks.

It’s really not just September when stocks go down, either.  There’s a several-week period of selling that typically starts each year in mid-September and ends in mid-October.  But there’s usually a rally toward the end of October, so the early-month decline is less obvious.

This decline has nothing to do with the macroeconomy or stock valuation.  It’s all about mutual fund taxes.

here’s why

Mutual funds in the US (ETFs, too) are a special type of corporation.  Their activities are limited to investing, and they’re required to distribute to shareholders virtually all of their net realized profits soon after the end of each tax year.  In return for these restrictions, they’re exempt from corporate tax on their gains.  Only shareholders pay.

The tax year for virtually all mutual funds, which determines how much they must distribute, ends on October 31st.

adjusting the distribution

Shareholders like to get a distribution, which they take to be a sign that things are going well.  This makes no sense to me–better to “ride your winners” and let gains compound without paying tax–but that’s what the customers want.

On the other hand, people don’t like to pay taxes, so they don’t want a gigantic distribution (over 5% of the fund’s assets), either.

So mutual fund managers start to adjust the size of their potential distributions sometime in September.

This involves a lot of selling. 

If the required distribution is too big, a manager will scour his portfolio for stocks where he has a loss that he can sell.  If there’s no distribution, or if the payout will be too small, he hunts around for positions where he can justify taking a partial profit. 

It’s not about actually sending money to shareholders,

as I’ve heard “experts” on finance talk shows say.  An overwhelming majority of mutual fund shares, say, 95%+, sign up for automatic reinvestment of distributions.  So if the yearend gains add up to 5% of the fund assets, the amount of money that actually leaves the fund is .05 x .05 = .0025, or .25% of the assets.  That’s far less than the frictional cash a manager needs to have on hand to ensure smooth settlement of tradesSo the transfer of funds is not a big deal.

this tax planning is healthy, in my view

It gives a reason for a manager to step back and take a hard look at all the fund’s positions It also gives him a psychological excuse to dump out stocks where he’s hoping against hope that they’ll work out (trust me, even the top managers have one or two of them).

one caveat

If a fund has unused tax losses left over from prior years–and many still have them as scars from panic redemptions by shareholders in late 2008-early 2009–it can’t make a distribution until those losses are gone.  Either the fund makes offsetting gains (which won’t be subject to tax–a good thing) or the losses expire.

In either case, there’s no need to take part in the yearly September-October tax selling ritual.

this year?

My guess is that tax selling season will be relatively mildThe S&P 500 is showing about a 1% loss since last Halloween.   So unless a manager made very large adjustments to his portfolio positioning a few months ago, when stocks were considerably higher, the gains generated in day-to-day portfolio activity shouldn’t be large.  Also, at least some funds will continue to be in a net loss position, so they won’t be able to make distributions no matter what.