Don’t Fear the Pumpkin

Many investors think October is a particularly bad time for the stock market, most likely due to the “Black Monday” meltdown of 1987 that contributed to a 22% decline that month. Nearly 20 years later, just as that painful memory was receding, October of 2008 witnessed a 17% decline.

But our perception of reality is often quite different from what it really is. The fact of the matter is that since 1980 the month of October has ended up in positive territory 23 times versus only 12 negative occurrences, slightly better than the average month over that time that was up 22 times and down 13 times.

In case you’re wondering, the worst months have been the two that immediately precede October, as September has more down years (18) than up (17) with an average monthly return of -0.77%, coming on the heels of August’s average return of -0.06% — perhaps giving rise to the old saw to “sell in May and go away” for the rest of the year.

However, that Wall Street adage is also a case of misperception, since where October clearly outperforms is in its average monthly return of nearly 1%, even with the huge losses of 1987 and 2008 included. By way of comparison, the average month over an entire year sees an increase of only 0.7%, or 30% less than October’s typical gain.

More importantly, the fourth quarter of the year has been by far the best for stock market investors with an average quarterly return of +3.9%, compared to +2.2% for Q1, +2.6% for Q2 and -0.3 for the woeful third quarter. So, whether most folks believe it or not, we have entered into what has been the best time of the year to be in the stock market. And right on cue, the S&P 500 has risen almost 4% during the first half of this month, suggesting the so-called “smart money” investors (institutional accounts) believe third quarter earnings reports will come in better than expected.

In addition, some of the “retail” (individual investors) money that went out of equity funds and into money market accounts during the August swoon has returned to stocks now that it has become apparent the Fed may not be raising interest rates anytime soon given weakness in the U.S. jobs market. The combined effect has been a significant bump in equity values.

The empirical evidence notwithstanding, you can be assured that as the October 19th anniversary of 1987’s “Black Monday” stock market crash approaches you will hear more than one stock market pundit remind us of what a terrible time of the year this is for the stock market. Of course, the stock market has no idea what day, month or year it is and is therefore unable to succumb to superstition. It does, however, know a good deal when it sees one.