It is that time of year again. The time when Wall Street pundits begin to talk about the potential for the stock market to deliver its year-end present to investors, neatly wrapped in the form of positive gains to finish out the year, and even carry over into January. While seasonality is typically associated with the entire fourth quarter of a given year—as November and December tend to be stronger months for the S&P 500 Index—the “Santa Claus rally” is a more defined subset.
The Santa Claus rally concept was first popularized in 1972 by Yale Hirsch, the publisher of the Stock Trader’s Almanac, when he identified the positive trend between the last five trading days of the year and the first two trading days of the New Year. Over those seven trading days since 1969, the S&P 500 Index posted an average gain of 1.4%. However, investors have had to wait until the last week of the month to see if the actual Santa Claus rally occurs.
Over the years, analysts have speculated many possible explanations for the notion of a Santa Claus rally. One is that investors are simply more optimistic in the holiday season and market bears are on vacation. Others contend that consumers may be investing their holiday bonuses. A more technical explanations could be that year-end, tax-loss selling creates oversold conditions (i.e. buying opportunities) for value investors to buy stocks. Some propose the theory that portfolio managers may try to “window dress” their portfolios in an effort to squeeze out additional performance before year end. Regardless of the various possible explanations, market data supports the idea that since 1950, December has been the best month of the year for the S&P 500 Index.
That said, there are no guarantees on Wall Street and the delivery of a Santa Claus rally is no exception. In fact, the lack of a rally could be an important market signal. The Stock Trader’s Almanac warns, “If Santa Claus should fail to call; bears may come to Broad & Wall.” Interestingly, Jeffery Hirsch, son of Yale Hirsch and current editor of the Stock Trader’s Almanac, notes that over the past 21 years, the Santa Claus rally has failed to materialize only four times, and that preceded flat market performance in 1994 & 2005, and down markets in 2000 and 2008.
With so many macro forces at work here in the U.S. and globally, the presence of both headwinds and tailwinds in the current market allows room for debate as to whether or not the Santa Claus rally will occur 2015. The dollar remains strong, manufacturing is slowing, and energy remains under pressure due to low oil prices. However, valuations are not unreasonable, economic growth continues, albeit modestly, and we are seven years into a domestic bull market that continues to move higher amid shorter-term bouts of resistance and volatility. While some naysayers contend that the abnormally strong gains in October may have cannibalized some of December’s potential rally, I believe the Federal Reserve is one of the real wild cards here. If the Fed decides to raise interest rates in mid-December for the first time since 2008, higher levels of uncertainty could temper investor enthusiasm, depending on the Fed’s language regarding the duration and magnitude of any such action.
While I remain a believer in the magic of the holidays and am optimistic that the market can justify a Santa Claus rally in 2015, there are too many mixed signals across the markets to be certain. In the end, I just hope the Santa Rally of 2015 does not prove to be as elusive as that clever little Elf on the Shelf.
The views expressed are those of Brinker Capital and are not intended as investment advice or recommendation. For informational purposes only. Holdings are subject to change. Brinker Capital, Inc., a Registered Investment Advisor.