Seasonality refers to the time when stocks, sectors, indexes, and markets are influenced by recurring tendencies. The historical patterns tend to be apparent and remain consistent over an extended period. The key to understanding the seasonality tendencies is the ability to perform consistently with previous results.
Each year, the stock market tends to repeat specific seasonal trends. The seasonal trends affect individual stocks and can help to influence stock market indexes. When investors understand how these trends work, they can better utilize this to help with their trading and investment decisions. Although seasonality trends can increase the probability of outcomes, it is not to be used alone. Investors still need to combine seasonality studies with other technical disciplines and never trade or invest against the primary and prevailing trends.
Popular seasonality trends include the often mentioned Sell in May and go Away phenomenon, where summer doldrums from May to September can lead to stocks trading sideways to down. Other equally popular seasonality trends are the Santa Claus rally and the January Effect for small-cap out performances. In prevailing uptrends, use seasonal low points to buy or average into long positions. In primary downtrends, utilize seasonal high points to sell or scale-out of losing positions. Remember, there is a long-term historical upward bias in US stock indexes.
So, what do the seasonality trends say about March?
The stock market has well-defined seasonality tendencies. March is generally positive for most stocks, producing gains for many of the key stock market indexes. However, it is interesting to point out the wide divergences in performances between domestic and international stocks and the US stock market indexes by different market capitalizations.
For instance, in US equities, the benchmark large-cap S&P 500 Index (SPX) is up 60% of the time, with average gains of 0.9% over the past 20-years. The blue-chip Dow Jones Industrial Average (INDU) has closed higher 65% of the time with average gains of 0.5%. The broad-based listed stocks or the NYSE Composite Index (NYA) also closed higher 60% of the time with gains of 0.5% for the month.
The predominately growth-oriented Nasdaq Composite Index (COMPQ) closed higher 65% of the time with average gains of 1.4%. The mega-cap technology-driven Nasdaq 100 Index (NDX) recorded gains 65% of the time with average gains of 1.7%.
The Mid-cap 400 Index (MID) also recorded a higher close 75% of the time, with average gains of 1.3%. Small-cap 600 Index (SML) closed higher than it opened 80% of the time, with average gains of 1.4%. Micro-cap markets or the iShares Microcap ETF (IWC) also participated 80% of the time with average gains of 1.3%.
Within international stocks, the MSCI EAFE Index (MSEAFE) closed higher only 47% of the time with marginal average gains of 0.1% for March over the past 20-years. MSCI Emerging Markets Index (MSEMF) fared better than its international counterparts closing the month higher 53% of the time with average gains of 0.7%.
A quick review of the above March statistics spanning the past 20-years shows a decisive tilt in the monthly seasonality trends favoring the Nasdaq OTC markets (COMPQ +1.4% and NDX +1.7%) and the higher beta but lower quality mid-cap (MID +1.3%), small-cap (SML +1.4%), and micro-cap (IWC +1.3%) market. Although the large-cap SPX Index (SPX +0.9%) perform admirably during March, Dow Jones Industrials (INDU +0.5%) and NYSE Composite (NYA +0.5%) lagged their equity peers. International stocks in developed (MSEAFE +0.1%) and emerging markets (MSEMF +0.7%) lagged their US equity peers.
A deeper dive into the S&P 500 sectors during the March timeframe also reveal March is generally favorable for the 11 S&P 500 sectors, with all sectors recording positive gains over the past 20-years. The March average returns ranked by the S&P 500 sectors are XLRE (3.1% return), XLU (1.6%), XLK (1.5%), XLC (1.3%), XLP (1.3%), XLY (1.1%), XLB (1.1%), XLI (0.9%), XLV (0.8%), XLF (0.7%), and XLE (0.1%). It is interesting to note from March to May, XLRE recorded impressive 3-month gains of 8.7%. It is followed closely by XLC with total gains of 6.7%, XLY with gains of 5.3%, and XLK with gains of 4.9%.
In summary, March is a seasonally strong month for most stock market indexes. It is most attractive for the NASDAQ markets and the mid-cap, small-cap, and micro-cap markets. Although still positive, the NYSE Composite and Dow Jones Industrial Average relatively underperformed their equity peers. The international stock markets such as MSCI EAFE Index lagged most other major stock market indexes. Also, from the S&P 500 sector perspective, the best March performances came from both the defensive sectors such as XLRE (3.1%), XLU (1.6%), and XLP (1.3%) and economically sensitive sectors such as XLK (1.5%), XLC (1.3%), XLY (1.1%), and XLB (1.1%). Upon further review, the best 3-month sector performances during March through May came from XLRE (8.7%), XLC (6.7%), XLY (5.3%), and XLK (4.9%).
With many stock markets recording historic all-time highs, the question then becomes - will this favorable trend continue into March and possibly through May before the popular Sell in May and go Away seasonal trend occurs? With rising bullish sentiments, expansion of market breadth, easy monetary policies, massive fiscal stimulus, expectations growing for a successful rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine, and the potential for a global business reopening, will traders and investors continue to favor stocks? Will favorable seasonality factors during March and into May also lead to investors continue to seek out economically sensitive S&P 500 sectors but also return to structural growth areas such as the Technology and Telecommunication Services sectors as they alleviate their overbought conditions?