In Merriam-Webster dictionary, window dressing is defined as the display of merchandise in a retail store window or the act or an instance of making something appear deceptively attractive or favorable. In the financial world, the definition of window dressing is a strategy deployed by money managers, hedge funds, traders and trading professionals to improve the appearance of a fund’s or a portfolio’s performance before presenting the results to clients, investors or shareholders. To window dress a fund or a stock's portfolio the trading professional will seek to sell losing stocks and add to or purchase winning stocks ahead of the end of the year, end of the quarter, and month end.
In the retail arena, retail investors also perform a similar strategy. It is typically referred to as tax-loss harvesting. It is a yearly strategy performed each year toward year end in which losing positions are sold at a loss in order to reduce a tax liability. It is accomplished by offsetting capital gains against capital losses in a client's portfolio before year end.
Each year the combination of these two strategies – window dressing by institutional investors and tax-loss harvesting by retail investors may tend to have undue influence on the directional trends of stock market indexes and major S&P 500 sectors into the end of the year, end of the quarter and even the end of the month. Given the dramatic returns so far this year we would not surprise to witness higher than normal window dressing and tax-loss harvesting activities in the weeks ahead.
As a reference, these are the year-to-date performances of key US stock market indexes and major S&P 500 sectors as of 11/14/19:
NASDAQ Composite Index (COMPQ +27.20 YTD), S&P 500 Index (SPX +23.37%), Dow Jones Industrial Average (INDU +19.00%), and NYSE Composite Index (NYA +17.64%)
Leading S&P 500 Sectors: Technology (+40.92% YTD), Communication Services (29.24%), Industrials (28.17%), and Financials (+25.42%)
Lagging S&P 500 Sectors: Energy (+4.64% YTD) and Healthcare (+13.37%)
Enclosed below we have compiled histogram charts of the 11 S&P 500 Sectors ranking these sectors on a relative (vs SPX) and on an absolute basis from year to date, quarter to date, and month to date. We hope this will help you and your clients identify where the potential window dressing and tax-loss harvesting opportunities and risks into the end of the year.