Since 1928, the S&P 500 Index has lost ground in September more than 55 percent of the time. It looks like this year will be true to form.
It is called "The September Effect" and no one market or news event has been responsible for this anomaly. Some attribute the negative results to seasonal behavior bias. After a good summer of gains, like this summer’s bear market rally, investors make portfolio changes and cash in on their gains.
Since 1950, the Dow Jones Industrial Average has booked a decline of 0.8 percent on average. If we go back further in history (since 1928), the S&P 500 Index has averaged a 1 percent decline during September. However, over the last 25 years those losses have more than halved to only minus-0.4 percent.
Those declines seem almost laughable today in a market where stocks go up or down by that much in less than an hour.
You may have noticed that investors' attention has become laser-focused on the jobs data. Unemployment claims, continuing claims, job gains, non-farm payrolls and anything else that smacks of employment or the lack thereof is moving markets dramatically. As you might have guessed, this is the data the Federal Reserve Bank is carefully scanning in order to determine how far the monetary belt needs to be tightened.
Strong labor markets mean higher wage growth in a jobs market where supply and demand are out of balance. Wages are far stickier and therefore more important to the long-term rate of inflation than what gasoline or food prices happen to do this month or next. And since the Fed is data-driven, so are investors.
Of course, no single week or month's data point will move the Fed to cinch or uncinch their tightening belt — that is not the case with the stock and bond markets. From my point of view, it is ludicrous to move stocks up or down 2 or 3 percent a day based on a Thursday or a Fridays' report. The stock market prop desks and algo traders obviously disagree.
What's worse, the numbers are highly inaccurate, according to the federal government's own labor department, since data collection has been hit or miss ever since the pandemic. It is also subject to large revisions sometimes weeks and months afterwards, but no one ever trades on the revisions.
A case in point was the jobless claims for the week of Aug. 27. They came in at 232,000, which was below the estimates for 245,000. Therefore, fewer workers applied for unemployment insurance. That was great for the economy, but terrible for the stock market since it indicated a growing economy and more reason for the Fed to tighten.
Even worse, unit labor costs (think inflation) increased 9.3 percent over the last four quarters, the highest level since the first quarter of 1982. An hour later, stocks dropped more than 1 percent, interest rates spiked and so did the dollar.
On Friday, Sept. 2, at 8:30 a.m., the non-farm payrolls report beat estimates slightly (315,000 jobs gained in August), while the unemployment rate ticked up from 3.7 percent versus the expected 3.5 percent. Average hourly earnings month-over-month dropped, as did average hourly earnings, year-over-year came in at 5.2 percent versus 5.3 percent expected. Downward revisions from prior months labor gains helped improve the mood as well.
The markets deemed this a "goldilocks" report, so the algos bid up stocks and bonds, sold the U.S. dollar and interest rates fell; all in the pre-market. I wouldn't take any of these gyrations seriously. I put it down to traders looking for any excuse on a slow week before a major holiday to improve their trading profits.
As predicted, the S&P 500 Index hit 3,900 this week. That was the upper end of my target range. I was looking for a decline with a range of 3,800 to 3,900. I had been warning investors that the bear market rally we had enjoyed since June 2022 was ending. I expected that we would give back most, if not all, of that rally in the September into October timeframe. We are right on schedule. Now what?
Expect a bounce to as high as 4,030 in the first half of next week, and then a further decline to the low 3,800s. The stairstep of lower highs on rallies, and lower lows on declines is playing out just the way I expected. The question I have been asking myself is will stocks hold those levels, or are we destined to re-test or possibly break the June lows. Stay tuned for next week's columns, and in the meantime enjoy the three-day weekend that marks the unofficial end of summer.
Bill Schmick is the founding partner of Onota Partners, Inc., in the Berkshires. His forecasts and opinions are purely his own and do not necessarily represent the views of Onota Partners Inc. (OPI). None of his commentary is or should be considered investment advice. Direct your inquiries to Bill at 1-413-347-2401 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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