Sell in May and go away: Stocks close dismal month

Associated Press Modified: May 31, 2012 at 5:00 pm •  Published: May 31, 2012
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NEW YORK (AP) — They sold in May and went away, all right.

With a disappointing finish on Thursday, the stock market closed what was by some measures its worst month in two years. Over five dismal weeks, Facebook fizzled, a debt crisis in Europe loomed, and nobody was in the mood to buy.

When May was mercifully over, the Dow Jones industrial average and other major indexes had erased most of the strong gains they built up through March and held on to in April.

"Any time the market dips like this, it erodes some confidence," said Craig Callahan, co-founder and president of ICON Advisers in Denver. "It scares people out of the market. All of the above, May has done that."

The Wall Street adage holds that investors should avoid the stock market for the months of May through October, commonly known as "sell in May and go away."

It may not be sound strategy all the time — many financial advisers say it's foolish — but this year it looked like good advice.

The Dow lost 820 points for the month, or 6.2 percent, its worst showing since May 2010. That month, investors were spooked by a one-day "flash crash" in stocks when a large trade overwhelmed computer servers.

This May, stocks slid lower all month. The Dow closed down 26.41 points on Thursday to end the month at 12,393.45. It declined on all but five of 22 trading sessions.

The Standard & Poor's 500 index dropped 2.99 points to close at 1,310.33. It fell 6.3 percent in May, its worst month since September. The Nasdaq composite index fell 10.02 points to 2,827.34, and had its worst month in two years.

On Thursday, investors latched on to a sliver of good news in the morning: May sales from retailers like Target and Macy's looked healthy, and sent stock futures higher.

Then the government offered two unpleasant pieces of economic data. The number of people applying for unemployment benefits rose to a five-week high, and economic growth in the first quarter of the year was slower than first thought.

Underscoring the crisis in Europe, the head of the European Central Bank, Mario Draghi, told European leaders that the setup of the 17-country euro currency union was unsustainable "unless further steps are taken."

The Dow was down as much as 103 points and up as much as 70 before ending slightly lower. Energy companies were the worst performers for the day and the month. The price of a barrel of oil, which ended April at almost $105, ended May at $86.53.

Worried about Europe and the weaker readings on the U.S. economy, investors continued a stampede Thursday into U.S. government bonds, which they see as a safer place to put their money.

The yield on the benchmark 10-year U.S. Treasury note tumbled to its lowest level on record, 1.54 percent. The yield rose later in the day to 1.57 percent. It was 1.62 percent on Wednesday and 2 percent in early January.

The 10-year Treasury yield was 1.55 percent in November 1945, after the end of World War II, when government price controls kept interest rates down to preserve financial stability.

In the stock market, the "sell in May" strategy posits that investors can make should sit out the summer and early fall because prices don't rise as much and investors can make more money in other investments.

The math is compelling. From 1926 through last year, the S&P 500 rose an average 4.3 percent in the six months of May through October, versus 7.1 percent in November through April.

The problem, critics point out, is that stocks move widely above and below their averages from year to year.

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