Like the "Santa Claus Rally," the "January Effect" is one of those annual phenomena that investors look forward to every year. But when you look at the recent data, something has changed about the January Effect - it's simply not behaving the same way that it had for decades.
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The stock market ended January 2013 with the Dow Jones Industrial Average up nearly 6%, the best month since October 2011.
The Dow closed Jan. 31 at 13,860.58, up 5.77% this month. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index closed at 1,498.11, up 5.04% so far this year.
That's good news for investors. The theory is that the stock market's performance in the first month of the year sets the direction for the following 11 months.
At this rate, evaluating a few market indicators, here's where we could be by 2014.
Of course, based on recent performance, the phenomenon may soon require a new name - and some new timing guidelines for traders hoping to profit from it.
The January Effect was first recognized in the 1940s, but its actual strength wasn't quantified until 1982 when Donald B. Keim, now a finance professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business, presented research detailing the market's January performance superiority dating back to 1925.
Since then, studies by several other groups have verified Keim's results - both in terms of positive overall January performance and the extra strength of small-cap stocks. Some of the findings include:
- Stephen Ciccone and Ahmad Etebari, professors at the University of New Hampshire's Whittemore School of Business and Economics, reviewed stock market performance from 1926 to 2006 and found that January produced "the highest returns of any month of the year." Their study determined January posted positive returns 81.48% of the time, fueled by "outstanding small-firm performance."
- Research by The Wall Street Journal, reported in early 2010, found that from 1900 through 2009, the Dow Jones Industrial Average rose 62% of the time in January, while the Nasdaq Composite Index was up in 67% of the years studied, affirming the small-cap advantage.
- The Chicago Board Options Exchange (CBOE) found that from 1980 through 2006, small-cap stocks as measured by the Russell 2000 Index averaged a return of 2.5% in the month of January. That compared to respective January returns of just 1.7% and 1.6% for the Standard & Poor's 500 Index and the Dow.
- A 2003 study by Ibbotson Associates, now a part of Morningstar Inc. (Nasdaq: MORN), found that, from 1926 through 2002, the smallest 10% of U.S. stocks outperformed the largest 10% of U.S. stocks by an average of 9.35 percentage points during the month of January. That included both up and down years, though the broad market lost ground in January only seven times during that period.
All of that would seem to be a fairly strong endorsement for playing the January Effect - but there's one small problem: In recent years - most likely due to an increased awareness of the pattern and more traders trying to play it - the upward move in the market that typifies the January Effect has actually started in December.
In fact, since January 2000, the broad market (as measured by the S&P 500) has shown a decline from Jan. 1 to Jan. 31 on seven occasions - in 2001, 2002, 2003, 2005, 2008, 2009 and 2010.
However, if you move the beginning of the January Effect time period back to December and look for a top in mid-January, the success rate returns to near its historical norm, with only two years - 2002-2003 and 2005-2006 - showing broad market declines.
Small stocks, as measured by the Russell 2000 (which currently has a median capitalization of $473 million), also continued to outperform larger ones in all but two years - 2004-2005 and 2001-2002 (when the two indexes were virtually even). However, in a few years, like 2002-2003 and 2008-2009, the advantage came in the form of smaller losses.
The exact starting date of a December-January Effect move isn't precisely identified by the newer studies, but a quick glance at the numbers indicates the smartest approach may be "the-sooner-the-better":
This adds to a trend that's been developing over the last few months. While the NASDAQ has managed an impressive breakout from its multi-month trading range, it's doing this on the back of fewer and fewer stocks based on the number that are over their 50-day moving average. Part of the problem is the lack of clear market leadership.
One of the reasons that the bull cycle of the past year has been so strong is that it had a rotating cast of leaders: First banks, then retailers, then tech, then energy, then materials, and so on.
Although there are some minor variations, the primary thrust of the January Effect states that stocks do better in January than in any other month - and small stocks do better than large stocks, with the bulk of the gain realized from the final trading day of December through the middle of the following month.
While the first portion of that hypothesis isn't strictly true - historically, April has held a slight edge over January in general stock market performance - the small-stock portion has a strong record. In fact, in some years, small-stock gains in the first trading days of January have accounted for the sector's total advance for the entire year.