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Kristina Hooper | October 22, 2019

Should investors be scared of a Halloween sell-off?

Many people around the world observe Halloween in the month of October, celebrating all that is spooky and macabre. My kids have all been enthralled with Halloween, choosing their costumes several months in advance (one year, my older son insisted on wearing his costume every single day of the month of October). And plenty of adults who have outgrown trick-or-treat still believe that October would not be complete without horror movies running non-stop throughout the month. But no matter if you celebrate with cute kids’ costumes or elaborate haunted houses – what makes Halloween fun is the knowledge that the scares aren’t real.

October is viewed as a scary month for the stock market as well. After all, some of the biggest stock market crashes have occurred in October, such as the Panic of 1907, the 1929 crash, and the 1987 crash. We even witnessed a significant stock market sell-off last October. However, if we were to look at the overall statistics, we would see that October has not historically been the worst month for stock market performance. In fact, there is even a name for this behavioral finance phenomenon – “the October effect.”

Investopedia describes it as “a perceived market anomaly that stocks tend to decline during the month of October.” However, it is perception – not reality. As the definition goes on to explain, “The October effect is considered mainly to be a psychological expectation rather than an actual phenomenon as most statistics go against the theory.”

And yet, in my recent interactions with clients, I have sensed a high level of trepidation about this particular October, given the uncertainty we see around many issues. While stocks have eked out gains thus far in the month (with the MSCI World Index up 0.7% and the S&P 500 Index returning 0.32% from Oct. 1 through Oct. 18),1 clients still seem to be waiting for the proverbial shoe to drop.

So this week, I want to face these fears more closely. What issues are frightening investors today, and what are the chances that these issues could lead to a sell-off by Halloween?

 

Five issues that might be scaring investors in October

  1. Weak China data. Third-quarter gross domestic product (GDP) growth clocked in at 6.0% annualized (versus 6.2% in the second quarter).2 This is the weakest pace in more than two decades. This could be very worrying to markets. That’s particularly so since a slowdown in China has usually resulted in a slowdown in Europe and potentially has global implications. However, even if this data causes jitters among investors, I believe the fear will be very short-lived. After all, 6% GDP growth is still nothing to sneeze at – and it meets the low end of the target range set by China for 2019. It is worth noting that some GDP growth forecasts have been downwardly revised to 5.9% annualized in the fourth quarter. But I believe China will work hard to hit the 6% target. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, who is technically responsible for the economy, has been encouraging local government officials to provide stimulus for their respective economies. Li told local governments they must “enhance the sense of urgency and responsibility” to ensure stable economic growth and “must put growth in a more prominent position” on their work agenda, according to an Oct. 14 statement on the government’s website.3
  2. The U.S.-China trade situation. We are already seeing a chasm in what the U.S. believes and what China believes about phase one of the trade negotiations. To me, this suggests a greater likelihood of a breakdown in negotiations. We also know the power that news flow around U.S.-China trade talks has had on stock market performance. However, I am hopeful that investors will not have outsized reactions to any news on U.S.-China trade talks, as I believe that there will likely be ups and downs, but no resolution in the near term.
  3. Weak U.S. economic data. Last week, we received some disappointing U.S. economic data. September retail sales fell 0.3% from the previous month when they were expected to actually rise 0.3%.4 In addition, September industrial production was also weak, down 0.4%.5While a few data points are not conclusive, we will want to follow upcoming U.S. data releases closely. While employment has been strong, many consumers are vulnerable to an economic downturn because they lack adequate savings. For example, a recent survey showed that 60% of Americans would be unable to cover an unexpected $1,000 expense, such as an emergency room visit or car repair, with their savings.6
    However, I believe economic data will remain relatively strong in the short term, and I believe any negative economic data might be treated positively, given that it increases the likelihood that the Fed becomes more accommodative.
  4. The Federal Reserve (Fed) meeting Oct. 29-30. Last October, Fed Chair Jay Powell’s hawkish comments helped cause a sell-off. And so it stands to reason that an unpopular rate decision – or simply hawkish words from the Fed chair – could be enough to cause another sell-off this month. However, I believe that is unlikely because I expect the Fed to be extremely careful in its wording at the press conference in order to avoid such a fate.
  5. Geopolitical disruption. Political turmoil in various areas around the world, such as Brexit and the Hong Kong protests, might cause investors to worry as well. However, I believe that markets have become desensitized to most geopolitical turmoil and so, barring some highly unusual development, I expect such events to have little to no impact on stocks.

 

In summary, it’s understandable for investors to be wary this October, but at this point, I believe it’s unlikely that this trepidation will turn into a full-blown sell-off. This Halloween, I expect the biggest scares to come from haunted houses and horror movies – not from the stock market.

More from Kristina Hooper

Is global trade entering an era of ‘vigilante protectionism’?
December 11, 2019

2020 outlook: An optimistic view of capital markets
December 3, 2019

Amid a host of central bank developments, one constant remains: global market pressure
November 26, 2019

What could the upcoming U.K. election mean for Brexit?
November 19, 2019

What’s standing in the way of a U.S.-China trade deal?
November 12, 2019

The Fed gives stocks free rein to run. Can the rally continue?
November 4, 2019

Will this week’s data confirm last week’s optimism for stocks?
October 29, 2019

Should investors be scared of a Halloween sell-off?
October 22, 2019

News versus noise: Assessing the market impact of three major headlines
September 30, 2019

Markets shake off a series of unusual events
September 23, 2019

Could ‘helicopter money’ help Europe’s economy take flight?
September 16, 2019

Five things to watch in September
September 3, 2019

Uncertainty hits a high point as the trade war escalates
August 26, 2019

Beyond the yield curve: Other economic indicators to watch
August 20, 2019

Will the inverted yield curve lead to recession?
August 14, 2019

Dovish central banks to shape late 2019 markets
August 13, 2019

You can’t train a great white shark – or control global trade
August 12, 2019

Stock market sell-off underscores trade war dangers
August 6, 2019

This week the Fed will remind us that it’s the world’s central bank
July 29, 2019

Waiting for a rate cut: How much is too much?
July 16, 2019

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1 Source: Bloomberg, L.P.
2 Source: National Bureau of Statistics of China
3 Source: South China Morning Post, “China’s economy cause of growing concern in Beijing as U.S.-China trade war takes toll on growth,” Oct. 15, 2019
4 Source: U.S. Commerce Department
5 Source: U.S. Federal Reserve
6 Source: Bankrate, January 2019

Important information
Blog header image: Neven Krcmarek / UnSplash

The MSCI World Index is an unmanaged index considered representative of stocks of developed countries.

The S&P 500® Index is an unmanaged index considered representative of the U.S. stock market.

Gross domestic product is a broad indicator of a region’s economic activity, measuring the monetary value of all the finished goods and services produced in that region over a specified period of time.

The opinions referenced above are those of the author as of Oct. 21, 2019. These comments should not be construed as recommendations, but as an illustration of broader themes. Forward-looking statements are not guarantees of future results. They involve risks, uncertainties and assumptions; there can be no assurance that actual results will not differ materially from expectations.