The January Barometer

“As January goes, so goes the year.” At least that is the case according to the old adage made popular by the Stock Trader’s Almanac.  This phenomenon is also known as the “January Barometer.”  It simply means that January’s market’s performance, as measured by the S&P 500 Index, is a harbinger of how the market will do for the year.

January 2013’s rip-roaring start foreshadowed a very strong year. Nailed it.

The year 2009 started with a thud in January. And the month we just ended has turned in the worst January performance since that year (MarketWatch). But let’s note that while stocks bottomed in March 2009, they went on to post a strong gain (St. Louis Federal Reserve).

Table 1: Key Index Returns

  MTD % 2015 % 3-year* %
Dow Jones Industrial Average -5.50 -5.50 +5.67
NASDAQ Composite -7.86 -7.86 +13.52
S&P 500 Index -5.07 -5.07 +8.77
Russell 2000 Index -8.85 -8.85 +4.50
MSCI World ex-USA** -6.94 -6.94 -2.67
MSCI Emerging Markets** -6.52 -6.52 -11.44
Source: Wall Street Journal,  MTD returns – December 31, 2015–January 29, 2016 Annual Returns – December 31, 2015–January 29, 2016  *Annualized  **USD


According to a recent story in the New York Times, the January barometer has been right 88% of the time since 1950 (ignoring basically flat years) and 75% of the time including all years. Over the last 35 years, the S&P 500 has followed January’s direction 71% of the time (CNBC).

On the surface, it seems like a reasonable indicator. But it’s important to point out the data includes January’s performance. In other words, how well or poorly month number one performs means you either have a head start or a handicap going into February. Still, January’s return has correctly foreshadowed February through December 66% of the time.

But the indicator does a much better job of predicting winners than losers, because markets are biased toward the upside.

For example, CNBC notes the S&P 500 Index has risen in 23 out of 35 Januarys since 1979. Over the next 11 months, the market subsequently rose in 19 of those 23 years—meaning a positive January has successfully predicted a winning February through December 83% of the time.

But in the years when January lost ground, there was only a 33% success rate in predicting a losing year.

That seems to have been an issue lately with the January barometer. Over the last 10 years, 2005, 2009, 2010, and 2014 began on the wrong footing but finished in the green, and we didn’t see a positive follow-through on 2011’s upbeat start (St. Louis Federal Reserve).

There are plenty of reasons why markets go up or markets go down. So I don’t believe that January necessarily sets the tone for the year. Over the longer term, it’s about corporate profits, which are heavily influenced by the economy. In the shorter term, markets key off all kinds of variables. Long story short–what’s happening in the fall may make January look like a distant memory.

January’s Poor Start

There is no shortage of reasons why the year began on a sour note. For starters, economic growth moderated at the end of the year. Gross domestic product (GDP), the largest measure of economic activity, slowed from an annual rate of 2.0% in the third quarter to 0.7% in Q4, per preliminary data from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.  In turn, that has forced analysts to cut back on their forecasts for S&P 500 profit growth.

Yet, a sizable chunk of the weakness has to do with the near collapse in profits in the energy sector, which factors into overall corporate profits. For consumers, it has been a windfall at the gas pump. But the beleaguered energy sector has been a net negative for the economy, creating steep cutbacks in oil and gas projects, which have in turn roiled manufacturing.

 Moreover, the strong dollar continues to create headwinds for sales at U.S. firms that do a big chunk of business overseas. While a strong dollar is a gift for Americans vacationing in a foreign land, it works against revenues of homegrown firms because sales in local currencies must be translated back into a stronger dollar.

Then there are worries about China, oil prices, recession fears, woes in manufacturing, rising yields in junk bonds (mostly but not limited to energy and the mining sectors), the Federal Reserve, political uncertainty, and even stock sales by sovereign wealth funds.

What I sense when the market corrects

Many of us are painfully aware of the financial crisis of 2008. Stocks have completely rebounded from the bear market and forged new highs. Someone who invested in the S&P 500 Index at the top in October 2007 would have earned a modest 4.9% on an annualized basis, including reinvested dividends (S&P 500 Dow Jones Indexes), through the end of January.

While the wounds have healed, the scars remain, and some investors have a propensity to keep both eyes on the rearview mirror.  I get it. It’s human nature. It’s why I consistently advocate a disciplined investing approach –one that takes emotions out of the equation.

Let me share a story an economics professor told in an advanced college economics class on business cycles (Wikipedia and also corroborate the anecdote). It’s the story of two retailers –Sears and Montgomery Ward.

 The Great Depression left a lasting mark on those who experienced its economic devastation. While the economy took much of the 1930s to climb out of a deep hole, it wasn’t until World War II that growth really soared. Simply put, the need to divert an enormous amount of resources into the war effort was an economic bonanza. Before going any further,let me assure you I am not downplaying the incalculable toll in human lives the war cost. This is simply an economic illustration.

After World War II, Montgomery Ward feared a new depression as peace returned and our men and women who so valiantly fought against tyranny came home. Montgomery Ward retrenched and didn’t open a new store until well into the 1950s. Sears, however, continued to expand, believing a depression wasn’t on the horizon. Montgomery Ward never caught up thanks to its Depression-era mentality.

I believe the story teaches us a lesson today.

Every time clouds gather, we fear another deluge because the last storm is so fresh in our memory. While no one can predict the future, I believe another financial crisis won’t occur for many years. We will experience bumps in the road, and we will go through another bear market. But rainstorms are followed by rainbows. It’s a graphic reminder that nasty weather is only temporary.

 Know Your Risk Tolerance

I always stress the importance of being comfortable with your portfolio and the risk you are taking. Market volatility is a normal part of investing. While it can be managed, it can unsettle some investors. It’s why we subscribe to a time-tested philosophy of finding the right mix of assets for your situation and adhering to that mix.