Stupid stock market tricks

USA Today has just published what might be the most irresponsible piece of financial journalism I've seen in the past five years of writing Get Rich Slowly. It embodies everything that's wrong with the popular perception of stock-market investing.

Author Adam Shell touts a hot trading trend: Stocks jump on the first day of the month. Shell writes:

Stock investors looking for a trading pattern that all but guarantees a profit need look no further than the first trading day of a new month.

Everyone knows stocks trade in recurring seasonal patterns, with the best gains coming in the three-month period from November thru January. Then there's the annual Santa Claus rally at year-end. Not to mention the January Effect, where small-fry stocks post fatter returns than big-company stocks in the first month of the new year.

But one of the biggest winning trades in 2010 has been Day 1 of a new month.

There are so many things wrong here. For example:

  • There's the notion that investing is all about timing the market, about finding “hot” times to get in and out.
  • The second paragraph includes not only the “everyone knows” bit (I would never allow a staff writer or guest author to say “everyone knows” about anything on this blog, especially for something like this), but also the list of patterns, the last two of which are actually contained in the first!
  • How does one buy on the last day of the month and sell on the first without losing a small fortune in trading fees? And what exactly do you buy? An index fund? Specific stocks?
  • Not to mention the author used the word “thru”…and the editor let it thru.

The sort of “investing” promoted in this article isn't investing at all — it's gambling. I know plenty of people (including me!) who have lost money trying to find silly “get rich quick” shortcuts like this.

Tangent: Plus I made the mistake of reading the comments on this article. Want to know why comments on Get Rich Slowly are moderated? Look no further than the discussions at USA Today, where the worst in public discourse is on constant display.

Because any fool with a spreadsheet can go hunting for meaningless patterns in stock market data, I decided to be that fool. I downloaded all of the data for 2010, and I ran my own analysis. Guess what? The first trading day of the month isn't the only day that boasts just two losses in 2010.

The 8th trading day of the month has nine gains out of eleven! That must mean something! (And working backward, the 15th-to-last trading day of each month also has nine gains out of eleven.) But would you ever make it a rule to invest on the 8th trading day (or 15th-to-last trading day) of the month? Of course not.

If you want to avoid losses, though, you'd better watch out for the 10th and the 16th trading days of each month. They've only posted gains three out of eleven times in 2010. (Both the last and 2nd-to-last trading days of the month do as poorly.) But again, would you actually use this info for investing purposes? I doubt it.

In reality, anyone with enough time can go searching for patterns in past stock-market data. Lots of people have done so. But nobody I know has ever found a pattern that works going forward — except for buying the entire market and waiting a few decades.

Note: This whole story reminds of the film Pi, which is about a math whiz who goes crazy trying to find patterns in the stock market. (It's a strange movie, but the soundtrack is great music to program computers by…)

Sarcasm aside, I'm not denying that the first trading day of the month has produced the biggest gains in 2010. (The Dow Jones Industrial Average has gained an average of 82.9 points on the first day of the month; there's only one other trading day averaging over 44 points.) In fact, Shell points out this is an ongoing pattern:

The 2011 edition of the Stock Trader's Almanac notes that in the 13-year period ended May 2010, the Dow “gained more points on the first trading days of all months than all the other days combined.”

But this isn't an investment strategy. It's gambling, pure and simple, and for USA Today to run this article as anything other than entertainment is irresponsible.

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