By Jason Zweig | Dec. 11, 2017 8:43 p.m. ET
Image credit: Currier and Ives, “A Ride to School,” lithograph, ca. 1874-78, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Any day now, with mid-December almost upon us, commentators will start bloviating about the January effect: the purported tendency of small stocks to outperform like clockwork at the turn of every year. But there’s a big difference between statistical significance (an occurrence unlikely to be the result of chance) and economic significance (an effect large enough to generate a meaningful profit for more than a handful of people). While the January effect hasn’t disappeared, there are reasons to believe it never had much economic significance in the first place. If the effect was driven by stocks so small that most investors couldn’t even own them, then its supposedly attractive returns probably aren’t worth chasing — especially after taxes and trading costs. Here’s a quick piece I wrote about it more than a decade ago.
Why the “January Effect” Is Just So Much Slush
Every year, the drumbeat among market pundits starts in late fall, reaching a crescendo around Martin Luther King Jr. Day: You can make a killing by buying small stocks low in December and selling them high in January. History “proves” that the January effect will beat the market.
I’m not saying that the January effect isn’t real; it is. If you had bought an equal dollar amount of the smallest 10% of U.S. stocks on the last day of December every year since 1926, then sold on the last day of January, you would have earned an average return of 11.3%. That’s as much in a month as the entire stock market does in a typical year. But while the January effect is real, cashing in on it is an illusion — a classic case of how Wall Street uses real data to promote financial fantasy.
Most investors have heard of small-cap stocks, or companies whose shares have a total market value of under $2 billion or so. You may also have heard of micro-caps, whose market value is $500 million or less. But it’s not those stocks, which you or your mutual fund might own, that drive the January effect.
Tim Loughran, a finance professor at the University of Notre Dame who has crunched the numbers, has found that much of the January effect has come from stocks so tiny — with market values under $100 million — that very few mutual funds (and hardly anyone else) owned them.
In 1992, for example, the smallest stocks soared 24.3% in January while large ones dropped 1.6%. But much of the bang came from a handful of these nano-caps. For a grand total of 27¢, you could have bought one first-class stamp — or one share apiece in five of the hottest of these stocks.
On Dec. 31, 1991, some lucky soul bought $1,093 worth of a shrimpy software stock called OCG Technology, which closed for less than 5¢ a share. OCG then went up 2,400% in January. That was enough to ratchet up the reported January effect for years all by itself. (Yes, 1992 was a while ago, but these results are typical.)
Loughran points out another logical flaw in the January effect: Everyone assumes you can trade these tiny stocks at zero cost. Last I checked, not many brokerage firms were run as charities. Commissions, “spreads” (the gap between buying and selling prices) and a technicality called the “bid-ask bounce” add up so fast that it costs big bucks to trade small stocks. Loughran found that even if you paid an absurdly low 12.5¢ a share, the average annual return of the January effect would drop by 8.9 percentage points.
In other words, small stocks earn higher returns in January if you’re an imaginary investor who trades for free. In the real world, you can’t do it.
So what should you do in January? Instead of juggling small stocks in hopes of capturing a fantasy profit, get real. Review your year-end account statements. See whether any of your holdings charged excessive fees, triggered high tax bills or prompted you to trade more than a few times last year. Then resolve to clean up your portfolio in the new year. Unlike the “real” January effect, this will give you a boost that’s no illusion.
Source: Money Magazine, January 2007
For further reading:
Jason Zweig, The Devil’s Financial Dictionary
Jason Zweig, Your Money and Your Brain
Benjamin Graham, The Intelligent Investor
Joel L. Horowitz, Tim Loughran, and N.E. Savin, “A Spline Analysis of the Small Firm Effect: Does Size Really Matter?” (working paper, 1996)
Tim Loughran, “Book-to-Market Across Firm Size, Exchange, and Seasonality: Is There an Effect?” Journal of Financial and Quantitative Analysis (1997)
Richard H. Thaler, “The January Effect,” Journal of Economic Perspectives (1987)
G. William Schwert, “Anomalies and Market Efficiency,” Handbook of the Economics of Finance (2003)