1. Tax-loss selling: Whenever you have a loss in a stock — and who doesn’t — it’s always tax smart to sell it, take a tax loss and either buy something similar or wait 30 days and buy the original one back. December can be an ugly month of indiscriminate selling. The December effect will be huge this year.
2. Mutual-fund redemptions: Mutual funds are also dumped for tax losses. When the stock market is down in the morning, it’s usually because of mutual-fund redemptions.
Fidelity’s giant Magellan fund, down 56%, is one of many in the $6 trillion stock-fund business having an awful year. As investors call or click to get out of these funds, Fidelity and the others have to unload shares the next morning to raise cash. This forced-selling overwhelms the system. New York Stock Exchange specialists, who are supposed to maintain an orderly market, stop buying and back away. You get huge drops, which can unnerve even more investors and cause them to redeem.
3. Mutual fund cap-gain distributions: To make matters worse, in December mutual funds do capital-gains distributions. In a down year like 2008, you would think there are no taxes to pay. Think again. Legg Mason’s Value Trust, run by Bill Miller, outperformed the market for 15 years by buying many “unvalue” names like Amazon. As investors redeem, he is forced to sell many of these stocks originally purchased at very low prices, triggering huge capital gains in a year his fund is down 62%. You can almost guarantee investors also will sell more of these funds to pay their unexpected tax bill.
4. Hedge-fund redemptions: Instead of overnight selling like mutual funds, hedge funds typically require 45 days’ notice for investors to get out of a fund. They’ve been furiously selling since September to raise cash to pay investors. This usually shows up as a set of stocks that just go down and down and down with no obvious explanation.
Rubbing salt in hedge-fund wounds is the fact that Lehman Brothers was a prime broker to many hedge funds, holding their shares. While Lehman’s bankruptcy was not a problem in the U.S., in England the policy is to freeze accounts until the mess can be sorted out. There are billions in assets locked in this bankruptcy, and hedge funds are forced to sell positions in the U.S. and elsewhere to raise cash, exacerbating the downside here.
By the way, when hedge funds are down for the year, they work practically for free until they make up the loss. We’ll see hedge funds close and stocks liquidated as — no surprise — hedge-fund managers like to get paid.
So won’t January be alright once these dislocations weighing on the market are lifted? The January effect is supposed to be positive.
Well, often money managers are fired at the end of disastrous years. A new manager comes in, looks at the existing positions and dumps them all and remakes the portfolio with new stocks that he likes, thus generating more selling. My favorite Wall Street adage suggests that the stock market trades to inflict the maximum amount of pain. Remember, you can only ignore the stock market for so long. Once everyone thinks it can only go down . . . it might go up.