The markets got off to a surprisingly bad start in 2005. Last month’s 5% drubbing of the Nasdaq Composite was the worst January return since 1990, and the second worst in the history of the index. The S&P 500 and Dow Jones index didn’t fare much better.

January is usually one of the best months of the year to own stocks. Typically, savvy investors spend the bulk of December in tax-loss selling mode, and re-enter positions in January, resulting in an abnormally positive return for the first month of the year. The effect is intensified by those reluctant to purchase mutual funds in December because of the tendency of many funds to realize capital gains late in the year.

There are a number of reasons why the so-called January Effect failed to make an appearance in 2005. First off, there weren’t many market sectors that showed losses last year, which put a cap on the amount of tax loss selling in December. Second, the increasing popularity of exchange traded funds–the bulk of which realized no capital gains in 2004–allowed investors to establish their positions before the start of the New Year. These two factors alone significantly muted the amount of buying pressure during January.

Speaking of January, there are scores of folks who fear that a bad start of the year portends a poor February-December. The so-called “January Barometer,” which has been the subject of numerous articles in publications such as Business Week and Barron’s, is actually much less accurate than one might think. Our research shows the real Achilles’ heel of the January Barometer is its less-than-stellar record of calling bear markets. In fact, predicted stock declines from February through December (which, as we’ve stated, are supposed to follow January pullbacks) are only about 52% accurate. This result could easily be due to random noise.

What really drives the “accuracy” of the January Barometer is the tendency of stocks to rise over time. Stocks have risen almost every year since 1975, and over most 11-month holding periods, too.

As a result, any analyst who foresees higher stock prices 12 months hence isn’t really much of a seer.

Index Jan-05 QTD YTD Description
S&P 500 Index* -2.53% -2.53% -2.53% Large-cap stocks
size=”-1″>DJIA* -2.72% -2.72% -2.72% Large-cap stocks
Nasdaq Comp.* -5.20% -5.20% -5.20% Large-cap tech stocks
Russell 1000 Growth -3.33% -3.33% -3.33% Large-cap growth stocks
Russell 1000 Value -1.78% -1.78% -1.78% Large-cap value stocks
Russell 2000 Growth -4.50% -4.50% -4.50% Small-cap growth stocks
Russell 2000 Value -3.87% -3.87% -3.87% Small-cap value stocks
size=”-1″>EAFE -1.83% -1.83% -1.83% Europe, Australasia & Far East Index
Lehman Aggregate 0.63% 0.63% 0.63% U.S. Government Bonds
Lehman High Yield -0.13% -0.13% -0.13% High Yield Corporate Bonds
Calyon Financial Barclay Index** -2.93% -2.93% -2.93% Managed Futures
size=”-1″>3-month Treasury Bill 0.16%
All returns are estimates as of January 31, 2005. *Return numbers do not include dividends. ** Returns are estimates as of January 28, 2005