What Is a Santa Claus Rally?

A Santa Claus rally describes a sustained increase in the stock market that occurs in the last week of December through the first two trading days in January. There are numerous explanations for the causes of a Santa Claus rally including tax considerations, a general feeling of optimism and happiness on Wall Street, and the investing of holiday bonuses. Another theory is that some very large institutional investors, a number of which are more sophisticated and pessimistic, tend to go on vacation at this time, leaving the market to retail investors, who tend to be more bullish.

Key Takeaways

  • The Santa Claus Rally refers to the tendency for the stock market to rally over the last weeks of December into the New Year.
  • Several theories exist for its existence, including increased holiday shopping, optimism fueled by the holiday spirit, or institutional investors settling their books before going on vacation.
  • Regardless of the reason, more than two-thirds of Decembers dating back to the 1960s have resulted in positive gains for shareholders.
  • Still, as with many market anomalies, it may just be random and there is no guarantee it will continue into the future.

Understanding the Santa Claus Rally

A Santa Claus rally is a seasonal phenomenon, according to "The Stock Trader’s Almanac," a longtime provider of analysis of both cyclical and seasonal market tendencies. According to the 2016 Almanac, "...since 1969, the Santa Claus rally has yielded positive returns in 34 of the past 45 holiday seasons—the last five trading days of the year and the first two trading days after New Year's. The average cumulative return over these days is 1.4%, and returns are positive in each of the seven days of the rally, on average."

Many consider the Santa Claus rally to be a result of people buying stocks in anticipation of the rise in stock prices during the month of January, otherwise known as the January effect. Also, there is some research that points to value stocks outperforming growth stocks in December. Of note, many stockpickers in actively managed mutual funds tend to invest in value stocks.

Financial columnists typically opine on the likelihood of a Santa Claus rally. Some cite economic and technical analysis, and others offer pure conjecture.

Pros and Cons of a Santa Claus Rally

Chartered market technicians pay attention to cyclical trends and, at times, find ways to exploit historical patterns such as the Santa Claus rally. They tend to do so repeatedly over time and by limiting both the amount of risk and reward they take on via position sizing, stop orders, and cutting losses short if positions go against them. These speculators also use technical patterns in particular indexes and carefully determine their planned entry and exit points.

None of this is useful for most investors who do not have the trading experience to manage risk in such short time frames. For buy-and-hold investors and those saving for retirement in 401(k) plans, for example, the Santa Claus rally does little to either help or hurt them over the long term. It is an interesting news headline happening on the periphery, but not a reason to become either more bullish or bearish. A better strategy is to maintain a long-term investment strategy and not be tempted by the promise of Santa Claus rallies or January effects.

What causes a Santa Claus rally?

Several theories try to explain the Santa Claus rally, including optimism fueled by the holiday spirit, increased holiday shopping, and the investing of holiday bonuses. Another theory is that this is the time of year when institutional investors go on vacation—leaving the market to retail investors, who tend to be more bullish.

Is the Santa Claus rally real?

The term "Santa Claus rally" was coined in the early 1970s by a stock market analyst who noticed a pattern of higher market returns between the first trading session after Dec. 25 and the first two trading sessions of the new year. While past results can never guarantee future performance, the data seems to support that rallies during these time periods happen more times than not.

Since 1950, the S&P 500 has gained an average of 1.3% during the Santa Claus rally periods, according to The Stock Trader's Almanac. Since the launch of the SPDR S&P 500 ETF Trust (SPY) in 1993, the Santa Claus rally has produced gains 18 out of 27 times, or about two-thirds (67%) of the time. According to Gordon Scott, a member of the Investopedia Financial Review Board, all other six-day periods since 1993 have produced positive SPY returns 58% of the time.

Will there be a Santa Claus rally?

The Santa Claus rally happens during the last five trading days of the year and the first two trading sessions of the new year. While historical statistics show that higher market returns tend to occur more often than not during these periods, there is no way to predict if or when that will happen again.