What Are the Summer Doldrums in the Stock Market?

A Definition of the Summer Doldrums and Why They Matter To Investors

The Summer Doldrums in the Stock Market
The summer doldrums is a phenomenon many stock traders believes occurs when investors and stock traders are away on vacation between July and Labor Day, causing trading volumes to drop, volatility to rise, and the danger of trading losses to increase. DreamPictures / Getty Images

If you have read a lot of older investing tomes or spoken with stock traders of a bygone generation, you might have heard the phrase "summer doldrums" come up from time to time.  Though the concept of the summer doldrums isn't nearly as popular these days as it once was - we now live in an always-on, interconnected world where people are able to access markets from the furthest reaches of the planet or while they are using the restroom - it still plays an important psychological role in the stock market depending upon who you ask.

First, let's get the definition of the way.  The summer doldrums, as it pertains to the stock market, is a phrase used to describe the July through August period, beginning at the start of summer and officially ending on Labor Day in the early part of September.  It refers to the perception that this period is particularly dangerous for stock traders because many stock traders are away on vacation and, as a result, volatility is higher because liquidity is lower than it otherwise would have been.  As a result, stock price fluctuations tend to create a lot of financial pain for those who would attempt to trade stocks.

Are the Summer Doldrums Real?  I Don't Think It Matters.

Whether the summer doldrums are a real phenomenon or whether it is largely a case of cherry picking and confirmation bias on the parts of traders is up for debate.  What is not up for debate, in my mind at least, is that it's all nonsense; a useless distraction to the goal of building wealth.

 That is because those of you who have been reading my work for going on two decades know that I'm a long-term investor in the truest sense of the word.  At the heart of my capital allocation philosophy, which I use not only in my own life but at the asset management firm my husband and I are starting later in the year, Kennon-Green & Co., resides the following list of behaviors that make worrying about things like the summer doldrums a meaningless waste of time.

  1. Don't buy any common stock or preferred stock in your brokerage account or custody account that you wouldn't want to own if the stock market closed immediately, and stayed closed for at least five years.  If you couldn't execute a buy or sell order under any condition, and were stuck with the look-through earnings and dividends, how happy would you be?
  2. Do not borrow on margin.  In fact, don't invest in a margin account at all but, instead, demand a cash account.  Not only will you never have to worry about a margin call, you shouldn't have to worry about rehypothecation and hyper-rehypothecation risk.
  3. Learn intimately, and focus on, the math of diversification .
  4. Decide whether you will follow a valuation or systematic purchase approach, avoiding market timing.
  5. Pay attention to the asset placement strategy to maximize your after-tax results.  For example, except in the most unusual of circumstances, you shouldn't own tax-free municipal bonds through a Roth IRA.

You keep adding to your principal, if possible.  You make sure your investment fees and expenses are reasonable.  You let time do the heavy lifting, focusing on owning a collection of high quality productive assets that you understand and, as long as civilization still stands, things have historically worked out in a satisfactory way.

Instead, folks want to make things too hard.  Don't fall into that trap.  Investing is simple.  That doesn't mean it is easy, but it is simple.  Give yourself a long enough runway to compound while avoiding any major mistakes and the odds are good you'd be amazed at the outcome over a 25- to 50-year period.