January Barometer May Not Deliver This Time Around
Relying on January to set the tone for massive stock market gains this year could leave investors in the cold.
Data from the 11 previous times the Standard & Poor's 500 rose more than 5 percent in the first month of the year suggest that the market is set up for gains of 20 percent or more—in effect, the January Barometer on steroids.
But 2013 is shaping up as anything but a typical year, and market bulls depending on this trend do so in the face of a slew of obstacles against such dramatic moves higher.
"We've got a lot of excessive bullish sentiment," said Jeff Hirsch, editor in chief at the Stock Trader's Almanac, an industry bible regarding prevailing historical trends. "We are running into the typical seasonal behavior, with November, December and January up and the best six months doing well. My feeling is we have another 5 percent or so on the upside and then we will start to weaken."
Hirsch believes both technical factors - the obstacles of new highs that have been hard to break - as well as the fundamentals of a weak U.S. and global economy could limit market gains.The S&P 500 already has jumped 5.3 percent in January, and when that has happened, good things usually follow.
In the 11 previous instances, gains have ranged from the 45 percent rampage in 1954 to a 2.03 percent rise during 1987, when a roaring market got wiped out by Black Monday on Oct. 29. The average increase has been 24.3 percent. (Read More: Does Strong January Signal Up, Up and Away?)
However, that's a pretty small statistical base over a 62-year period, so it has an inherent level of unreliability.
Plus, most of those rallies - eight in all - took place when the U.S. economy grew at at least a 2.3 percent rate, with six of the those years featuring at least 3.2 percent growth rates and the median for the 11 years at 2.75 percent.
Most economists expect growth this year to be 2 percent or worse this year, and the fourth quarter of 2012 actually showed a surprise contraction in gross domestic product of 0.1 percent. (Read More: Why This Is 'Best-Looking' GDP Drop You'll Ever See)
Consequently, the U.S. stock market could have a hard time eclipsing its current levels, let alone make a run at a catapult of the S&P 500 toward the 1,700 range.
Capital Economics said pressures from inside the U.S. corporate and political structures as well as weakness from Europe will cause the market to be little changed from current levels by the end of the year.
"One of the reasons we doubt the US stock market will rise by more than we forecast in the first half of this year is that we think the profit cycle may have turned," the firm said in a look-ahead analysis. "Investors' worst fears may have eased by the second half of this year. But concerns about the sustainability of US fiscal policy are unlikely to disappear so long as Congress remains divided. And even if they subside temporarily, they may simply be replaced by fresh worries about growing tensions in the euro-zone."
Market bulls cite data showing that money is finally coming back into equities to further the argument that the tide could be turning.
But that itself is a flawed assumption. (Read More: Better Enjoy the Market Rally While You Can: Marc Faber)
"A long-term rotation from bonds to stocks is likely to begin sometime this year, but those claiming that it is already underway are premature and may be in for disappointment if they expect the stock market rally to continue each week in the months ahead," said Jeff Kleintop, chief market strategist at LPL Financial. "The details of the data reveal that there is no evidence of a rotation from bonds into U.S. stocks, yet."
Kleintop said the rotation is likely nothing more than typical early-year movement and won't be confirmed unless it continues later in the year when money typically goes out of stock funds.
Moreover, he said fund flows have been more of a contrarian indicator, with the market actually running higher over the past several years as money has moved out.
Finally, he points out that big, even numbers, particularly on the Dow industrials, often serve as resistance levels and are difficult to overcome.
Since the March 2009 lows, the Dow first breached 11,000 in April 2010 but didn't clear it for seven months; the index touched 12,000 in February 2011 but failed to break free for 10 months; and 13,000 registered first in February 2012 but held as resistance for 10 months as well.
With the Dow flirting with 14,000, that doesn't bode very well for a big market breakthrough, no matter what January's history says.
-By CNBC.com's Jeff Cox. Follow him on Twitter at @JeffCoxCNBCcom.