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Why it may not be smart to sell in May

As earnings season reaches the halfway mark, the focus is on whether profit growth is good enough to keep the market moving higher—or is it going to be another year to sell in May.

The S&P 500 was up 3 points Thursday at 1,878, but an early rally failed when stocks hit resistance at 1,884. The Dow was literally unchanged at 16,501, the first time in 12 years it registered less than a tenth of a point move in either direction. The Nasdaq, lifted by Apple's 8 percent gain, was up 21 points at 4,148.

Headlines about Russia starting military drills near the Ukraine border took a bite out of stock market gains and drove bond yields lower, as investors sought safety in Treasurys. The 10-year yield was at 2.68 percent.

A trader works on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.
Getty Images
A trader works on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.

Citigroup chief U.S. equity strategist Tobias Levkovich said Ukraine is one of the many global risks hanging over stocks, but earnings are good enough to keep investors in the market this summer, and they will only get better.

"We've argued that the first half is going to be volatile…but we expect we'll do better in the second half as earnings growth improves," he said. The stocks of three big companies reporting after the bell Thursday were all higher—Amazon.com, Microsoft and Starbucks.

According to Paul Hickey, co-founder of Bespoke, stocks followed the sell in May pattern two-thirds of the time. He said the average return in the November through April period, is about 3.5 times more than May through October.

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"Although the S&P 500 has been up in each of the last two years during summer months, this period has underperformed the winter period in each of the last four years, and 67 percent of the time since 1980," he wrote in a quick note.

Some of the earnings expected Friday are Ford, Weyerhaeuser, Tyco, American Electric Power and Goodyear Tire.

Levkovich expects to see first-quarter earnings growth of 3.8 percent, but he expects second-quarter growth to be nearly double at 7.4 percent. He sees growth of 6.7 percent in the third quarter and 8.7 percent for the fourth quarter.

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Thomson Reuters said consensus expectations for the 250 or so S&P 500 companies expected to report after Friday, as well as the results of companies that have reported would equal growth of about 3.9 percent.

"Over time, earnings matter big time," said Levkovich. He said in the period running up to 2013, the market was worried about Europe and the financial world was still stabilizing. But in 2013, stocks took off. "All you saw was the market catch up to the earnings it never paid for before."

—By CNBC's Patti Domm. Follow her on Twitter @pattidomm.

  • Patti Domm

    Patti Domm is CNBC Executive Editor, News, responsible for news coverage of the markets and economy.

  • A CNBC reporter since 1990, Bob Pisani covers Wall Street from the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.

  • CNBC's Senior Personal Finance Correspondent

  • JeeYeon Park is a writer for CNBC.com. Follow her on Twitter: @JeeYeonParkCNBC

  • Rick Santelli joined CNBC Business News as an on-air editor in 1999, reporting live from the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade.

  • Senior Producer at CNBC's Breaking News Desk.