NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Many fund managers are advocating the "sell in May and go away" philosophy amid a lackluster backdrop for earnings, mixed economic data and lingering geopolitical risks.
They point to high expectations for a rebound in economic data, with bad weather blamed for a mere 0.1% rise in GDP during the first quarter. Earnings continue to be mixed, with negative forward guidance.
Historical evidence for the "sell in May" concept which advocates returning to markets in November, seems compelling. In 2010, the euro debt crisis took hold, while in 2011 the Portugal and Greek crisis hit headlines. In 2012, fears that Greece would exit the euro triggered falls, while Federal Reserve taper concerns dampened sentiment last year.
This year, fund managers point to domestic earnings and economic data rather than a macro-crisis as reason to consider selling.
RidgeWorth Investments director of asset allocation, Alan Gayle, said the market was willing to ignore economic weakness in the first quarter but that pressure was now on for data to shine.
"The question is whether the economy is as strong as investors are hoping for, and if it's not, there could be pressure on markets," he said in a phone interview. Gayle said he suspects this is likely in the short-term. "The economy will continue to do well and markets will finish higher this year, but we've cut our allocation to equities and put more money in bonds," he said.
Chase Investment Counsel chief investment officer, Edward Painvin, is also cautious. "Earnings are not as robust as they need to be and we're in a mature bull market," he said in a phone interview. "It warrants more caution and it's harder to find attractive valuations."
Some are more optimistic. Walter Todd, Greenwood Capital chief investment officer, said anecdotal evidence around higher activity in the transport goods sector (which is linked in a growing economy) suggested a strong economic rebound.
"It points to a big bounce in the near term, and we think we'll get strong economic numbers going forward even as earnings are hit or miss," he said. Todd said markets would continue to trend sideways for another month until economic data was unsullied by the harsh winter.
"As far as earnings, investors are shooting first and asking questions later," he said, referring to large intraday swings in markets. Other fund mangersed warn that investors who sell around May risk lacking the discipline to buy back into equities if markets have a subsequent choppy period.
Bank of America analysts expect a bigger 10% to 15% correction in autumn, as Federal Reserve stimulus ends and rate hike expectations grow.
"Bull markets don't end with such high cash and low leverage," chief investment strategist Michael Hartnett told clients, referring to current market conditions. "Bears looking for a big 10-15% correction should wait until September and then buy volatility and raise cash as Fed QE ends and rate hike expectations grow at the FOMC meetings of Sept 17th and Oct 29th."
Meanwhile, Wells Fargo Securities analyst Gina Martin Adams noted earnings guidance has failed to gain momentum, leaving markets "directionless."
"The underperformance of discretionary and outperformance of utilities and energy suggest equity investors may be starting to believe the first rate hike is right around the corner," she told clients, suggesting this was unlikely.
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-- By Jane Searle in New York