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Meh-rry Christmas: Holidays are nothing special for retail stocks

FILE - In this Friday, Nov. 29, 2013, file photo, shoppers ride escalators between floors during Black Friday shopping at Macy's, in Chicago. The Federal Reserve reports how much consumers borrowed in November on Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2014. (AP Photo/Andrew A. Nelles, File)

With all the talk about holiday spending and mall crowds, Santa Claus rallies and every other market-related cliche, retailer stocks might logically seem like a relatively safe bet at the end of a Wall Street year, considering the amount of money they're ostensibly collecting from all us consumers.

But let's be serious. Nothing in the market's that easy. In the last 11 years, the holiday-time trading activity of a group of 10 prominent American retailers, including Walmart (WMT), Apple (AAPL) and GameStop (GME), tells a tale of mediocrity. That's because in that span, putting investing dollars in the group's stocks during the seasonal shopping rush had about as much of a chance of being disappointing as it did of being cheerful. The chart details how the group of these 10 did each year:

For this survey, the holiday seasons are measured from the close of trading on the Monday prior to Black Friday through the close on the last trading day before Christmas. Starting with 2003 and continuing through 2013, the average holiday return for the set was 1.4%. Until 2013's gain of 1.3% -- right at the mean -- it was an even five years up and five years down for the previous 10.

It's not been without the occasional odd note. The best year by far was 2008, only months after Lehman Brothers and the market meltdown. Yet these retail stocks climbed almost 12% between Thanksgiving week and Christmas that year (the S&P 500 was up about 2%). Of course, the government was working on its various economic-stability proposals and stores were doing all they could to get shoppers in the door, but anyone who recalls those days might have trouble remembering them as particularly optimistic.

The so-so showing can be demonstrated in another manner. Since we viewed 10 companies, each with 11 years of data, that meant there were 110 holiday periods in total. The results was ... a tie. It was 55 up, and 55 down. While it probably wouldn't be accurate to dismiss it as completely random, as certain companies clearly have in-demand products in a given year and traders make decisions based on specific circumstances, the findings point to the difficulty (futility?) of angling for an advantage based on history. But you already know about past performance, future results and so on.

Now, it is true that some stocks generally have better holidays than others, and there indeed were some periods of impressive individual gains. Amazon (AMZN) is the standout of the group, up nine of the last 11 shopping seasons. Every other stock has had at least four negative seasons, though that does still give those names seven up years. Best Buy (BBY), the worst on average with a 3.6% annual decline, and Walmart have been the gloomiest places to be, dropping in eight holiday periods. The individual average stock price changes are shown here:

Various forecasts, as is not uncommon, figure holiday spending will rise this year compared with 2013, getting an assist from falling gas prices and brighter consumers. Gallup sees a 3% climb. At the National Retail Federation, the outlook is 4.1% -- its estimates have been too high the last two years, whereas they were too low in the prior two. And the SPDR S&P Retail ETF (XRT) has advanced 9% in the last month, surely a sign the holidays are about to go in the merchants' favor, right?

Maybe sales will be great. And maybe the retail stocks will be, too. Just be careful about being too sure of that.