After a rough September, investors can expect one thing for October: volatility

October 1, 2021, 6:49 PM UTC

The S&P 500 is having flashbacks—to March 2020. Though September was by no means as painful for investors as last year’s bear market plunge, the S&P 500 closed out the month 4.8% down, its worst monthly performance since last March. And amid a cocktail of headwinds, investors may be wondering if they should batten down the hatches for October.

Around the Street, October “is known for some spectacular crashes and many expect bad things to happen again this year,” LPL Financial’s chief market strategist Ryan Detrick wrote in a Thursday note. “1929, 1987, and 2008 all come to mind when we think about this month.”

While there were clearly myriad factors playing into it this year, September was consistent with its reputation as one of the worst months of the year for stocks. Now entering October with red screens, should investors worry there’s more pain ahead?

“I think the kind of volatility we saw in September could easily persist in October,” Liz Ann Sonders, chief investment strategist at Charles Schwab, told Fortune. So far to kick off the new month, trading has been slightly choppy, with the S&P 500 dipping in the red before recovering to trade over 1.1% higher as of afternoon trading.

Others like Bank of America equity and quant strategist Savita Subramanian are wary, too. In September, Bank of America’s “Sell Side Indicator,” the firm’s “contrarian measure of Wall Street’s bullishness on stocks, declined to 58.5%.” That dip in bullishness “resonates with our cautious market view, especially heading into the [third quarter] earnings season, where multiple companies have already issued disappointing guidance amid a worsening inflation environment,” she wrote in a Friday note.

Indeed, LPL’s Jeff Buchbinder argues “earnings is the big near term risk” given how many companies have warned of supply chain issues, he told Fortune. Meanwhile, although he notes there’s a “low probability” of this happening, Bunchbinder suggests that “if it looks like the Democrats aren’t going to get anything done” in October regarding passing an infrastructure package, “we can see that as a risk to markets because investors have priced in some of that spending,” he suggests—even if failing to pass it could mean some relief in terms of tax increases in the near term.

In addition to earnings, other potential areas of concern for strategists like Schwab’s Sonders include inflation and the upcoming jobs report. “The worst case scenario, of course, is if we don’t see an easing of these inflation pressures and you start to see even worse data from either the labor market … or broad economic data, that would sort of cement the concerns about at least a short-term stagflationary environment,” she said. Sonders also points to the debt ceiling—and whether there may be a heightened risk of a rating agency downgrading U.S. debt—as a potential worry this month (Washington avoided a government shutdown at the eleventh hour on Thursday, but the possibility that the U.S. could default on its debt still looms).

A ‘misunderstood’ reputation?

However, setting aside this year’s macro factors, October’s reputation for being a rough month may not be all that deserved in recent years historically-speaking. “The truth is this month is simply misunderstood, as historically it is about an average month,” LPL’s Detrick wrote in the Thursday note. In fact, as he pointed out on Twitter, October has been the fourth-best month of the year for the S&P 500 in the past 10 and 20 years, and the fifth best in post-election years (of which 2021 is one).

Meanwhile Buchbinder, for one, is relatively optimistic about the state of the macro picture going into the final quarter of the year, pointing out that “we’re still in an economic expansion, where you’re seeing slower, but still solid, GDP growth.”

But, along the lines of Schwab’s Sonders’ thinking, that doesn’t mean the month will necessarily be smooth sailing: LPL data also shows that “no month has seen more 1% moves (up or down) than October, with some of the largest 1-day moves (both up and down) taking place this month,” per LPL research. (They note that it’s been 21 years since October didn’t close “at least up or down 1%.”)

Ultimately, those like Bunchinder suggest thinking about October as “a volatile month consistent with history, but one where we think fundamentals have good chance of pushing stocks higher between now and Halloween.”

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