Sector ETF Ideas For December: Not What You Think

December trading comes Tuesday and with the arrival of the 12th month comes plenty of conjecture about a Santa Claus rally and the January Effect. The arrival of December is also likely to bring speculation that this is a fine time of the year in which to be long consumer discretionary and retail stocks and the corresponding exchange traded funds.

Sector investors might be surprised to learn that consumer discretionary and retail ETFs can be duds at this time of the year. Those investors might also be surprised to learn about which sector funds are, on a historical basis, potent in December. All those investors need to do is look back on which sector ETFs thrive in November for a guide as to what expect in December.

Year-to-date, the Materials Select Sector SPDR (NYSE:XLB), the largest materials ETF, is down 4.6 percent, which is good for the third-worst performance among the nine legacy sector SPDR ETFs. However, XLB is usually the best of those nine SPDRs in the month of December, posting an average gain of over 3 percent, according to CXO Advisory data. The data go back to 1999, the first full year of trading for the sector SPDR suite.

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XLB is up a third of a percent month-to-date, which is decent, but still a betrayal of the ETF's reputation as the best sector SPDR in November. Speaking of what are usually the best sector SPDRs in November, the Industrial Select SPDR (NYSE:XLI) is, historically, the second-best of the nine in the 11th month of the year.

XLI, the largest industrial ETF, is up 0.2 percent this month, and also usually repeats as the second-best SPDR in December behind XLB. XLI posts an average December gain of about 2.5 percent, according to CXO data. The ETF is down 1.3 percent year-to-date, good for the third-worst performance among the nine SPDRs behind the Energy Select Sector SPDR (NYSE:XLE) and XLB.

As for the two worst SPDRs in December, those dubious distinctions belong to the, Consumer Staples Select Sector SPDR (NYSE:XLP) and the Technology Select Sector SPDR (NYSE:XLK). However, that is a testament to the strength of U.S. equities in the final month of the year because, as CXO data confirm, XLP and XLK each historically post modest December gains.

In the case of XLP, the ETF's December weakness could be telling about what to expect from the holiday shopping season because Dow component Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (NYSE:WMT) and Costco Wholesale Corp. (NASDAQ:COST) are top 10 holdings in XLP.

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