A win on Sunday by the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XVIII might help ease the pain of Boston fans who watched their Red Sox fall victim yet again to the "Curse of the Bambino" last October in Yankee Stadium. But a Patriot victory over the Carolina Panthers would also suggest that the bull market of 2003 is about to come to a screeching halt in 2004 — at least according to one indicator with an 81 percent success rate.
Since the first Super Bowl in 1967, when Vince Lombardi's Green Bay Packers whipped the Kansas City Chiefs, 35-10, the Super Bowl Stock Market Predictor has been an astonishingly accurate — albeit somewhat silly — indicator of stock market direction for the rest of the year. The theory holds that when a team from the original National Football League wins the championship, stocks rise. When a team from the now-defunct American Football League wins, that's bearish. The two leagues merged in 1971, with most original NFL teams in the league's National Conference and AFL teams in the American Conference.
Using the Dow Jones Industrial Average, the S&P 500 Index and the NYSE Composite as market proxies, the prophecy of the pigskin has correctly called the direction of at least two of the three 30 times, while it blew the call seven times. A four-year skid of bum results ran from 1998 to 2001, but the predictor was back on track the last two years. The victory by the AFC's Patriots in 2002 preceded a double-digit drop in the Dow, and last January's 48-21 rout of the AFC's Oakland Raiders by the NFC's Tampa Bay Buccaneers came less than two months before the market staged its dramatic bullish turnaround in March of 2003.
Longtime Wall Street guru Robert H. Stovall, who now manages money (including Harley-Davidson's pension funds) at Wood Asset Management in Sarasota, Fla., has been the self-appointed "custodian" of the Super Bowl indicator since 1979. He wrote about it in a marketing piece for his then-employer, Dean Witter Reynolds, borrowing the idea from New York Times sportswriter Leonard Koppett.
Harley's sensible management in Milwaukee need not worry, however, that Stovall is making investment decisions with their money based on the outcome of a football game. Stovall readily admits that "the existence of statistical correlation between two sets of data does not imply any causal link between two pastimes as unrelated as football and the stock market."
But what can account for the astonishing accuracy of the indicator? Stovall points out that more teams are tied to the NFC than the AFC — the Colts, Steelers, Ravens and Browns all have origins in the old league — and that the market goes up more frequently than it goes down. Although the Carolina Panthers (like the Bucs last year) are an expansion team that wasn't around in the days of the AFL, they're established in the NFC and, according to Stovall, represent the bullish bet on the market.
With real money, Stovall is bullish on the market, regardless of whether the Panthers upset the Patriots, although he's concerned about the reinflation of a bubble in speculative stocks. "In 2003, the garbage flew," says Stovall, who believes that the improving economy and the new Medicare bill should benefit cyclical stocks, health care and reasonably valued technology stocks. Among the stocks he's buying: Anthem, UnitedHealth Group and Johnson & Johnson in healt care; Motorola and Hewlett-Packard in technology; and Union Pacific.