The Key to a Quizzical Market

Can you name the best-performing sector during the third quarter of 2015? You might guess Health Care given how well it did earlier this year, but it actually declined almost 13% in value over the past three months.

The best-performing sector from June 30 through September 30 was Utilities, up more than 3% for the quarter.

That really shouldn’t come as a surprise, since Utilities are generally regarded as “defensive” stocks that hold up well during a tough market. For that reason the majority of mutual fund net redemptions during the third quarter came out of growth funds holding a lot of momentum stocks, while equity income funds, which own a lot of utility stocks, experienced considerably less selling.

Now, can you name the worst performing sector during the most recent quarter? Before I looked at the numbers I guessed Energy – which was second worse with a loss of 19.02% – but it was nudged out by Materials with a decrease of 19.06%. You know things are tough in your industry when you can’t outperform an energy stock these days.

One more; of the ten GICS sectors which is the only one to still show a positive return year-to-date thru the end of the third quarter? You already know it can’t be Health Care, Energy, or Materials. I’ll also tell you that isn’t Utilities, either. Believe it or not, the Consumer Discretionary sector was UP nearly 3% year-to-date thru September 30, even though the S&P 500 a whole was DOWN almost 7%.

Finally, a rhetorical question: What does all this mean, if anything, as an investor? The fact that nine of the ten GICS sectors were negative for the quarter indicates that the recent stock market decline is systemic in nature, and not fueled by a specific risk to any one class of business or industry. If the persistently low price of oil was the only problem, then Energy and Material stocks would be down but most other sectors would be up since lower energy costs are a net positive to our economy.

And if China’s weakening economy was the culprit, then the Information Technology sector would probably suffer, but companies that do business in other parts of the world would fare better. However, Telecommunication Services stocks, which do most of their business here and very little in China, are down just as much as tech stocks (actually, slightly worse with a quarterly return of -9.75% versus -9.07% for Information Technology).

The third quarter’s only winner – the Consumer Discretionary sector – primarily consists of companies that do most of their business here in the U.S. and therefore are less affected by the strong dollar. It also gets a huge boost from its Internet & Catalog Retail division, which is up nearly 50% this year thanks in large part to outsized performance from companies like NetFlix which doubled in value during the first nine months of 2015.  

So here’s the answer: What makes the current stock market correction substantively different from the two that preceded it – last year’s Ebola panic and 2011’s “taper tantrum” – is that this one is due entirely to existing macroeconomic conditions instead of imagined horrors that may never materialize. China’s economy really is slowing down, and Europe’s economy hasn’t yet found its footing. The Fed will begin raising interest rates soon, unless the economy starts to weaken in which case the nature of the challenge becomes immeasurably greater.

This month will be critical in determining just how much support the U.S. stock market has beneath it. The next round of quarterly earnings reports gets underway next week, and by the time it is over a few weeks from now we could be looking at a very different investment landscape. Forgiveness will be sparse, and punishment will be severe for any company falling short of expectations.

In this type of investment environment I recommend owning stocks that can compete for investor capital by paying an attractive dividend, and are trading at a discount to the overall market. That’s not to say that I only favor value stocks, but growth stocks must demonstrate they can improve their income streams without the artificial enhancement of cheap money or desperate acquisitions that mask the true efficacy of their revenue models.

Subscribers to Personal Finance have access to a complete list of how every one of the S&P 500 stocks score according to my IDEAL system that evaluates dividend yield, cash flow, and relative valuation to help you identify which stocks to own, and which to avoid in this new market environment we have entered.