It took nearly 18 months for the stock market to go from its high in October of 2007 to its low in March of 2009, losing 50% of its value along the way. In 2020, it took about four weeks for the market to lose 32% of its value from the S&P high of 3,380 on February 19, to the low of 2,393 on March 19, with wild swings along the way. For investors, this is a very unpleasant roller-coaster ride, as opposed to a leisurely trip down on the elevator.
COVID caused the market’s third entry into bear territory since the bull market began in March of 2009. The good news is that the market recovered 50% of its losses by April 28, opening at 2,909 despite the widespread damage inflicted by the coronavirus pandemic. It held steady through May 11, 2020, when it opened at 2,915.
- Health care is the only sector with consistent "overweight" opinions
- The upside of defensive sectors has likely passed
- Travel related, financials, consumer discretionary, and industrials may offer the best upside because of pent up demand at recovery
- The selloff has created outliers of high quality, financially strong companies that are now affordable to everyday investors
- Positioning yourself for the recovery may offer the best opportunity
Investments for a Volatile Market
Conventional wisdom would have investors moving into the defensive sectors—health care, defense, utilities, consumer staples—and that has happened. However, these are not conventional times. Unemployment has skyrocketed to 14.7%, Congress activated a $2 trillion stimulus package with more on the way, oil prices have tanked, and interest rates have plummeted—all amidst a global pandemic. We're just starting to see the impact. Still, states are slowly reopening, and there's progress toward COVID-19 treatments and a vaccine.
In a bull market, it's a lot easier to pick stocks with the chances that you'll be right. Now that we're in a volatile market, what stocks will do well in a recession or economic downturn? That depends on what you want to accomplish, and your appetite for risk.
Out of 6,247 stocks, 1,110 were in the black year to date as of April 30, 2020, and 75% of them were small or micro-cap companies. If your goal is to preserve your capital, small and micro-cap companies might not be the best choice because of higher risk and volatility.
Sectors and Industries
There are volumes of ongoing research and opinions for sector performance vs. the market. Not surprisingly, given the uncharted territory we're in, the only consistent theme among them appears to be that the health care sector will outperform the market.
John Suddeth, chief investment officer of Naples Global Advisors, thinks that holding the defensive sectors for stability is still valid, but the upside may have passed because the pandemic has upended the traditional cycle.
"The defensive sectors proved to be the strongest at the worst of the crisis in March, with technology also in the mix as the cyclical outlier,” Suddeth told The Balance. “You needed to have exposures to those sectors in February for it to have mattered the most in March."
The opportunity appears to be in the most oversold sectors—travel, consumer discretionary, financials, and industrials—and history would seem to bear that out. Financials, consumer discretionary, and industrials have been the best performing sectors six months after a recessionary bottom. Of course, each of these sectors has its own headwinds and challenges.
Opportunities will emerge from leisure businesses, travel, hotels, and restaurants hit hard by shelter-in-place and social-distancing policies. The travel industry projects a loss of $400 billion in revenue in 2020 as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. The industry sees sharp recovery in the first quarter of 2021 from pent up demand, with normal travel levels by 2023. The upshot? People may want to travel and eat out after restrictions are relaxed.
Rising delinquencies on debt, credit cards, auto loans, business loans, and mortgages, plus low interest rates and loan growth are headwinds. The concerns about failure are not the same as in 2008 and 2009, because bank capital positions are much stronger, and the Fed has aggressively intervened to stabilize financial conditions by, among other things, providing up to $2.3 trillion in loans to support the economy. Historically, financials have performed well as recovery takes place.
The sharp pullback in the economy has pounded the industrials in general, with travel reductions especially impacting airlines. Capital spending is at a standstill. Defense spending appears to be safe, at least for now. Industrials traditionally perform well early into recoveries because of low inventories and pent up demand.
The coronavirus pandemic has some negative implications for healthcare, just like everything else. Higher Medicaid participation because of job loss results in lower reimbursements. Allocating resources to COVID-19 also potentially disrupts other research and development. Fewer doctor visits, and lower test and prescription volumes may reduce billable services.
Nevertheless, the population continues to age, and the demand for services continues to rise. Innovations in medical technology, 3D printing, robotic surgeries, and artificial intelligence continue to develop and improve procedures and results.
Investing During and After an Economic Collapse
There are a lot of cross currents to contend with. For example, travel restrictions, social distancing, low interest rates, permanent changes in the use of office space, and how consumers shop, just to name a few. Why sign on for that? Because the valuations remain attractive. And, the pandemic has not changed the one universal truth of investing: Buy low, sell high.
What to Look For
The broad sell off has created "outliers." These are companies with strong balance sheets and staying power that have become more affordable to everyday investors. According to Suddeth, there are opportunities in the market.
"These are corporate gems with terrific balance sheets (low to no debt) that will allow them to survive when others can't, even coming out stronger with fewer competitors,” Suddeth said. “We are seeing that play out within beaten up insurance, banking, travel, and real estate sectors."
Finding the gems, though, is hard work. In a volatile market like this, consider working with a professional financial advisor if you don't have the time or the expertise to do the research yourself.
There's a lot on the horizon. Presidential elections have a wide-ranging impact on investment decisions. The full impact of the pandemic, such as how people work, educate their children, travel, buy their groceries, and more, remains unknown. Supply chains have been altered, and innovations will come out of necessity. This is all the more reason to focus on companies with strong balance sheets and track records.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
What is the most important metric for investing during a recession?
There isn't one metric that works best for investing across all investors. Some investors emphasize certain metrics, while others won't pay any attention to them, but that doesn't necessarily mean that one of those groups of investors is better than the other. In general, you can think of recessions as defensive times for investors, and that means you'll likely want to watch metrics related to liquidity and profitability rather than growth. If a company can be profitable and meet its current debt obligations, then it won't be as dependent on favorable broader economic conditions as much as other companies that still need to grow and become profitable.
Which stocks never go down?
There are hardly any absolutes in the market, but there's one statement that almost certainly applies across the board: all stocks go down sometimes. No investment guarantees that your principal will remain intact, and it's healthy for stocks to go down a bit after a period of going up. Instead of seeking out stocks with no downside, what you want to look for are low-volatility stocks, which are typically large, well-established, and profitable companies from defensive sectors. There are times when a low-volatility stock will go down, but there are unlikely to be large price movements (in either direction), and the underlying business fundamentals probably won't be in existential danger during periods when the stock declines.