What Are Defensive Sector Funds?

Definition & Examples of Defensive Sector Funds

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Defensive sector funds are mutual funds or exchange-traded funds (ETFs) that invest in companies in recession-proof industries, called defensive sectors.

Understand how defensive sector funds work and how to incorporate them in your investment strategy to preserve the value of your portfolio in hard times.

What Are Defensive Sector Funds?

Defensive sector funds refer to mutual funds or ETFs that primarily or exclusively invest in the stock of companies that make goods and services that consumers buy through all phases of the economic cycle.

So, unlike cyclical sectors like financial services, which are highly dependent on the economic cycle, defensive or non-cyclical sectors like health care tend to generate stable profits throughout all phases of the economic cycle.

However, stock in firms in a variety of industries can be regarded as defensive if the firm has strong earnings, innovation, pricing power, and a track record of disrupting the status quo.

  • Alternate name: defensive stock funds

How Defensive Sector Funds Work

When they suspect the economy is headed for a decline, many investors begin to pad their portfolios with defensive sector funds.

These funds are referred to as "defensive" because they tend to maintain their earnings and revenues during market downturns, allowing them to perform better than the broader market during a market correction or a bear market accompanied by a recession.

The basic idea of investing in defensive sector funds is to defend against significant decreases in share prices that may occur during either market corrections, characterized by market declines of between 10% and 20%, or bear markets, featuring declines of 20% or more, and potentially, an accompanying recession.

For example, during difficult economic times, consumers typically reduce spending on luxury items, such as entertainment, travel, and high-end clothing, and buy only essentials, like food, health care services, and basic utilities. If you buy defensive stock funds invested in defensive industries like these, your holdings should, in theory, decline less dramatically as the underlying stocks should fluctuate less in price during a decline.

While defensive sectors remain relatively stable in price throughout the economic cycle, the trade-off is that they experience less dramatic growth during market upswings compared to higher-risk, cyclical industries.

Types of Defensive Sector Funds

These funds invest in companies in industries including:

  • Consumer staples: Consumer staples, also known as consumer non-cyclical stocks, are characterized as defensive because they tend to maintain more price stability in a down market than cyclical stocks like financial services companies or furniture manufacturers. During an economic decline, consumers still need staples, such as cereal and milk, and may even increase their consumption of so-called "sin stock" products, such as cigarettes and alcohol. Knowing this, some investors buy defensive sector funds such as Vanguard Consumer Staples ETF (VDC) when they believe a recession will occur.
  • Health care: Even a person with no investing experience can identify firms in this broad defensive sector, including hospital conglomerates, insurance companies, drug and medical instrument manufacturers, and biomedical companies. Health care is a defensive sector because these companies offer products or services that consumers will likely continue to buy in difficult economic times. After all, health is a high priority, and people still visit doctors and refill prescriptions in hard times. Vanguard Health Care (VGHCX) is an example of a mutual fund in this defensive sector.
  • Telecommunication services: This sector represents companies that offer communication services through cellular, fiber-optic, fixed-line, wireless, and high-bandwidth networks. They usually have predictable business through various phases of the economic cycle and thus tend to preserve their value as the economy moves into a recession. Fidelity Select Communication Services Portfolio (FBMPX) is one mutual fund that grants defensive investors exposure to this sector.
  • Utilities: People depend on gas, electricity, water, and other utilities in day-to-day life. Utility stocks representing companies producing or delivering these services are considered defensive because consumers still need them during an economic decline. This fact makes the prices of defensive utility stock funds less sensitive to market fluctuations. Vanguard Utilities ETF (VPU) is an example of this kind of defensive sector fund.
  • Certain commodities: Commodities include crude oil, coal, corn, tea, rice, gold, and silver. Not all of these basic goods are defensive by definition, but some have the potential to maintain price stability during an economic decline. For example, gold has historically produced a high return amidst economic volatility because many investors see it as a safer alternative to stocks or currencies. Fidelity Select Gold Portfolio (FSAGX) is an example of a mutual fund that targets the commodity of gold.

During the Great Recession, the value of gold rose dramatically; the Producer Price Index for gold increased by 101.1% percent from 2008 to 2012.

How To Invest With Defensive Sector Funds

You can purchase defensive sector mutual funds or ETFs through a brokerage or investment firm. But before you incorporate these funds into your portfolio, determine your asset allocation, or the division of your money into different asset classes like stocks and bonds. Then, establish the percentage of your portfolio that each asset class should represent so that you do not overweight stock as a percentage of your overall portfolio.

When picking individual mutual funds or ETFs for your portfolio, strive for diversification in the sectors and sub-sectors represented in it. For example, health care is a defensive sector. But if you invest all your money in it, your portfolio value will move up and down with price swings in that sector alone; no other sector would act as a hedge against losses in that sector.

In contrast, spreading your money between funds in the health care, consumer staples, utilities, and telecommunications sectors can provide greater diversification and potentially less dramatic declines in your portfolio if one defensive industry declines. This is because not all of these industries will go up or down in price in the same economic conditions.

Likewise, avoid funds that overweight a particular sub-sector. For example, biotechnology is an attractive sub-sector of the health sector because of its continual innovation. But if a fund is invested heavily in this sub-sector, a decline in the sub-sector could generate an outsized decline in the value of your holdings. Choosing defensive stock funds with holdings in a variety of sub-sectors in a given sector can minimize losses during a downturn.

Are Defensive Sector Funds Worth It?

Defensive stock funds can minimize risk and losses in the value of your portfolio during economic declines. But these funds can still lose value during a market correction or bear market. For this reason, defensive sector funds are most effective when you use them as one part of a diversified portfolio of mutual funds.

Key Takeaways

  • A defensive sector fund is one that primarily invests in firms in recession-proof or "defensive" sectors.
  • These funds can defend against large decreases in share prices and portfolio value during market corrections or bear markets
  • Consumer staples, health care, telecommunication services, utilities, and certain commodities are examples of industries that defensive sector funds invest in.
  • When investing in these funds, avoid putting all your money in one sector and instead aim for diversification in the sectors and sub-sectors you invest in.

The Balance does not provide tax, investment, or financial services and advice. The information is being presented without consideration of the investment objectives, risk tolerance or financial circumstances of any specific investor and might not be suitable for all investors. Past performance is not indicative of future results. Investing involves risk including the possible loss of principal.