It was an interesting third quarter, marked by a significant uptick in market volatility, an August “flash crash” and an anticipated interest rate hike that didn’t happen. Year-to-date, sector returns have shown much dispersion. Consumer discretionary stocks have been the best performers through September — up 4.1 percent, while energy and materials shares have lagged — down 21.3 percent and 16.5 percent, respectively.
Interestingly, nine of the 10 sectors that make up the U.S. economy have seen returns decline through the third quarter, but half of those sectors managed to outpace the S&P 500 Index — underscoring weakness in the broader market.
Here are a few trends that bear watching as we near the end of 2015.
Strength In Consumer Discretionary Stocks
Consumer discretionary stocks have been the clear winners thus far in 2015. Companies within the consumer discretionary sector sell goods deemed “non-essential,” such as leisure apparel, textiles and luxury goods. Consumers tend to want these products more than they need them, and they can be a good indicator of consumer sentiment.
The strength of consumer discretionary stocks is not altogether surprising, given the strength of the labor market. Wage and salary growth is up 4.0 percent since last August, and consumers’ assessment of the job market is also favorable. According to the Conference Board, the spread between those stating that jobs are “plentiful” and those claiming that jobs are “hard to get” was 0.8 in September — the widest chasm in sentiment since the spring of 2008.
Weak Commodities Market
Commodity prices have been slammed by excess supply, sluggish global demand and significant corporate inventory overhang, and these trends have weighed down shares of energy and material providers. Looking forward, industry analysts have mixed views of the commodity markets. Some fundamental investors are displaying pessimism, suggesting that they still see trouble ahead in the energy sector. Other soothsayers are more sanguine and are revising earnings estimates upward.
Corporate Earnings Environment
Equity returns have been hampered by a generally sluggish corporate earnings environment. Citigroup’s earnings-revision index has been in a downward spiral since May. The four-week average of the index is at levels not seen since 2011 and, before that, the recession of 2008. The lagging impact of a stronger dollar, tepid commodity prices and weakness in emerging markets have prompted many companies to make downward revisions in earnings guidance and prompted equity analysts to revise their estimates.
Earnings tend to pace stock prices and provide opportunities for investors. As you might expect, securities and sectors with the strongest earnings are likely to see the strongest relative performance. Going back to 1935, the correlation between the value of the S&P 500 index and average quarterly earnings per share for companies within the index is 0.90. As earnings rise and fall, so do stock prices.
Corporate Earnings Outlook Mixed, But Positive
Looking ahead, analysts surveyed by Bloomberg as of October 2, 2015, expect the strongest growth in 2016 to come from the consumer discretionary and health-care sectors. As demonstrated in the chart below, earnings in these two sectors are expected to outpace the S&P 500 index, which analysts estimate will return 9.3 percent. Financials are expected to modestly underperform the market (the S&P 500), while telecommunication services firms are expected to post the weakest earnings growth of the 10 sectors in 2016. Earnings estimates for utility and industrial companies are finally starting to see upward revisions — good news for investors battered by these sectors during the first half.
Source: Bloomberg L.P., Sept. 30, 2015, Oct. 2, 2015. Past performance is no guarantee of future results.
There is no guarantee that the projections shown will come to pass.
These are, of course, only estimates. Gauging earnings momentum can be a complicated science. Earnings revisions and expected growth rates can easily mislead investors. Materials, for example, are expected to see strong earnings growth in 2016, even as earnings revisions are still declining. And while many industrial companies are seeing their earnings estimate revisions stabilize, the sector is still expected to see earnings growth in 2016 — albeit below that of the S&P 500 index.
Investors should look to sector rotation ETFs that may provide a solution for those looking to capture returns in sectors with strong momentum, but who are uncertain about how to read dynamic fundamentals. Whichever ETF you choose, make sure the strategy incorporates a relative strength (a form of technical analysis) to identify the strongest sectors based on price analysis.