By Sy Harding
In times of uncertainty, and in preparation for market declines, Wall Street’s advice to investors is always the same.
The market cannot be ‘timed’, and cash does not pay enough interest to even keep up with inflation. So investors need to remain fully invested and continue to buy stocks, but can protect themselves by shifting to ‘defensive’ stocks and sectors.
The advice has always been the same.
No matter what happens to the economy people will still have to eat, drink, and take their medicines. So food, beverage, and drug companies will continue to do well in an economic or market downturn. And the stocks of utilities and other solid companies that pay high dividends will also do well since the dividends will help offset a decline in the stock prices.
They do not explain that although consumers will still have to eat, drink, and take their medicines, investors will not have to continue to value the earnings of those companies as highly as they did in a rising market. Stocks that sell at 20 times earnings in the excitement of a rising market may only sell for 12 times earnings by the time a correction has made investors more fearful. So even though a company’s earnings continue to rise, its stock will still be dragged down by the falling market.
The same holds true for the high dividend payers. They also do not escape the problem of investors not being willing to value their earnings as highly as they did in a rising market.
In fact, since defensive stocks and sectors are touted so heavily by Wall Street near market tops, driving their prices to more over-valued levels than other stocks, their subsequent declines often exceed the decline of the rest of the market.
It doesn’t take much research to check it out, but unfortunately most investors aren’t inclined to bother. However, that is my job, and here are the facts.
Utilities are traditionally among the highest dividend paying stocks. Yet the DJ Utilities Average plunged 60% in the 2000-2002 bear market, considerably more than the 50% decline of the S&P 500. And it plunged 48% in the 2007-2009 bear market, not much different than the 50% decline of the S&P 500.
In lesser corrections the degree of safety promised for high dividend paying stocks has been equally disappointing for those who accepted the theory.
In the summer correction of 2010 the S&P 500 declined 15%. The DJ Utilities Average declined 13%. So far in the current correction, the S&P 500 is down 7.8%. But the DJ Utilities Average is down 11.6%.
Likewise, the ten highest dividend-paying solid companies in the 30-stock Dow are down an average of 18.9% in the current correction, compared to the S&P 500 being down 7.8%.
You could say that high-dividend payers have an added incentive for selling in the current correction since one of the risks of the ‘fiscal cliff’ is that taxes on dividends might jump significantly. And that’s true. But those same ten stocks plunged an average of 65.3% in the 2000-2002 bear market, and an average of 55.4% in the 2007-2009 bear, much worse than the Dow and S&P 500.
Meanwhile, we’re seeing the same historical pattern for the ‘still gotta eat, drink, and take their meds’ stocks.
So far in the current pullback, while the S&P 500 is down 7.8%, the still gotta eat and drink category is holding up fairly well, although Coca Cola (KO) is down 10.2% and PepsiCo is down 7.3%.
But in the ‘still gotta take their meds’ category, while the S&P 500 is down 7.8%, most major drug-makers are down more. Abbott Labs (ABT) is down 12.4%, Bristol Myers (BMY) is down 14.8%, Eli Lilly (LLY) is down 14.6%, and Merck (MRK) is down 10.7%.
You can blame it on concerns about drug company profits under Obamacare. But just as the high-dividend paying stocks plunged right along with the rest of the market in the 2000-2002 and 2007-2009 bear markets, so too did the drug-makers. Abbott Labs, Bristol Myers, Eli Lilly, and Merck, plunged an average of 54.5% in the 2000-2002 bear market, and an average of 49.1% in the 2007-2009 bear.
Several conclusions could be drawn from that history.
The first is that there seems to be nothing to gain by repositioning into the so-called defensive stocks or sectors. In fact, by doing so one may come out the other side even more damaged than by holding onto current holdings.
Taking profits and moving to cash when risk is high would be a much better strategy, even though the cash would earn nothing, since one keeps the previous profits and can re-enter when the correction ends, rather than having huge losses and needing the next bull market just to get back to even.
And if the expected correction doesn’t materialize, the cost is only some lost opportunity for more gains, not the actual painful losses incurred by remaining fully invested and moving into so-called defensive stocks.
Another approach, which I prefer, is that the best defense is often a good offense.
For instance, an ‘inverse’ etf or mutual fund designed to move opposite to the S&P 500, like the Rydex Inverse S&P 500 fund (RYURX), or the ProShares Short S&P 500 etf (SH) will gain roughly 20% if the S&P declines 20%, more in larger corrections.
But regardless of what decision is made, it’s most important to realize that so-called ‘defensive stocks’ usually are not.
Sy Harding is president of Asset Management Research Corp., and editor of the free market blog Street Smart Post. Follow him on twitter @streetsmartpost.