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Defensives may not be safe place to hide as stock market stumbles

Agencies . New York
06 Mar 2023 00:00:00 | Update: 06 Mar 2023 00:19:55
Defensives may not be safe place to hide as stock market stumbles

Investors searching for safer areas in the US stock market are finding that traditional shelters that held up in last year’s selloff, such as consumer staples, utilities and healthcare, may be more problematic this time.

After rebounding sharply in January, the benchmark S&P 500 (.SPX) is wobbling again as investors worry the Federal Reserve will take interest rates higher than previously expected and keep them elevated for longer to thwart inflation.

Sell-offs can send investors looking for safety in so-called defensive names, which tend to have solid dividends and businesses that can weather rocky times, reported Reuters.

“Last year it was really easy to hide out in defensives,” said Anthony Saglimbene, chief market strategist at Ameriprise Financial. “It worked really well last year. I think it’s going to be more complicated this year.”

In the initial weeks of 2023, the argument for defensives has been weakened by evidence the economy remains strong as well as by competition from assets such as short-term U.S. Treasuries and money markets that are offering their highest yields in years.

Sectors such as utilities are known as bond proxies as they typically provide stable earnings and safety in the way government bonds have done in the past.

When compounded by the fact that some defensive stocks carry relatively expensive valuations, investors may avoid them even if the broader market sours.

Utilities (.SPLRCU), healthcare (.SPXHC) and consumer staples (.SPLRCS) held firm in last year’s punishing markets, posting relatively small declines of about 1%-3.5% as the overall S&P 500 tumbled 19.4% in 2022.

So far this year, those groups have been the three biggest decliners of the 11 S&P 500 sectors, with utilities down about 8%, healthcare off 6% and staples dropping 3% as of Thursday’s close. The S&P 500 was last up 3.7% in 2023, but had pulled back since posting its best January performance since 2019.

Fears of a recession induced by the Fed’s swift rate-hiking cycle hovered over markets last year, and investors gravitated toward defensive areas, confident of spending on medicine, food and other necessities continuing despite economic turmoil.

Strong recent economic data, including stunning employment growth in January, has prompted investors to rethink expectations of an imminent downturn.

“If you look at the equity market, it’s telling you there’s no recession risk basically,” said Matthew Miskin, co-chief investment strategist at John Hancock Investment Management, adding that defensives so far this year have been a “pain trade.”

The health of the US economy is set to become more clear with the release of the February jobs report next Friday, while investors will also be watching Congressional testimony next week from Fed Chair Jerome Powell.