Are Stocks Signaling a Recession?

Not necessarily; market slides don't always mean economic rout. Still, S&P offers defensive strategiesand stock picksfor antsy investors

With so much discussion of recession in the markets these days, it's time for a brief refresher about the "R" word. U.S. economic recessions are contractions in growth identified by the Business Cycle Dating Committee of the National Bureau of Economic Research, usually well after the fact. Arthur Okun, an economic adviser to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, developed the rule of thumb in which two successive quarters of decline in real (inflation-adjusted) gross domestic product signals a recession. (It's only a guide, however, as the recessions of 1981 and 2001 occurred with only one quarter of GDP decline.)

Since 1945, there have been 11 recessions, occurring every 5.5 years on average. The longest stretch between recessions was the 128 months separating the 1990 and 2001 recessions. The shortest was in the early 1980s, with only 18 months between them; some economists say those two were just one long recession separated by a short spate of growth. On average, recessions have lasted a little more than 10 months. Six stuck around 10 months or more, with the two longest occurring in the 1970s and the 1980s.

Since the intrinsic value of stocks is based largely on the underlying growth in corporate earnings, it should come as no surprise that equity investors have historically anticipated the onset of economic slowdowns or contractions. Every recession since World War II was preceded by declines in equity prices that in seven cases became bear markets (a decline of 20% or more), in three cases became contractions (declines of 10%-20%) and only once resulted in a pullback (a 5% to 10% decline). In all, the average sell-off in equity prices before and during recessions saw a decline of 26% in value for the Standard & Poor's 500-stock index.

In addition, more speculative benchmarks, such as the Nasdaq composite index and Russell 2000 index of small companies, also posted price declines ahead of recessions—usually in excess of the declines recorded by the larger-cap indexes. Due to the U.S.'s global influence, the decline in U.S. equity prices during these periods may also have largely influenced the 23% average decline of the MSCI-EAFE's (EFA) (a benchmark of large, global companies in developed nations).

Therefore, the reason investors have such an overwhelming fear of recessions, in our opinion, is the magnitude and frequencies of declines associated with these economic weak spots. What's more, investors have come to learn that during recessions, there are few places to hide.

Rotations and Recessions

An old saying states "There is always a bull market someplace"—either in individual sectors or industries. Does this adage hold true during recessionary periods? Yes, but not for many. S&P introduced its Global Industry Classification System (GICS) in 1994, globally categorizing companies into a consistent number of subindustries at the detailed level and sectors at the summarized level since 1990. Prior to 1990, only subindustry-level data were available (they were then called industry-level data). To see how sectors and subindustries fared during the equity market declines identified in the accompanying table, I computed the price performances for the pre-1990 industries during the eight recessionary periods since 1945 (I had to exclude the 1944 observations for lack of data) and averaged their performances up to the sector level.

After 1990, the subindustry and sector performances were computed using available indexes. I then computed a weighted performance value and frequency of market outperformance for all 10 sectors in the S&P 500 and 36 subindustries that participated in all 10 periods observed. As with all historical comparisons, please bear in mind that what happened in the past does not necessarily hold true for the future.

On a sector level, I found that there was no place to hide: on average, all 10 sectors in the S&P 500 posted a decline. During all observations, the overall benchmark fell an average 21%, using month-end data based on the average industry (prior to 1990) or the S&P 500 (post 1990). Understandably, the smallest declines were recorded by the traditionally defensive sectors (called "defensive" because they usually fell less than the overall market) of Consumer Staples (down 2.4% but beat the overall market 90% of the time), Health Care (average decline of 7.3% and frequency of outperformance, or F.O., at 80%) and Utilities (with an average decline of 15% and a 90% F.O.). Interestingly, Financials also held up relatively well, falling an average 18% and beating the market 80% of the time.

The worst performers were Industrials (which declined an average 29% and beat the market only 10% of the time), Materials (-21%/20%) followed by Consumer Discretionary (-24%/40%) and Energy (-20%/40%).

On a subindustry level, only three groups posted positive returns over the 10 periods: 1) Tobacco, up an average 9.6% with a 100% frequency of outperformance, 2) Household Products, up 1.8% on average and also featuring another perfect F.O. score, and 3) Beverages (Alcoholic), which gained an average 6.0%, and beat the market 80% of the time.

Honorable mention goes to three more groups: 1) Foods (now called Packaged Foods & Meats) which fell an average 2.3% but posted a 90% frequency of outperformance, 2) Pharmaceuticals, which fell an average 8.3% with posted an F.O. of 90%, and 3) Beverages (Non-Alcoholic), now called Soft Drinks, which declined 6.2% and recorded an F.O. of 80%. Interestingly, while Gold declined an average 5.4%, it beat the market only 50% of the time.

Does Today's Posturing Point to a Further Pullback?

Many investors tell me they strive to understand where we are in the economic cycle in order to decide which sectors to invest in. My initial response is that if the stock market anticipates the economy by nearly nine months, wouldn't one want to observe sector rotation in order to see if we are headed for an economic downturn? To paraphrase a top forties song of 1963, that's "easier said than done." I have found that whenever the market appears to be undergoing a decline—be it on the order of noise (0%-5%), a pullback (5%-10%), correction (10%-20%) or a bear market (20%+)—sector rotation since the start of the decline frequently occurs with defensives on top and cyclicals on the bottom.

Unfortunately for strategists with an intermediate-term time horizon (six to 12 months), while there have been 11 recessions since 1945, there have been 49 pullbacks, 16 corrections, and 10 bear markets. Therefore 64 of these 75 market sell-offs incorrectly anticipated the 11 eventual recessions. What's more, these alignments usually didn't last very long. Pullbacks typically recovered in about two months, while corrections righted themselves in fewer than four months. So it is imperative that we be confident of a recession before we call for defensive posturing. And right now we aren't.

A "Charmin" Economy

If one merely looked at the average time between recessions (now six years since the last one), one could conclude that another recession is due. S&P's Chief Economist David Wyss disagrees. With apologies to the longtime bathroom tissue pitchman Mr. Whipple, S&P sees economic softness ahead, but not the squeeze of recession. We forecast that U.S. real GDP growth will decline from the 3.9% pace recorded in the third quarter of 2007 to a 0.6% growth rate in the first quarter of 2008, book-ended by a more favorable 1.4% growth rate in the 2007 fourth quarter and a 1.5% advance in the 2008 second quarter. Wyss admits that we may come perilously close to at least one quarter of real GDP decline, and has therefore elevated his risk of recession to 40% from 33%. He sees consumer growth slowing in 2008, but not evaporating as result of a continued strength in employment. And while domestic demand may be slowing, Wyss sees exports rising 10% in 2008, following the near 8% advance in 2007, and serving as an offsetting source of growth.

Oil prices remain the swing factor, in our opinion. S&P recently raised its oil price forecast to an average $84.67 per barrel for 2008. Wyss recently wrote "Most analysts believe the current run-up was caused by the geopolitics, and the balance of supply and demand suggests a lower price. However we have been saying that for a while, and prices keep going up." S"P therefore thinks higher oil prices are more the result of strong global demand, rather than a rising risk of supply disruption. This distinction is important, in our opinion. Wyss reasons that when demand pulls oil prices, the higher costs to the oil importers are balanced by higher income for oil exporters, who either spend the money or invest it. This recycling of petroleum revenues should help keep the world economy going despite higher costs.

We also believe a proactive Federal Reserve will help the U.S. avoid recession. The Fed has cut the Discount rate three times and the Fed funds rate twice since August. We think the Fed's recent statement was tough, but S&P Economics expects the weakness in the economy to force another rate cut, most likely in January. The Fed is right to be concerned about inflation, in our view, especially given the falling dollar and its impact on consumer prices. But in the short run, we see recession as the bigger risk.

Technically Speaking: Down But Not Out

Mark Arbeter, S&P's chief technical strategist, agrees that recent market action has been ugly, but he's not convinced that a bear market is at hand. For him, the August lows for the major stock indexes still hold the key. If they are broken, however, he thinks the long-term charts will be warning of a bear market ahead. For now, however, Arbeter reminds us that the August lows are still holding for the S&P 500 and Nasdaq, and states that the Dow's break of its closing low was very minor.

Other indicators also suggest to him that this is likely to be an 8%-12% decline from recent highs, and not the start of a new bear market. In particular, he has not seen bearish "crossovers" of exponential moving averages (EMAs)—the 17-week and 43-week comparison is his favorite. He also notes that trendlines and relative strength indicators (RSIs) also remain in bullish territory. Market internals also appear washed out, which indicate to him that a bottom is near.

Finally, he points to investor sentiment being extremely bearish, which, when used as a contrary indicator, has been historically indicative of intermediate term bottoms. But once again, as with all historical looks back, past performance is no guarantee of future results.

Sticking with Our Weightings

S&P's Equity Strategy Group is maintaining its non-recessionary investment stance, but acknowledges that an inflection point may be near. We currently recommend overweighting the Information Technology sector, while underweighting Consumer Discretionary and Financials. Should the S&P 500 ultimately signal an approaching bear market based on the factors mentioned above, however, we still believe the repositioning of sector emphasis will be worthwhile. Even though the market may have surrendered up to 12% of its value before the signal was given, we are reminded that average recession-related bear markets have given back 26% of the market's value. A correctly timed call, therefore, could occur with more than 50% of the overall decline yet to come. You'll just have to stay tuned.

Defensive Recommendations

Currently 87 of the more than 1500 stocks covered by S&P's U.S. equity analysts carry 5-STARS, or "strong buy" recommendations. Those investors who would rather not wait for a signal to increase their exposure to traditionally defensive sectors—Consumer Staples (XLP; recent price, $29), Health Care (XLV; $35) and Utilities (XLU; $42)—should either consider the corresponding sector ETFs or the following list of 5-STARS stocks, which are shown along with their current price, projected 12-month target price, and potential price appreciation.

5-STARS Stocks in Defensive Sectors
Sector/Company (Ticker) Price (11/23/07) S&P 12-mo. Target Price Potential Gain %
Consumer Staples      
Altria Group (MO) $72.97 $85 16
Colgate-Palmolive (CL) $79 $87 10
CVS Caremark (CVS) $41.94 $48 14
Procter & Gamble (PG) $72.86 $81 11
Health Care      
Aetna (AET) $54.14 $68 26
Bristol-Myers Squibb (BMY) $28.08 $38 35
Covance (CVD) $82.51 $98 19
Hologic (HOLX) $63.81 $75 18
ICON PLC (ICLR) $58.35 $72 23
Laboratory Corp. of America (LH) $69.59 $90 29
McKesson (MCK) $67 $74 10
Merck (MRK) $57.66 $66 14
Mindray Medical (MR) $37 $54 46
Psychiatric Solutions (PSYS) $37.01 $48 30
Schering-Plough (SGP) $29.18 $37 27
Teva Pharmaceutical (TEVA) $43.77 $51 17
Thermo Fisher (TMO) $57.21 $78 36
NICOR (GAS) $41.66 $50 20

Industry Momentum List Update

Here is this week's list of the industries in the S&P 1500 with Relative Strength Rankings of "5" (price performances in the past 12 months that were among the top 10% of sub-industries in the S&P 1500), along with a stock with the highest S&P STARS (tie goes to the highest market value).

Subindustry Company (Ticker) S&P STARS Rank Price (11/23/07)
Coal & Consumable Fuels Peabody Energy (BTU) 4 $53
Commodity Chemicals Lyondell Chemical (LYO) 3 $47
Construction & Engineering Jacobs Engineering (JEC) 5 $78
Diversified Metals & Mining Freeport-McMoRan Copper (FCX) 2 $93
Education Services Career Education (CECO) 5 $29
Fertilizers & Agr. Chem. Monsanto (MON) 3 $90
Health Care Services Laboratroy Corp. of America (LH) 5 $70
Industrial Gases Air Products (APD) 3 $93
Internet Retail (AMZN) 2 $81
Life Sciences Thermo Fisher (TMO) 5 $57
Oil & Gas Drilling Noble Corp. (NE) 5 $51
Oil & Gas Equipment & Services Schlumberger (SLB) 4 $94
Oil & Gas Exploration & Production Chesapeake Energy (CHK) 4 $38
Tires & Rubber Goodyear Tire (GT) 3 $27
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