Picking High-Beta Stocks

At seekingalpha.com, the folks at Bespoke Investment Group recently highlighted the stocks in the Russell 1,000 with the highest and lowest betas. Such a list will invariably make many investors tune in, as beta is taken very seriously by many. (I myself learned about it back in business school. It's a measure of a stock price's volatility. If a stock moves pretty much in step with the overall market, its beta is around 1.0. If it tends to go up or down twice as much as the market does, its beta is around 2.0. If it's half as volatile as the market, its beta is around 0.50.)

Here are the top four firms, with their betas:

  • Joy Global (Nasdaq: JOYG  ) , 2.36
  • Akamai (Nasdaq: AKAM  ) , 2.14
  • General Cable (NYSE: BGC  ) , 2.09
  • Rambus (Nasdaq: RMBS  ) , 2.07

And the bottom four:

  • Dade Behring (Nasdaq: DADE  ) , 0.29
  • Sierra Health (NYSE: SIE  ) , 0.43
  • Dean Foods (NYSE: DF  ) , 0.45
  • Healthnet, 0.46

Why you might care ... or not
So what can you do with this information? Well, you might make some investment bets based on it. If you expect the market to surge, for example, you could buy into some high-beta stocks, expecting them to surge even more.

But there are some problems with that approach. For one thing, it's really betting more than investing. The market may not move the way you expect, and any given company is executing its strategic plan and will ultimately advance or retreat based on its future performance, not its past tendencies. Interestingly, just about half of the 25 top-beta companies have racked up negative year-to-date returns, while about 40% of the low-beta companies have done the same.

The main thing to remember is that the best investors tend to focus on the long term. Given that, it shouldn't matter so much whether a stock's ascent is represented by a relatively smooth or a markedly jagged line. As long as it gets where you expect it to, ideally over many years, its volatility along the way is rather meaningless.

If you're looking for rockets, though, consider test-driving (for free) our Rule Breakers newsletter, which focuses on companies breaking old molds, with the potential for great rewards (along with greater-than-average risk).


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