How is the market like a funky hard drive? There are a lot of bad sectors out there.
You probably don't realize it after watching stocks kick up and down in unison like a Radio City chorus line, but there really are some industries that just aren't going to bounce back when the rest of the economy does.
I'm going to single out a few of the sectors that scare me the most, but with an unexpected twist: I am going to single out a stock in every industry that has what it takes to be the exception to the drool.
Your time isn't trivial, so let's dive right in.
If you're building a community of cookie-cutter homes in the suburbs or have cranes erecting metropolitan high-rises, I can't feel sorry for you. You've seen the glut of residential properties expand, yet you still unrolled the blueprints.
Shame on you, homebuilders.
Some investors feel that the time to pounce on the developers is now, just as losses are narrowing and some survivors are even back in the black. I wouldn't rush to that conclusion.
Existing home sales fell a jaw-dropping 27% in July, a record drop since that metric was introduced over a decade ago. Even some of the homebuilders that are holding up better than the pack -- I'm talking about you, Toll Brothers (NYSE: TOL ) -- are pointing to softening demand and a slowdown in new contracts. There are almost 4 million unsold homes in this country. Why buy new, when serious deals are there for the taking in better locations?
Exception: NVR (NYSE: NVR ) is the only homebuilder that I've recently recommended in my "Throw This Stock Away" column -- and with good reason. A healthy balance sheet and prudent management have helped NVR survive the malaise. It posted just one quarterly deficit at the tail end of 2008 and has gone on to top analyst profit targets in five of the past six quarters.
Cable and satellite television providers
Are cable programming contracts the new landlines? It's no longer a mere theory that folks will begin canceling their old-school television packages. Media researcher SNL Kagan reports that this past quarter was the first time the pay television industry suffered net subscriber losses. There were 216,000 fewer homes on cable, satellite television, or telco offerings than there were at the end of the first quarter. SNL Kagan feels the blip is temporary, but I believe it's more than an anomaly.
The tech darlings are rushing to roll out home theater devices that make it easier to pluck content from cyberspace. Apple's (Nasdaq: AAPL ) new hobby may be a boon for content creators but a death sport for the ready, willing, and cable. It's true that the networks need to play along. If they can't offset the drying up of cable programming fees with online revenue-sharing opportunities, content can trip this revolution up before it gets a chance to charge.
Regardless, we live in customized times. Even hundreds of channels are no match for the on-demand mix of studio content, viral videos, and friend-generated clips that make up today's eye candy library. Economic hardships may push along cable dinosaurs to an earlier grave, but they were heading there anyway.
Exception: DirecTV (Nasdaq: DTV ) has continued to grow during the recession, a shocking tidbit given that it's positioned as the priciest of the satellite television operators. The key draw here is its exclusivity of the NFL Sunday Ticket, with DirecTV paying the football league $1 billion annually through 2014 for those juicy rights. I'm not entirely sold on DirecTV because it will face pricing pressures as competitors mark down their programming packages, but it's a healthier bet than any of its rivals.
Diehard gamers are starting to show signs of life. Electronic Arts' (Nasdaq: ERTS ) Madden 11 sold 5% more copies during last month's debut than the gridiron franchise's installment last year. Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT ) may single-handedly reignite the industry since it's now less than a week away from its eagerly anticipated Halo: Reach, and there's the bar-raising Kinect controller hitting the market before the holidays.
I'm not so confident. There are too many people killing time on free or nearly free smartphone apps and social games on Facebook. It's not the quality of these diversions. They can't compare to the rich console gaming experience. However, it's the time suck that's problematic. Connectivity is also giving the more popular games longer playing lives, eating into the need to shell out $60 for a new game.
Exception: Take-Two Interactive (Nasdaq: TTWO ) delivered an unexpected quarterly profit last week, fueled by the release of Red Dead Redemption. The Western-themed adventure has sold 6.9 million copies since its May launch. I won't sway from my theory that the industry is still in for a world of hurt. The reason why Take-Two's success with a franchise other than Grand Theft Auto -- and to a lesser extent BioShock -- matters is that it makes Take-Two that much more attractive as a buyout candidate. The hungrier that EA and its cronies get, the tastier that Take-Two will become.
Are any of these sectors better than Rick thinks they are? Are there any industries that are uglier? Share your thoughts in the comment box below.