What Are the Winning Sectors Now?

During the first quarter, it seemed that cyclical companies were destined to rule the roost in 2011. How things have changed! Defensive stocks have come roaring back in the second quarter. Oil is well off its highs, and growth estimates are coming down in the U.S. and China. In that context, how do you want to position your portfolio?

The numbers tell a simple story
The numbers clearly show that fund managers have switched horses. For cyclical sectors, outperformance has given way to underperformance, and vice versa for defensive sectors:

Market Segment

Q1*

Q2 (to May 23, 2011)

S&P 500 5.4% (0.6%)
Cyclical Sectors    
 Energy 16.3% (7.5%)
 Materials 4.1% (4.9%)
 Industrials 8.2% (2.3%)
Defensive Sectors    
 Consumer Staples 1.7% 6.9%
 Health Care 5.0% 7.6%
 Utilities 1.6% 5.3%

*As of May 23, 2011. Source: Standard & Poor's.

I sense that defensive sectors remain rich in opportunity. Over time, languishing stock prices and steady earnings increases have brought valuations down to levels that are difficult to ignore. Wal-Mart's (NYSE: WMT  ) price-to-earnings multiple is in the bottom 10% of its range over that past 10 years; so are those of Quest Diagnostics (NYSE: DGX  ) and Constellation Brands (NYSE: STZ  ) .

It's no surprise, then, that hedge funds are beginning to rediscover the merits of the large-cap blue chips – many of which operate in defensive sectors -- as their appetite for risk tracks the declining expectations for economic growth. That flight to quality also shows up in the outperformance of large caps over small caps for the second straight month. (My Foolish colleague Matt Koppenheffer isn't on board. He explains why you shouldn't buy blue chips.)

Now rotate
Resurgent sovereign debt woes in Europe, slower growth, and the uncertainty linked to the end of QE2 could all be catalysts that force the market to revalue defensive stocks. Since that process is only beginning, stock pickers will find opportunity in these sectors. Even as this rotation into defensive sectors begins, there's no reason to exclude cyclical stocks wholesale. JPMorgan Chase (NYSE: JPM  ) at 8.4 times forward earnings? Cyclical or not, that's got to be worth a look.

These aren't just stock ideas, these are "5 Stocks the Motley Fool Owns – And You Should, Too."

The Motley Fool owns shares of Wal-Mart Stores and JPMorgan Chase. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Quest Diagnostics and Wal-Mart Stores, and recommended creating a diagonal call position in Wal-Mart Stores. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.

Fool contributor Alex Dumortier holds no position in any company mentioned. Click here to see his holdings and a short bio. You can follow him on Twitter. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.


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