Although we don't believe in timing the market or panicking over daily movements, we do like to keep an eye on market changes -- just in case they're material to our investing thesis.
The Dow Jones Industrials (DJINDICES:^DJI) got crushed in January, falling more than 5% and setting the stage for what could be the stock market's first down year since 2008. But what's especially disturbing is the fact that three stocks -- Chevron (NYSE:CVX), General Electric (NYSE:GE), and Travelers (NYSE:TRV) -- fell more than 10% during the first month of 2014. Should you get out of these stocks to avoid further losses, or is now the buying opportunity that many investors have waited for?
One disturbing thing about the Dow's worst-performing stocks is that they're not concentrated in a particular area of the economy. Chevron's losses have largely come from the challenges that the entire big-oil complex has had in maintaining extremely impressive production growth rates in recent years from the shale oil and gas boom. With energy prices having failed to keep climbing from their fairly lofty levels, Chevron hasn't been able to overcome trends toward falling production in order to maintain overall revenue levels.
On the other hand, many see General Electric's losses as having come not from fundamental problems with its business but rather from disappointed Wall Street analysts. Even though GE has become an industrial innovator with aggressive moves into promising niches like energy infrastructure, investors seem to believe that the stock has come too far in its impressive recovery from the financial crisis five years ago. Similarly, Travelers has had great quarters as a result of having favorable loss experience recently, as a lack of any substantial hurricane activity last year gave investors a respite from losses in past years. Yet investors chose to emphasize headwinds from potentially rising interest rates in the future in pushing the stock down so much.
The other problematic aspect of the Dow stocks that fell the most in January is that at least in two cases, the culprits have some of the lowest earnings multiples in the average. Both Chevron and Travelers trade at around 10 times earnings. That makes them attractive to those who don't want to pay the much higher P/E ratios that most higher-growth stocks in the Dow fetch currently.
Many bull markets reach points at which investors give up on slower-growth companies in favor of the momentum stocks that perform the best in rising markets. That might well be happening here, as investors start to shift their portfolios toward some cyclical stocks that were beaten down throughout 2013.
But the other thing to look at is whether current earnings levels are sustainable. Investors believe that Chevron and Travelers will see their earnings fall this year compared with 2013. If that proves to be the case and the market has a challenging year overall, then it could put even more pressure on these particular stocks.
When markets fall, it's smart to look at the worst performers to see if you can figure out whether problems are isolated to certain types of companies or are more widespread. In this case, the breadth of the downturn points to greater reason for general concern. For investors who hold stocks for years rather than weeks, though, more attractive share prices are an unquestionable positive.
Dan Caplinger has no position in any stocks mentioned. You can follow him on Twitter: @DanCaplinger. The Motley Fool recommends Chevron and owns shares of General Electric. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't 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.