After a sizable sell-off, the S&P 500 looks like it could finally be on the mend. The index jumped on Friday and again on Monday to log the best two-day stretch in weeks. Is this a sign that it's time to step into beaten-down large caps like eBay (EBAY -0.22%), FedEx (FDX -3.40%), and H&R Block (HRB 0.05%), which have helped the S&P 500 snap its September slump?
In a word, yes.
While there are still many unknowns ahead that could hold back the broad market, as we start the eighth month of the COVID-19 pandemic, investors have a pretty good handle on which names can thrive in such an environment, and which ones can't.
It makes perfect sense
There are still plenty of stumbling blocks that could stymie or completely derail the recovery effort. One of those tripwires is, of course, the coronavirus. The pace of its spread within and outside of the United States slowed after July's peak, and the world was (more or less) learning how to work around it. In September, though, the number of new daily cases started to grow again. Some companies will struggle to survive another round of shutdowns meant to quell a reenergized surge.
Then there's this year's contentious presidential election, which is likely to become even more contentious as we move toward early November's voting. Many investors feel there's never been more at stake for them.
Let's also not forget the calendar. While the typical September swoon sets up the usual year-end rally, that fourth-quarter advance doesn't generally start taking shape until mid- or even late October. Indeed, as well as the S&P 500 has performed since late last week, it's not actually snapped out of its downtrend.
A common thread
Take a closer look at the market's leading names right now, and you'll find a common thread. That is, they all in some way benefit from the new normal created by the global pandemic.
Take FedEx and eBay, for instance. A recent Harris poll indicated that 35% of Americans would be OK with never setting foot in a retail store again. Most of them are willing to use curbside pickup services, but if they're going to be shopping online anyway, it's just as easy to arrange a shipment to that shopper's front door. FedEx and eBay help make that happen.
H&R Block benefits from the same idea. The tax preparation company has been growing its online market for years, but with the February arrival of the coronavirus in the United States, consumers and corporations have been particularly motivated to look for contactless solutions. The IRS even gave taxpayers until July 15 to finish this year's filing, which gave them time to find the simplest solutions.
And it's not just been these three companies' stocks that have outperformed of late. Intuit Software (the name behind online tax filing platform TurboTax) bolted out of the gate early this week. Though Amazon trails eBay's gain since late last week, it's actually leading eBay's year-to-date advance of 45% with a 67% gain of its own.
FedEx is one of the few names that shrugged off September's market-wide weakness, touching new 52-week highs on Monday. But rival United Parcel Service did the same, for the same underlying reason -- people want more stuff delivered to their home. PayPal and Domino's Pizza are also market leaders for the past few days, the past month, and since the end of last year. Both allow consumers to be consumers without forcing them into face-to-face interactions.
Keep the leash short
Don't blindly plug into the premise and never look back. A harrowing sell-off rooted in reasons bigger than the coronavirus could still pull the rug out from underneath H&R Block, FedEx, eBay, and all the other companies of their ilk that have performed so well of late. If things get really scary, investors can become very indiscriminate sellers.
Barring something unexpected, though, with seven months' worth of pandemic experience under our belts, investors have had time to figure out the winners and losers of the new normal. This is a case where we'd be wise to take the subtle hints being given to us by stocks' individual performances. These recent leaders have deep bullish underpinnings, even if the S&P 500 falters again.