Sector Rotation Provides Clues About Current Market Environment

The move in U.S. stocks over the past few months has been impressive. The rapid move has talking heads on TV proclaiming, “we’re overbought” and chances are, you or your neighbor think “this won’t end well.” Unfortunately, “overbought” is an ambiguous, bias-confirming adjective and “this won’t end well” is not an investment plan. Frankly, markets can stay “overbought” for a very long time (see 1995-2000). And those who lament, “this won’t end well”, will eventually be right; five weeks from now or five years from now. Neither of the aforementioned adds any value to the decision-making required to participate and profit in markets. If we’re going to make money in the markets, we need to understand how they operate and have an if/then plan ready to go. One of the more important aspects of understanding a market is looking underneath the surface and identify the undercurrents impacting supply and demand. An important exercise we can implement is studying sector rotation, which takes place as money moves from one industry sector to another. This process can give us clues and insights into the current market environment. Let’s put the work in.

At 360 Investment Research, we like to take advantage of Relative Rotation Graphs (RRG) Charts™ [1]. These charts show you an investable asset’s relative strength and momentum relative to a collection of other securities. Developed by Julius de Kempenaer of RRG Research, RRGs help us identify where we should be invested, or be looking to invest, within a universe of investments. Decisions should not be based solely on RRG analysis, but these charts definitely help us focus on those areas of the investment universe that deserve it. They give us the big picture within one picture. We appreciate their usefulness in observing sector rotation and you should too.

Using RRG™ analysis, we’re going to look at the relative strength of the U.S. Market’s largest sectors, using the S&P 500 as our benchmark. Basically, we want to see where in the U.S. Market money is moving and where we should be focusing our attention. We want to observe sector rotation from a momentum point of view. Accordingly, we’re going to use the following ETFs representing the 9 largest U.S. sectors and compare them against the S&P 500:

  • XLP (Consumer Staples)
  • XLY (Consumer Discretionary)
  • XLE (Energy)
  • XLF (Financials)
  • XLV (Health Care)
  • XLI (Industrials)
  • XLB (Materials)
  • XLK (Technology)
  • XLU (Utilities)

In the RRG™ below, the long tails represent the movement of each sector’s ETF over the past 7 weeks in comparison to the S&P 500 ETF, SPY. What do we see? The first thing to notice is the chart of SPY in the upper right corner. U.S. stocks have been moving upward in a positive trend. A series of higher highs and higher lows is about a simple as it gets in identifying an upward trend. Accordingly, when we analyze this chart, we want to be cognizant of the fact U.S. stocks as a whole have been a pretty good place to be.

RRG Sector Rotation Chart of US Sectors

Over the past 7 weeks, we can see there’s been some decent sector rotation. Right away, we notice three sectors in the blue upper left quadrant improving together. They used to be laggards during the strong push upward in the S&P 500. Over the past month and a half, these laggards have shown quality improvement. The three sectors are Consumer Staples (XLP), Health Care (XLV), and Utilities (XLU). Is there anything these sectors have in common? I thought you would never ask. These three sectors are considered defensive (or low beta) sectors. Money managers will move money into these sectors if they are undervalued or to protect assets during a decline in the market. After all, people get sick, need toilet paper, and buy electricity regardless of economic conditions (for the most part). So this improvement could simply be a healthy rotation, providing further fuel to the upside, or a warning that a decline in the market may be upon us. Before we go jumping to conclusions, it should be noted that a decline could be anything from -1% to -100%. As humans, we have this weird quirk where we assume the worst. It’s part of our fight or flight survival instinct. There’s nothing wrong with it unless this reaction clouds our vision so badly we make poor investment decisions. In order to get more clarity, let’s look at each of these three sectors individually from a price perspective.

First, Consumer Staples. Here’s the weekly chart:

Consumer Staples Weekly Chart

Demand for Consumer Staples since late 2016 has driven XLP up to an area where sellers have shown up in the past. Interestingly, we notice XLP broke above a similar area of supply (the lower shaded area), which turned into support. That breakout took place in February 2016. You guessed it, while the S&P 500 was bottoming after the worst start to a year on record, Consumer Staples was breaking out. If XLP can break above the current level of supply near $55, it might not necessarily be a bad thing. This sector could be signaling the next leg up and be a leader in the overall market.

Next up, Utilities. No electricity = no wi-fi = armageddon.

Utilities Weekly Chart

Similar to Consumer Staples, Utilities were breaking above prior resistance (middle shaded area) in February 2016. Further back, we can see Utilities were a relatively safe place to be during the market upheaval taking place in late 2015. In fact, from late 2015 through early 2016, the Utility sector outperformed the other 8 major sectors. And just like Consumer Staples, XLU is at a very important level. The $51 handle marks an area where sellers have shown up in the past.

Finally, Health Care’s weekly chart:

Health Care Weekly Chart

This one is both the same, yet different, from the aforementioned sectors. Hwut? I know. Mind blowing.

First, let’s stick with the similarities. Health Care (XLV) bottomed via a false breakdown (price moved below previous demand and quickly reversed up) in February 2016 along with the rest of the market. That’s where the similarity ends. Looking further left on the chart, it’s apparent demand for this important sector was high for several years in the past. In fact, XLV outperformed the S&P 500 each year from 2011-2015. That’s five years of market leadership. If this important sector could retake its leadership title, it would be a tailwind for the broad market. And just last week, it showed signs of doing just that as buyers drove price through an area where sellers had shown up urgently twice before. This breakout is significant. The longer Health Care can stay above $74, the more likely this sector will recapture its market leadership title. Keep an eye on this one.

In conclusion, the last few weeks have seen defensive sectors improve dramatically. This sector rotation could be a harbinger of an incoming broad market decline or a sign of healthy undercurrents for this raging bull market. We don’t need to predict what’s next. We’ll watch price instead. Price keeps us on the right side of the trade and knows more than we do.

As always, you can see our daily market thoughts on Twitter @360Research

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[1]  Note: The terms “Relative Rotation Graph” and “RRG” are registered trademarks of RRG Research.

Disclaimer: Nothing in this article should be construed as investment advice or a solicitation to buy or sell a security. You invest based on your own decisions.