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Looking for Upside Surprises and Positive Rates of Change

Even when economic or earnings results seem bad, stocks can still rise if the news is better than expected. See some areas where results could surprise.

Lately, it may feel like the U.S. stock market is moving to the beat of a different drummer. For weeks, the economic headlines were distressingly bad, but the S&P 500 went up anyway. Stocks may seem disconnected from reality, but this is the way the market typically reacts when the economy is transitioning to a new business cycle. The market is essentially discounting the current news and sees better days ahead.

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Stocks aren’t reacting to news based on whether it is objectively good or bad, but whether it is better or worse than current expectations. An economic report can be very poor, but still be deemed positive if it is better than expected. In a similar vein, if first-time jobless claims are high, but rising at a slower pace than the prior week, that’s a sequential improvement—a bad level but a positive rate of change.

As the worst economic news lands and a new business cycle starts, investors should expect that the sectors that performed best in prior years may lag. Our job is to identify areas that we believe will outperform expectations and prepare for the coming shift in sector leadership. Here are some of our early observations:

  • A rebound in residential real estate could fuel consumer spending. Housing is likely to benefit from low interest rates as well as a potential shift away from urbanization and toward working from home in sectors that can accommodate it. Home-buying also is typically a catalyst for spending on furniture and household goods. 
  • Tech giants may be vulnerable. Giant consumer facing online businesses led the previous business cycle and may be challenged to do better in the future than they are now. There simply isn’t much room for them to surprise to the upside as more regions open and people are no longer confined to their homes with digital channels as their main source of recreation and connection.
  • Sectors reliant on capital spending may disappoint. I expect business spending to be slower to recover from recession than consumer spending. While consumers may experience pent-up demand, public companies are likely to be focused on restoring profit margins. Manufacturing has surprised to the upside lately, but increasing trade tensions with China could impede further improvement.

Of course, there are additional sectors that are expected to do poorly and likely will—such as live entertainment, restaurants, commercial real estate and energy infrastructure, to name a few.

Positive economic surprises should quickly lead to improved earnings estimates for companies poised to benefit from increased consumer spending. Keep an eye on sector and company-level earnings revisions. Remember, for markets right now, it is the direction and rate of change that tends to matter, not the actual level of results.

This article is based on Lisa Shalett’s Global Investment Committee Weekly report from May 26, 2020, “Surprises and Rates of Change.” Ask your Financial Advisor for a copy or find an advisor. Listen to the audiocast based on this report.