Energy and Materials Stocks Are Leading the Way
Investors are driving up shares of energy and materials companies in an otherwise rocky month for the stock market, betting that inflation will accompany swift economic growth.
The two commodity-linked groups are leading the S&P 500’s 11 sectors in May, with respective gains of 10% and 6.9%. The broad U.S. stock index, meanwhile, is down 0.4%, stung by losses in technology and other growth stocks. Money managers worry that a sharp rise in prices could erode profits and spur the Federal Reserve to lift interest rates sooner than expected, raising borrowing costs and reducing the value of future cash flows in frequently used models.
Energy and materials stocks are among the cyclical areas of the market that typically thrive as the economy revs up. With travelers flocking to U.S. airports, diners returning to restaurants and many states lifting restrictions, that is just what is happening.
A flurry of growth in the first three months of the year returned the U.S. economy to a hair below its pre-pandemic size, and economists expect growth to pick up further in the current quarter. That should boost demand for energy and materials—an increase that could outpace an accompanying rise in supply.
“As people start to travel again, that directly impacts the demand for oil and gas,” said Jennifer Foster, co-chief investment officer for equities at Chilton Trust. “And then as folks are interested in spending more and there’s a bid for automobiles, for instance, that’s leading to shortages along the supply chain.”
Among the top-performing stocks in the S&P 500 in May are oil-field services company Baker Hughes Co. BKR 4.82% , which is up 31%; steelmaker Nucor Corp. NUE 3.72% , up 29%, and packaging giant Sealed Air Corp. SEE 0.09% , up 14%.
It has been a tougher stretch for broad stock indexes as investors fret that a surge in inflation could upend a market trading at historically high valuations. A steeper-than-expected jump in the consumer-price index last week contributed to the S&P 500 and Dow Jones Industrial Average posting their steepest three-day declines in nearly seven months.
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So far, Fed officials have said they expect any run-up in inflation to be transitory. But for investors worried about the threat of rising prices, shares of fuel and materials suppliers could be a decent bet.
“If oil prices are going to rise, you want a company that sells oil, not one that buys oil,” said Steve Chiavarone, portfolio manager at Federated Hermes, which manages more than $600 billion. “If various commodity prices rise, you want to own materials companies that are selling that commodity rather than companies that are buying that.”
Federated Hermes bought shares of cyclical stocks, including those of energy and materials companies, in the summer of 2020, moving to an overweight position in those sectors, Mr. Chiavarone said.
Commodity prices have largely rallied this year. Brent crude, the global oil benchmark, has advanced 34%, and the International Energy Agency said last week that the oil-supply glut that built up during the pandemic has nearly returned to normal levels. Copper prices, meanwhile, recently climbed to records for the first time in more than a decade as investors bet that the economic rebound will drive demand for industrial metals. Iron ore prices have also hit records.
“You’ve got fever-pitch pricing in copper and iron ore, and you’ve got very strong recovery in oil,” said Jeffrey Germain, director of investments at Brandes Investment Partners.
Some analysts caution that sky-high commodity markets might have little room to run higher, limiting the additional upside for stocks tied to those prices.
On an April earnings call, Nucor Chief Executive Leon Topalian said the company was adding shifts at many of its steel-product facilities to meet demand. Nucor’s per-share earnings far exceeded its previous quarterly record, he said.
Although materials and energy shares have been making gains, that hasn’t translated into an advance for the S&P 500 this month. That is in large part because the U.S. equity benchmark weights stocks according to market value, giving larger companies more sway over the index’s performance.
The materials and energy sectors each represented 2.7% of the S&P 500 at the end of April, according to S&P Dow Jones Indices. The technology sector, magnified by last year’s standout performance, made up nearly 27% of the index.
Tech and other growth stocks have been hit particularly hard, as investors consider how higher inflation and interest rates could dent the companies’ future profit growth. Gains by the commodity-linked corners of the stock market haven’t been able to compensate.
“At the moment, commodities are a much smaller segment of the S&P 500,” said Michael Cuggino, president and portfolio manager at Permanent Portfolio Family of Funds. “Even though the moves have been strong, they haven’t impacted the index as much.”
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Published at Mon, 17 May 2021 20:49:00 +0000