By JACK HOUGH
The U.S. economy seems at risk for another recession. That has sent stock investors fleeing from economically sensitive companies, like makers of construction equipment and computer chips, and rushing to embrace steady earners, like companies that make ketchup or cigarettes.
But bargain hunters with a long-term focus may want to do precisely the opposite.
That's because outsize demand for shares perceived as safe has left them looking pricey -- which, ironically, may make them less safe than investors think they are. Risky stocks, meanwhile, trade at deep discounts.
Consider: Among members of Standard & Poor's 500-stock index, shares of companies that make consumer staples like breakfast cereal are 17% more expensive relative to this year's earnings forecasts than shares of companies that sell consumer discretionary items like restaurant meals.
Likewise, utilities, whose profits are as steady as customer demand for electricity, are 37% more expensive relative to this year's earnings forecasts than shares of energy companies, whose profits swing with prices for oil and natural gas.
Discounts for economically sensitive stocks have gotten unusually large by historical standards, according to Paul Quinsee, a stock strategist at J.P. Morgan Asset Management. And stocks with volatile share prices have rarely been as cheap as they are now, relative to the broad market over the past 25 years.
For example, the 100 members of the S&P 500 whose share prices have been the least volatile over the past five years (in other words, "low-beta" stocks) sell for 15.6 times projected earnings for their current fiscal years. The 100 that have been most volatile ("high-beta" stocks), sell for 13.1 times projected earnings.
In other words, investors can get a 16% discount by going after risky stocks. Those stocks could suffer earnings declines in the event of a recession, and they'll likely produce larger short-term price swings in any event. Even so, a 16% edge is worth two years of extra stock returns, based on the market's historical average.
And these "risky" stocks aren't exactly weak performers.
Joy Global (JOY),
Compare that with Clorox (CLX),
If recession hits, bleach will continue to sell well, while mining machines may not. But Joy Global's valuation suggests that the threat is priced in, and then some.
Recession looks possible, but not inevitable. The U.S. economy expanded at an annualized pace of 1.5% in the second quarter, according to the Commerce Department's first of three estimates. (Its second, based on more data, is scheduled for release on Aug. 29.) That's down from 2% growth in the first quarter, but it's still positive. Many economists define a recession as two or more consecutive quarters of economic contraction.
Even if recession hits, some economically sensitive companies may prosper as a result of industry trends. For example, the valuable metal content of ores is declining, which means miners must do more digging to produce a given quantity of metal, says Sammy Simnegar, manager of Fidelity International Capital Appreciation, a mutual fund. That bodes well for equipment companies, he says.
Fidelity fund managers typically don't comment on individual stocks, but as of the end of June, Mr. Simnegar's fund held both Joy Global and Caterpillar (CAT),
Mr. Quinsee says there are compelling values among stocks in the car, semiconductor, homebuilding and energy industries.