By JACK HOUGH
Stock investors are having a mostly happy new year. The S&P 500-stock index returned around 5% through Friday. And yet the slice of the index that represents safety to many investors -- consumer staples -- is down slightly.
Earnings for the sector have likewise failed to impress. It's early in the current reporting season, with results in for just 59 of the 500 index members; 20 of those companies, or 34%, have so far fallen short of Wall Street forecasts -- a higher than usual miss rate. For consumer staples companies, however, four out of six, or 67%, have missed estimates.
Staples are goods like food, beer, cigarettes and diapers that tend to stay in steady demand even when the economy sours. Nervous investors have rushed into shares of companies that sell such goods in recent years, bidding prices higher. The Consumer Staples Select Sector SPDR (XLP),
That has left staples shares priced at a premium. The sector recently traded at 16 times projected 2011 earnings, versus 13 times earnings for the broad 500 index. Fast earnings growth can make such premiums worth paying, but analysts foresee below-average earnings growth for staples companies this year -- 8%, versus 10% for the index.
The economic profiles of some staple goods may have changed. An abundance of small-batch beer has left big brewers fighting volume declines, and spirits and wine have gotten posher, fueling past growth but adding to economic sensitivity today. Tobacco faces smoking bans. Even packaged food makers are caught between higher ingredient prices and a reluctance among shoppers to pay more.
General Mills (GIS),
If staples shares look weak at the moment, technology shares look surprisingly strong. Within the S&P 500, the sector is up 6% this year. It trades at around 13 times earnings. Only two of 12 companies that have reported earnings during the current season have missed forecasts. Last Thursday, Microsoft (MSFT),
Together, those three have an average dividend yield 2.5%, just shy of the 2.7% yield for the SPDR staples fund. And although computer chips, software and technology consulting won't hold up like franks and beans in the event of another recession, the tech trio has a balance sheet advantage. Many staples companies use considerable debt to try to enhance returns. IBM owes little and pays minuscule interest rates. Microsoft and Intel sit on large cash surpluses.