At 360 Investment Research, we like to dig deep into the market and take a look at what sectors are leading the US market upward. By analyzing sectors on a relative basis against the S&P 500, we can gain insight into what sectors are leading the charge. This, in turn, may provide clues on where we are in the market/economic cycle. The theoretical market/economic cycle is a model based on the work of Sam Stovall in his book, S&P’s Guide to Sector Rotation. The basic premise is that different sectors are stronger at different points in the economic cycle. StockCharts.com has done a great job elaborating on this rotational cycle. The chart below is courtesy of StockCharts.com. It does a good job of visualizing these relationships and the order in which each sector should outperform in the context of the overall market. Moving from left to right, we see that Cyclicals (or Consumer Discretionary) and Technology lead the market out of bottoms. Industrials, Basic Materials, and Energy lead during a Bull Market. And Staples, Healthcare, Utilities, and Finance are the safe havens during Bear Markets. It’s not as clear cut as what I just wrote or what is visualized below, but it is a really great guide to the likely relative performance characteristics of each sector as the market progresses.
Researching approximately how each sector is performing can be a good exercise in determining where we might be in the overall market cycle. Obviously, if we’re in a healthy Bull Market, we want to see Bull Market leaders like Technology, Industrials, Materials and Energy outperforming (or leading) the overall market. Conversely, we would be concerned about the overall prospects of the market and economy if we see that big money is moving into defensive sectors like Staples, Healthcare, and Utilities. So let’s dig in and see what sectors are leading the overall market.
One of the best ways of observing which sectors are doing the best and which sectors are lagging is through the use of Relative Rotation Graphs (RRG) . RRG charts show us the relative strength and momentum for a group of stocks or ETFs. These stocks or ETFs are compared against a benchmark. In our case, we’re going to compare the aforementioned sectors using the overall market (the S&P 500) as our benchmark. That is to say, the performance of each of these sectors will be compared against the performance of the S&P 500. If a sector is outperforming the market, they are said to be the leaders. If a sector is underperforming the market, they are the laggards. On the RRG chart below, the following ETFs are being used as proxies for each sector:
- XLY (Cyclicals or Consumer Discretionary)
- XLK (Technology)
- XLI (Industrials)
- XLB (Materials)
- XLE (Energy)
- XLP (Staples)
- XLV (Health Care)
- XLU (Utilities)
- XLF (Financials)
Of the ETFs above, those with strong relative strength and momentum in comparison to the S&P 500 appear in the green Leading quadrant. Those with relative momentum fading move into the yellow Weakening quadrant. If relative strength then fades, they move into the red Lagging quadrant. And when momentum starts to pick up again, they shift into the blue Improving quadrant. In the RRG below, the long tails represent the movement of each sector over the past 20 weeks in comparison to the S&P 500. So what do we see? We see that XLV, XLU, XLP, and XLF have moved from positions of weakness and laggards to positions of leadership. Health Care (XLV), Utilities (XLU), Staples (XLP), and Financials (XLF) – defensive sectors – are leading this market. On the other hand, Technology (XLK) is weakening while Energy (XLE), Materials (XLB), and Cyclicals (XLY) are lagging. Bluntly, defensive stocks are leading and those who we want to lead a Bull Market are lagging. Money is flowing into defensive sectors. This is not what a healthy and powerful Bull Market looks like. Does it mean that this the top of the Bull Market? No one knows that. But, enough money is flowing into defensive sectors that investors like you and me should take notice.
 Note: The terms “Relative Rotation Graph” and “RRG” are registered trademarks of RRG Research.