Last week the Bank of England forecast a recession starting this autumn that it now expects to be deeper and longer than previously assumed. It also expects inflation to hit 13% by the end of the year just months after reassuring that it didn’t expect more than modestly high figures.
Having belatedly acknowledged the extent of the inflation problem, admittedly exacerbated by the impact on energy and food prices the war in Ukraine has had, the UK’s central bank’s nine-member Monetary Policy Committee voted to raise interest rates. Thursday’s 0.5 percentage points rise, which took the BoE’s base rate to 1.75%, was the biggest single increase in 27 years.
The European Central Bank and USA’s Federal Reserve have also taken aggressive measures on rates, with the former also raising rates by 0.5% to 0%. It was the ECB’s first rates rise in 11 years. The Fed went even further, raising rates for the fourth and largest time this year with a 0.75 percentage points hike to between 2.25% and 2.5%.
Aggressive interest rate hikes alongside high levels of inflation tend to result in recession with the combination referred to as stagflation. With inflation expected to remain high next year and not dropping back towards the target 2% before 2023, we could be in for an extended period of recession.
Why stock markets fall during a recession but not all stocks do
Stock markets historically do badly during recessions for the simple reason they are a proxy for the economy and economic activity. When economic activity drops, people and companies have less money or are worried about having less money, so they spend less and companies earn less. Investors also become less optimistic about their prospects and valuations drop.
But the kind of drop in economic activity that leads to recessions is not evenly distributed across all areas of an economy. When consumers cut back on spending, they typically choose to sacrifice some things and not others, rather than applying an even haircut across all costs. And there are goods and services that people spend more on rather than less when tightening their belts.
So while the net impact of a recession has always historically been the London Stock Exchange and other major international stock markets losing market capitalisation, or value, that doesn’t mean all the stocks that constitute them go down. Some go down by more than others. And some stocks grow in value because the companies sell the categories of goods and services people spend more on when they are either poorer or worried about becoming poorer.
Should we be investing “for” a recession?
This surely means all investors need to do to mitigate against a recession is to sell out of the stocks that do badly during an economic slump and buy into those that do well? In theory, yes. In practice, doing that successfully would mean being sure a recession will take place some time before it becomes a reality and timing its onset, then the subsequent recovery, well.
That is of course far easier said than done which is why even professional fund managers don’t attempt the kind of comprehensive portfolio flip that would involve. Some investors will make big bets on events like the onset of a recession or inflation spiralling out of control.
They are the kind of bets that make for dramatic wins like those portrayed in the Hollywood film The Big Crash, which tells the story of a group of traders who predicted and bet big on the 2007 subprime mortgage implosion that triggered the international financial crisis. But as the film relies on for its dramatic tension, the big winners of The Big Crash very nearly got their timing wrong. Another few days and they would have been forced to close their positions just before market conditions turned in their favour and lost everything.
The reality is the big, risky bets that result in spectacular investment wins when they come off are usually far more likely to go wrong than right. Which is why regular investors, rather than high risk traders using leverage, shouldn’t take them. At least not with their main investment portfolio if they don’t have the luxury of being able to justify setting aside 10% to 20% of capital for highr isk-high reward bets.
If you have a well-balanced investment portfolio with a long term horizon and you are happy with the overall quality of your investments, you may choose to do nothing at all to mitigate against the recession that is almost certainly coming. If you have ten years or more until you expect to start drawing down an income from your portfolio, your investments should have plenty of time to recover from this period.
But if you do want to rebalance because you feel your portfolio is generally too heavily weighted towards the kind of growth stocks particularly vulnerable to inflation, higher interest rates and recession, you might want to consider rotating some of your capital into the kind of stocks that might do well in a recession.
How to pick stocks that will do well in a recession?
There are two ways to highlight stocks that might do well in a recession. The first is the most obvious and simplest approach – look at which did well in previous recessions. We had a very brief recession at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic and a much more significant one in 2008/09 in the wake of the international financial crisis. Which companies did well over those periods?
The second approach is to add a layer of complexity into the equation and consider how and why the coming recession might differ from the two most recent historical examples. The 2020 recession was extremely unusual in its brevity. Within a couple of months, stock markets were soaring again as people under quarantine and social distancing restrictions spent more in the digital economy and generally on services and products to enhance their experience being couped up at home.
The 2008/09 recession was also different because it was caused by a systemic failure in the financial sector. Unemployment leapt which is not expected to happen this time around with an especially tight labour market one result of the combination of the pandemic and Brexit. Many households also have higher levels of savings built up during the pandemic which a significant number of analysts believe is softening the impact of inflation.
While there are likely to be constants throughout recessions, there are also differences that should be taken into account. Normally energy companies do badly during a recession as lower economic activity means less energy being used. But energy companies are currently posting record profits because of sky-high energy prices which are one of the major factors behind the expected recession. They should continue to do well while the recession lasts as energy prices dropping again is likely to be one of the catalysts behind the recovery.
The online trading company eToro recently published two baskets of “recession winning stocks” – one made up of Wall Street-listed companies and the other companies listed in the UK. The stocks in each basket were selected because they were the biggest gainers during the last two recessions. Interestingly, they also did well during the intervening period between 2009 and 2020, as well as in the aftermath of the coronavirus crash.
The portfolio of US stocks beat the S&P 500 index of large American businesses by 60 percentage points through the financial crisis between 2007 and 2009 and by 9 percentage points during the Covid crisis in 2020.
The portfolio of UK stocks beat FTSE-100 by 35 percentage points during the financial crisis and by 17 percentage points in the Covid crash. Since 2007, the US portfolio has gained 834%, more than twice the return of the Nasdaq and about five times that of the S&P 500. The UK portfolio’s 129% return is eight times more than the FTSE 100’s, excluding dividends.
“Well represented segments included discount and everyday-low-price retailers as consumers trade down, like Walmart (WMT), Ross Stores (ROST) and Dollar Tree (DLTR).”
“Fast food McDonalds (MCD) is related. Similarly, home DIY, like Home Depot (HD) Lowe’s (LOWE), and auto repair parts stocks Autozone (AZO) and O’Reilly (ORLY). Health care and big biotech is well-represented as inelastic non-discretionary purchases, like Abbott (ABT), Amgen (AMGN), Vertex (VRTX).”
“Also, domestic comforts from toys (Hasbro, HAS) to candy (Hershey, HSY), and getting more from your money and tax (H&R Block, HRB), and educating yourself (2U, TWOU).”
The UK portfolio included the drug makers AstraZeneca and GlaxoSmithKline, which did well because spending money on healthcare and medicines is essential and families don’t tend to cut back even when struggling financially.
The cigarette makers British American Tobacco and Imperial Brands also don’t usually see any downturn in demand because they benefit from a customer base addicted to their products. Both companies pay high and rising dividends. Consumer goods firms such as Unilever and Premier Foods also typically do well because they own strong brands that people bought even after price rises have been passed on.
Proactive Investor also picks out a range of London-listed stocks it expects to do well over the next year or so. In the energy sector that is doing so well at the moment it highlights Harbour Energy as a “core sector stock” and Diversified Energy Company as having “one of the lowest-risk free cash flow profiles in the sector”, while Energean (a client) provides “excellent visibility on multi-decade cash flows”.
Another difference to recent recessions could be how miners do during the one expected from autumn. Normally lower economic activity reduces for demand for commodities but the sector is also facing supply constraints that should see prices supported or rebound quickly.
Copper, mineral sands and diamonds look among the commodities most constrained in terms of supply, with limited supply growth under development. Mining and commodity stocks to look at are suggested as:
“Atalaya Mining (AIM:ATYM, TSX:AYM), Central Asia Metals, Kenmare Resources, Petra Diamonds and Antofagasta, with Tharisa PLC (LSE:THS, JSE:THA) tagged on as platinum group output to be in focus as automotive sales recover.”
“Gold stocks are seen as outperforming the market during the pullback phase, as in March 2020 and in the initial stages of a rebound, with top picks currently Pan African Resources PLC (AIM:PAF, OTCQX:PAFRY, JSE:PAN, OTCQX:PAFRF), Pure Gold Mining Inc (TSX-V:PGM, LSE:PUR, OTC:LRTNF), Wheaton Precious Metals and Yamana Gold (TSX:YRI, LSE:AUY).”
Credit Suisse has also picked out stocks that have historically outperformed during recessions, highlighting:
“London Stock Exchange Group PLC (LSE:LSEG), RELX PLC (LSE:REL), Experian (LSE:EXPN) PLC, Microsoft Corporation (NASDAQ:MSFT) and Visa Inc (NYSE:V).”
While there is nothing wrong with doing some periodic portfolio rebalancing and potentially rotating more assets into stocks seen as likely to thrive in a recession, don’t panic. Recessions have always come and gone as part of the economic cycle and stock markets traditionally go on to greater heights during the subsequent recovery.
That means the chances are your portfolio will regain its losses and add new gains over the years ahead. Buying cheap growth stocks seen as likely candidates to flourish again during the recovery could be seen as just as sensible a tactic as rotating into recession-proof stocks. But if you do decide to reposition to some extent, look for stocks that have not only historically done well during recessions, or could be expected to during this one ahead, but are also healthy companies you would expect to keep doing well when markets recover. Then your success won’t come down to the fickle fate of whether or not you get your timing right.