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Schwab Sector Views: Don’t Buy Expensive Just Because It's Defensive

Schwab Sector Views is our three- to six-month outlook for 11 stock sectors, which represent broad sectors of the economy. It is designed for investors looking for tactical ideas. We typically update our views every two weeks. 

Listen to the latest audio Schwab Sector Views.

It's back! Just as recession worries seemed to be fading after the flare-up in August, investors are once again alarmed at the prospect, amid a barrage of weak data both in the U.S. and around the globe. We recently penned that we're on watch for a recession, given our belief that we're late in the business cycle. We certainly are seeing some signs of that in the markets, with some of the traditionally defensive sectors keeping up with—or even outpacing—some of the more cyclical sectors over the past year. But as the title of this piece implies, some of the classic defensive sectors currently come at a dear price.

What makes a sector defensive?

When we talk about defensive sectors, we're typically focused on the traditional stalwarts: Utilities, Consumer Staples and Health Care.

  • Utilities include heavily regulated gas and electric industries with relatively steady revenues and earnings. In a sense, they are monopolies that can withstand the ebbs and flows of the economy. Even if demand for energy were to decline enough to affect revenues, the companies can petition governing bodies for rate increases.
  • Consumer Staples comprise the companies that produce the goods and provide the services that most people won't do without even in a recession. Food and personal items are obviously at the top of the list of necessities, but the group also includes alcohol and less-expensive items that are inconsequential to the budget, like soda. 
  • Health Care is pretty straightforward, right? That isn't typically something that people can do without. On one hand, it has unique growth properties (biotech), but it also has the stability of hospitals and equipment makers. However, there is also a political component, which includes regulation risks associated with drug makers and health maintenance organizations—of which you are sure to hear more heading into next year's election.

What does market performance tell us?

 In terms of their performance, all three sectors have earned the "defensive" moniker, as they historically have been outperformers, on average, in the late-expansion phase of the business cycle and into recessions. In fact, they round out three of the top four late-expansion-cycle relative performers since 1989 (when the sector classifications data began). While the sample is limited, with just three cycles to go on, the intuition behind the sector classifications seems to hold. (We'll leave Energy out of the discussion, as it's fair to say that energy prices are typically a perpetrator of late cycles and recessions, not a place of refuge.)

Source: Charles Schwab, Bloomberg, 1989-2018 monthly returns. Sector performance is relative to the S&P 500 index. Past performance is no guarantee of future results.

So where are we now? As we have stated, we think that we may now be in a late-expansion phase of this business cycle. While there are a couple of missing ingredients that make it hard to say for sure, the market performance over the past year may be confirming that we are indeed in the final stages. Consumer Staples and Utilities have been among the top three performers since September 30, 2018, by a margin of two-to-one and three-to-one, respectively, relative to Information Technology. Now, as we've talked about, this time might be different, because some of the economic elements are reminiscent of the 1990s, when an inverted yield curve warned of recession but it did not occur. At that time, the Federal Reserve also made "mid-cycle" rate cuts as insurance against rising global risks.

Defensive at any price?

Whether we are headed for a recession or not, there are warning signs that all of the "defensive" sectors might not be as defensive as they have been in the past. One of the reasons we think this is because of the strong run-up in valuations, particularly in the Utilities and Consumer Staples sectors. In fact, the Utilities sector's price/earnings ratio is at a record high—well above the peaks that occurred prior to past recessions. This is likely due, in part, to the low-interest-rate environment and investors’ reach for dividend yield. In the table below, we provide six valuation metrics for each of the sectors: earnings, dividends, book value, cash flow, sales, and forward earnings. In order to compare the sectors, their current valuations were scored against their respective historical averages. We then averaged their scores and ordered them from best to worst valuations.

Source: Charles Schwab, Ned Davis Research, as of 9/30/2019. Number of standard deviations from mean in 20-year data range (price to valuation measure). Standard deviation is a statistical measure of the extent to which numbers are spread around their average.

As you can see, Utilities comes in as the most overvalued of all of the sectors, and Consumer Staples is not far behind. But you'll also notice that Health Care is ranked as one of the cheapest of all of the sectors. This is part of the reason why it is the only defensive sector that we think will outperform over the coming three- to six-month time horizon. While the other defensive sectors could, of course, continue to lead the market amid all of the uncertainty and strong relative momentum, we place them in the "marketperform" category, in large part due to their lofty valuations.

How can you defensively tilt your portfolio?

First, we repeat this refrain because we think that it is so important: The best defense to market volatility is to maintain a well-diversified portfolio that is in line with your risk tolerance and return objectives (a Schwab Financial Consultant can help you with this).

Second, while bonds are not a perfect hedge to equity risk, a well-rounded basket of fixed income investments can be an excellent diversifier of risk. Tilting your fixed income holdings toward less risky securities with longer duration can provide an additional measure of defensiveness.

Finally, tilting toward Health Care, in our opinion, as well as staying diversified internationally to spread the risk around the globe, can be key to playing defense while staying invested.

Schwab Sector Views: Our current outlook


Schwab Sector View

Date of last change to Schwab Sector View

Share of the
S&P 500® Index

Year-to-date total return as of 10/08/2019

Communication Services Underperform 09/28/2018 10.4% 20.0%

Consumer Discretionary





Consumer Staples















Health Care










Information Technology










Real Estate










S&P 500  index 






Source: Schwab Center for Financial Research, FactSet (for YTD total returns) and S&P Dow Jones Indices (for S&P 500 sector weightings). Sector performance data is based on total return for each S&P 500 sector subindex (see “Important Disclosures” for index definitions). Sector weighting data is as of 09/30/2019; data is rounded to the nearest tenth of a percent, so the aggregate weights for the index may not equal 100%.

Past performance is no guarantee of future results.


What do the ratings mean?

The sectors we analyze are from the widely recognized Global Industry Classification Standard (GICS®) groupings. After a review of risks and opportunities, we give each stock sector one of the following ratings:

  • Outperform: likely to perform better than the broader stock market* 
  • Underperform: likely to perform worse than the broader stock market
  • Marketperform: likely to track the broader stock market


*As represented by the S&P 500 index

How should I use Schwab Sector Views?

Investors should generally be well-diversified across all stock market sectors. You can use the Standard & Poor's 500® Index allocations to each sector, listed in the chart above, as a guideline.

Investors who want to make tactical shifts in their portfolios can use Schwab Sector Views' outperform, underperform and marketperform ratings as a resource. These ratings can be helpful in evaluating and monitoring the domestic equity portion of your portfolio.

Schwab Sector Views can also be useful in identifying stocks by sector for potential purchase or sale. Schwab clients can use the Portfolio Checkup tool to help them review and manage their sector allocations. When it's time to make adjustments, clients can use the Stock Screener or Mutual Fund Screener to help identify buy or sell candidates in particular sectors. Schwab Equity Ratings also can provide an objective and powerful approach for helping you select and monitor stocks.

What you can do next

  • Review your sector allocation. If you aren’t sure how to analyze your sector weightings, a Schwab Financial Consultant can help. 
  • Explore our views on individual sectors in Sector Views.
  • Talk to us about the services that are right for you. Call us at 800-355-2162, visit a branchfind a consultant or open an account online.
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Important Disclosures

Schwab Sector Views do not represent a personalized recommendation of a particular investment strategy to you. You should not buy or sell an investment without first considering whether it is appropriate for you and your portfolio. Additionally, you should review and consider any recent market news. Supporting documentation for any claims or statistical information is available upon request.

All expressions of opinion are subject to change without notice in reaction to shifting market or other conditions. Data contained herein from third-party providers is obtained from what are considered reliable sources. However, its accuracy, completeness or reliability cannot be guaranteed.

Diversification and rebalancing strategies do not ensure a profit and do not protect against losses in declining markets. Rebalancing may cause investors to incur transaction costs and, when rebalancing a non-retirement account, taxable events may be created that may affect your tax liability.

Indexes are unmanaged, do not incur management fees, costs and expenses and cannot be invested in directly. For more information on indexes please see

Past performance is no guarantee of future results and the opinions presented cannot be viewed as an indicator of future performance.

Investing involves risk including loss of principal.

Fixed income securities are subject to increased loss of principal during periods of rising interest rates. Fixed-income investments are subject to various other risks including changes in credit quality, market valuations, liquidity, prepayments, early redemption, corporate events, tax ramifications and other factors. Lower rated securities are subject to greater credit risk, default risk, and liquidity risk.

International investments are subject to additional risks such as currency fluctuation, geopolitical risk and the potential for illiquid markets. Investing in emerging markets may accentuate these risks.

The policy analysis provided by the Charles Schwab & Co., Inc., does not constitute and should not be interpreted as an endorsement of any political party.

The Schwab Center for Financial Research is a division of Charles Schwab & Co., Inc.


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