Hope in the epicenter

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Janaury 21, 2021
 

Last year was painful, but this year will be different. The market is reflecting the expectation of a swift recovery and additional stimulus has lifted investor spirits and is already being spent. In the wake of vaccine distribution, out-of-favor sectors are likely to come back and small businesses should have a smoother road ahead, according to Alicia Levine, chief strategist at BNY Mellon Investment Management.

The rotation from growth to cyclical stocks has already begun. Sectors considered too risky in the aftermath of the pandemic—like financials, industrials, energy and materials—have started to come back, as high growth sectors have slightly receded (Figure 1). But opportunity is not solely found in industries already showing signs of recovery; it’s also where the return potential has not yet been fully realized: at the epicenter of the crisis.

“What really hasn’t worked are travel and leisure, in-person gaming and other high-touch areas that were at the epicenter of the Covid-19 recession,” Levine says. “If you look at where Americans are spending money, they’re spending it on things. But services likely won’t be coming back until the population is vaccinated.”

Although hotels, airlines and other service industries may not see a full recovery until the lion’s share of the population is vaccinated, the epicenter may currently be ripe for value opportunities, Levine says. Herd immunity is expected to manifest later this year and a new US political landscape could mean larger fiscal stimulus on the horizon. Together, these two factors may allow service industries to undergo a resurgence sooner rather than later.

“I think it’s a great place to find value and it’s still cheap enough that there is opportunity to catch the recovery on the upswing” Levine says. “Every day that there are doubts surrounding vaccination, is a day for this opportunity. There’s going to be a push and pull, but ultimately, the demand for services will likely not be going away.”

Big money for small businesses

Fiscal packages have been a lifeline for small businesses throughout the pandemic. In December, Congress passed a US$892 stimulus package, which renewed a small business lending program by US$284 billion.1 The package also included US$600 checks per person for millions of Americans and unemployment benefits of up to US$300 per week for 11 weeks through March 14.2 Already $130B has been distributed from the December stimulus to qualifying individuals in the first 12 days of the year. Additionally, Democrats took control of the Senate at the start of the year, which paved the way for even more stimulus. Shortly after, President Joe Biden unveiled plans for a US$1.9 trillion coronavirus aid package, including additional direct payments of US$1,400 to most Americans and an increase in the federal weekly unemployment benefit to US$400.3

A fiscal package of this calibur will likely lead to increased consumer spending, which bodes well for small and mid-cap earnings as money is recycled back into the economy, Levine says. In fact, as the return to normal becomes a near-term prospect, the market has begun to reflect optimism for the future of small businesses. Last November, the Russell 2000 rose 18.3%, and in December, over 8%.4

“The Russell 2000 has the highest percentage of companies without profits, where nearly one-third of its constituents have no earnings, so why buy them?” Levine says. “Because that’s where there will likely be the most juice in the recovery. Large companies were winners during Covid lockdowns, but smaller companies are the ones that will grow faster in the recovery.”

Just like cyclicals, their performance is tied to the economic recovery. As tailwinds begin to form, history may play out yet again as small caps follow their historic post-recession path (Figure 2).

“Following recessions, small and mid-cap stocks tend to lead the recovery for several years because they’re the highest beta and they have the greatest rate of change,” Levine says.

If small caps and cyclicals are poised to lead the recovery, it should come as no surprise that Levine is bullish on regional banks. This is because they should be able to boost dividends as the economy grows stronger, according to Levine. Secondly, after the global financial crisis of 2008-09, banks came under increased regulation, which led to more stringent lending measures and requirements for better capitalization. This may have helped to insulate them from a worse outcome in the Covid-19 recession.5

“The financial sector was heavily regulated after the Great Recession. And this time around, financials were not the cause,” Levine says. “We think they are well capitalized for the bad economy. And in many ways, their balance sheets are very strong so they have capital they can return,” she concludes.

1 Reuters: After months of inaction, U.S. Congress approves $892 billion COVID-19 relief package. December 21, 2020.

2 Washington Post: Senate majority leader announces approximately $900 billion deal on emergency relief package. December 20, 2020

3 CNBC: Biden’s $1.9 trillion Covid relief plan calls for stimulus checks, unemployment support and more. January 14, 2021.

4 Investor’s Business Daily: Stock Market Forecast for 2021 could be bumpier than you think. December 31, 2020.

5 The Economist: How resilient are the banks? July 2, 2020.

 

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Recent market risks include pandemic risks related to COVID-19. The effects of COVID-19 have contributed to increased volatility in global markets and will likely affect certain countries, companies, industries and market sectors more dramatically than others.

Views expressed are those of the author stated and do not reflect views of other managers or the firm overall. Views are current as of the date of this publication and subject to change. This information contains projections or other forward-looking statements regarding future events, targets or expectations, and is only current as of the date indicated. There is no assurance that such events or expectations will be achieved, and actual results may be significantly different from that shown here. The information is based on current market conditions, which will fluctuate and may be superseded by subsequent market events or for other reasons. Forecasts, estimates and certain information contained herein are based upon proprietary research and should not be considered as investment advice or a recommendation of any particular security, strategy or investment product. Information contained herein has been obtained from sources believed to be reliable, but not guaranteed. Please consult a legal, tax or financial professional in order to determine whether an investment product or service is appropriate for a particular situation.

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