Interactive Investor

Why building an all-weather portfolio really works

1st April 2020 15:35

Ben Hobson from Stockopedia

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Make hay while the sun shines but fix the roof while you’re at it. Here’s how investors can find comfort whatever conditions arise.

Making forecasts about the future direction of shares and markets is hard. Faced with a global pandemic of uncertain proportions, it is next to impossible. 

Volatility is sweeping the stock market on a daily basis and it’s anyone’s guess just how far the economic impact of coronavirus will spread. 

Some sectors have been suckerpunched by the crisis, such as airlines, leisure and travel. In a few cases, companies are facing a battle for survival. Early evidence suggests that many others are reinforcing their finances wherever they can. Credit lines are being drawn down, dividends and buybacks are being shelved and in some cases staff are being furloughed. 

For investors, it’s an incredibly unsettling time.

There’s an old saying (originally by John F. Kennedy, I think) that the time to repair the roof is when the sun is shining. During the decade-long equity bull run that came after the financial crisis in 2009 it was easy to forget the wisdom of being prepared for the worst.

When it comes to managing a portfolio of shares, taking defensive measures in the good times can easily feel like the wrong choice. But here we are with a situation few predicted that has unfolded at devastating speed. Once again, it is showing why diversification is such a heavily encouraged way of spreading the risk of too much sector specific exposure.

Few will have the stomach to start fixing their portfolios while the storm rages. But in the weeks and months ahead it might be worth thinking about how your portfolio might be prepared for any weather.

Diversification - the only free lunch in finance

The cyclical nature of business and economies means that different stocks behave differently depending on the conditions. So it’s worth taking account of this when it comes to building an all-weather portfolio. 

If your positions all tend to do well when the economy is booming, then things could get sticky if a recession or economic shock or unexpected global pandemic should suddenly emerge. But if your stocks are all safe havens in times of economic strife, it’s unlikely you’ll get the big upside when the economy takes off. 

To understand this better, you can map the stock market based on three main super-sectors: Cyclicals, Defensives and Sensitives. Between them, they account for the 10 main business sectors:

  • Cyclicals: Basic Materials, Consumer Cyclicals, Financials
  • Defensives: Healthcare, Consumer Defensives, Utilities
  • Sensitives: Industrials, Energy, Telecoms, Technology

Cyclical sectors are generally the most sensitive to macro trends and the health of the economy. Among them are high street retailers and housebuilders. These industries have done well in the years after the financial crisis but they face pressure when consumer confidence starts to waver. Many are likely to suffer as the economy is thrown into turmoil.

Defensives, on the other hand, tend to be less reliant on the domestic economy because they sell goods that are in constant demand. They include pharma companies and utility groups, which are heavily regulated and have much more predictable outlooks. Supermarkets are included too - and their share prices have wobbled but remained relatively stable in recent weeks.

Screening for defensive options

To offer an idea about how some defensive shares have fared over the past few months, here's a screen that focuses on mid- and large-cap shares in Utilities, Consumer Defensives and Healthcare. The names are sorted by relative price strength over the past month.

These shares haven’t been immune to volatility, but they have all held up much better than the market average. They range from healthcare stocks like Hikma Pharmaceuticals (LSE:HIK) and Silence Therapeutics (LSE:SLN) to defensive supermarket groups like Sainsbury (LSE:SBRY) and Wm Morrison (LSE:MRW).

Name Mkt Cap £m Relative Price Strength 1m* Relative Price Strength 3m* Stock Rank Sector
Hikma Pharmaceuticals (LSE:HIK) 4,931 38.7 42.2 82 Healthcare
Silence Therapeutics (LSE:SLN) 388.4 37.7 86.9 25 Healthcare
Cranswick (LSE:CWK) 1,931 35.4 51.8 84 Consumer Defensives
Vectura Group (LSE:VEC) 586.1 34.8 45.6 65 Healthcare
Reckitt Benckiser (LSE:RB.) 43,650 31 39.6 50 Consumer Defensives
J Sainsbury (LSE:SBRY) 4,656 31 27.3 49 Consumer Defensives
AstraZeneca (LSE:AZN) 94,689 29.5 32 50 Healthcare
PZ Cussons (LSE:PZC) 823.2 29.3 28.1 91 Consumer Defensives
Hilton Food Group (LSE:HFG) 882.6 27.6 35.6 86 Consumer Defensives
Wm Morrison (LSE:MRW) 4,281 26.7 24 58 Consumer Defensives

*Relative Strength measures a stock's price change over the either one month, three months or more relative to the price change of a market index.

With turmoil likely to continue in share prices for the foreseeable future, buying opportunities need to be considered carefully. But looking further ahead, the advantages of diversifying across sectors has once again been brought into focus by the variable performances across the market in recent weeks. 

Sector diversification won’t protect you completely, but it might offer some comfort from whatever conditions might arise in the future.

About Stockopedia

Stockopedia helps individual investors beat the stock market by providing stock rankings, screening tools, portfolio analytics and premium editorial. The service takes an evidence-based approach to investing, and uses the principles of factor investing and behavioural finance to help investors make better decisions.

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These investment articles are simply for generating ideas. If you are thinking of investing they should only ever be a starting point for your own in-depth research.

interactive investor readers can get a free 14-day trial of Stockopedia here.

These investment articles are simply for generating ideas. If you are thinking of investing they should only ever be a starting point for your own in-depth research.

These articles are provided for information purposes only.  Occasionally, an opinion about whether to buy or sell a specific investment may be provided by third parties.  The content is not intended to be a personal recommendation to buy or sell any financial instrument or product, or to adopt any investment strategy as it is not provided based on an assessment of your investing knowledge and experience, your financial situation or your investment objectives. The value of your investments, and the income derived from them, may go down as well as up. You may not get back all the money that you invest. The investments referred to in this article may not be suitable for all investors, and if in doubt, an investor should seek advice from a qualified investment adviser.

Full performance can be found on the company or index summary page on the interactive investor website. Simply click on the company's or index name highlighted in the article.

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