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Investing in Life's Necessities

Copyright (c) 2009-2019

With the stock market down 55% or so from its high of October 2007, many investors feel they are between the proverbial rock and a hard place. We've all seen the data that shows that over the long term, stocks outperform every other common asset class, but that knowledge certainly doesn't make the going any easier on a day to day basis. And with the shocking events surrounding the instability and collapse of some of this country's biggest and reputable institutions, the long-term picture gets even hazier.

So what are your options, knowing that you need equities for portfolio growth and inflation protection, but are very uncomfortable with the stock market? Here's an idea I've been sharing with other investors that makes sense to them.

For starters, all successful investors from Warren Buffett to Peter Lynch focus on companies whose products and services stack up nicely from a supply and demand standpoint. On the demand side, investing in areas where demand is stable or increasing would appear to fit these guidelines. An area that I feel meets these criteria is the consumer staples sector. Thankfully, I am not alone in this assessment. Wall Street strategists such as Richard Bernstein are expecting good relative performance from this industry.

Consumer Staples contains such household names like Wal-Mart, Procter and Gamble, Coca Cola, and General Mills. Economists have touted the inelasticity of consumer goods for years, and with good reason. Regardless of how poorly we are doing financially, we still find the money to buy food, beverages, and toiletries.

The County Fair

Every year I go to an old fashioned county fair. This is not just any ordinary fair; it is reputedly the largest tent fair in the nation. Yes, believe it or not, people actually pitch tents or park their RVs and camp out for a whole week. And there is a 40-year waiting list to get a campsite! Thousands come from miles around for the fellowship, competitions, and well, the food. Frankly, many people I talk to come solely for the last reason. There are vendors offering everything from French fries to snow cones.

With the economy in recession, I was very interested to see if this fair would be slower than most. I spent practically the whole weekend at it. There were no signs that attendance was down or that concession stands were less busy than normal. Matter of fact, I had my normal tedious time making my way through the throngs of people to the next concession stand.

Just to make sure I wasn't imagining anything, I spoke with one of my friends who own a stand. He said business was even better than normal. A phone call to the Fair management also confirmed this. Attendance was as good as last year, and the vendors reported an average increase of 10% in sales. And this considering that food at a fair is not exactly cheap. You can get an ice cream cone one block from the fairgrounds for half the price. It did not make a difference.

Some analysts on Wall Street have been concerned about consumer goods companies this year, because they feel that rising commodity costs impact the bottom line. With the price of oil and other commodities well off last summer's highs, this fear seems to have dissipated somewhat. Also, it seems to me that these companies are not exactly taking these increases lying down. They're passing them on to the consumer. I noticed this at the fair. Prices on many of my favorite things were up 5 or even 10%.

I am noticing a different approach at restaurants I routinely visit. Instead of raising prices, many are cutting portion sizes.

How have consumer staples done so far in this downturn? Over the past twelve months, the Dow Jones U.S. Consumer Goods Index is down 35% as of the date of this writing. The S&P 500 Index is off 45%. Over the past three years, this consumer goods index has outpaced the S&P by around 7% annually.

The Historical Perspective

A look further back into history shows consumer staples out performance during bear markets is not unusual. During the 2000-2002 bear market, the cumulative return for the Dow Jones U.S. Consumer Goods Index was -1.56%, according to Morningstar data. As we all know, it could have been worse. The S&P 500 lost over 37% during that time.

According to Russell Napier in his excellent book, Anatomy of the Bear, consumer staples stocks have been strongholds in the three great bear markets since 1929.

He writes that during the 1968-1982 secular bear market, even though the S&P Composite Index increased by 82% cumulatively in nominal terms, it lost value in real terms. The "Consumer Price Index" increased by 174% during the same timeframe. At this time, there were 30 industrial sectors, and the average return for them was 107%. Only 9 of the 30 sectors did better than average. Among them was Food. The best sector at this time was Tobacco, a sub-category of consumer staples. It boasted a cumulative return of 420%.

Table 1:: Key Sector Performance from December 1968-August 1982
Tobacco... 420%
Oil... 185%
S&P Composite... 82%
Source: Russell Napier

Let's look at the mother of all bear markets, the 1929-1932 plunge that ushered in the Great Depression. Again we see that the qualities of Consumer Goods held up-at least on a relative basis. The Dow shed an incredible 89% of its value. Food and tobacco stocks lost a lot of money as well, just not as much. Tobacco stocks again turned out to be the best performer, with a 38% loss. Food dropped 72%. Napier surmises that perhaps this decline occurred because packaged food was not yet mainstream. 85% of bread was still homemade in 1932. Therefore, people were not as dependent on grocery stores as we are today. Granted, losing 72% or even 38% of your money compared to 89% isn't much consolation. But at least this tells us what happened in the acid test for investing.

Table 2:: Key Sector Performance from September 1929-June 1932
Tobacco... -38%
Oil... -74%
Food... -72%
Dow Industrial... -89%
Source: Russell Napier

Three Ways to Invest

Here are three ways venture into the sector without risking your shirt:

  • Consider buying ETFs, not individual stock. This hopefully minimizes the negative impact of such events like Pepsi's recent fall from favor. Some examples include State Street Global Advisors Consumer Staples SPDR (XLP) or iShares Dow Jones U.S. Consumer Goods (IYK). The former has 41 holdings and sports an expense ratio of 23 basis points. The latter owns 148 stocks and has an expense ratio of 48 basis points.

  • Consider using Stop Losses. Place a good ‘til canceled stop loss order under the ETF or stock. I've placed these at either support levels for the security or at absolute loss levels a client is willing to sustain.

  • Consider selling covered calls. Selling a covered call on the ETF or stock you own is another way to reduce the risk. The premium gives you an immediate return on your money, and also serves as a buffer if the investment declines. Recently, I've found myself considering at-the-money or in-the-money options since they afford the most downside protection. I would avoid using ETFs that do not have a lot of open interest and volume in options trading.

  • Although there are never any guarantees when investing in stocks, the consumer staples industry may be a more conservative alternative at a time like this. And using some of the strategies above, you can hopefully lower your risk even more.


    The principal and yield of investment securities will fluctuate with changes in market conditions. The information presented is general in nature and should not be considered legal or tax advice.

    The opinions offered are not to be construed as an offer to buy or sell individual securities mentioned herein.

    Securities offered through Cadaret, Grant and Co., Inc., member FINRA/SIPC.

    About The Author: Shop Amazon - Top Gift Ideas
    Mack Courter is a Certified Financial Planner (tm) who specializes in Retirement Investing in State College, Pennsylvania and works with clients nationwide. If you have any questions about the article, or would like a complimentary copy of his report "7 Critical Mistakes Investors Make," visit his website at or email him at his website.

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