Economic Correlation: Cyclical and Non-Cyclical Stocks

Cyclical and Non-Cyclical StocksA rising tide might lift all boats, but the same cannot be said for the economy.

When the U.S. experiences robust economic growth, certain sectors of the stock market tend to rise while others hold steady or even decline by comparison. The stocks of companies that experience higher revenues are typically categorized as cyclical. In other words, their good fortune rests mainly on consumers being gainfully employed and having ample discretionary income with which to buy more goods and services.

Take, for example, auto manufacturers. Sales typically increase when more people can afford to buy a new car. But that’s not all the time, because the economy is cyclical – it ebbs and flows over time. Therefore, companies that produce non-essential products – sometimes referred to as consumer discretionary goods and services – tend to flourish during economic cycles of strength and rising GDP. That is why they are called cyclical stocks.

But when the economic future is in decline or at least uncertain, people tend to delay buying non-essential items like a new car. When the economy really takes a nosedive, more consumers are affected, they buy less stuff, manufacturing takes a hit and companies start laying off their workforce.

Despite these unfortunate circumstances, people still have to eat. They buy essential items, such as food and toothpaste and toilet paper. These are considered consumer staples, and the stocks of companies that produce these types of goods are defined as non-cyclical stocks. That’s because those companies are expected to continue earning revenues regardless of economic cycles. Non-cyclical industries include food and beverage, tobacco, household and personal products.

Another non-cyclical sector is utilities. Utilities are a little bit different because people tend to purchase relatively the same amount of utility service – with exceptions for extreme weather or making slight thermostat adjustments to save money – whether the economy is robust or in a downward spiral. Because of this, utility companies are considered a very stable business model.

For investors, that means they are well-established, long-term performers and usually pay out high dividends. Not only are utility stocks a good option for retirees seeking income to supplement their Social Security benefits, but they offer a safe haven for investors to relocate assets during periods of economic decline.

In light of recent cautions by economists predicting a recession in 2020, this could be a good time to review your portfolio from the perspective of cyclical versus non-cyclical holdings. It doesn’t mean you need to sell completely out of your stock allocation; perhaps just temper your holdings to equities that tend to perform reliably regardless of the economy. In addition to consumer staples and utilities, consider companies that specialize in national defense, waste management, data processing and payments.

Also be aware that the past three decades have boasted several of the longest running economic expansions in U.S. history (1991 to 2001; 2001 to early 2007; 2009 through 2019). What this tells us is that U.S. economic growth cycles appear to be lengthening while declines are relatively shorter and followed up with impressive recovery periods.

So, take heart. If you decide to transfer some of your assets to less flashy, non-cyclical securities, you might not have to leave them there for long. However, it’s always a good idea to maintain a diversified portfolio so you don’t have to make adjustments based on economic cycles. And as always, consult an investment professional to help you make these important decisions.

Gross Domestic Product: A Primer

The economic indicator known as Gross Domestic Product (GDP) represents the dollar value of all purchased goods and services over the course of one year. It is comprised of purchases from all private and public consumption, including for profit, nonprofit and government sectors.

There are four components that are added to calculate the GDP:

  • Consumer spending
  • Government spending
  • Investment spending (this includes business, inventory, residential construction and public investment),   Net exports, meaning the value of goods exported minus the value of goods imported

The government calculates and publishes the GDP rate on a quarterly basis and for the entire year.

What Affects GDP?

There are different ways GDP is measured. For example, nominal GDP refers to a straight calculation of raw data, while real GDP adjusts the calculation to include the impact of inflation.

When inflation increases, the GDP tends to rise; when prices drop, so does the GDP. Be aware that this adjustment can happen even when there is no change in the quantity of goods and services produced in the United States during that time frame.

A key component of the GDP calculation is net exports. This number rises when the country sells more goods and services to foreign countries than it buys from them. A trade surplus means the United States sells more than it purchases, which is a strong contributor to GDP. When the United States buys more foreign goods than it sells, this creates a trade deficit, which is a negative weight in the GDP calculation.

GDP also reflects demand. The dollar output of certain sectors and industries rises and falls based on the popularity of their products and services. For example, when a new product is well received, then those sales increase that sector’s contribution to the GDP. This is a helpful measure because it enables companies to make better research and development decisions based on recent success. The same is true when a new product, or even an upgrade to a new product, does not increase sales.

What Does GDP Indicate?

The GDP is the most common, broad-based measure used to monitor the country’s economic progress. When it is on the rise, the economy is considered to be growing. When the GDP rate drops – even if it remains in positive territory – the economy is viewed as contracting. If it continues to slip quarter after quarter, it is an indicator that the economy might be in trouble and the Federal Reserve or Congress could consider altering monetary (interest rates) or fiscal (taxes and government spending) policy to inject cash into the nation’s financial system.

Technically, economists define a recession as a prolonged period of economic decline, often precipitated by two consecutive quarters of negative GDP growth.

This economic yardstick also is used to indicate a country’s general standard of living. The better a country is able to produce the goods and services that its residents and businesses use, the more that capital is infused back into the country. Therefore, higher GDP levels indicate a more prosperous country and relatively higher standard of living among its residents.

The GDP doesn’t just gauge domestic economic health, it serves as a comparison measure to other countries. This is particularly important during periods of growth and decline, when the United States can track how well it is responding to global economic factors relative to other countries.

Current Trendline

According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, first quarter real GDP closed at 3.1 percent. In the second quarter, real GDP fell to 2.0 percent. The advanced assessment for the third quarter of 2019 is 1.9 percent.