Just how defensive are defensive stocks right now?

Defensive stocks are predominantly found in industries where companies are mainly focused on delivering cheaper products or services that consumers find hard or impossible to manage without. Typical examples of areas where defensive investments can be found include food manufacturers and retailers, medical care and the tobacco and alcohol industries.

The fact that delivering these products and services cannot be stopped or put on hold just because the economy is suffering, is exactly what makes them defensive in nature. And yes, that includes the alcohol and tobacco companies. My grandfather always used to say, “When food prices increase, people will buy less food. But when alcohol prices increase, they will buy even less food”. All jokes aside, the point is that people have to eat and they have to get medical attention if they become critically ill or injured, regardless of the state of the economy.

Defensive stocks are well known for their ability to withstand periods of economic volatility and market declines, but unfortunately, the opposite is also true. Historical data shows that defensive stocks usually struggle to keep up when markets thrive. On the other hand, businesses such as car dealerships, mobile phone providers, insurance companies and banks, which are much more sensitive to market fluctuations, tend to benefit from a growing economy, but to suffer when consumers’ finances are under pressure.  These are called cyclical shares.

Defensive stocks are statistically recognisable due to the fact that they have a beta indicator of less than 1. Any share/stock with a beta of 1 means that for every percentage point that the market rises or falls, that particular share/stock should also move up or down by the exact same percentage. A beta of 0.8 therefore, would mean that the share/stock will only rise by 0.8% for every 1% the market rises, but it will also only decrease by 0.8% for every 1% the market declines.

I chose five random shares/stocks that can be classified as defensive stocks: Distell (alcohol), AVI (food manufacturer), BAT (tobacco), Mediclinic (medical care) and Spar (food retailer), and then juxtaposed their earnings movements with that of the FTSE/JSE All Share Index over the last three years. The idea wasn’t to evaluate their price movements, because we know that these five shares took quite a beating at times over the last three years.

I wanted to determine how these companies’ physical earnings performed during this VERY difficult period (last three years) and the results were in line with the definition of a defensive stock. Despite the fact that these defensive stocks with an average beta of 0.69 didn’t rise as sharply when compared to the JSE, their earnings growth occurred at a far more stable and defensive pace.

Graph 1: Earnings movements of five random defensive stocks and FTSE/JSE All Share Index (source: PSG Old Oak & Iress)

I’m more worried about the recent disappointing GDP figures published by STATS SA, and the possibility that the worst of it isn’t quite over just yet.  And the more worried investors become worldwide, and the higher the market risk, the more cyclical shares (like banks, for example) are being swopped for defensive shares.

When we take a look at the historical price earnings ratio (P/E) of the same five defensive shares over the last three years, you will see that they also became “cheaper”, no different to the JSE. In fact, these five shares’ P/Es are now trading at lower relative levels than levels of three years ago when compared to the JSE. What I would like to know, is if global markets were to become even more volatile, wouldn’t this be a good way to ‘protect’ yourself? I’m not suggesting that investors should switch all their cyclical shares/stocks to defensive stocks, but rather that you re-evaluate your portfolio if it only consists of cyclical shares.

Graph 2: Average historical P/E of five random shares vs. FTSE/JSE All Share Index (source: PSG Old Oak & Iress)

In the end, it boils down to having a well-diversified investment portfolio, which should benefit from any kind of investment environment.

The opinions expressed in this blog are the opinions of the writer and not necessarily those of PSG. These opinions do not constitute advice.  This is intended as general information and does not form part of any financial, tax, legal or investment related advice. Although the utmost care has been taken in the research and preparation of this blog, no responsibility can be taken for actions taken based on the information contained in this blog. Since individual needs and risk profiles differ, it is always advisable to consult a qualified financial adviser before taking action.


Schalk Louw
As Portfolio Manager at PSG Wealth Old Oak and with over 20 years’ experience in the investment industry, Schalk has consistently delivered solid returns to his clients and has certainly become one of South Africa’s most well-known strategists. He started his career in 1994 at the stockbroking company, Huysamer Stals (later ABN Amro). He joined SMK Securities in 1997, (later became BoE Personal Stockbrokers) and was later appointed as director and branch manager. In 2001 he co-founded Contego Asset Management and managed the company as CEO up to March 2014, after which he joined PSG Wealth Old Oak. Schalk has also become a regular household name with investors, with his reports being published in many of the national press. He completed his MBA in 2008.

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