The strongest sectors include drug and other health-related stocks, food distributors, liquor companies and utilities, an analyst says.

Share story

For a long time, the stock market had a simple mantra: Buy what China buys.

With the world economy soaring, steel stocks, oil stocks, mining stocks, stocks of just about anything that fed a booming economy, led the U.S. market.

But around the start of March, as signs of a slowing economy cropped up, the stock market hit its high for the current bull market and things changed. Today, steel and oil are leading the market down.

The new mainstays are the stocks investors once scorned: so-called defensive stocks such as drug makers, personal-products companies and some food makers, whose history of relatively steady performance makes them sought-after investments in times of uncertainty.

Most Read Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

“There has been a shift going on that has picked up steam since mid-March,” says Michael Panzner, head of sales trading at Rabo Securities in New York. “The Ides of March seem to have been the turning point.”

Since the government issued a surprisingly soft jobs report on March 4, the strongest sectors have included drug and other health-related stocks, food distributors, liquor companies and utilities, he says.

The weakest have been groups such as employment services, automakers, steelmakers and mining companies. The government issued a robust jobs report earlier this month, but the market’s jitters have continued.

Investors have gone from marveling at the economy’s strength to wringing their hands over the risk that the Federal Reserve will raise interest rates too far, stifling growth and causing a blowup that sends stocks into a bear market.

“The big parlor game on Wall Street these days is to guess” where the crunch will come, says Jason Trennert, chief investment strategist at New York research-and-brokerage firm International Strategy & Investment.

People fear an investment bubble bursting in China or in the U.S. housing market. They worry about a corporate disaster in the auto or airline business. They fear a blowup at some big hedge fund, perhaps caused by a big bet on some kind of risky corporate bond.

“Generally, in the past, it has been something no one was talking about,” Trennert says.

In that kind of climate, the specific news of the day can matter less than the general fear of looming trouble.

Utility stocks have benefited from the situation. For most of the bull market, they joined oil, steel and transportation stocks in soaring, benefiting from rising energy prices and rising demand for power. And they have continued to rise since March, because they are classic defensive stocks, whose high dividends are sought-after in uncertain times.

Two exceptions to the rule have been technology and financial stocks, which suffered for most of the year, but began a rebound in April.

Some investors hope the market is beginning to anticipate an end to Fed rate increases. An end to rate increases would help stimulate business investment in things like tech gear. It would help financial companies, whose costs go up faster than their income when rates are rising.

Because financial stocks are the biggest group in the S&P 500, representing more than 20 percent of the index, their fortunes have a big impact on the index’s performance.

“We are through the soft spot. It is beginning to turn around this month,” says Jeffrey Kleintop, chief investment strategist at PNC Advisors, the investment advisory unit of PNC Bank in Pittsburgh.

But other economically sensitive stocks continue to languish. Some analysts fear that the rebound in financial and tech stocks is little more than a bargain-hunting bounce.

Increasingly, investors are waiting for some sign from the Fed before they start betting heavily again on cyclical stocks.