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The Top Performing Sectors in 2020, So Far

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The Top Performing Sectors in 2020, So Far

After a roller coaster start to the year, which S&P 500 sectors have seen positive returns, and which are still struggling to recover?

Energy prices collapsed as historic supply excesses hurt producers, refineries, and oil futures. Meanwhile, consumer behavior trends naturally bolstered the tech sector, as demand across online services soared. At the same time, the recent bounceback appeared to have been supported by a number of economic factors. Ultra-low interest rates, liquidity stimulus, and fiscal actions all helped to spur growth in stocks.

Today’s Markets in a Minute chart from New York Life Investments draws data from the S&P 500, showing how each sector has performed year to date amid historical volatility.

Coming Out On Top

Continuing the upswing seen in prior years, the tech sector has outperformed every other sector.

S&P 500 SectorsYear to Date Price Returns*
Information Technology
13.5%
Consumer Discretionary
7.6%
Communication Services
3%
Health Care
0.5%
Consumer Staples
-4.7%
Materials
-4.9%
Real Estate
-5.4%
Utilities
-5.9%
Industrials
-11.1%
Financials
-18.5%
Energy
-29.5%

*as of market close June 10, 2020

As of June 11th, the S&P 500 Information Technology sector has returned 13.5% YTD. This is impressive, considering that over the last decade, the sector averaged 17% in annualized returns. It goes without saying then, that large technology firms have proven resistant to 2020’s severe market upheavals.

Instead, housebound consumers are adopting tech at lightning-fast speeds.

“We’ve seen two years’ worth of digital transformation in two months.”

—Satya Nadella, Microsoft CEO

Sector Strength

Following tech, what are the most resilient sectors so far in 2020?

Both e-commerce and discount firms boosted the consumer discretionary sector. E-commerce sales are projected to rise 18% in 2020 according to one study. At the same time, travel-related stocks across the sector felt much of the pain as restrictions cratered demand and individuals stayed at home.

Top SectorsYear to Date Price Returns*
Information Technology13.5%
Consumer Discretionary7.6%
Communication Services3%
Health Care0.5%

*as of market close June 10, 2020

Also weathering the storm was the communication services sector. Gaming heavyweights outperformed the index as a whole, as engagement and revenues witnessed positive momentum.

Surprisingly, the health care sector barely broke even. On one hand, there’s been surging optimism surrounding the eight S&P biotech firms developing COVID-19 vaccines. Investor enthusiasm led their combined market caps to balloon from $160 billion to over $600 billion within a narrow time frame.

Still, these gains were offset by a number of other health subsectors. The impact of COVID-19 created vulnerabilities across healthcare firms in dental, surgery, and physical therapy with high levels of debt. Additionally, 60% of firms in this sector have a ‘B’, or low credit rating, meaning they are more likely to default on payments.

Lagging Behind

As for the worst performing sectors, three have witnessed double-digit losses.

So far, it has been a harrowing year for the energy sector. Shifting mobility patterns coupled with a Russia-Saudi Arabia oil price war pushed oil prices into negative territory for the first time ever. Although this was a temporary event, current prices have still not recovered to anywhere near pre-COVID levels.

Worst SectorsYear to Date Price Returns*
Energy-29.5%
Financials-18.5%
Industrials-11.1%
Utilities-5.9%

*as of market close June 10, 2020

While energy dropped almost 30% year-to-date, financials also sank 18.5% as banking stocks failed to participate in the recent market reversal. An expected increase in loan losses is one possible factor behind investor skittishness, along with dampened lending activity.

Industrials, too, faced headwinds as supply chain disruptions threw a wrench in returns. Supplier plant shutdowns and transportation challenges weighed heavily on their operations. However, inventories and imports began to show signs of recovery in May.

Of course, there is still a long way to go. While there is renewed optimism as economies reopen, sustained consumer demand and economic growth figure prominently. At the same time, investors can stay open to sector opportunities as a future economic recovery steers ahead.

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Markets in a Minute

Asset Class Risk and Return Over the Last Decade (2010-2019)

Asset allocation is one of the most important decisions an investor can make. This chart shows asset class risk and return from 2010-2019.

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Asset Class Risk and Return

This Markets in a Minute Chart is available as a poster.

The Importance of Asset Classes

Asset allocation is one of the most important decisions an investor can make. In fact, studies have found that the percentage of each asset type held in a portfolio is a bigger contributor to returns than individual security selection.

However, it’s important for investors to select asset classes that align with their personal risk tolerance—which can differ based on how long they plan to hold an investment—and their targeted returns. This Markets in a Minute chart from New York Life Investments shows asset class risk and return data from 2010-2019 to highlight their different profiles.

Asset Class Risk and Return

To measure risk and return, we took annualized return and standard deviation data over the last ten years.

Annualized returns show what an investor would have earned over a timeframe if returns were compounded. It is useful because an investment’s value is dependent on the gains or losses experienced in prior time periods. For example, an investment that lost half of its value in the previous year would need to see a 100% return to break even.

Standard deviation indicates risk by measuring the amount of variation among a set of values. For example, equities have historically seen a wide range in returns, meaning they are more volatile and carry more risk. On the other hand, treasuries have typically seen a smaller range in returns, illustrating lower volatility levels.

Below is the risk and return for select asset classes from 2010-2019, organized from lowest return to highest return.

Asset ClassAnnualized ReturnAnnualized Standard Deviation
Global Commodities-5.38%16.60%
Emerging Markets Equity-0.89%16.95%
Treasury Coupons0.73%0.81%
Investment Grade Bonds3.17%2.92%
Hedge Funds4.05%5.70%
Corporate Bonds5.55%5.26%
Global Listed Private Equity5.59%18.63%
1-5yr High Yield Bonds6.71%1.00%
Global Equity6.75%12.50%
Global Equity - ESG Leaders6.87%12.03%
Taxable Municipal Bonds7.20%7.33%
Real Estate Investment Trusts8.44%11.03%
U.S. Mid Cap Equity11.00%13.60%
U.S. Large Cap Equity11.22%11.39%
Dividend-Paying Equity11.81%10.24%
U.S. Small Cap Equity11.87%14.46%

Note: See the bottom of the graphic for the specific indexes used.

Global commodities saw the lowest return over the last 10 years. Plummeting oil prices, and an equities bull market that left little demand for safe haven assets like precious metals, likely contributed to the asset class’ underperformance.

Backed by the U.S. federal government, Treasury coupons had the lowest volatility but also saw a relatively low return of 0.73%. In contrast, 1-5 year high yield bonds generated a return of 6.71% with only slightly more risk.

With the exception of emerging market equity, all selected equities had higher risk and relatively higher historical returns. Among the stocks shown, dividend-paying equity saw the highest returns relative to their risk level.

Building a Portfolio

As they consider asset class risk and return, investors should remember that historical performance does not indicate future results. In addition, the above data is somewhat limited in that it only shows performance during the recent bull market—and returns can vary in different stages of the market cycle. For example, commodities go through multi-decade periods of price ascent and decline known as super cycles.

However, historical information may help investors gauge the asset classes that are best suited to their personal goals. Whether an investor needs more stability to help save for a near-term vacation, or investments with higher return potential for retirement savings, they can build a portfolio tailored to their needs.

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Markets in a Minute

The Pyramid of Equity Returns: Almost 200 Years of U.S. Stock Performance

From 1825-2019, equities have had positive annual performance over 70% of the time. This chart shows historical U.S. stock market returns.

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historical stock market returns

This Markets in a Minute Chart is available as a poster.

Historical Stock Market Returns

After the fastest bear market drop in history, the S&P 500 rallied and now has a year-to-date total return of -4.7%. The year is not over, but in the context of history, is this in line with what’s considered a “normal” return, or is it more of an outlier?

In today’s Markets in a Minute chart from New York Life Investments, we show the distribution of U.S. equity returns over almost 200 years.

Total Returns By Year

The chart shows total annual returns, which assumes that dividends and other cash distributions are reinvested back into the index.

It’s also important to note that different indexes and data collection methods are used over the timeframe. From 1825-1925, numbers come from researchers at Yale University and Pennsylvania State University. They collected price and dividend data for almost all stocks listed on the New York Stock Exchange during its early history.

From 1926-1956, returns are from the S&P 90, the S&P 500’s predecessor. Finally, from 1957 to date, returns are based on the S&P 500.

Here are historical stock market returns by year:

YearTotal Return
18252.53%
18262.03%
18272.97%
18282.82%
18293.21%
18302.83%
18311.70%
18323.02%
18332.94%
18342.91%
18352.83%
18361.59%
18372.11%
18386.27%
18395.28%
18403.53%
18414.87%
18425.77%
18437.18%
18446.85%
18454.16%
18463.36%
18475.55%
18485.17%
18497.60%
18503.73%
18514.44%
18524.52%
18534.11%
18541.99%
18552.09%
18563.00%
18573.39%
18582.83%
18592.86%
18602.41%
18613.21%
18623.60%
18633.52%
18644.18%
18653.97%
18664.39%
18674.50%
1868-
18694.18%
18704.20%
18715.86%
18726.33%
18736.51%
18747.47%
18756.61%
18766.86%
18775.31%
18785.54%
18795.80%
18805.28%
18815.48%
18825.32%
18835.65%
18845.81%
18855.53%
18864.23%
18874.43%
18884.36%
18894.28%
18904.14%
18914.78%
18924.44%
18934.54%
18944.76%
18954.42%
18964.17%
18974.27%
18984.21%
18993.72%
19004.98%
19014.66%
19024.15%
19034.35%
19044.72%
19054.00%
19064.19%
19074.47%
19086.09%
19094.87%
19104.56%
19115.19%
19125.27%
19135.12%
19145.22%
19155.85%
19165.91%
19177.04%
19188.38%
19196.71%
19205.72%
19216.75%
19226.98%
19236.04%
19246.43%
19255.91%
192611.62%
192737.49%
192843.61%
1929-8.42%
1930-24.90%
1931-43.34%
1932-8.19%
193353.99%
1934-1.44%
193547.67%
193633.92%
1937-35.03%
193831.12%
1939-0.41%
1940-9.78%
1941-11.59%
194220.34%
194325.90%
194419.75%
194536.44%
1946-8.07%
19475.71%
19485.50%
194918.79%
195031.71%
195124.02%
195218.37%
1953-0.99%
195452.62%
195531.56%
19566.56%
1957-10.78%
195843.36%
195911.96%
19600.47%
196126.89%
1962-8.73%
196322.80%
196416.48%
196512.45%
1966-10.06%
196723.98%
196811.06%
1969-8.50%
19704.01%
197114.31%
197218.98%
1973-14.66%
1974-26.47%
197537.20%
197623.84%
1977-7.18%
19786.56%
197918.44%
198032.42%
1981-4.91%
198221.55%
198322.56%
19846.27%
198531.73%
198618.67%
19875.25%
198816.61%
198931.69%
1990-3.10%
199130.47%
19927.62%
199310.08%
19941.32%
199537.58%
199622.96%
199733.36%
199828.58%
199921.04%
2000-9.10%
2001-11.89%
2002-22.10%
200328.68%
200410.88%
20054.91%
200615.79%
20075.49%
2008-37.00%
200926.46%
201015.06%
20112.11%
201216.00%
201332.39%
201413.69%
20151.38%
201611.96%
201721.83%
2018-4.38%
201931.49%

Source: Journal of Financial Markets, Slickcharts. The year 1868 has insufficient data to estimate a total annual return.

U.S. equity returns roughly follow a bell curve, meaning that values cluster near a central peak and values farther from the average are less common. Historically, they have been skewed towards positive performance.

Here is how the distribution of returns stack up:

Total Annual Return (%)-50 to -30-30 to -10-10 to 1010 to 3030 to 5050+
Number of Years Within Range3237765225
Percent of Years Within Range1.5%11.8%39.5%33.3%11.3%2.6%

While extreme returns can happen, almost 40% of annual returns have fallen within the -10% to 10% range.

Recessions and Recoveries

What does it look like when more abnormal returns occur? Due to the cyclical nature of the economy, recessions tend to be followed by strong recoveries.

recession and recovery stock market returns

In 1957, the year the S&P 500 was created, the stock market saw a loss of almost 11%. Stock prices shot up by over 43% the following year, bolstered by rising credit volumes and business profits.

Most recently, the 2008 global financial crisis led to one of the largest equity losses to date. In 2009, stocks climbed by almost 27%, boosted by expectations of higher capital spending and demand as the economy recovered.

What History Tells Us

While equities can have high volatility, returns have historically followed a positively-skewed bell curve distribution. From 1825-2019, the average total annual return was 8.25%. In fact, over 70% of total annual returns have been positive over the same timeframe.

Owning stocks long-term may help investors not only beat inflation, but also build a nest egg that may sustain them throughout their retirement years.

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