The Ups And Downs Of Investing In Cyclical Stocks

By Ben McClure AAA

Imagine being on a Ferris wheel: one minute you're on top of the world, the next you're at the bottom - and eager to head back up again. Investing in cyclical companies is much the same, except the the time it takes to go up and down, known as a business cycle, can last years.

What Are Cyclical Stocks?
Identifying these companies is fairly straightforward. They often exist along industry lines. Automobile manufacturers, airlines, furniture, steel, paper, heavy machinery, hotels and expensive restaurants are the best examples. Profits and share prices of cyclical companies tend to follow the up and downs of the economy; that's why they are called cyclicals. When the economy booms, as it did in the go-go '90s, sales of things like cars, plane tickets and fine wines tend to thrive. On the other hand, cyclicals are prone to suffer in economic downturns. (For more on the business cycle, see Recession: What Does It Mean To Investors?)

Given the up-and-down nature of the economy and, consequently, that of cyclical stocks, successful cyclical investing requires careful timing. It is possible to make a lot of money if you time your way into these stocks at the bottom of a down cycle just ahead of an upturn. But investors can also lose substantial amounts if they buy at the wrong point in the cycle.

Comparing Cyclicals to Growth Stocks
All companies do better when the economy is growing, but good growth companies, even in the worst trading conditions, still manage to turn in increased earnings per share year after year. In a downturn, growth for these companies may be slower than their long-term average, but it will still be an enduring feature.

Cyclicals, by contrast, respond more violently than growth stocks to economic changes. They can suffer mammoth losses during severe recessions and can have a hard time surviving until the next boom. But, when things do start to change for the better, dramatic swings from losses to profits can often far surpass expectations. Performance can even outpace growth stocks by a wide margin.

Investing in Cyclicals
So, when does it pay to buy them? Predicting an upswing can be awfully difficult, especially since many cyclical stocks start doing well many months before the economy comes out of a recession. Buying requires research and courage. On top of that, investors must get their timing perfect.

Investment guru Jim Slater offers investors some help. He studied how cyclical industries fared against key economic variables over a 15-year period. Data showed that falling interest rates are a key factor behind cyclicals' most successful years. Since falling rates normally stimulate the economy, cyclical stocks fare best when interest rates are falling. Conversely, in times of rising interest rates, cyclical stocks fare poorly. But Slater warns us to be careful: the first year of falling interest rates is also unlikely to be the right time to buy. He advises that it's best to buy in the last year of falling interest rates, just before they begin to rise again. This is when cyclicals tend to outperform growth stocks.

Before selecting a cyclical stock, it makes sense to pick an industry that is due for a bounce. In that industry, choose companies that look especially attractive. The biggest companies are often the safest. Smaller companies carry more risk, but they can also produce the most impressive returns.

Many investors look for companies with low P/E multiples, but for investing in cyclical stocks this strategy may not work well. Earnings of cyclical stocks fluctuate too much to make P/E a meaningful measure; moreover, cyclicals with low P/E multiples can frequently turn out to be a dangerous investment. A high P/E normally marks the bottom of the cycle, whereas a low multiple often signals the end of an upturn.

For investing in cyclicals, price-to-book multiples are better to use than the P/E. Prices at a discount to the book value offer an encouraging sign of future recovery. But when recovery is already well underway, these stocks typically fetch several times the book value. For instance, at the peak of a cycle, semiconductor manufacturers trade at three or four times book value.

Correct investment timing differs among cyclical sectors. Petrochemicals, cement, pulp and paper, and the like tend to move higher first. Once the recovery looks more certain, cyclical technology stocks, like semiconductors, normally follow. Tagging along near the end of the cycle are usually consumer companies, such as clothing stores, auto makers and airlines.

Insider buying, arguably, offers the strongest signal to buy. If a company is at the bottom of its cycle, directors and senior management will, by purchasing stock, demonstrate their confidence in the company fully recovering. (For more on how to research insider activity, see Keeping An Eye On The Activities Of Insiders And Institutions.)

Finally, keep a close eye on the company's balance sheet. A strong cash position can be very important, especially for investors who buy recovery stocks at the very bottom, where economic conditions are still poor. The company having plenty of cash gives these investors more time to confirm whether their strategy wisdom was a wise one.

Conclusion
Don't rely on cyclicals for long-term gains. If the economic outlook seems bleak, investors should be ready to unload cyclicals before these stocks tumble and end up back where they started. Investors stuck with cyclicals during a recession might have to wait five, 10 or even 15 years before these stocks return to the value they once had. Cyclicals make lousy buy-and-hold investments.

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