What Is Sector Rotation? How It Works and Importance in Investing

What Is Sector Rotation?

Sector rotation is the movement of money invested in stocks from one industry to another as investors and traders anticipate the next stage of the economic cycle.

The economy moves in reasonably predictable cycles. Various industries and the companies that dominate them thrive or languish depending on the cycle.

That simple fact has spawned an investment strategy that is based on sector rotation. Even those investors who don't base their entire strategy on sector rotation would be wise to anticipate the cycle.

Key Takeaways

  • The economy moves in a predictable cycle from boom to bust and back again.
  • Stock investors try to anticipate the next cycle months in advance. They move their money into the industries that tend to perform best in the next cycle.

Understanding Sector Rotation

Sector rotation emerged as a theory from the analysis of data from the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) that demonstrates that economic cycles have been fairly consistent since at least 1854.

Thanks to a cadre of government and academic economists, we know the approximate start, duration, and end of every past business cycle since the middle of the 19th century.

Spotting changes in the cycle is harder to do in real-time. The NBER has been known to announce that a recession has ended more than a year after the fact.

That's not much help to an investor trying to take advantage of the end of one cycle and the start of the next. Luckily, there are other signs that can help investors determine where their money should be invested to take advantage of sector rotation.

The Market Cycle in Four Stages

The stock markets don't move with the economic cycle. They move in anticipation of the economic cycle, or at least they try to. The market cycle can be divided into four stages:

Most of the time, financial markets attempt to predict the state of the economy anywhere from three to six months into the future. That means the market cycle is usually well ahead of the economic cycle.

We know the start, middle, and end of every economic cycle since the mid-1800s. Predicting the next one is harder.

This is crucial for investors to remember because the market will always start to look ahead to recovery while the economy is in the pits of a recession,

The Economic Cycle in Four Stages

Here are the four basic stages of the economic cycle, along with some of the sectors that tend to thrive at each stage. Keep in mind that these usually trail the market cycle by a few months.

Full Recession

This is not a good time for businesses or for job-seekers. Gross domestic product (GDP) is retracting quarter-over-quarter. Interest rates are falling. Consumer expectations have hit bottom. The yield curve is normal. Sectors that have historically profited most in this stage include:

  • Cyclicals and transports (near the beginning)
  • Technology
  • Industrials (near the end)

Early Recovery

Things are starting to pick up. Consumer expectations are rising. Industrial production is growing. Interest rates have bottomed, and the yield curve is beginning to get steeper. Historically, successful sectors at this stage include:

  • Industrials (near the beginning)
  • Basic materials
  • Energy (near the end)

Late Recovery

Interest rates may be rising rapidly, and the yield curve is flattening. Consumer expectations are beginning to decline, and industrial production is flat. Historically profitable sectors in this stage include:

Early Recession

The overall economy looks bad. Consumer expectations are at their worst. Industrial production is falling. Interest rates are at their highest, and the yield curve is flat or even inverted. Historically, the following sectors have found favor during these rough times:

  • Services (near the beginning)
  • Utilities
  • Cyclicals and transports (near the end)

The Bottom Line

With this pattern in mind, traders try to anticipate which companies will be successful in the coming stage of an economic cycle. Equally important can be the signs the market is exhibiting regarding future economic conditions. Watching for the telltale signs can give you insight into which stage traders believe the economy is in.

Article Sources
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  1. National Bureau of Economic Research. "US Business Cycle Expansions and Contractions."

  2. National Bureau of Economic Research. "Business Cycle Dating."

  3. National Bureau of Economic Research. "Business Cycle Dating Committee Announcements."

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