Investors look to utilities to weather any market rout


NEW YORK: Investors looking for ways to protect themselves from a potential market downturn and rising inflation have been warming to utilities, sometimes seen as bond substitutes, as attractive alternatives.

The S&P 500 utilities index has outperformed the broader market this month, rising 9.3% so far compared with a 4.3% gain in the benchmark index and leading gains among sectors for March.

Driving the gains may be a defensive move by investors to position themselves against a potential slide in equities, with worries mounting over higher inflation as seen in the jump in 10-year Treasury yields and over pricey stock valuations, some strategists say.

Utilities tend to do better in a downturn because they pay dividends and offer stability. “It’s a little defensive positioning, ” said Joseph Quinlan, head of CIO market strategy for Merrill and Bank of America Private Bank in New York. “We have some clients who want to be more defensive but want to stay in the market.”

While the economy is expected to rebound sharply this year from the impact of the coronavirus, that optimism may be dampened by next year if unemployment remains elevated and growth slows more than expected.

Some investors say utilities also may be benefiting from hopes that there will be a bigger push toward green energy under the Biden administration. President Joe Biden is expected to unveil next week a multitrillion-dollar plan to rebuild America’s infrastructure that may also tackle climate change.

“If you get any acceleration of the decarbonisation rhetoric, that’s a positive for utilities, ” said Shane Hurst, managing director and portfolio manager at ClearBridge Investments. But whether the recent surge in utilities has further room to run is a matter of debate, and many strategists and investors, including Quinlan, still favour cyclicals that benefit from economic growth over defensive-leaning groups such as utilities. ─ Reuters

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