Volatility reared its ugly head this month, in what many still maintain is more likely a correction than signs of an impending crash. The selloff was initially sparked by investor concerns about rising interest rates and a fear that inflation may come roaring back along with higher bond yields. Even those who believe that much of the market is stable and growing get jittery when indexes make such a sudden drop. If nothing else, it was a good reminder to investors to remain wide awake and take a consultative approach to their portfolios.
When we saw the market pull back on Feb. 2 and continue for the next few days, we reminded investors that bear markets or pullbacks are also times to seek opportunity. Whether it’s to buy the dip and take on enhanced exposure to the S&P 500 using a lightly leveraged bull fund, or take an inverse view to express bearish sentiment on the index, investors have options in seemingly downward spirals.
However, there are still solid signs that U.S. companies are poised for growth. Unemployment is as low as it’s been this century, and average hourly wages appear to be rising for the first time in years. And a number of companies have announced plans to take advantage of reduced taxes by making investments in both physical and human capital, and in paying back shareholders via increased dividends.
Regarding health care, affordable access remains one of the most important issues facing Americans. CVS’ acquisition of Aetna, announced in December, certainly has the potential to be a major game changer, as does the announcement by Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway and JPMorgan of their plan to launch a private health care plan for their employees. That last announcement immediately caused an uproar in the markets, with CVS, UnitedHealth Group, Cigna, Walgreens and other major players all seeing their share prices drop overnight, but the long-term effects remain to be seen.
If the CVS/Aetna deal actually goes through, it could create a multibillion-dollar health care powerhouse combining retail location and health care services, which would certainly give dominant player UnitedHealth (UNH) a run for its money. And although CVS may be changing the game, UnitedHealth remains the industry leader. The company has been increasing revenues since 2014 by growing its menu of health insurance products as well as making significant improvements to its plans and networks.
A second area where investors might find opportunities is in the regional banking sector. Regional banks still offer some real opportunities for investors. With the Fed slowly hiking rates and the U.S. economy continuing to show strength, performance in the banking sector has been up 7.28% through the end of January, with a spotlight on Direxion Daily Regional Banks 3x ETF (DPST) up 22.41% for the month of January. There’s also been some talk about an uptick in bank M&A activity this year, particularly as the Trump administration looks to loosen stringent financial regulations imposed in the wake of the worldwide financial crisis.
In terms of specific names, two to watch are Comerica and PNC. Comerica reported net income of $743 million for 2017, compared with $477 million in 2016. The bank has made commendable moves to cut costs, including reducing the size of its workforce. Comerica believes its biggest opportunity for increasing revenue is to grow its lending business, and so has taken steps to streamline its credit process.
PNC is hoping to close on its deal to buy Fortis Advisors later this month and fold it into its corporate and institutional banking unit. Like Comerica, PNC is looking for growth this year in lending, including home equity and digital, as well as an expansion of its credit card business.
For those investors nervous about U.S. equities, Europe might be good place to look. The European FTSE Index was up about 4.55% into the first month of the year, and the 3x leveraged version of that, EURL, was up about 15.4%. Though the shaky period from Feb. 2-Feb 12 erased all of that, it’s worth keeping an eye on the region, in terms of potentially buying the dip in short-term trade. Europe seemed to react to the U.S. pullback, but the story there hasn’t changed much over the past three weeks. The market seems to be searching for the right price for risk assets and volatility is sticking around.
The European economy is showing some growth, with strong fundamentals: QE was promised to be slow, steady and supportive, euro weakness supports exports, company revenues are growing and earnings looked solid last year. European stocks seem to be staging a partial recovery amid the premise that U.S. markets may show signs of being toppy. In general, developed as well as emerging markets are holding up well.