Health Care Sector Rating: Outperform

Health care sector overview

In general, health care companies' balance sheets are solid, their stocks have offered attractive dividend yields and the sector's overall cost structure appears to have improved. Demand appears to be on the rise for health care products and services. On the other hand, political rhetoric around the Affordable Care Act can be expected to fuel continued volatility.

Market outlook for the health care sector

The health care sector has outperformed over the past few months as investor concerns over the political situation appear to have eased, allowing them to focus on the attractive characteristics of the sector. Investors should always be prepared for volatility, given the influence the political arena can have on the health care world. However, we continue to believe the health care sector will benefit from good growth characteristics combined with the traditionally defensive nature of the sector, which has been highlighted during the recent overall market volatility.

In our view, the health care sector has a lot of positives going for it and has had decent performance over the past year—and we think there’s likely improving performance to come. Valuations appear fair to slightly below average based on historical levels, balance sheets are solid, stocks generally have good dividend yields, and the overall cost structure appears to be much improved. Also, demand appears to be on the rise for health care products and services, partly as a result of an aging population.

Government actions and potential actions continue to be potential sources of volatility for the sector, but we believe this creates potential opportunities for investors and are currently rating the group at outperform. While large-scale changes to the existing system seem highly unlikely in the near term given the environment in Washington and the split Congress that resulted from the midterm elections, there are smaller changes being made administratively and proposed legislatively that will likely continue to result in ebbs and flows in the sector as investors tried to gauge the impact on various areas of the sector. This is a story that will continue to develop as we get past the elections, with health care continuing to be at the center of many political debates and the mix in Washington changing but remaining divided. This will likely keep the health care sector a bit more volatile than usual, but also create some opportunities for investors willing to ride the potential roller coaster.

Another factor potentially helping the group, the Federal Reserve continues to raise rates and—according to BCA Research—the sector has outperformed during Fed hiking cycles on average since 1970. Since past performance does not guarantee future results, we acknowledge that there are risks and it could be a bit of a bumpy ride, but we believe that brighter prospects are ahead and remain comfortable with our outperform rating on the group.

We believe an outperform rating for the entire sector is appropriate, although at times it will feel disappointing as the sector experiences both short-term dips on speculation as to what changes may or may not occur, but we urge investors to remain patient and ride out these short-term potential storms.

Factors that may affect the health care sector

Positive factors for the health care sector include:

  • Increased need for services: An aging population requires more extensive drug treatments and medical care. The health issues associated with obesity also could boost demand for medical services.
  • Strong financials: Balance sheets in the health care sector remain flush with cash, increasing the possibility of higher dividend payments, share-enhancing stock buybacks, and mergers and acquisitions.

Negative factors for the health care sector include:

  • Regulatory uncertainty: Following an election where health care was a center of many political campaigns, it seems likely that new proposals regarding the health care sector will be made, but with a split Washington, getting much done seems unlikely to us at this point.
  • Fiscal policy concerns: The current fiscal situation in Washington creates uncertainty regarding the health care sector. Certain funding mechanisms could be changed as Congress deals with growing deficits.

Clients can see our top-rated stocks in the health care sector.

Want to learn more about a specific sector?  Click on a link below for more information or visit Schwab Sector Views to see how they compare.

CommunicationsConsumer discretionaryConsumer staplesEnergy
FinancialsHealth careIndustrials
Information technologyMaterialsReal estate

Next Steps