Information Technology Sector Rating: Marketperform

Information technology sector overview

After a rough stretch for tech, we don’t think it’s time to load the boat, and so we’re maintaining our marketperform rating. Corporate spending could be delayed by tariff concerns, which could affect the profitability of the group.

Market outlook for the information technology sector

The tech sector has undergone some fairly large changes, as some of its largest companies have moved to the communications sector. As we’ve written before, we believe (and the data seems to show) that the resulting technology sector is a bit more defensive in nature, with higher dividend yields and lower price-to-earnings ratios (according to Cornerstone Macro Research). For now we are not changing our recommended marketperform rating on the sector, but given the new characteristics we are going to be carefully watching how the sector behaves over the next few months. The first few months following the sector changes have been tough for tech, but we don’t believe at this point that this is a trend that will be sustained--and have started to see the downtrend reverse--which is why we are keeping our rating at marketperform for now.

We still like technology, but are a little more concerned in the near term about some negative factors facing the sector. Concerns about slowing global growth appear to be affecting sentiment toward the tech sector, while a trade dispute with China continues to weigh on the group. Additionally, although we still believe in the need for companies to expand their spending on capital improvements, especially in the technology area, we are concerned that trade concerns may delay some of that spending.

However, the U.S. consumer now seems to us to be willing to spend more on technology. Meanwhile, consumer confidence remains elevated despite slipping in the most recent readings, according to the Conference Board, showing little impact from tariff concerns, but likely dipping due to the recently concluded government shutdown. This should help support the tech sector and leaves us still positive on the group, just not quite as much.

Although we’ve been waiting for a move higher in capital spending for some time, we are encouraged by the January National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) survey that showed capital spending plans remained elevated. Spending plans ticked slightly higher after two straight months of declines, but we remain concerned those plans may fall again should the trade disputes drag on and escalate.

Balance sheets in the information technology sector appear solid, with large cash balances and relatively low debt. In our opinion, this enables the group to pursue mergers and acquisitions that might help performance by removing competition and consolidating expenses but those may be delayed by uncertainty surrounding trade. Additionally, we have seen tech sector companies increase their dividend payments, which may become a larger part of total equity return in the near term, while they have also increased share buybacks, which helps to reduce available shares to be purchased.

So we aren’t overly negative on the group, but we do think, for now, that the risks are more balanced with the return potential and believe that a more neutral rating is appropriate for the time being.

Factors that may affect the information technology sector

Positive factors for the technology sector include:

  • Increased technology spending: With productivity relatively weak, companies should look to technology upgrades to improve efficiency. Capital expenditures have been below trend for several years, and a return to more normal spending levels would boost the sector.
  • Wage increases: Increasing wages, including raising the minimum wage in various areas, could push companies to turn to technology to replace increasingly expensive human workers.

Negative factors for the technology sector include:

  • Increasing global competition: Competition, especially from areas with low labor costs, will likely continue to compress profit margins.
  • Increased regulation: There is an increased risk, in our view, of some potentially damaging regulation, which could affect revenues and increase costs in certain areas of the tech sector.
  • Trade disputes: If trade conflicts escalate it could raise costs for American producers and prices for consumers.
  • Capital spending delays: We continue to see signs that companies remain hesitant to increase capital investment beyond what is absolutely necessary, although there are signs that is beginning to end.

Clients can see our top-rated stocks in the information technology sector.

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