Schwab Sector Views: Complicated Consumer

Key Points

  • Consumer confidence is elevated and unemployment is at historic lows, which should mean the American consumer is healthy headed into the holiday shopping season.

  • There are some cracks around the edges—not so much to worry about at this point, but something to pay attention to.

  • We believe the holiday shopping season will be a good one, but that might not lead to strong performance in the investing world. 

Schwab Sector Views is our three- to six-month outlook for 11 stock sectors, which represent broad sectors of the economy. It is designed for investors looking for tactical ideas. We typically update our views every two weeks. 
*Due to the Thanksgiving holiday, the next version of Sector Views will be published on December 6, 2018.

The most wonderful time of the year?

Halloween is done, Thanksgiving is right around the corner, and Christmas isn’t far behind!  What does that add up to?  To us, it means an increased focus on the American consumer as we enter the heart of the holiday shopping season.  And according to the National Retail Federation, it’s shaping up to be a solid season with sales expected to rise 4.3-4.8% from a year ago for the  November to December time period, down just a bit from the robust 5.5% gain seen last year. 

Fundamentally, the consumer is looking to be in good shape as well. Consumers are apparently shrugging off recent market volatility and geopolitical concerns as evidenced by The Conference Board recently reporting consumer confidence reached its highest level in 18 years. 

Consumer confidence quite high heading into the holidays

consumer confidence

And why shouldn’t they be confident?  Unemployment is at historic low levels and wages are trending higher.  Admittedly, wage gains have been slow in coming around, but we also believe that has allowed inflation to remain lower than it otherwise might have been, which also stands to benefit the shopper in the form of steady prices.

Unemployment at historic lows

Unemployment rate

And wages are trending higher

atlanta fed wage growth

This adds up, to us at least, to leading to the potential for a very good holiday shopping season.  We don’t make predictions, and weather could have an impact on the season, but we would tend to believe that the projected gain may be a little on the conservative side.  Consumers are working and feeling good, the midterm elections will be behind us, and we believe the cash registers will be ringing!  

So what?

That’s all well and good, and at least potentially good news for retailers who rely on these two months for much of their business, but what does the situation look like for investors?  Here it gets a little more complicated.  As you know, stocks tend to be forward looking instruments and the data above is already well known.  But when you look a little deeper, there may be some cracks developing that may warrant a bit of caution in the midst of the holiday cheer. 

First of all, it appears to us that the recent rise in interest rates is impacting the housing market, with existing home sales falling in September and down 4.1% from a year ago according to the National Association of Realtors.  Additionally, prices according to the S&P CoreLogic Case-Shiller Home Price Index grew at a slower pace in August for the fifth consecutive month—not a crisis but a sign of a softening housing market. Additionally, we’ve seen delinquency rates start trend higher.

Delinquency rates are low but rising

NY Fed Credit Card Delinquencies

These developments do not portend imminent danger to us and we continue to believe the consumer is healthy and will support economic growth in the coming months. But we also think the above are signs that we may be nearing the latter stages of the economic cycle, or at least that we may have seen peak growth rates for the foreseeable future.  What that means for sector investors is that having a bit more of a defensive tilt may be beneficial—thus our outperform rating on health care and underperform rating on the communication services sector.  More specifically, especially in light of the increased focus on retailers, which reside within the consumer discretionary sector, investors may want to be cautious about making the jump from a good holiday shopping season to an increased investment allocation to the consumer discretionary sector.  

Remember, good company results don’t always result in good stock action. The consumer discretionary sector tends to be an early mover in the economic cycle, with data from Ned Davis Research showing the sector generally outperforms in the four years following the start of a recession, but underperforms in the two years leading up to a recession.  We don’t see a recession coming at this point, but we are well past the four year mark following the last recession.  Additionally, while the November-January time period has historically been the best performing months of the year for the overall stock market, the consumer discretionary sector, after historically having good Novembers, has Decembers and Januarys that lose money as often or more than they gain it (Ned Davis Research).

This isn’t meant to ruin the holiday cheer, or send you to the exits with regard to the consumer discretionary sector—in fact we remain at a neutral marketperform rating on the group.  But we do suggest that you resist the temptation to translate those cash registers ringing up holiday sales into investment action. Have fun with the holiday shopping but always remember to separate the company from the stock—sometimes they match up, often times they don’t!

Schwab Sector Views: Our current outlook


Schwab Sector View

Date of last change to Schwab Sector View

Share of the
S&P 500 Index

Year-to-date total return as of 11/06/18


Consumer discretionary





Consumer staples















Health care










Information technology










Real estate










S&P 500®  Index (Large Cap)





Source: Schwab Center for Financial Research and Standard and Poor’s as of 10/31/18.

.*The Communications Sector came into existence on 9/28/18, and the year-to-date information is not comparable to rest of the groups so we are omitting it until the end of the year.


Clients can use the Portfolio Checkup tool to help ascertain and manage sector allocations.

What is Schwab Sector Views?

Schwab Sector Views is our three- to six-month outlook for 11 stock market sectors, which are based on the 11 broad sectors of the economy.

The sectors we analyze are from the widely recognized Global Industry Classification Standard (GICS) groupings. After a review of risks and opportunities, we give each stock sector one of the following ratings:

  • Outperform: Likely to perform better than the rest of the market.
  • Underperform: Likely to perform worse than the rest of the market.
  • Marketperform: Likely to track the broad market.

How should I use Schwab Sector Views?

Investors should generally be well-diversified across all stock market sectors. You can use the Standard & Poor’s 500 allocations to each sector, listed in the chart above, as a guideline.

Investors who want to make tactical shifts in their portfolio can use Schwab Sector Views’ outperform, underperform and marketperform ratings as a resource. These ratings can be helpful in evaluating and monitoring the domestic equity portion of your portfolio.

Schwab Sector Views can also be useful in identifying stocks by sector for potential purchase or sale. When it’s time to make adjustments, Schwab clients can use the Stock Screener or Mutual Fund Screener to help identify buy or sell candidates in particular sectors. Schwab Equity Ratings also can provide an objective and powerful approach for helping you select and monitor stocks.

Next Steps

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Important Disclosures

Schwab Sector Views do not represent a personalized recommendation of a particular investment strategy to you. You should not buy or sell an investment without first considering whether it is appropriate for you and your portfolio. Additionally, you should review and consider any recent market news.

All expressions of opinion are subject to change without notice in reaction to shifting market or other conditions. Data contained herein from third-party providers is obtained from what are considered reliable sources. However, its accuracy, completeness or reliability cannot be guaranteed.

Diversification and rebalancing strategies do not ensure a profit and do not protect against losses in declining markets. Rebalancing may cause investors to incur transaction costs and, when rebalancing a non-retirement account, taxable events may be created that may affect your tax liability

Indexes are unmanaged, do not incur management fees, costs and expenses, and cannot be invested in directly. Past performance is no guarantee of future results.

The S&P 500 Index is a market-capitalization-weighted index comprising 500 widely traded stocks chosen for market size, liquidity and industry group representation.

The Consumer Confidence Index is a survey by the Conference Board that measures how optimistic or pessimistic consumers are with respect to the economy in the near future.

The S&P CoreLogic Case-Shiller U.S. National Home Price NSA Index is a composite of single-family home price indices for the nine U.S. Census divisions and is calculated monthly.

The Global Industry Classification Standard (GICS) was developed by and is the exclusive property of Morgan Stanley Capital International Inc. (MSCI) and Standard & Poor's. GICS is a service mark of MSCI and S&P and has been licensed for use by Charles Schwab & Co., Inc.

The Schwab Center for Financial Research is a division of Charles Schwab & Co., Inc.