The S&P 500 index is made up of a select collection of the 500 largest stocks in the U.S. market based on market capitalization (shares outstanding times market price). Though it is mostly a rules-based index, a selection committee is involved to ensure that it contains a combination of stocks and industry sectors that represent the broad U.S. economy. In fact, just this year, the S&P 500 was changed to re-classify some highflying technology stocks (i.e., Alphabet (GOOGL), Facebook (FB), Twitter (TWTR)) from the Technology sector to the Communication Services sector. Likewise, some Consumer Discretionary stocks (i.e., Disney (DIS), Netflix (NFLX), and Comcast (CMCSA)) were reclassified into the Communication Services Sector.
The S&P 500 index is tracked closely by market watchers and its return profile is simply the sum of its parts. A convenient way to understand its performance dynamics is to look at the return profiles of its underlying sectors. The SPDR ETFs, ETFs that mirror the stocks held in the S&P 500 sectors, are a good way to get investable market exposure into the sectors.
As is usually the case, the return profiles of the 11 component sectors of the S&P 500 have been diverse through December 27, 2018. As seen from the table below, the Energy sector lagged the rest of the market with a -18.01% return so far in 2018, whereas the Health Care sector outperformed all sectors with a +4.61% return. The broad S&P 500 showed a total return so far at -5.26%.
Name Ticker Return % Percentile
Energy Select Sector SPDR® ETF XLE -18.01 11
Materials Select Sector SPDR® ETF XLB -15.11 24
Industrial Select Sector SPDR® ETF XLI -13.86 42
Financial Select Sector SPDR® ETF XLF -13.84 34
Consumer Staples Select Sector SPDR® ETF XLP -8.44 16
SPDR® S&P 500 ETF SPY -5.26 27
Real Estate Select Sector SPDR® XLRE -2.88 7
Technology Select Sector SPDR® ETF XLK -2.36 47
Consumer Discret Sel Sect SPDR® ETF XLY 0.50 10
Utilities Select Sector SPDR® ETF XLU 3.52 38
Health Care Select Sector SPDR® ETF XLV 4.61 16
Communication Services Sel Sect SPDR®ETF XLC na na
Many other things can be deduced from a table like this. For example, an interesting dynamic from the table above is the relative performance of each of these investable sectors when compared to their peer groups. Each of the SPDR sector ETFs, even the ones with negative performance, have outperformed their respective peers with above median performance (percentile rank less than 50).
Many market practitioners have studied the relationships between some of the sectors to see if there are any predictive qualities in the relative performance. Many investment firms, including a New York firm named Pension Partners, manage tactical allocation strategies that look for trends in sector returns to manage portfolios. The Pension Partners model (ATCIX) uses relative strength in the utilities sector (a traditionally “defensive” sector) to manage it strategy. YTD that investment has produced total return of -11.06% compared to the S&P of -5.3%, so that strategy has not worked too well this year. Others in that space have faced similar problems, such as Newfound Risk Managed Sectors (NFDIX) at -7.72% and Good Harbor Tactical Core (GHUAX) at -7.42%.