Trading Desk: Sector Leadership Shifts

It’s starting to look like the inflation trade is hitting a wall as expectations for energy and other commodity stocks drop. But while some people read this as a sign of a profound global recession destroying demand for fuel in particular, I think the explanation and the opportunity are a lot more prosaic.

Start with energy, where blended consensus implies 25% earnings deterioration in the current quarter . . . roughly 4 times as bad as what we expect across the S&P 500 as a whole. It looks like the end of the world, right? Are we already burning 25% less oil than we did a year ago?

No, we are not. What’s really happening is that the base on that year-over-year comparison was artificially and unsustainably high. Back then, energy earnings were spiking a giddy 182% above 2021 levels.

A little decline is natural. What we’re probably left with is energy earnings that are “only” double where they were two years ago. Back then, Exxon (XOM) was only a $58 stock and its peers were similarly depressed. Double the earnings should imply double the stock price, right?

And as OPEC tightens, I don’t see oil prices dropping far from here. This is more of a floor than a ceiling.

But if you have your heart set on a global economic disaster, here’s some context. Say for the sake of argument that we’re going back to the 2008 crash era. Back then, between 2007 and 2009, petroleum consumption worldwide dropped a harrowing 2.2%.

Oil prices dropped 15% over that period. Is that your crash? Or do you need something more drastic to justify dumping XOM and company at this point?

What I think is really happening is that Wall Street is bored with Big Oil. These companies are historically solid but bland performers, mostly valuable for providing current income to shareholders in the form of dividends on every barrel they drill, pump and sell.

If you’re looking for something that can keep up with inflation and make real money, you’re better off rotating into the stocks that have real room to grow. That’s Amazon (AMZN), rebounding from its post-COVID slump. It’s Meta (META) and Alphabet (GOOG), exploiting virtual reality and artificial intelligence.

Perversely, it’s the banks. Some banks will fail but they’re at the awkward size between “too big to fail” and “too small to matter.” Skip these awkward stocks and focus on the top and bottom of the food chain. There are great bargains in the local banks.

The businesses are great. They’re loving non-zero interest rates. And they’re where the heat is from a fundamental point of view.

Look for dynamic consumer brands. Look for the hot streaming video channels. If you want the heat and the novelty in the short term, you can skip everything else.

But if you want a long-term bargain, don’t rule out Big Oil yet.