History's Not on the Side of Consumer Staples ETFs

Nov. 7.08 | About: Consumer Staples (XLP)

Exchange traded fund (ETF) investors have had small fortunes ravaged by the bear, sometimes seemingly overnight. The fear that surfaces in volatile markets usually drives an investor to make an emotionally charged decision, selling stocks or ETFs at a loss, rather than bargain-hunting while the opportunity presents.

The so-called safe havens of the bear markets in areas such as consumer staples, which represents segments of the market that are always in demand, such as food and medicine. But do the numbers of these and other “safe haven” sectors tell a story of protection, or false security?

Paulette Miniter for Smart Money reports that a look at which sectors did the best and worst during the last two major bear markets, from 2000-2002 and 1987, might shed some light. No two bear markets are alike, of course. But consumer staples, which hasn’t changed all that much over the years, is at the bottom of the heap for both bear markets.

In the 2000-02 bear market, only technology did worse, and that’s because of the dot-com bubble. In 1987, consumer staples was the worst-performing industry, losing 31%.

Health care did outlast the rest during both periods of a pullback. So, the big question remains if consumer staples can keep its safe haven moniker through this market.

There’s some support in recent months for the argument for the consumer staples sector being a safe haven, given that Wal-Mart (NYSE:WMT) is one of the few bright spots in a sea of retail blackouts.

Most merchants have been reporting dismal sales, making October the weakest it’s been since at least 1969, reports Anne D’Innocenzio for the Associated Press. But not only are consumers who want the basics still heading to Wal-Mart, but he retailer is planning to slash prices on thousands of items over the next seven weeks.

Consumer Staples Select Sector SPDR (NYSEARCA:XLP) is down 13.8% year-to-date.

Consumer Staples ETFClick to enlarge