Investors seek stability as they bail out of tech stocks

Fears about rising interest rates, a global trade war and slowing economic growth have roiled markets.

By Stan Choe and Marley Jay / Associated Press

NEW YORK — Goodbye iPhones and Facebook feed. Hello power plants and bleach.

Since stocks began tumbling two months ago, investors haven’t abandoned the market. At least, not all of it. In recent weeks, as they’ve pulled money out of funds that invest in go-go technology companies, they’ve also been buying utilities, companies that make everyday necessities for consumers and other stocks that tend to have smaller swings in price than the rest of the market.

It’s part of a big shift in investor behavior as fears about rising interest rates, a global trade war and slowing economic growth around the world have roiled markets. The S&P 500 plunged a combined 3.4 percent Monday and Tuesday, with technology stocks again suffering particularly sharp losses, and the index has lost 9.6 percent since setting its record on Sept. 20.

Technology stocks’ fall marks a big turnaround from earlier this year, and from much of the bull market that began nearly a decade ago. After leading the market higher on the backs of their strong profit growth, Facebook and other big-name tech companies have recently stumbled on concerns that increased government regulation will dent their profits, on top of all the other concerns dragging on the rest of the market.

Apple has slumped particularly hard on fears that its newest crop of iPhones isn’t as popular as expected after phone-part suppliers gave discouraging forecasts. Apple has plunged 19.7 percent since the S&P 500 set its record two months ago, nearly double the loss of the index. Amazon, the third-most valuable U.S. company after Apple and Microsoft, has fallen 21.3 percent over the same time, during which it gave a forecast for revenue growth this holiday season that fell short of Wall Street’s high expectations.

After their years of eye-popping returns, those stocks had become some of the most popular to own among hedge funds, mutual funds and other investors. But just as they bought the stocks together on the way up, investors are now heading for the exits en masse as well.

“There’s no doubt that tech companies are widely owned, people have made a lot of money on them and we’re finally seeing for the first time where the rotation is having some legs,” said Nate Thooft, senior portfolio manager at Manulife Asset Management. “They’re selling the winners and redeploying the money somewhere else.”

For now, at least, that somewhere else has been areas of the stock market seen as holding steadier during economic downturns. Last week, for example, investors plowed $1.47 billion into exchange-traded funds that focus on utility stocks. The thinking is that utilities’ customers will continue to turn on their lights and buy power regardless of how many tariffs get placed on Chinese goods.

Utility stocks have not only held up better than the rest of the market in recent weeks, they’ve been among the few areas to thrive. Shares of Duke Energy and Xcel Energy have both climbed more than 7 percent since the S&P 500 began its downturn after Sept. 20.

Besides utilities, investors have also been putting money into real-estate stocks and companies that make everyday items for consumers, such as Church & Dwight. The maker of Arm & Hammer baking soda and Oxiclean stain fighters has climbed nearly 10 percent over the last two months. Clorox, which last month reported stronger profit than analysts expected, is up 5.1 percent.

All these companies are common fodder for “low-volatility” ETFs that have surged in popularity in recent weeks as investors seek out stocks that have historically had smaller price swings than the rest of the market. Last week, $1.3 billion went into “low-volatility” ETFs.

At the same time, nearly $500 million left technology stock ETFs. It’s a huge about-face in interest. As recently as two months ago, these ETFs had attracted $8 billion in net investment for 2018. But subsequent waves of selling mean they’re now down to $525.9 million in net investment for the year, according to Jefferies.

“These things had outperformed the S&P by a mile over the last three years,” said Mark Hackett, chief of investment research at Nationwide Investment Management. But that’s changed now. “On good days they’re not the leaders, and on bad days they’re the laggards.”

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