Where investors should hide out during a trade war

Pedestrians walk on Wall Street near the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) in New York.

Michael Nagle | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Pedestrians walk on Wall Street near the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) in New York.

Those seeking protection against an intensifying trade war between the United States and its economic allies should buy shares of domestic, consumer-facing companies, according to investors. Utilities — classic defensive plays with domestic-only markets — could also benefit if this is a prolonged conflict, some said.

Others are sticking with the hot small cap trade in the face of this escalating conflict.

With both Beijing and Washington slapping each other with $34 billion in new tariffs Friday, some market strategists voiced concern a breakdown of global trade could hurt companies with large overseas markets and supply chains. As a result, stocks that stand to outperform peers are likely those of companies with mostly U.S. exposure and so-called bond proxies, according to Credit Suisse.

“Cyclical stocks with a high percentage of foreign sales tend to be most threatened by the potential for increased trade tensions,” Credit Suisse’s equity chief Jonathan Golub wrote in a note earlier this year. “Another potentially lucrative approach to trading trade tensions: focus on interest rate impacts. More specifically, an increase in tensions would lead to a rise in recessionary concerns and a decline in yields, leading to a rotation away from financials and toward bond proxies.”

Utilities lead sector gains over the past month, up more than 10 percent against the S&P 500’s 0.4 percent decline.

The recent rise in stock price for companies like NextEra and Duke Energy has steadily tracked falling interest rates over the same period. The Utilities Select Sector SPDR exchange-traded fund has appreciated 9.7 percent. Alternatively, credit Cuisse said that global players like Baker Hughes, Mosaic and 3M could be the most exposed if trade relations sour further. All three equities have underperformed the broader stock market over the past 30 days.

Goldman Sachs, meanwhile, told investors to consider domestic, consumer companies as a way of navigating turbulent trade policies.

“Many Trump campaign proposals, such as infrastructure spending and tax reform, that investors had expected would boost US growth have not been implemented. As a result, domestic-facing firms have lagged,” David Kostin, the bank’s chief U.S. equity strategist, wrote last July when the trade tensions were first starting to appear. “Looking forward, any impediments to foreign trade such as tariffs or trade disputes would likely benefit stocks with high domestic sales relative to export-oriented firms.”

“Although our economists have estimated that the effects of tariffs on growth would vary depending on size, foreign retaliation and time horizon, US equities appear to be relatively insulated,” he added. “Foreign sales account for just 31 percent of S&P 500 revenues; smaller firms such as those in the Russell 2000, which derive 80 percent of revenues domestically, are even less exposed.”

Sectors with high foreign revenue exposure, Kostin said, include information technology, materials and energy; sectors with the lowest overseas sales include telecommunications, utilities and real estate.

John Vail of Nikko Asset Management told CNBC that while there would likely be “few winners” during a trade war, consumer names could prove relatively good bets.

“More domestic, consumer oriented stocks would probably do better. Some might even do well if it’s extremely defensive,” Vail said. “If bond yields fall as a result of a more cautious Fed, utilities could do well. In this case, the U.S. economy would be affected as well, so the Fed would be reacting to that as well.”

Still other have suggested taking a look at small-cap stocks as a means of weathering a global trade crisis.

The Russell 2000 index – which tracks the performance of smaller equities – has rebounded to record highs well ahead of both the Dow Jones Industrial Average and the S&P 500. In fact, the index closed at an all-time high within the past three week and remains less than 1 percent the record.

“I think the small-cap rally has been much a flight to safety, away from geopolitical concerns, tariff issues, and all the things that bother the multinationals. The safety trade has been to go to small-caps, which are much more U.S.-centric,” Boris Schlossberg, managing director of foreign exchange strategy at BK Asset Management, said in April on CNBC’s “Trading Nation.

However, others worry that the small-cap trade may be growing too crowded to make it a compelling investment.

The Russell 2000 trade is one of the most crowded trades in the world, meaning that investors ought to consider names “less trampled all over,” said Larry McDonald, managing director and head of global macro strategy at ACG Analytics.

Instead, “the staples trade could be one of the best trades in years and they’re under-owned,” said McDonald, also a CNBC contributor and editor of the Bear Traps Report. “This trade war could trigger a stampede into staples, the XLP.”

Asked about a possible bid for the U.S. dollar, the strategist said he’d steer clear of the greenback until it’s clear the Fed won’t be tempted to relax their path toward higher rates.

“If the Fed reverses its path, the dollar is going to get smoked: The dollar is a global wrecking ball,” he added. In its place, he suggested traders turn to gold and silver as safe haven bid if things spin out of hand, saying the metals could see a 20 percent rally if the Fed decides to back away from its hawkish tone as in 2015 and 2016.

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