Giving businesses more time to deal with Obamacare mandates stunned the health industry Wednesday. Whether this is a precursor of things to come will determine how deeply the shock will penetrate.
Health care stocks retreated across the board after word came down that businesses with more than 50 employees will get another year—until 2015 now—before being forced into buying coverage for their workers.
The move comes with both economic and political calculations.
A fragile U.S. employment recovery is hardly in a position to withstand shocks. The uncertainty of the Affordable Care Act seems, at least anecdotally, to be holding back hiring.
Delaying the implementation, then, makes sense and received a warm greeting from businesses faced with complying.
At the same time, the increasingly unpopular health care plan will see at least one of its most controversial measures put off until after the midterm election in 2014.
From a market perspective, though, the consequences are less clear.
Stocks connected to the success of Obamacare retreated fairly aggressively during an otherwise muddled session Wednesday.
Large-cap healthcare stocks on the S&P 500 have surged 19 percent in 2013, but the SPDR Healthcare Select exchange-traded fund dropped 0.4 percent in morning trade.
A closer look indicated some specific losers.
The Dow Jones pharma index dropped more than 0.8 percent, the drug retailers index slid more than 1 percent and health care providers lost 0.6 percent. Insurance brokers and food and drug retailers also fell. Technology stocks strengthened.
Uncertainty seemed to be the order of the day and the gut reaction to the new Obamacare developments.
At Zacks Investment Research, the Obamacare-relevant health care sectors are all placed in the top half of the firm’s sector rankings.
Chief equity strategist John Blank expects things to stay that way for the time being, though the future is uncertain.
“You have to stay bullish on the sector,” Blank said. “What was announced is unlikely to change that dynamic very much.”
On the winners side, Zacks ranks HMOs at the top of the healthcare pack (No. 19 out of 259 industries) with service providers (78), biomedical (81) and hospitals, nursing homes and medical products bunched at 116.
Two big deadlines lie ahead, though: The Oct. 1 implementation of insurance exchanges, and the Jan. 1 ultimate deadline for individuals to buy insurance. Those two dwarf the importance of the business issue, as a large number of big companies already provide coverage.
“If this is stage one of a lot of retractions, then it’s a bigger issue, much bigger,” Blank said. “The individual mandate and the exchanges are major, major expansions of coverage.”
Nick Raich, CEO at the Earnings Scout, said the big losers will be managed care companies, while it is a “huge temporary positive for the 50th and 51st persons on the totem pole at small- to mid-sized companies.”
Raich added there could be “major headwinds…if the delay turns into something more.”
While healthcare stocks have surged thus far in 2013, earnings projections are gloomy, with the sector likely to report a 0.95 percent second-quarter loss.
The Obamacare news, then, sets the stage for a rough second half of the year.
“It could trim the managed cares in the near term for this year,” Raich said. “I don’t see upward guidance. Companies in the health care sector aren’t pressing on the accelerator by any means.”