Which sectors do well at which times? Sector rotation is an investment strategy that tries to find out – and profit from that information.

What is sector rotation?

Sector-rotating investors often divide the business cycle — the neverending sequence of economic booms and busts — into four phases that can be bucketed as follows: recession, bull market, peak and bear market. The idea is that specific sectors outperform the others at specific points in the cycle.

Which sectors outperform at which times? Depending on who you ask, you’re likely to get a slightly different answer, and there’s some disagreement on whether one particular sector is a better option in the tail end of one phase or the beginning of another — but the table below highlights some popular theories.

Sectors that may outperform

Industrials, materials, energy

Communication services, financials

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Sector rotation ETFs

Some ETF issuers take the guesswork out of sector rotation for you, by doing it themselves within a sector rotation ETF. The SPDR SSGA US Sector Rotation ETF (XLSR) and the Main Sector Rotation ETF (SECT) are examples.

Both use their own separate methodologies, but they have one thing in common — they’ve both underperformed the S&P 500 index over the last year.

Does sector rotation work?

The fact that sector rotation ETFs underperform the S&P 500 is not the only mark against sector rotation strategies. In a widely-cited 2007 paper, economists at Massey University in New Zealand examined US stock returns between 1948 and 2006. They found that sector rotation strategies tend to underperform simpler strategies.

“We conclude that, contrary to conventional market wisdom, rotating sectors over business-cycles is unlikely to be an optimal investment strategy and question the widespread acceptance of sector rotation as a strategy that provides investors with relative outperformance,” the researchers wrote

So sector rotation may not be a silver bullet, at least with the sector rotation methods we have today. It’s possible that some investor or economist could discover an easy and reliable sector rotation method in the future, but they haven’t figured one out yet.

Until then, investors may find it helpful to take one page from the book of sector rotation: Investing through ETFs. This is one easy way to provide investment diversification to a portfolio.

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Neither the author nor editor owned positions in the aforementioned investments at the time of publication.

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