One of the biggest investment stories of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the boom in consumer discretionary stocks with a “shelter in suburbia” theme. From e-commerce platforms to home improvement stores to furniture and housewares merchants, many of the top performers have fit this flavor.
Take the broad-based Vanguard Consumer Discretionary Index Fund ETF VCR, +0.33% that surged more than 90% from March 2020 to March 2021. That was thanks to components like home improvement stocks Lowe’s LOW, +0.47% and Home Depot HD, +0.57% alongside retailers like TJX TJX, +0.84%.
Lately, however, performance has started to lag for many of these names. In fact, since April 1 we’ve seen these three stocks all drift slightly into the red even as the S&P 500 SPX, +0.33% has tacked on about 6% in the same period.
And some fear that may only be the beginning. As one Wall Street insider said recently in a Bloomberg interview, a “huge unwind” is coming for stay-at-home stocks, including hardware stores and home-goods merchants.
While some big-name “suburbia” trades are still relatively stable, signs of trouble are already emerging at the fringes. Century Communities CCS, -1.38% and Dream Finders Homes DFH, -2.09%, two mid-tier single family homebuilders, have seen shares crash by double digits over the last month. On the furnishings side, appliance giant Whirlpool Corporation WHR, +0.61% and department store Nordstrom JWN, +0.97% are down sharply from their spring highs.
Here are five big reasons why:
The upgrade cycle is over
Last summer, white-collar workers who were stuck at home made note of overdue projects and took advantage of being able to easily meet with contractors. But in many ways, this growth is not sustainable.
Consider the kind of purchases homeowners were making according to data from the NPD Group. Faucets, kitchen cabinets and even toilets were among the most popular products sold in 2020. Needless to say, even the most profligate homeowners aren’t going to follow this upgrade cycle of remodeling kitchens and bathrooms on an annual basis.
The same is true for furniture and other home goods. Internet giant Comscore recorded the highest visitation to related websites in history in May 2020 with 133 million web surfers shopping for some kind of home goods. Once again, a new couch or lamp is not an annual purchase — so this trend seems unsustainable for much longer.
Valuations are stretched
Speaking of post-pandemic peaks for home-goods purveyors, we’ve seen the financials bear out these big increases via boosted profits and sales. However, we’ve also seen the stock of many related merchants surge even more — stretching their valuations from historical norms.
Take TJX. Currently this discount retailer has a forward price-to-earnings ratio of more than 26, compared with a forward P/E of just 21 in spring 2020. Its trailing price-to-sales ratio is now 2.1 compared with 1.4.
What’s more, valuations for previous darlings like TJX are out of line with peers, too. Consider the forward P/E of the overall S&P 500 index is 22 right now, and other similar names like Macy’s M, +0.87% and Big Lots BIG, -0.15% actually have forward P/E ratios well under 10. You can argue TJX is unique, of course… but you also may want to be aware of what “fair value” looks like for many other stocks outside fashionable stay-at-home trades right now.
Delays and shortages
Future growth from pandemic-fueled peaks in these stocks is not impossible, of course. But given supply chain disruptions it seems highly unlikely. There are a host of reasons for these delays, including overseas shipping delays as well as capacity and output crunches that are affecting many industries, but “stay at home” stocks seem particularly hard hit.
Home improvement products are simply nowhere to be found, with roughly 94% of builders reporting “at least some serious shortages of appliances” according to the National Association of Home Builders. Another 93% are running short on framing lumber and 87% say it is hard to obtain windows and doors.
Even if you can get past demand concerns, without the raw materials to get to work it’s very hard to see future growth in this category.
For the people who haven’t already ponied up the cash for a contractor or made their peace with extended delays for their expensive new furniture, there is a pretty big disincentive right now for new shoppers: inflation.
The cost of living as measured by the Consumer Price Index jumped 0.6% in May to run at a 5% annual rate. That was not only higher than expectations, but the fastest pace since the summer of 2008. The inflation risks were so pronounced that the Federal Reserve publicly stated it could move up the schedule for expected interest rate increases to keep the risks under wraps.
Inflation isn’t always a death knell, of course. But it has historically eroded purchasing power and could curtail some of the spending in “stay at home” stocks that we’ve seen in the last year or so.
Speaking of red-hot inflation: In May, the median price for U.S. homes topped $350,000 for the first time ever — up 23.6% from 2020. What’s more, a Realtor.com survey showed roughly a third of selling homeowners expect to get more than their asking price, and roughly the same amount expect an offer within a week of listing.
Some of this is justifiable. Many articles have been written in recent years about the dearth of supply in attractive markets, and it’s important to acknowledge the remote work of the pandemic has indeed created some disruptive introspection into why people live where they do.
But here’s where things get dicey: homeowners who have already spent the expected premium on their home’s price well in advance. According to Freddie Mac, about $152.7 billion in equity loans were taken out on U.S. houses last year, a massive increase of 41.7% from 2019 and the highest refinancing cash-out dollar amount since 2007.
Anyone remember what happened to the real-estate market in 2007? Or the similar sense of seller entitlement from those days? There’s no clear signs of a bubble bursting just yet, but there’s real risk American homeowners may be overly optimistic about what their homes are worth — and a chance this home equity loan free-for-all simply isn’t sustainable for much longer.
Jeff Reeves is a MarketWatch columnist. He doesn’t own any of the securities mentioned in this article.