Cyclical stocks move in tandem with the economy, which can lead to boom-and-bust returns for investors

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  • A cyclical stock is a stock whose performance follows the overall economy, rising when it grows and dropping during declines.
  • Cyclical stocks typically belong to industries dependent on discretionary spending like travel, entertainment, and luxury retail.
  • Cyclical stocks are volatile and transactions have to be carefully timed, but they can offer higher-than-market-average returns.

How do you know when a stock is going to rise, and when it is going to fall? If there were a single, definitive answer, all investors would be billionaires. While all stocks are affected by the moves of the stock market itself, there are a host of other influences — from a company’s own fundamentals to the economy overall. 

One particular segment, known as cyclical stocks, are particularly sensitive to cycles of the economy.

What is a cyclical stock?

A cyclical stock is one that will rise and fall in tandem with the economy. When the economy is strong, unemployment is low, and both production and consumer spending is high, cyclical stocks tend to gain in value. But when a weakening economy hits — causing businesses to contract and lay workers off, and people to shut their wallets — the value of these stocks goes down.

Cyclical stocks can rapidly drive gains in a portfolio when the economy is expanding, with supply and demand in specific sectors growing. But they can also quickly reduce the value of a portfolio when spending slows and the economy starts to shrink, further dampening demand. So timing is key to investing wisely with cyclical stocks. 

How volatile their price changes are depends on how quickly the economy is moving into or recovering from a recession.

Cyclical stocks are a varied lot. They can belong to a number of different industries. Unlike many growth stocks— another volatility-prone type of equities — the ranks of cyclical stocks can include well-established, sizeable businesses, as well as smaller ones. 

The common denominator of cyclical companies is that they produce goods and services that are considered non-essential. They may be on the luxury side (high-end retail, entertainment) or the less-glam side (building materials, auto parts). 

The point is, they’re dependent on discretionary spending — not vital-to-life purchases like food or utilities. Buying things like cars, high-end appliances, cruise and airline tickets, the latest “It” bag and the newest iPhone becomes less of a priority when hard times loom and people tend to hold onto their money. 

As a result, the companies that make these goods see a decline in profits, which then can result in a lower valuation of their shares. 

Which industries have cyclical stocks? 

Some of the industrial sectors you’ll find cyclical stocks in include:

  • Automobiles: When money is tight, consumers tend to put off purchasing new cars, putting off maintenance, replacing tires, or even driving unnecessarily. These actions create a decrease in demand for manufacturing and sales of raw materials, parts, and vehicles.
  • Textiles and apparel: Clothing and accessories — especially expensive designer brands — are one of the first areas to take a back seat to essentials in a recession.
  • Household durables: These include electronics, furniture, and major appliances that come with large price tags. The cost makes buying new ones difficult to justify in hard economic times. Getting started on renovations or home improvement projects will also go by the wayside. 
  • Dining and hospitality: Sure, eating is essential, but spending less to feed the family becomes a priority in a bad economy. Dining out is much more expensive than buying groceries and cooking. 
  • Real estate: Whether consumer or commercial, new construction and property development often get put on pause when the economy declines. Reduced budgets and a tendency to keep cash close (rather than lock it up in real estate) influence those who would normally drive this sector. 
  • Travel and entertainment: This is another luxury sector. It’s nice to attend a concert, go to a theme park, take a cruise, or buy the latest video game. But in tough times, consumers go for what they need rather than what they want. 

These categories aren’t set in stone. Various organizations and analysts use different evaluation methodologies to classify sectors and determine which industries are considered cyclical and which are non-cyclical. And sometimes sectors can change.

For example, when S&P Dow Jones revised its Global Industry Classification Standard (GICS) used to categorize companies for its stock indexes, the telecommunications sector became a broader communications services sector. While telecom (phone companies like Verizon and AT&T) had historically been a non-cyclical sector, classifying it with info tech and media firms “suggests that it will become a more cyclical sector … likely to outperform when the economy is improving,” a Fidelity Investments analytical report stated.

How to identify a cyclical stock

Not sure if a stock is cyclical? Look at the beta value. A beta coefficient or value is given to a stock based on its sensitivity to changes in the market. This is calculated by comparing individual returns to those of the market as a whole. A score of one places a stock even with the market. A higher score indicates more volatility. Many cyclical stocks will have higher beta coefficients.

It can be hard to predict how much a cyclical stock will rise or fall in value due to the nature of the economy and what’s going on in a particular sector at any time.

Take, for example, Airbnb’s IPO launched during the height of the coronavirus pandemic. The success of the company’s house-sharing business model depends on consumer demand for travel accommodations. With expanding travel restrictions around the world, the timing for an IPO at $68 a share was risky, but by the end of the first day of trading, shares had risen to $144. 

This was a huge, but short-lived, success story for investors. In just a few days, the price had dropped to $130 per share after having bottomed out at $125.16 at one point. Fine for those in at the very beginning, not so good for those who bought afterward. 

It’s this kind of volatility that makes investing in cyclical stocks a risk — certainly more so than staying with stalwart equities, like blue-chip stocks, whose returns remain relatively stable over time.

Advantages and disadvantages of cyclical stocks

The bottom line

Cyclical stocks depend on the movement of the economy. They’re generally found in sectors that produce goods and services that are not essential. When the economy is doing well, demand and profits are high for these companies. When the tables turn and the economy falls, demand and profits go down as consumers hold on to more of their money. 

Cyclical stocks can be good money-makers in a diversified portfolio — provided you balance these highly volatile securities with more stable or defensive stocks. But you can’t be a passive investor with these equities. You have to stay on top of economic trends, and be prepared to move when it looks like the market is shifting from rosy bull to recessive bear.