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When Defensive Stocks Outperform, Not Always a Red Flag

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When defensive sectors lead, the stock market is usually heading for trouble, but that bit of trader lore may not ring true this time.

The two best performing corners of the U.S. stock market, year-to-date, are health care and consumer staples, up 14 percent and 13 percent, respectively.

Gluskin Sheff's David Rosenberg, a noted bear, remarked on the strength of the defensive sectors this week in a note to clients. "[T]his is supposed to be a bullish market…being led to the highs by the same defensive sectors you want to own if you happen to share the ECRI's vision of the economy which is one of recessionary pressure," he said in the note.

But others, however, say that the recent strength in the two typically defensive sectors is no reason for worry. Chris Verrone, the chief market technician at Strategas, says that over the last few weeks a few clients have asked him whether consumer staples leadership is a negative for the overall market.

Verrone says that, historically, that really hasn't been the case. As the chartist points out, staples were a leadership group for a good chunk of the bull market off the 1982 lows.

(Read More: Worried About US? It Beats Others)

BTIG's chief global strategist Dan Greenhaus says that the sector leaders are "defensive" but, upon deeper analysis, the trends might actually be telling a different story.

Greenhaus, like many other strategists, expects to see a pullback in stocks but it's not because of the market leadership. The S&P 500 is up more than 9 percent in the first quarter, and has been trading well above 1,553, its 200-day moving average, a sign of a pause or pullback, he said in a recent interview.

In the case of consumer staples, Greenhaus said the sector currently has an undeniable buyout bid to it. Beam, for instance, is often cited as a takeover target and a number of recent transactions by Kellogg and Dean Foods, among others, have generated excitement in the space, he said in a note.

As for health care, the best performing industry within that sector actually has been biotech. "[A]gain, not exactly defensive," Greenhaus says. The best performers in the sector in the first quarter were Tenet Healthcare, up 48 percent, Celgene, up 45 percent, and Boston Scientific, up 34 percent.

(Read More: Avoid Dividend Stocks: Bill Nygren)

—By CNBC's Josh Lipton

  • Patti Domm

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