Why ‘safety stocks’ are now less safe
Traditionally, stock investors worried about a market decline might revamp their portfolio to favor sectors featuring stable businesses and generous dividends, such as utilities and consumer staples.
But such a move may no longer make sense in today's environment. In fact, because most expect any selloff to be precipitated by rising bond yields, jumping into high-yielding stocks ahead of a decline could be the exactly wrong move to make.
"With the notion that these are a bond proxy, the safety trade itself is basically what's at risk," said Mike Khouw of Dash Financial.
That thought process can clearly be seen in the market. Investors tend to view utilities and consumer staples as sectors to turn during a drop in the market, but they have found no refuge there over the past month. While the S&P 500 has dropped about 0.5 percent in that time, the index's utilities sector is down 4.4 percent, and consumer staples are down 2.7 percent.
It is no coincidence that this has happened as bond yields have soared. Because so-called safety stocks tend to pay high dividends, they trade more closely with bonds than most stocks do. As bond yields have risen, stocks that act like bonds have become less attractive by comparison.
(Read more: Marc 'Dr. Doom' Faber's shocking call: Go into cash)
The trouble on the chart started in May, as yields rose precipitously.
Consumer staples "was keeping up with the market," said Carter Worth, chief market technician at Oppenheimer. "In May, this is where the divergence starts, and it's been going on for quite some time now."
But Michael Block, chief strategist at Rhino Trading Partners, said the move in consumer staples and utilities represents more than a reaction to rates.
"It's not as simple as a knee jerk," he said. In consumer staples, "on one hand, consumers have a tailwind in lower gas prices. ... On the other hand, there's a headwind in smaller pocketbooks, which is hurting personal consumption."
Block wouldn't advise investors to turn away from high-dividend stocks but to be more creative in selecting them.
"You have to look for yield in different places," he said. "Within large-cap tech and large-cap energy, there are certainly names to go to for yield."