These companies should be worried about wage growth

  • Companies with low value per employee ratios are more at risk as wages rise.
  • Consumer discretionary companies have low ratios, FANG companies have high ratios.

The unemployment rate continues to fall and wages continue to rise. That's good news for workers, but not for the companies that are most reliant on labor.

Retail companies like Wal-Mart, Staples or Gap are worth $50,000 to $100,000 in market capitalization for each person they employ. That's much lower than average, indicating that those companies would be hit harder by a dollar increase in wages. On the flip side, tech titans Netflix and Facebook are worth more than $10 million for each employee, a figure that suggests to analysts that wage increases will be less of a burden on the companies' bottom lines.

Hourly wages rose by 2.7 percent year over year in March, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics report released Friday. That's slightly less of a gain than last month, but continues the general upward climb over the last few years. Those additional costs have hit wage-sensitive stocks more than others, especially consumer discretionary companies.

In the Dow 30, companies like Wal-Mart, McDonald's, IBM, Home Depot, United Technologies and Caterpillar have a lower ratio indicating a higher exposure to wages. Companies like Apple, Exxon Mobil, Microsoft, Chevron, Johnson & Johnson and Chevron are worth almost five times more per employee.

Public companies in real estate, energy, utilities, information technology and health care tend to have much higher ratios, while companies in consumer discretionary, consumer staples, industrials and materials are more labor-dependent, according to that metric.

In a February research note, Thomas Lee of Fundstrat noted that without Amazon and Netflix, consumer discretionary stocks would be level with the market. Despite that classification, the two companies are far less exposed to wages than the average stock in that sector. If we look at just the top 50 most labor-exposed and 50 least exposed, it's clear that as a group the companies with lower ratios have underperformed, while the opposite group has pushed ahead of the overall index.

The FANG companies — Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google parent Alphabet — as a group score remarkably well by this metric. They're worth five times more per employee than the S&P overall, and exceed even real estate investment trusts and the technology sector as a whole, according to Lee's research.

As wage inflation heats up, Lee recommends looking for stocks with similar profiles, which he calls "alternative FANGs" — stocks with long-term positive returns and revenue growth and a market capitalization per employee ratio at the top of the stack.

While wage inflation does tend to hit some sectors much harder than others, alternative FANGs can be found across every sector. Some of Lee's recommendations include T-Mobile, and Vail Resorts.