Final score: The biggest stocks were the biggest losers in chaotic first quarter

  • The largest S&P 500 stocks, the mega-caps, were the biggest losers in the first quarter.
  • The quarter started with a boom in January but became increasingly volatile.
  • Emerging markets were among the few asset classes in positive territory.
  • Few sectors could be called legitimate winners.

Until recently, being a mega-cap stock — and investing in one — was the best way to get returns out of this stock market. Not anymore. As the first quarter of market trading comes to a close, the largest U.S. stocks will go down as the biggest losers.

As the tech weighting in the S&P 500 grew to its largest since the dot-com crash and FANG (Facebook, Apple, Netflix and Google, now Alphabet) defied any downward pressure, the easy money was in letting it ride on big stocks, and tech stocks. Last October, Principal Financial launched a U.S. mega-cap ETF, the US Mega-Cap Multi Factor Index ETF (USMC) — based on the Nasdaq US Megacap Select Leaders Index. This year alone USMC has raised close to $1 billion.

"Weakness has been in the very largest companies," said CNBC Senior Markets Commentator Mike Santolo on Thursday morning. "From big to small, the losses go down. ... Maybe this is the rotation into smaller stocks."

The Guggenheim S&P 500 Top 50 ETF (XLG) was down 3.2 percent for the quarter, as of Thursday morning. Principal's new megacap ETF was down close to 4 percent, as of Thursday.

It was a stockpicker's quarter as the average stock outperformed the S&P 500. "The very largest stocks took most of the pain," Santoli said.

hit hardest
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U.S. stocks underperformed emerging markets stocks, which was the only one among the three major regions — U.S., developed markets ex-U.S. and EM — to turn in positive performance as of Thursday, but even emerging markets barely eked out a gain, up about one half of 1 percent. Developed markets outside the United States were down roughly 1.5 percent, while the S&P was sitting on a loss above 2 percent, though the market had rebounded as of midday Thursday.

Facebook and other tech stocks may seem to be getting the most negative attention, but it's not just Facebook or tech stocks specifically that have caused the largest-stock loser effect. Microsoft (MSFT) and Apple (AAPL) are 25 percent of the Select Sector SPDR Technology (XLK), which tracks the S&P 500 tech sector. Alphabet is another 10 percent; Facebook is only 6 percent.

Year-to-date Apple and Google are both down, but Microsoft has outperformed. And year-to-date, XLK has still eked out a gain, which makes it one of the few sector winners among S&P 500 stocks.

"Despite the sell-off, tech is still one of the only two sectors with positive returns this year, after leading the market last year with a 38 percent return," said Neena Mishra, director of ETF research at Zacks Investment Research. She noted that many narrowly focused niche tech ETFs have done better than the broader tech ETFs this year. (Examples include XWEB, XITK, PNQI, FDN and IGV.)

FDN, the First Trust Dow Jones Internet Fund, is fourth in flows to U.S. stock funds from ETF investors this year, with about $1 billion in new assets, behind Vanguard's S&P 500 (VOO), the iShares Edge MSCI USA Momentum Factor ETF (MTUM) and Vanguard's Total Stock Market ETF (VTI). The Principal mega-cap ETF was No. 5 in flows.

MTUM and FDN are the only ones among the top five U.S. stock ETFs in flows that registered positive performance as of Thursday, according to Morningstar data.

Consumer discretionary (XLY) was another winner among sectors in Q1, up between 1 percent and 2 percent, helped by a healthy weighting to Netflix (No. 6 holding by ETF weight) and Amazon (No. 1 holding in the ETF). Netflix was among the best-performing S&P 500 stocks in the first quarter, but the recent volatility in tech stocks and fears it may give up its market leadership due to valuation concerns, and President Donald Trump's fixation on Amazon in particular, make the winning bet on this sector tenuous.

Health care (XLV) registered as a "winner" in the first quarter, down a little less than the S&P 500 as a whole, but being a winner showed that the market really fell apart after a strong start in January — health-care stocks were down only about 2 percent.

The biggest losers were energy (XLE), consumer staples (XLP) and materials (XLB), all down more than 7 percent amid riding bond yields — which makes dividend stock yields less attractive and overrode other factors, like stronger oil prices and a weak dollar.

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