2020 could be the industrials' year.
So says Dave Nadig, managing director of ETF.com, who is closely watching the group as a host of its biggest names — Caterpillar, 3M, United Technologies and Boeing included — prepare to report earnings this week.
"I think you have to think about industrials as being the canary in the coal mine for really all of next year," he said Monday on CNBC's "ETF Edge." "It's one of the only portions of the S&P 500 where we're expecting positive earnings this season. The rest of the S&P is really weighed pretty heavily down, so I think you need to be looking at the space."
That doesn't mean investors should chase the group, Nadig said. The Industrial Select Sector SPDR Fund (XLI), which tracks 69 of the sector's top stocks, is up just over 21% for 2019 versus the S&P's more than 20% gain.
"If you were going to chase, I'd look at maybe something a little more thematic like aerospace and defense stocks," Nadig said, adding that his choice to play that subgroup would be the SPDR S&P Aerospace & Defense ETF (XAR) for its equal-weighted portfolio and healthy earnings forecast.
John Davi, founder and chief investment officer of Astoria Portfolio Advisors, said in the same "ETF Edge" interview that the global macroeconomic layout isn't encouraging him to go for industrial stocks.
Between the U.S. manufacturing sector contracting, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development cutting its global growth outlook to post-2008-crisis lows and business inventories building, Davi said industrial stocks like Caterpillar that look relatively inexpensive are likely "cheap for a reason."
"Until those indicators stabilize, I'd avoid industrials," Davi said. "I just think that on a return per unit of risk basis, I prefer other sectors more so than industrials. So, we're still very defensively positioned at Astoria Portfolio Advisors."
Astoria's biggest overweight positions include banks, real estate investment trusts, health care and utilities, Davi wrote in an email to CNBC earlier Monday.
But industrials could be in a position to get even more attractive in the case of a long-awaited trade deal between the United States and China, Nadig said.
"I think there's a lot of hope that that's going to be more of a buoy for earnings coming forward, so I think you have to take the picture of what ... earnings look like over the next week or two and a trade deal," Nadig said. "If both of those things come out positive, I think it's a great play to be."
The XLI and XAR were both up by less than 1% by midday Tuesday. United Technologies reported earnings above estimates Tuesday before the opening bell; Boeing's and Caterpillar's are both scheduled for Wednesday before the open; and 3M on Thursday before the open.