Sunday, May 11, 2008

The Importance of Stock Picking

If a commodity is hot, stocks of companies that deal in that commodity should be hot as well, right? Well, not necessarily so. To be sure, energy shares have outperformed the stock market indexes during the recent period of oil price strength. Take a look at relative performance of two energy shares (XOM, top chart; VLO, third chart down) vs. oil itself (DBO). From these charts (kudos to the MSN Money site), it's clear that the stocks have greatly underperformed the commodity.

In the two money flow charts (XOM, second chart down; VLO, bottom chart), you can see the reason for this: as a whole, funds have been flowing out of these issues over the past six months. Forays above the neutral, blue line (the point separating five-day inflows from outflows) have been relatively brief and contained.

With oil making fresh price highs over the past two weeks, one would expect these stocks to be making new peaks as well. XOM, however, has moved from 92.45 to 88.82 in that time, with only one day out of the last ten displaying positive money flows. VLO has seen a particular sharp outflow over this period (as the money flow chart above displays), and the stock has moved from 52.93 to 44.56. Only three in the last ten sessions have shown positive money flows for VLO.

The moral of the story is twofold:

1) Assuming a stock will be strong just because a related commodity is strong is surface reasoning that can get you in trouble. Oil prices might be strong, but it doesn't mean that particular oil companies are drilling or refining more of it.

2) Money flows matter. Regardless of the attractiveness of the story, if investors are taking money out of a stock over time, it is going to be difficult for that issue to perform strongly.

I notice that HAL and XTO have seen net inflows to their shares for five of the past ten trading sessions; both of those energy issues are higher over the last ten days, unlike XOM and VLO. Stock picking matters, and the flows of funds in and out of shares and sectors is one important factor in determining relative stock performance.


This Post Explains Dollar Volume (Money) Flows

Money Flows and Sector Rotation