The long-awaited return of value stocks

For a few years we’ve been wondering when the gulf in valuation between “growth” stocks and “value” stocks will close. It might finally be happening, says Merryn Somerset Webb.

Nuclear power station
Nuclear power: the only way to oust fossil fuels fast
(Image credit: © Alamy)

It’s finally happening. For a few years we’ve been looking at the valuation gulf between “growth” and “value” stocks and wondering when it might close. This distinction is silly in some ways – presumably everyone who buys a growth stock thinks they are buying for less than it is worth, and thus getting value. But it’s still a reasonable way to divide up stocks if you want to explain the last few years – everything offering excitement, a good story and potential for fast growth has been bought pretty much regardless of price. Everything a bit staid, old hat or out of fashion has been ignored – again pretty much regardless of price.

This week things look a little different. In the last six weeks or so value has beaten growth by around 10%, the Nasdaq has been more often in the red than not, and 40% of shares in the index are 50% off their one-year highs, with those that aren’t profitable doing the worst. For a hint of just how bad things are for believers in speculative tech investment, look to ARK Invest’s flagship exchange-traded fund (ETF). It’s down 15% this year alone. Confidence seems to be falling even among the management of the stocks it holds: “insider sales in these companies have been... well above historic norms” in recent months, reports the Financial Times.

Meanwhile, shares in companies that many have dismissed as being in long-term structural decline have been rising. Shell is up nearly 6% year-to-date and 23% in the last six months. The great rotation might actually be upon us. There are many implications to this – not least the fact that we will, I think, all turn out to own many more growth (“long duration”) stocks than we know: having performed so well for so long, they dominate most passive and active portfolios. But one interesting effect might be on the environmental, social and governance (ESG) bandwagon.

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Bad news for ESG

The great bull market in exciting stories has been fabulous for stocks that it’s easy to justify holding in any ESG portfolio – and not so fabulous for anything a bit grubby that is harder to make excuses for. So you will have heard plenty about how ESG portfolios at best outperform non-ESG ones and at worst perform much the same (the do-goodery comes for free). That reassurance has been one driver behind the shift into funds with an ESG bent: 75% of the money flowing into funds in the UK last November went into some kind of responsible fund, according to the Investment Association.

But what will happen now? As JPMorgan notes, much of the ESG difference came from renewable energy stocks outperforming old energy stocks. If traditional energy now outperforms, do-goodery will no longer come for free. Indeed, 2022 might be the year we find out that the main driver of long-term returns is not stories, greenwash, or feelings – but the price you pay. The lower the better. Luckily, there are still some investments you can buy at what looks like a bit below the right price. In this week's magazine, Luke Hyde-Smith (who’ll be on the podcast soon) looks at assets to hold in a negative real interest-rate world. We also look at some investment trusts trading on a discount (one is Temple Bar – whose managers discuss their top picks on this week’s podcast). Finally, uranium – if anything can oust fossil fuels quickly, it’ll be nuclear power. You may want to invest while the rest of the market is getting used to the idea.

Merryn Somerset Webb

Merryn Somerset Webb started her career in Tokyo at public broadcaster NHK before becoming a Japanese equity broker at what was then Warburgs. She went on to work at SBC and UBS without moving from her desk in Kamiyacho (it was the age of mergers).

After five years in Japan she returned to work in the UK at Paribas. This soon became BNP Paribas. Again, no desk move was required. On leaving the City, Merryn helped The Week magazine with its City pages before becoming the launch editor of MoneyWeek in 2000 and taking on columns first in the Sunday Times and then in 2009 in the Financial Times

Twenty years on, MoneyWeek is the best-selling financial magazine in the UK. Merryn was its Editor in Chief until 2022. She is now a senior columnist at Bloomberg and host of the Merryn Talks Money podcast -  but still writes for Moneyweek monthly. 

Merryn is also is a non executive director of two investment trusts – BlackRock Throgmorton, and the Murray Income Investment Trust.