Few stocks have tracked the realities and sentiment surrounding Covid-19 as closely as the travel and entertainment sectors. They have gyrated in price in sync with daily headlines, and good news has been unable to get any traction—until lately. The promise of vaccine distribution within months is stunning good news for the timeline of economic recovery.
Many investors took the news as a cue to begin jumping into downtrodden airline stocks, cruise ships, restaurant chains, and other leisure stocks.
Consider the reaction to Moderna’s announcement of a viable vaccine on Nov. 16: American Airlines and Delta shares jumped 6% and United’s stock surged 8% for the day.
But many analysts say caution and patience is needed. Major dislocations in the economy have resulted in a highly bifurcated sector requiring careful fundamental analysis of each company, rather than making broad sector bets, says Charles Ryan , partner and co-portfolio manager at Evercore Wealth Management in New York.
Even with careful stock analysis, the giant unknowns—such as how long before a vaccine distribution? Who will get it first and how will that impact the economy?—still create sharply different opinions about the prospects for many types of leisure stocks.
Consider Disney. Ryan snapped up shares of the theme park operator in March around the stock market’s 2020 lows.
“We initiated a position—we understood there would be theme park closures, but other parts of the business, particularly the streaming business Disney Plus, has been much better received than people thought it would be,” Ryan says, who adds that Disney is a fundamental pick. His entry point was around $103, and the stock has rallied back to around $140.
Meanwhile, Jim Boothe , chief investment officer at Brentview Investment Management in Los Angeles, isn’t convinced of Disney’s prospects. “We owned Disney but sold it after they omitted or suspended their dividends,” he says. “Our concern was that the theme parks and the movie business was going to take too long to come back.”
There is some melding of the minds on some types of leisure stocks, however. Generally, media and entertainment companies with a pronounced presence in the video game industry have held up thanks to demand from gamers with more time on their hands under stay-at-home orders.
“Sony PlayStation and Microsoft's Xbox are coming out with new consoles for the first time in about five years and that’s creating a lot of excitement,” Ryan says. “Activision Blizzard, Tencent, and Electronic Arts have great products and incredible brands. They have to renegotiate with some groups like MLS soccer and Madden . There’s sustainability and excitement around the fact that as you roll out new consoles, there is new software and gaming and upgrades.”
Boothe is keen on Viacom. He picked up shares during the March stock market low when the company was trading at two times earnings. “We thought that was absurd,” he says. “It was yielding 4%.”
Viacom’s big challenges are its slumping movie segment, “but portions of the business are relatively stable and cash flows are good,” Boothe says.
As for stocks still best avoided, Ryan points to cruise lines, which took a beating earlier this year with the onset of the pandemic after a strong 2019. Consider Royal Caribbean (RCL), which grew revenue by almost 8% and earnings by more than 15% in 2019, but in a reversal of fortune in the first quarter this year, its stock price went from a high of $114 to less than $40.
“We were long-term owners of Royal Caribbean and made a fair amount of money, and exited before it got to its lows,” Ryan says.
Financials are still negative from an earnings performance standpoint, “but it’s one I keep my eye on,” Ryan says. “I’ve known management for a long time and from a geography and innovation perspective I think it will survive—it’s just a little too early for us to get involved.”
He says he wants to see a resumption of business before finding entry points. “There will be hiccups as they resume business, and that might be the opportunity to get back in,” he says.
Airlines and hotels are also still not quite buys in Boothe’s opinion. “They’re heavily dependent particularly on business travel, because it’s more profitable for them,” he says, adding that a recovery in business travel is a long-term scenario.
Ryan sees an added problem in that airline companies have had a hard time differentiating themselves for years.
“It’s not something we think is a great industry other than possibly to trade, but our holding period is 3.5 to five years and I can’t imagine owning one,” he says, but acknowledges that Southwest Airlines is likely the most sustainable airline and Delta’s management is strong relative to its peers.
“We look at these at times, but haven’t pulled the trigger,” Ryan says.