2016 has started off as one of the most volatile years for stock market investors. The FTSE 100 has fallen by 3.9% since the end of 2015, but trading has been choppy. With the large-cap share index having fallen to a 3-year low of 5,500 points earlier this month, the index has since bounced back to just over 6,000 points.
Investors will probably need to protect themselves against further volatility in the rest of the year, as uncertainty about global economic growth continues to increase. Weak export data from numerous countries, slowing consumer spending and worldwide financial volatility all point towards slowing growth. And having considered these downside risks, the OECD today lowered its expectation for global growth in 2016 to 3.0%, down from the 3.3% it predicted in November.
Buying low beta shares is one method of reducing the sensitivity of your portfolio to general market volatility. “Beta” is a measure of how sensitive a particular share is to changes in the market as a whole, so low beta shares should provide stability during those turbulent times.
The following three shares have a five-year beta of less than 0.5, which means these shares have historically risen/(fallen) on average by less than 0.5% with every 1% gain/(decline) in the FTSE All-Share Index, the most-inclusive popular UK equity index. To determine whether they are worth investing in, I shall now look at each in greater detail.
GlaxoSmithKline (LSE: GSK) has recently seen big declines in its profits, as the patent expiry of a few blockbuster drugs has exposed the company to intense pressure from generic drug-makers. 2015 marked a new low point for the company, with annual core earnings per share declining for the sixth consecutive year, after falling 15%, to 75.7p in 2015.
Despite this, the company maintains a strong competitive position in the respiratory, vaccines, HIV and consumer healthcare markets. In addition, it has a strong development pipeline, with up to 20 new treatments seeking regulatory approval by 2020. Glaxo has already launched seven major new drugs in recent months, and looking forward, these new products could potentially bring in more than £4 billion in additional annual sales.
Shares in Glaxo seem a little expensive on an earnings basis, as they trade at 16.9 times its expected 2016 earnings, but they are very attractive from an income standpoint. Glaxo currently yields 5.8%, and analysts expects its forward dividend yield will rise to 6.1% by the following year.
Pearson‘s (LSE: PSON) shares have been heavily sold off in recent months, as investors have begun to fret about the company’s slowing growth outlook. For 2016, management expects to generate adjusted operating profits of between £580 million and £620 million, which represents a fall of around 13% on its expected 2015 level. Adjusted EPS is expected to decline to between 50p and 55p this year, which gives its shares a forward P/E of 15.2 at the mid-point.
Although, the near term outlook for the company is gloomy, the longer term outlook remains broadly intact. The company’s competitive position is strong, and cyclical factors have been largely to blame for its recent weakness. A fall in US college enrolment had hurt sales and new product launches raised costs, but these impacts should only be temporary. The market for education remains a big growth opportunity.
A weaker insurance rating environment is set to cause earnings at Jardine Lloyd Thompson (LSE: JLT) to decline for the first time since 2011. Underlying EPS for the insurance broker is expected to have fallen 11% in 2015, to 51.7p, because of increased investment in its US business and weakness in its UK employee benefits business due to recent government changes to UK pension rules.
However, the company is forecast to make a recovery in the following year, with analysts expecting underlying EPS to rebound by 13%, to 58.3p. This gives shares in Jardine a very reasonable valuation of 13.5 times its expected 2016 earnings. What’s more, its shares have a prospective dividend yield of 4.1%.