John Dorfman: As the Fed tightens, what stocks may do well


He wasn’t kidding.

Jerome Powell, chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, said Friday that the Fed’s Open Markets Committee will “use our tools forcefully,” and keep raising interest rates until inflation comes down. This is “no place to stop or pause,” he said.

Investors winced, and stocks tumbled. The so-called Fed “pivot” was revealed to be just wishful thinking. Inflation is a stubborn foe: I think it is unlikely to be conquered before 2024. So it would be wise to look for stocks that can do well when interest rates are rising.


There are many cross-currents, but generally rising rates are good for banks. If a bank borrows at 2% and lends at 4%, it makes roughly $2,000 a year on a $100,000 loan. But if it borrows at 3% and lends at 6%, it makes about $3,000 on the same sized loan.

So far this year, bank stocks have done poorly. Bank of America Corp. (BAC) is down 26% through Aug. 26. Citigroup Inc. (C) is down 21%, JP Morgan Case & Co. (JPM) down 29% and Wells Fargo & Co. (WFC) down 13%.

Investors worry that a recession has begun or soon will.

That could mean that banks make fewer and smaller loans, and suffer more loan defaults. Nonetheless, I think some bank stocks are good buys at current prices. JP Morgan, one of my favorites, sells for only nine times earnings.


Insurance companies receive premiums today, and pay out claims tomorrow — or much later. In the meantime, they invest the premium money (float), often in bonds. As rates rise, the value of existing bonds automatically declines, and that hurts insurers. But new float can be invested at higher rates, and that’s good.

Some insurance stocks selling for what I consider reasonable prices are MetLife Inc. (MET) at 16 times earnings, Travelers Companies Inc. (TRV) at 12 times earnings, Hartford Financial Services Group Inc. (HIG) at 11 times earnings and Principal Financial Group (PFG) at five times earnings.


When the Fed raises rates, it usually does so because it sees inflation as a problem. Energy costs are a key part of the inflation picture. High oil and gas prices are a problem for consumers and businesses, but obviously are a boon to energyproducers.

Even in recessions, energy demand often stays stable or rises a bit. And energy supply is currently reduced because of the Russia-Ukraine war, and sanctions against Russia by the U.S. and its allies. So, I would expect energy prices and profits to stay strong.

This year through August 26, Exxon Mobil Corp. (XOM) is up 54%, ConocoPhillips (COP) has gained 52%, Chevron Corp. (CVX) has risen 37%, and Shell PLC (SHEL) has advanced 23%.

TotalEnergies SE (TTE), based in France, has lagged (up only 5%) because of its closer ties to Russia. I favor it, however, because it’s cheap at less than eight times earnings, and because it has large-scale projects in solar and wind energy.

Health Care

Health care stocks — drug stocks in particular — usually hold up well when the Fed goes on a rate-raising campaign. Much health care spending is non-discretionary. Very little of it is paid for by borrowing: Medicare, Medicaid and private health insurance cover most of the bills.

So far this year, Merck & Co. (MRK) and Eli Lilly and Co. (LLY) are both up 16% and Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. (BMY) has gained 15%. AbbVie Inc. (ABBV) is roughly flat, and Johnson & Johnson (JNJ) has dropped 4%, while Pfizer Inc. (PFE) has trailed competitors with a 17% loss.

I like most of these stocks (and own two of them) but I would avoid AbbVie because its debt-to-equity ratio is high.

What’s harmed

Real estate investments have historically done poorly when the Fed is tightening (i.e. raising rates). Home buyers and commercial developers need mortgages to pay for new buildings, and the higher the mortgage rates go, the harsher the headwind.

I’ve owned homebuilding stocks until very recently. I think many of them are better run than they used to be, and I believe there is pent-up demand for single-family homes. But now, with the mortgage problem, I suspect they will be no better than market performers, so I’ve pretty much sold out.

Disclosure: I own Merck, Pfizer and TotalEnergies personally and for most of my clients. Some of my clients own Chevron, Exxon Mobil, Johnson & Johnson, JP Morgan and Met Life. A hedge fund I manage has a short position in Wells Fargo (we profit if the stock declines).

John Dorfman is chairman of Dorfman Value Investments LLC in Newton Upper Falls, Mass., and a syndicated columnist. His firm or clients may own or trade securities discussed in this column. He can be reached via email.

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