With the global economy at risk due to the European crisis and market volatility scaring investors, it's natural to believe the right place to be invested would be consumer staples. These are companies that are defensive, cyclical names which can help protect against downside risk. For the hedge funds that materially changed what they did with their consumer staples holdings, most were buyers.
Unfortunately, there hasn't been a whole lot of growth opportunity in consumer staples stocks. The overall sector is up 5.4% this year -- third best among all S&P 500 sectors -- but worries over growth remain. One of the main reasons is because domestic growth is slowing, forcing these staples companies to depend on international growth.
In the third quarter, earnings grew by only 6% from a year ago, the second worst earnings growth rate among all S&P 500 sectors. Based on estimates, consumer staples will see earnings rise 9% in 2012, according to FactSet Research, below the growth rates of industrials, technology and even consumer discretionary names.For that reason, it was hard to find hedge funds that made big alterations to their holdings of consumer staples stocks. The few fund managers who did make big changes increased their reported portfolio's exposure to the sector, rather than sell shares of staples. Dow component Kraft Foods (KFT) was one stock that several hedge fund managers picked up in the third quarter. Moore Capital's Louis Bacon, George Soros, and Pershing Square's Bill Ackman all bought shares of Kraft last quarter. During the quarter, Kraft shares fell about 5%, although the stock has rebounded more than 3% since Sept. 30. Moore Capital was more active in the staples space, also picking up shares of Altria (MO), Procter & Gamble (PG) and PepsiCo (PEP). Soros also picked up shares of Pepsi as well as Sara Lee (SLE). Elsewhere, Maverick Capital's Lee Ainslie was in the mood for chicken and beer, buying up shares of Anheuser-Busch InBev (BUD) and Sanderson Farms (SAFM).