Given the weakness in grain-based foods shares in recent months, it certainly would be a stretch to call the sector a "haven of strength" in the current market. Still, food shares continue to suffer smaller losses, much smaller, than the overall market.
Through March 5, the Grain-Based Foods Share Index, calculated by Milling & Baking News, was down 18% year-to-date for 2009. By comparison, the Dow Jones average of industrial shares was down 25% since Jan. 1 and the S.&P. 500 index was down 24%. Since the beginning of 2008, the difference was even wider, with the Grain-Based Foods index down 35%, versus a 50% drop in the Dow and a 54% decline in the S.&P.
Of course it is difficult to celebrate a 35% decline in food share, but the gap with the broader indexes may have important long-term ramifications for the sector. It was less than 10 years ago, amid the Internet boom, that food shares were the object of dismissive derision in the investment community, and attitudes in the middle of the decade were lukewarm at best. With the considerable outperformance over the past 14 months, food shares have reestablished their credentials as a buffer against market declines, offering significant downside protection. Investors who don’t have food shares in their portfolios are sorry they don’t.
The overall bear market experience will be seared into the collective memories of investors long into the future, but the episode should leave a halo over grain-based foods for a similarly long period.