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Why You Should Be Wary of (Most) Recovery Plays

As the pandemic ends, be wary of putting your money into so-called recovery plays.

March 10, 2021

– Advisor: Daniel Kline

Industries: Consumer Discretionary   Consumer Staples   Travel  

Before the pandemic, most airlines were fairly bad investments. The same can be said of Boeing (NYSE: BA), which despite being in a highly-needed, limited competition space, has struggled to handle the fallout from the 737 Max disaster making its next few years a struggle when they could have been a triumph.

You can make similar arguments about investing in hotels, traditional oil and gas companies, casinos, and a number of other areas. These spaces will improve as vaccines allow society to open back up and return to somewhat normal, but that does not make them good investments.

The end of the pandemic will mean that many sectors of the economy will see a massive improvement. People will go back to movie theaters, travel more, and will do more shopping in stores than they have done over the past few years. That does not that every business which will see improved business due to the pandemic ending becomes an investment opportunity.

Pick your opportunities

The pandemic showed how poorly many companies were run. Most major airlines needed federal bailouts nearly immediately because they had essentially no cash on hand due to years of spending it on stock buybacks rather than planning for a rainy day.

Southwest (NYSE: LUV), however, was a notable exception. The airline took federal dollars, but it was in a better cash position to be able to use the pandemic as an opportunity. Amidst all the carnage, the carrier not only built its reputation as a caring employer by working with its employees to navigate pay cuts and furloughs, it also worked to position its business for the post-pandemic world. That included taking over airport slots and routes abandoned by short-sighted competitors.

You could argue that the airline — which already had a great reputation amongst its loyal customers — has improved its position in a post-pandemic world. That’s not to say you should buy shares — demand for tickets and the ability to achieve anywhere close to its previous profits may take years — but, if you liked Southwest before COVID, you can argue that it’s even more attractive now.

Movie theaters, on the opposite end of the spectrum, were struggling before the pandemic and it’s unlikely demand will ever recover. People will, in my opinion, return to theaters for blockbuster movies, but many films will permanently move to streaming services. Is it possible that movie theater companies figure out alternative uses for their theaters? It’s possible, but not likely.

Casinos are another space that will experience a post-pandemic surge, but that does not change their economic reality. Gambling has become something that has become available in more places from more companies. This expanded legality may benefit the traditional casino companies, but investors have to recognize that this is a highly-competitive space that’s very capital intensive. That does not mean there are no opportunities to invest in casinos, but there’s not a clear connection between an economic recovery and casinos being a good investment.

Was a business good before the pandemic?

The pandemic hurt a number of businesses that were performing well, were well managed, and had generally made good choices. We’ve already seen some retailers and restaurants suffer through some rough quarters then recover quickly once conditions improved. Best Buy and Starbucks are examples of that. Both companies had to modify their operations based on pandemic-related restrictions and both adapted well.

There are a few spaces that simply could not operate during a pandemic. Cruise lines, for example, had to fully stop their operations and still have no clear path to return because of their unique legal status in the United States. Royal Caribbean (NYSE: RCL) and Carnival Cruise Lines (NYSE: CCL) were solidly profitable growing businesses before the pandemic.

It’s likely they will return to that status at some point, but any potential investors (I have small stakes in both) should be aware that both companies have a mountain of debt incurred during the pandemic. They also have been selling future cruises at discount prices. Neither fact means that they won’t recover, but it’s going to a very long recovery that could easily be derailed by anything from another health crisis to an unexpected disaster or weather-related problems.

I believe the cruise lines have a business that will draw consumers back, but that may take many years. That could be true of all sorts of post-pandemic recovery plays.

Nothing has changed, but everything has changed

Nobody knows how consumer behavior will change in the long-term during the pandemic. Will people appreciate travel more and want to leave their home more often? That’s possible, but it’s also possible that people learned the joys of local travel, staycations, and grew to appreciate not having to deal with the hassles of air travel.

I tend to believe that travel will recover, but that does not mean there aren’t long-term changes that none of us have foreseen. There will be a recovery and that will create investment opportunities, but those opportunities may not be the ones that appear the most obvious.