The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020 brought a sudden halt to social gatherings, crowd events, and even personal contacts. Experiential business models were hardest hit by forced closures and lockdowns; cruise ships were forbidden to sail, restaurants and theme parks were closed, and air travel and hotel occupancy dwindled, all in an attempt to minimize personal interactions. The stocks of leisure services companies took a beating in March 2020, with Chart 1 documenting the virus’ impact on 34 large and midcap stocks representing this theme.
A strong argument can be made that experiential consumer services was the economic sector hardest hit by the pandemic lockdown. Cruise ships were forbidden to sail, restaurants and theme parks were closed, and air travel and hotel occupancy dwindled—all in an attempt to minimize personal/public interaction. The stocks of experiential companies took a beating in March 2020.
Companies are returning cash to investors at a level never before seen. Counting dividend payouts and outstanding share repurchases, the amount of cash returned back to investors crossed the $1 trillion mark for the first time in January 2016 (based on trailing twelve-months’ total for the largest 500 companies, Chart 1).
EPS growth rates are coming in higher than expected. While sales growth remains muted, the ability of companies to do more with less and maintain high operating margins is impressive. Margins are determined at the discretion of management and are thus sticky and unlikely to drop off significantly unless wage pressures resume and slack capacity around the globe is absorbed.