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How to Find Low-Beta Stocks in a High-Risk Market

In a struggling stock market, it makes sense to take on less risk in your investing. Low-beta stocks are a good place to start.

How to Find Low-Beta Stocks in a High-Risk Market

I love roller coasters—the thrill of the drops as well as the excitement of the peaks. And I don’t mind a little volatility in the stock market, as it brings some fabulous opportunities to “buy low” on some great companies whose stocks have been taken down for no reason other than being dragged down by the broader market. But there are times when you need a brief respite from the market ups and downs. Low-beta stocks can provide such a respite. More on those in a bit.

I’m a big believer in protecting your portfolio—especially during volatile periods like the one we’re in now—and have often written about several of my favorite ways to do so, including using stop-losses, setting price targets, diversifying your portfolio, and stocking up on dividend-paying stocks.

With so much political and global uncertainty, volatility is rearing its ugly head again. And since the stock market is the best place to build a retirement portfolio over time, it’s important to keep safety—as well as growth—in mind.

With that thought, I’m focused on finding pockets of the market that hold good opportunities for each of these investment goals. And one strategy that may be worth a look is adding some low-beta stocks to your portfolio.

Low-Beta Stocks 101

The definition of beta is simple—it compares the volatility, or systemic risk, of a stock to the volatility of the market. In other words, it measures a stock’s response to market swings.

If a stock has a beta of 1, that means the price of that stock generally moves with the market. Less than 1 means the stock is less volatile than the market. And more than 1 means it’s more volatile than the market.

Here are a couple of examples:

  • A beta of 1.3: The stock is deemed to be 30% more volatile than the market. If the market goes up 10%, the stock should, theoretically, rise by 30%. And if the market declines 10%, the stock should decline by 30%.
  • A beta of 0.5: The stock is expected to be half as volatile as the market. If the market rises by 10%, this stock should go up by 5%. And a market decline of 10% should result in a decline of just 5% for the stock.

And there are potentially some stocks with a negative beta—a beta less than 0. They demonstrate an inverse relationship with the market. So, if the market falls, a negative beta stock is expected to rise. One thing about negative betas—they are rare and usually short-term in nature, and will often reflect industry conditions more than market volatility.

The average beta for large-cap stocks is less than 4. Cash has a beta of 0, and low-beta stocks and investments include utility stocks and Treasury Bills.

You can find a security’s beta on many of the available financial websites, including Yahoo! Finance. Just type in the symbol of your stock and it comes up on the first screen. Keep in mind that the beta quoted is a “historical” average and doesn’t mean the stock’s volatility measure will remain the same in the future. In fact, empirical studies have shown that higher betas tend to decline back toward 1 and lower betas tend to rise toward 1, over time.

And it’s important to know that beta is a measure of systematic or market risk, and doesn’t tell us anything about the specific risk of the company itself. That’s why it’s essential to use the measure as just one parameter in your overall stock analysis.

What else would you like to know about finding low-beta stocks in a high-risk market? Leave a comment below.


*This post has been updated from an original version, published in 2021.

Nancy Zambell has spent 30 years educating and helping individual investors navigate the minefields of the financial industry. She has created and/or written numerous investment publications, including UnDiscovered Stocks, UnTapped Opportunities, and Nancy Zambell’s Buried Treasures under $10. Nancy has worked with for many years as an editor and interviewer for their on-site video studios.