Why healthcare stocks may be poised for a breakout year post-election

Ever since 2019, the healthcare sector has been white-knuckling and preparing itself for what may be a volatile and uncertain election year for stocks. But according to UBS, 2020 is shaping up to look a whole lot like 2009 for the sector—which could actually help put some investors’ minds at ease.

Historically, “the market reaction has been largely to sell much of the healthcare sector, lowering valuations until clarity arrives after the election,” UBS’s Americas healthcare analyst Eric Potoker wrote in a note Tuesday. “The market’s current treatment of healthcare stocks falls into that familiar pattern.”

Potoker argues the “most relevant” comparison for how the healthcare sector is shaping up today is the 2008-9 election, when, in early 2009, President Obama “made health reform a legislative priority, and a dark cloud enveloped the sector.” But instead of massive, painful reforms to the sector that hurt healthcare and insurance stocks, he argues the passage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) had a “relatively modest” impact on the sector, and, barring a few areas that saw increased regulation, “left healthcare markets largely intact,” while actually increasing “overall demand for healthcare products and services” due to expanded health coverage.

That had a positive impact on healthcare stocks between 2009 and 2015, Potoker writes, as the healthcare sector “significantly outperformed the broader equity market, partly due to this added growth and the removal of policy uncertainty”—with healthcare trading up from a 0.8x relative price-to-earnings versus the S&P 500 up to a 1.1x relative P/E from late 2009 through mid 2015.

That outperformance, however, stopped short ahead of the 2016 election when healthcare was once more in the spotlight. This time around, as if “on cue,” healthcare valuations started slumping last year, and the sector has even recently traded below its 2009 trough valuation compared to the S&P 500, he notes.

But today, “we actually think 2021 will play out very similarly to 2009 for the healthcare sector,” UBS’s Potoker argues. “If in fact the political prediction markets are correct and Democrats seize control of the presidency and the US Senate…the rhetoric on changes to healthcare policy exceeds the reality of what can be accomplished,” and in lieu of big reforms to drug pricing or insurers, he anticipates “modest reforms that will lift the overhang on healthcare valuations.”

The ‘bark worse than the bite’ argument for a Biden presidency is one that applies to other sectors beyond healthcare. JPMorgan, for one, has pointed out the hit to corporations may not be as bad because a President Biden likely won’t raise the corporate tax rate on “day one,” as he is currently declaring.

So what names are poised to benefit? Back in November of last year Fortune highlighted several healthcare stocks that may be more shielded from election woes and have since seen mixed but largely positive performance, like Becton Dickinson (down roughly 11% from November), Hologic (up 23%), Zoetis (up 32%), Merck (down 3.5%), and UnitedHealth Group (up 3.5%).

With 2009 as an example, Potoker says he remains “hopeful that the election outcome will begin the clearing process for the policy risk hovering over the sector,” and with that clarity, “we think investors will reward the healthcare sector for its reliable growth with significantly higher valuations.” Adds Potoker: “In short, we anticipate a period of strong healthcare stock performance similar to the five-year period following passage of the ACA.”

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