Beta Watch: Market Correlation at Record High Thanks to European Debt Issues

Nowadays, the market is tied more closely than ever to the political stage. European rumors earlier this week demonstrated the political stronghold on the markets, which wobbled back and forth at each announcement, especially those relating to French banks and Greek debt.

Levels of market correlation have been reaching new highs thanks to the prevalence of Exchange-traded funds and high frequency algorithmic trading-a strategy that leads investors to trade very large groups of stocks regardless of fundamentals of the individual companies. This type of "algo-trading" has accounted for nearly 70%, and recently up to 80% of market volume. (via Kapitall)

"The Chicago Board Options Exchange S&P 500 Implied Correlation Index has jumped 35 percent since the end of July to 80.15 at 11:42 a.m. New York time, and reached 81.52 on Sept. 14, the highest level ever," according to Bloomberg.

As a result, a great number of companies on U.S. stock markets are moving in step with the European's debt crisis -- even the companies distantly connected with it. Bloomberg reports that U.S. options traders are "placing record bets that equities move in lockstep in reaction to Europe's debt crisis."

Heavy correlations make it extremely difficult for traders and hedge fund managers to find reliable benchmarks and determine the relative value of companies. Returns have been even more difficult to predict than usual, and often hurt by the market volatiles that have blanketed stock indexes.

The feeling of some traders is well summed up by Scott Billeadeau of Fifth Third Asset Management in an interview with Bloomberg: "Europe is a big macro issue and it's so pervasive that at the top of investors' minds, there's nothing to do with individual companies. I'm just buying stocks or I'm selling stocks, versus buying IBM and selling Hewlett-Packard."

So how can you find stocks that aren't highly correlated to the overall market? One way is to look at the beta indicator.

A beta is a measurement of how a stock has behaved relative to the market in the past. It's often a useful predictor for future performance, although past performance is of course no guarantee of future results. Companies with low betas imply a low correlation to the overall changes in the market.

For example, a beta of 1 indicates the stock has generally moved in tandem with the market. Ex: When the market rose by 2%, the stock rose by 2% as well. A beta between zero and 1 means the stock has generally been less volatile than the market (less risk for investors). Ex: When a beta is 0.5-50% less volatile than the market -- if the market rose by 2%, the stock generally rose by 1%. When the market dropped by 2%, the stock generally dropped by only 1%.

So we're wondering: Which low-beta stocks might be appealing for your portfolio?

To help you get started, we collected data on profitability ratios, and identified a list of highly profitable, low-beta stocks. We searched for companies below 0.50.

To further refine the quality of our list, we collected data on institutional money flows, and identified the stocks that have seen the biggest institutional inflows over the last quarter.

Big money managers think there's more upside to these profitable low-beta stocks -- do you agree?

Use this list as a starting point for your own analysis. (Click here to access free, interactive tools to analyze these ideas.)

1. AeroVironment (NAS: AVAV) : Designs, develops, produces, and supports unmanned aircraft systems, and efficient energy systems for various industries and governmental agencies. Beta at 0.25. Net institutional purchases in the current quarter at 1.9M shares, which represents about 11.51% of the company's float of 16.51M shares. TTM gross margin at 43.87% vs. industry average at 26.17%. TTM operating margin at 13.83% vs. industry average at 12.05%. TTM pre-tax margin at 13.25% vs. industry average at 7.33%.

2. Campbell Soup (NYS: CPB) : Engages in the manufacture and marketing of branded convenience food products worldwide. Beta at 0.29. Net institutional purchases in the current quarter at 121.0M shares, which represents about 77.42% of the company's float of 156.29M shares. TTM gross margin at 42.71% vs. industry average at 34.27%. TTM operating margin at 17.55% vs. industry average at 11.65%. TTM pre-tax margin at 15.13% vs. industry average at 7.78%.

3. Northwest Natural Gas (NYS: NWN) : Distributes natural gas primarily in Oregon, Washington, and California. Beta at 0.30. Net institutional purchases in the current quarter at 943.2K shares, which represents about 3.56% of the company's float of 26.51M shares. TTM gross margin at 25.35% vs. industry average at 22.1%. TTM operating margin at 17.32% vs. industry average at 13.6%. TTM pre-tax margin at 12.91% vs. industry average at 11.21%.

4. Western Gas Partners (NYS: WES) : Engages in the acquisition, ownership, development, and operation of midstream energy assets in east and west Texas, the Rocky Mountains, and the Mid-Continent. Beta at 0.35. Net institutional purchases in the current quarter at 883.1K shares, which represents about 5.33% of the company's float of 16.57M shares. TTM gross margin at 48.24% vs. industry average at 33.11%. TTM operating margin at 28.89% vs. industry average at 16.84%. TTM pre-tax margin at 27.2% vs. industry average at 17.54%.

5. PPL (NYS: PPL) : Generates and sells electricity; and delivers natural gas to approximately 5.3 million utility customers primarily in the northeastern and northwestern US. Beta at 0.46. Net institutional purchases in the current quarter at 95.5M shares, which represents about 16.54% of the company's float of 577.48M shares. TTM gross margin at 35.55% vs. industry average at 27.74%. TTM operating margin at 27.58% vs. industry average at 19.2%. TTM pre-tax margin at 17.96% vs. industry average at 14.65%.

List compiled by Eben Esterhuizen.

Interactive Chart: Press Play to compare changes in analyst ratings over the last two years for the stocks mentioned above. Analyst ratings sourced from Zacks Investment Research.

Kapitall's Becca Lipman and Eben Esterhuizen do not own any of the shares mentioned above. Data sourced from Fidelity.

At the time thisarticle was published The Motley Fool owns shares of International Business Machines. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of AeroVironment. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

Copyright © 1995 - 2011 The Motley Fool, LLC. All rights reserved. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.