Utilities ETFs underperformed the S&P 500 in August and the first half of September as the broad-market index eyed its highest levels since 2007. However, ETFs tracking utilities have jumped the past week as the rally sputters — a sign that investors are rotating into safer sectors.

Utilities Select Sector SPDR (NYSEArca: XLU) has gained 1.6% the past five sessions, while SPDR S&P 500 (NYSEArca: SPY) has shed 1.8%.

Utilities and consumer staples are seen as go-to defensive, conservative sectors that can provide shelter in rocky markets. Utilities are a conservative, mature sector that pays dividends – XLU has a dividend yield of about 4%.

Meanwhile, consumer staples companies sell necessities that consumers need in any economy. [Sector ETFs for Defense]

The underperformance of these two defensive sectors versus the S&P 500 over the summer was a tip-off that investors were growing more comfortable with risk. [Sector ETF Rotation Points to Risk-On]

In early August, we suggested investors keep an eye on utilities ETFs for clues on the market’s next move. [Utilities ETFs Can be a Market ‘Tell’]

The chart below is the relative performance of the utilities ETF against the S&P 500. The recent bounce shows that investors are moving closer to a risk-off mindset.

Full disclosure: Tom Lydon’s clients own SPY.

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