Fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUD) may not be back at levels reached the last time the stock market saw big declines, but with possible storms ahead, now may be the time to buy safe stocks.
It’s still unclear whether Federal Reserve tapering, rising inflation, a possible rise in interest rates, or even the spread of Covid-19’s delta variant will cause the markets to get volatile again. Yet there’s more in play that could possibly put stocks in meltdown mode again.
Shifting away from the high-flying growth stocks that have performed well in the runaway bull market, and into defensive names could be the way to go. These types of stocks typically are subject to less volatility in a market downturn.
What’s a defensive stock? Not to be confused with defense stocks, like Lockheed Martin (NYSE:LMT), defensive stocks are shares in companies with more recession-resistant businesses that, due to their earnings stability, pay consistent dividends. Major names in consumer staples, healthcare, as well as sectors such as utilities are prime examples of stocks in this category.
So, taking a look at defensive names, which ones look like solid buys at current prices? These seven, mostly in the consumer staple and healthcare sectors, may be some of the best opportunities right now among safe stocks:
- Johnson & Johnson (NYSE:JNJ)
- 3M (NYSE:MMM)
- Altria Group (NYSE:MO)
- PepsiCo (NASDAQ:PEP)
- Procter & Gamble (NYSE:PG)
- UnitedHealth Group (NYSE:UNH)
- Walgreens Boots Alliance (NASDAQ:WBA)
Safe Stocks: Johnson & Johnson (JNJ)
JNJ stock may have exposure to something that’s trending (Covid-19 vaccination). But investors considering buying the health care company’s shares today should focus on its more long standing attributes. That is, Johnson & Johnson’s consistent earnings, high margins and strong balance sheet.
Together, these factors make this blue chip one of the highest quality stocks around. Not only that, with its dependable dividend (2.42% forward yield), with a payout that’s increased 59 years in a row, it’s what’s known as a dividend aristocrat as well. If the above-mentioned factors cause the market to go from a risk-on to a risk-off environment? Investors will rotate out more speculative names, and into names like this one.
That’s not to say, however, that Johnson & Johnson shares will soar in a bear market. But chances are shares will be more resilient than the stock market overall in such an environment. Extra tailwinds from its Covid-19 vaccine could also help the stock perform well relative to the overall market.
Nevertheless, even if a market downturn happens after Covid-19 and its variants enter the rearview mirror? This is still one of the highest quality stocks you can own in a bear market. Reasonably priced at a forward price-to-earnings, or P/E, ratio of 18.6x, keep JNJ stock top of mind as one of the best safe stocks to own.
Industrial conglomerate 3M is another stock I’ve long recommended as a low-risk opportunity in an overheated market. It’s seen a tremendous rebound in value since I first covered it in 2020, when the Covid-19 pandemic was only in its early stages, soaring from around $152 per share in June of that year, to around $195 per share as of this writing.
Even after its slow and steady 28.3% rise since then, it’s still a great safe stock to buy. How so? For one, it’s a venerable blue chip, with a history of stable earnings. More importantly, MMM stock is also a dividend aristocrat, raising its payout 63 years in a row. Yielding 3.04% at today’s prices, it’s in top 20 in terms of yield among the 65 stocks that are held by the ProShares S&P 500 Dividend Aristocrats ETF (BATS:NOBL).
Not only is it a great dividend stock, it’s reasonably priced as well compared to other industrial conglomerates. With a forward P/E ratio of 19.3x, it’s cheaper than both General Electric (NYSE:GE), with a forward P/E ratio of 50.6x, and Honeywell (NASDAQ:HON), with a forward P/E of 28.5x.
Admittedly, much of this multiple discrepancy has to do with projected earnings growth. GE, in the midst of a turnaround, is expected to see its earnings double between 2021 and 2022. Sell-side analysts expect Honeywell’s earnings to grow 13.6% during this same timeframe. This company’s earnings are only expected to grow 7% between this year and the next.
Yet given its many strengths, consider MMM stock a buy ahead of a continued increase in market uncertainty.
Safe Stocks: Altria Group (MO)
“Sin stock” Altria may now be talking about moving beyond smoking. But for the time being, this company, parent of Philip Morris USA, generates the lion’s share of its revenue from the sale of cigarettes, primarily under the Marlboro brand, which alone holds 40% U.S. market share.
In turn, this high-margin, controversial product gives it stable revenue (albeit with little growth), high margins and the cash flow needed to sustain a fat dividend yield (7.1%). These attributes make it a great recession-resistant defensive stock to own, in case markets get volatile in the months ahead.
Sure, with the continued decline in smoking, and uncertainty over whether the company’s push to move its customers over to non-combustible nicotine products will pay off, its days as the “greatest stock in history” (as one Seeking Alpha commentator recently called it) may be numbered.
But that uncertainty is more than factored into the MO stock price. That’s clear from its low forward P/E ratio of 10.5x. Investors hungry for yield may have gobbled it up when it was trading for $35-$40 per share, and have bid it up to around $48 per share.
Yet with its risks accounted for, and its possible continued appeal as a high-yield safe harbor holding, expect this to be a name that stays steady if stocks correct, meltdown or sell-off again.
Pepsico, and its long-time rival Coca-Cola (NYSE:KO), are both considered safe stocks to own. In a bear market, chances are each one will stay resilient. Using metrics like P/E ratios and dividend yield, both appear to be similar opportunities.
PEP stock sports a forward P/E of 25x, and a 2.76% forward yield. KO stock trades for 24.9x this year’s earnings and yields 3%. But taking a closer look at the details, more tilts in favor of owning this consumer staple than the other, its status as a Warren Buffett stock notwithstanding.
Why? As our Dana Blankenhorn broke it down in July, there’s more to like about it than just its great dividend. More diversified than Coca-Cola, it’s the world’s third-largest food company. Not only that, the company is also hard at work creating innovative new products that could give it more potential to grow its earnings, and in turn, grow its dividend.
In fact, dividend growth potential may be what makes this cola stock the ultimate victor. Its average five-year dividend growth rate of 7.69% handily beats that of KO stock (4.07%). A lower payout ratio (around 69% versus 74.6%) points to it having more room to increase its payout in the future as well.
Bottom line: as the cola war still rages on, you may want to ally with PEP stock.
Safe Stocks: Procter & Gamble (PG)
With 65 consecutive years of dividend growth, a high-margin business with a deep economic moat, and consistent earnings, Procter & Gamble is your quintessential blue chip stock. With the possibility of tough times again for the markets, today may be the time to give it a look and perhaps make it a buy.
Not only because, as a consumer staples name, it’ll likely ride out the next economic downturn much better than more cyclical companies. It could have more potential to gain than comparable names. Why? As Morgan Stanley’s Dara Mohsenian recently made the case, the company is poised to outpace its household product peers.
Furthermore, the sell-side analyst believes the current valuation of PG stock does not reflect the performance advantages it has over peers like Colgate-Palmolive (NYSE:CL), Clorox (NYSE:CLX), and Church & Dwight (NYSE:CHD). Mohsenian gives the stock a $160 per share price target.
That price target may be just 11.75% above where shares trade today ($143.18 per share). If markets pullback, additional gains may be a challenge as well. However, if you’re looking for a stock that will hold steady, or see a lower degree of losses in the next bear market? Procter & Gamble shares may be just the ticket.
UnitedHealth Group (UNH)
For the past decade, even at a time when stocks in general have produced above-average returns, UNH stock has been one of the standouts among large-caps. Since 2011, it’s appreciated by a stunning 822.3%!
But don’t take this to mean shares in the health insurance giant are at risk of big declines, as the monetary policy trends that have enabled stocks to perform so well (falling interest rates, quantitative easing) start to reverse in a big way. Many factors point to it being resilient in the next downturn.
First, valuation is reasonable with UnitedHealth Group. Shares trade for around 22.6x earnings. Second, in a business with constant demand, no matter what stage of the business cycle, earnings will likely remain stable, no matter what the future holds. Third, while its current dividend yield (1.37%) isn’t exactly high, over time these payouts will likely continue to grow.
UnitedHealth has grown its dividend by an average of 19.6% per year for the past five years. With a payout ratio of around 31%, it has plenty of room to devote more of its earnings to dividends. This healthcare powerhouse has been a big winner for the past decade. Even if returns in the decade ahead underwhelm, its many strengths may enable it to continue delivering above-average performance.
Safe Stocks: Walgreens Boots Alliance (WBA)
Consider WBA stock another of the safe stocks to keep on your watch list. Not only because Walgreens Boots Alliance is in a defensive sector (healthcare), and offers up one of the highest yields among S&P 500 dividend aristocrats (3.95% forward yield). Shares in the pharmacy giant are also cheap as well.
WBA stock trades for just 10x estimated earnings for 2021. Sure, you may think that this high yield and low valuation is indicative of low confidence in its performance going forward. But make no mistake, Walgreens is nowhere near being a business about to fall off a cliff.
Instead, expected earnings to remain solid. As Bob Ciura of Sure Dividend detailed earlier this month, earnings growth will likely slow to a modest 5% per year going forward. But growth catalysts remain intact. Also, continuing to pay down debt from its 2014 merger with European pharmacy giant Alliance Boots, it has a deleveraging catalyst as well.
Putting it simply, this is another defensive play that should hold up well the next time markets get stormy. With additional catalysts that could send it higher in the years following any future market turmoil, consider WBA stock another one of the top safe stocks to buy and hold.
On the date of publication, Thomas Niel held a long position in MO. He did not have (either directly or indirectly) any positions in any other securities mentioned in this article. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the writer, subject to the InvestorPlace.com Publishing Guidelines.
Thomas Niel, contributor for InvestorPlace.com, has been writing single-stock analysis for web-based publications since 2016.