The 3 Most Reliable Stocks in the Dow

There’s a new recession around the corner. Or, maybe there isn’t. The media is providing arguments for both possibilities, but clearly only one of those arguments can be right. For investors needing to make a decision in the meantime, though — before earnings start to slip and send stocks lower — the disparity is becoming a little maddening.

The solution to the dilemma? The best response may simply be to avoid a situation where a company’s earnings slip in the first place, regardless of any economic contraction.

#-ad_banner-#It is possible to find such stocks; you just have to know where to look.

Given their proven reliability in good times and bad, investors may want to take on these three stocks in the Dow Jones Industrial Average as part of an effort to stave off the effects of a recession. And if a recession never comes, you’ll still have three reliable stocks capable of earnings growth and long-term shareholder returns.

International Business Machines (NYSE: IBM) 
A picture of consistency, since 2006, “Big Blue” has grown its earnings every year (and 2005’s dip was a “just barely” situation). Better still, since 2006, International Business Machines hasn’t once seen weaker year-over-year quarterly comparisons. Annual 2005 earnings of $4.73 per share have grown to $10.99 since then, a trend that’s still going strong.

Why IBM can keep growing its bottom line: As established and familiar IBM is, most investors still can’t exactly pinpoint what it is the company does to generate sales. More than anything, the company is a technology service provider — consulting, application management and data storage, just to name a few profit centers.

What’s unique about this business model is the recurring revenue it draws. A car manufacturer can only sell one car at a time and must continually fight to win new business. Once a company like IBM integrates itself into another organization’s technology infrastructure, it’s tough to sever that tie. As such, the company builds a reliable revenue stream even if it never adds new clients.

The Coca-Cola Co. (NYSE: KO)
Though not completely bulletproof on the quarterly earnings front, only once since 1999 has The Coca-Cola Co. seen two consecutive quarters of lower trailing 12-month earnings. It hasn’t seen a quarterly loss since the middle of 2000. By the end of 2010, full-year earnings were being pulled in at a rate of $3.25 a share, which is leaps and bounds better than 2001’s $1.33 per share.

Why Coca-Cola can keep growing its bottom line: While soft drinks are superficially a commodity with lots of new competition popping up all the time, the reality is that none have mastered the art of branding and promotion the way Coke has. Of course, it’s also easier to remain the top dog than it is to become one; the reason Coca-Cola is the category leader is largely because it enjoys more pricing power than any other name in the industry.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (NYSE: WMT)
Though the market has never been shy about trashing Wal-Mart’s stock performance, employment policies and ill effects on the communities where stores are located, there is one undeniable fact: only once in the past two decades has the full-year earnings rate slipped. This was in 2009, when trailing 12-month revenue fell to $3.36, from $3.41 near the end of 2008. The current trailing per-share earnings figure is $4.30, indicating more than a full recovery in the meantime. Better still, this trounces the annual earnings rate of $1.41 per share from 10 years ago.

But hasn’t the stock been stuck in the mud around $50 since 1999? Yes, investors haven’t seen an iota of growth from shares in more than a decade, but it’s certainly not because the company hasn’t done its part. The problem was simply how the market got carried away in the late 1990s when it ran Wal-Mart shares up to a price-to-earnings (P/E) ratio in the high 50s. This is a far loftier valuation than the retailer ever had a hope of justifying at any time in the foreseeable future. The company didn’t run the stock up though — investors did.

Why Wal-Mart can keep growing its bottom line: Like Coca-Cola (and probably more so), Wal-Mart may have more pricing power than any other retailer in the world in terms of buying in bulk as well as selling to individual consumers. This is how it’s forced the closure of so many smaller retailers in communities where stores are located — it can afford to take losses on and deeply discount many items in order to gain customers.

Regardless, with a forward P/E of 11.5, Wal-Mart’s earnings may have finally caught up with the price of Wal-Mart shares. So, now that adequate value is packed into shares, the price may actually walk higher with earnings growth, beginning this year.

Action to take –> If you’re truly worried about another recession coming sooner than later, then your so-called “flight to safety” should include positions in one or all of these three diverse names. Their respective stock prices can still get batted around in bearish turbulence, but given enough time, the market usually figures out these companies are relatively recession-resistant, and then prices the stocks accordingly.

Even if you’re not looking to play recession-defense right now, these names offer a chance to invest in something that doesn’t require daily maintenance and monitoring. That’s refreshing in itself.

P.S. — If you’re an income investor, why would you buy a stock yielding 2% when you can find one paying 26% right here? Watch this presentation for more.