These Blue Chip Bargains Are Still Great Investments

The market’s ups and downs this year show no sign of abating — in fact, S&P 500 volatility is in a strong uptrend that may continue for some time. Until calm prevails, a smart investor’s best bet is to pick up shares of stocks that have been unfairly beaten down and use their high quality to ride out the waves. Of course, such a strategy takes some fortitude and patience. A few weeks of high volatility, including nausea-inducing market drops of several percentage points a day, can seem like years. But a few months from now, we may well look back at the prices created by this correction and wonder why we didn’t buy more.

#-ad_banner-#In recent months, I’ve pointed out many high-quality bargain stocks — market leaders with strong brands, rock-solid balance sheets, robust cash flows and other sterling qualities. Some have performed well; others are testing our patience. Let’s take a look at how three of them have performed — and whether or not they remain “Buys” today.

3M (NYSE: MMM), which I profiled here, has rallied impressively from its January lows and has performed fairly steadily even on major down days in the market. I expect the company to face some headwinds because it’s truly global, which means it has exposure to China and emerging markets that could impact sales and earnings this year. But as one of the highest-quality stocks trading today, 3M provides stability as well as long-term growth potential thanks to its leadership in important consumer and commercial markets and its technological edge in fast-growing areas, such as adhesives, that are used in energy and defense.

Last week, the company announced that it is hiking its dividend by 8% to $1.11 a share, giving it a current yield of 2.9%. Given 3M’s peerless financial strength, including strong free cash flow, the dividend is extremely safe and likely to rise again next year. (In fact, 3M has paid a dividend faithfully for a full century.) 3M also announced a $10 billion share-repurchase program, which should continue to buoy the share price. I’d buy 3M below $155.

In that same article, I recommended Verizon Communications (NYSE: VZ), the wireless, cable and broadband giant that pumps out free cash flow and is well-positioned to benefit from fast-growing demand for data, video and mobile services. Since their January 13 bottom, Verizon shares are up about 15%, boosted by better-than-expected fourth-quarter revenue and earnings. The company’s profit margins were higher than expected — a testament to its admired management team — and wireless subscriber numbers were solid.
Just this week, Verizon began to be mentioned as a serious potential buyer for Yahoo! (Nasdaq: YHOO), which it could pair with Verizon subsidiary AOL to boast a hefty share in online advertising. Yahoo! also would give Verizon access to millions of registered users and more owned content to sell over its mighty mobile and broadband channels. At the right price, such a deal could make sense — but if Verizon overpays, the market could punish the shares. I’d hold Verizon at current prices, but only add shares under $48.

Mondelez International (Nasdaq: MDLZ), which I advised buying here, held up relatively well in January but has taken a nose dive in recent sessions after announcing disappointing fourth quarter earnings last week. Although revenue came in higher than expected, earnings were lower than the analysts’ consensus estimate due mainly to the strong U.S. dollar. The company’s chocolate business, led by Cadbury, grew only 0.9%, and Mondelez lost market share to competitors with lower-priced products. Worst of all, the company lowered its revenue and earnings guidance for 2016, leading analysts to do the same.

All that said, Mondelez remains a powerhouse in packaged foods, snacks and candy. The company is financially strong and generates solid cash flow. At current prices, the stock trades at around 20 times analysts’ new consensus estimate for 2016 earnings per share. I think that’s a reasonable multiple that could prove cheap in a few quarters, especially if the dollar weakens or Mondelez uses its cash to move into faster-growing food markets. The stock is a buy at current prices.

Risks To Consider: Regardless of quality, these stocks remain susceptible to panic selling in a volatile market. 3M and Mondelez also have some exposure to China and emerging markets, while Verizon could be vulnerable to regulatory changes.
Action To Take: Buy 3M below $155, Verizon Communications below $48 and Mondelez below $38.

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Disclosure: Nick Lanyi owns shares of VZ.