It's coming. You know it is.
Another recession. A "correction." A one-day meltdown.
Whatever you call it, the stock market is a fickle goddess to those who hear her siren's call. Question is, how secure do you feel about being prepared for when -- not if -- stocks drop into another free-fall?
When the investing world goes all topsy-turvy, are you prepared to outwit the picking pros and maintain your investments -- and your sanity? If you got burned by the meltdown and have religiously followed a conservative investment tact, maybe it's time to toss off the shackles of measly bond yields and take a look at some stocks that promise to protect your investment in tough times while generating a nice payback through dividends.
After all, Treasury prices remain high when compared against the returns, which should give investors some incentive to shop around for other safe places to put their money.
Rather than just sticking with all the good old standards in various sectors, like McDonald's (NYSE: MCD) or Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT), let's look at possible alternatives in five areas where you can find some defensive plays to shore up your portfolio.
1. Health care:
Abbott Laboratories (NYSE: ABT) deserves a look solely for the strength of its dividend yield, currently about 3.5%, after a +10% dividend increase this year. During the past three years, earnings have grown nicely, giving investors a reason to stick with this maker of such diversified health-related products as infant formula and nutritional concoctions.
Abbott's investors also have a global exposure that might dampen the damage from another U.S. downturn. Following on CEO Miles White's commitment to build Abbott's business in countries with rapidly growing economies, the company soon will complete its $3.7 billion acquisition of Piramal Healthcare Ltd., which at 7% and growing, will give it the biggest market share of India's growing pharmaceuticals industry.
But Abbott carries some caveats in the cutthroat health-care industry. The company faces regulatory scrutiny on a couple of products under development, including the weight-loss drug Meridia, and it will be losing patent protection on Humira, an arthritis medication that accounts for 18% of sales.
2. Fast food:
While it's hard to ignore the 800-pound gorilla that is McDonald's, Yum! Brands (NYSE: YUM) is playing up the healthier menu options at KFC, and the bargains available at Pizza Hut and Taco Bell. While The Colonel's parent company posted a +17% jump in second-quarter profit, Yum execs expressed their concerns about high U.S. unemployment and the sluggish recovery.
The company has a ton of cash to fund overseas expansion, especially in Asia, where it has a considerable presence in China. [Read: This Global Fast Food Chain is Expanding Like Crazy in China] While it has invested heavily in red-hot China, any indications of a slowdown in growth there will have an impact on overall profits. Yum also just floated $350 million in 10-year bonds, in part to pay down outstanding debt.
One business strategy change could prove interesting: Yum is going to refranchise some of its company-owned restaurants, with Credit Suisse analysts estimating that it could sell some 900 outlets -- resulting in U.S. operating profit rising to $820 million from $770 million this year.
3. Sin stocks:
Whatever your opinion is on tobacco use, it's difficult to deny that the purveyors of those unhealthy cigarettes and other products churn healthy profits -- especially when it comes to paying dividends.
Lorillard (NYSE: LO), No. 3 in the tobacco business behind Altria Group (NYSE: MO) and Reynolds American (NYSE: RAI), has the top-selling brand of menthol smokes (Newport), and its stock is trading at a discount to its larger brethren and near the low end of its 52-week range. The Vice Fund (VICEX), a mutual fund that invests in tobacco, booze and gambling stocks, holds a piece of Lorillard.
The company just upped its dividend by +13%, and it now yields around 6% as earnings have steadily risen through tough economic times. The company is also looking to boost the stock price, with plans to repurchase $1 billion in outstanding shares.
Lorillard might be altering course in the future, having snagged tobacco industry veteran Murray Kessler from Altria as its next CEO in a planned transition. Kessler's background is mostly with smokeless tobacco products like Copenhagen and Skoal.
Regulators are debating possible restrictions on marketing or perhaps the use of menthol and other flavorings in cigarettes. And while Lorillard has argued to the Food and Drug Administration that menthol doesn't increase the likelihood that kids will start smoking, or that menthol causes more health problems, it will introduce a non-menthol version of its Newport brand.
If you're going defensive in your stock picking, you might as well consider the defense industry. Raytheon (NYSE: RTN) has a roster of military intelligence goodies and big missiles and anti-missile systems that can ruin the enemy's day, even as governments cut spending.
Earnings have bounced around, but again there's a dividend yield of about 3.5% to sway investors away from Raytheon's larger competitors. With the share price holding around $45 after losing about -15% of value during the past three months, Raytheon appears to be slightly oversold and offering investors an opportunity to buy in.
Raytheon had a blockbuster August, announcing about $750 million in new and add-on contracts. On the heels of Raytheon's announcement of $143 million in business on the same day, Wells Fargo upped its rating on the stock to "market outperform," while at the same time pulling competitor Lockheed Martin (NYSE: LMT) back to "market perform."
The dawn of a new age of electric vehicles puts power companies in our sights for growth potential. While most utilities operate in a regulated environment, the profits they can churn out are often substantial. Investors might want to check out Excelon (NYSE: EXC), which primarily serves the Chicago and Philadelphia areas.
Shares of Excelon were beaten down by about -20% in the past year, and most analysts following the stock rate it a "hold." That might change after Excelon, the nation's largest nuclear energy generator pulled the trigger on a $900 million acquisition of Deere & Co.'s (NYSE: DE) renewable energy (wind) unit. Excelon will get 36 existing wind farms and a pipeline into other projects under development from the deal.
Excelon's earnings have held up in the recession, but have yet to budge to the upside. With a heavy nuclear presence, and now this wind deal, Excelon is placing itself squarely in the camp of emissions-free power generation.
And for investors, there is that all-important dividend yield of more than 5% to consider as well.
Action to Take --> Don't wait for your portfolio to head south should the economy take another dive. It could pay off to look beyond the top dogs when digging for some stable investment gems for when the economy hiccups again. Especially focus on companies that have stayed the course by paying consistent, substantial dividends, which can ease the pain in any drop in share price.
Abbott and Yum are looking to India and China as growth markets, but those fast-growth economies might start showing more of the effects of the global recession. Raytheon, too, has a healthy share of international business, but it's not just the U.S. defense sector that's cutting back on spending. Tobacco companies are not suffering too much, and Lorillard hasn't really tapped the markets outside of North America, offering investors that foreign growth potential.
So while there is some volatility in all of the five categories listed above, perhaps the one that offers the most stability in the event of a downturn is energy. Power companies are going to face increased pressure to cut their emissions, but Excelon appears headed in the right direction with its big bets on nuclear and wind energy. The company's size could turn it into a takeover target at some point as well.