The voices are growing louder that the US economy is starting to sputter. From Morgan Stanley, stock strategist Michael Wilson said last month, “Recent data points suggest US earnings and economic risk is greater than most investors may think,” and the May jobs report, released on June 7, backed him up. The numbers were grim, with only 75,000 new jobs reported for the month, and the previous two months revised down by an equal amount. Other data has shown a slowdown in the services sector, and a nine-year low in manufacturing activity.
The data is starting to point towards trouble, but the real problem with protecting your portfolio in a downturn lies in the lagging definition of a recession: two consecutive quarters of negative economic growth. Given that growth data is typically reported one month after the fact, this means that investors will always be 4 to 7 months late in taking protective measures. So, let’s be proactive about this, and take a look at TipRanks’ database to find some reliable stocks for defensive investing. These are not necessarily “classic” defensive stocks; rather, these companies have shown by recent performance that they can deliver profits even in a downturn.
Apple, Inc. (AAPL)
First on our list today is Apple, partly because these days it seems you just can’t build a portfolio without a tech giant but mostly because Apple has proven both its long-term reliability and its short-term resiliency. For the long term, Apple is up 130% in the last five years, while in the short haul the company recovered well from the Q4 2018 downturn and has already made up more than half the losses from last month’s market swoon.
More importantly, Apple has also shown that it can adapt and change. Steve Jobs’ unique vision underlay his company’s growth in the early 2000s, and his death in 2011 prompted fears that his successor, Tim Cook, would not fill his shoes and the company would stagnate. It is fair to say that events of the past three quarters have laid that fear to rest. While Cook is not Jobs, he hasn’t needed to be – he took over a mature company with established niches and a growing customer base. He has shown himself fully capable of meeting the challenges the market has posed.
Cook met last year’s market dip head-on. He admitted that Apple’s core iPhone sales were not going to fully recover, and orchestrated a plan to meet the changing conditions by shifting the sales focus to Services, reconciling iPhone to a longer replacement cycle, and promoting the iPad, iMac, and Macbook lines. Under all of this, helping to ensure success, is the near-billion strong loyal customer base that the company has built over the past decade.
So, Apple has the solid foundation that every defensive stock needs. Looking forward, the company made a favorable impression on market analysts earlier this month at the Worldwide Developers Conference. Kathryn Huberty (Track Record & Ratings) of Morgan Stanley said after Apple’s presentation, “After (Monday’s) announcements, we believe Apple Watch and Mac will more meaningfully contribute to App Store growth, while further solidifying Apple as the most attractive platform for app developers.” Noting the company’s commitment to increasing its Services sector, she added, “Apple's top growth opportunity is driving increased user engagement with apps.” Huberty gives Apple a buy rating with a $231 price target, seeing an upside of 19%.
Piper Jaffray’s Michael Olson (Track Record & Ratings) also gives Apple high ratings. Peering into the future of iPhone, he notes that 20% of current owners are interested in upgrading to 5G, and says, “Interest in 5G will only grow from here, so this is a favorable early sign that 5G is viewed as a key feature… we believe that as long as services revenue continues to perform well, it will tide many investors over until anticipation for 5G iPhones intensifies.” His price target on AAPL, $230, also suggests an 19% upside.
The analyst consensus on AAPL shares is a ‘Moderate Buy,’ based on 19 buy ratings, 16 holds, 2 sells given over the last three months. Shares are trading at $192, so the $212 average price target indicates an upside of 10%.
Johnson & Johnson (JNJ)
This one is a traditional defensive stock, and it has a reputation for being a bit staid, but don’t let that fool you: Johnson & Johnson offers real value, consistently delivering on both dividend and long-term equity growth. Both are markers of a strong defensive play.
The company’s current dividend yield is 2.72%, which may seem small, but at current share prices it equates to an annual payout of $3.80. Better than the actual dividend payment, however, is JNJ’s dividend history. The company has been paying, and steadily increasing, its dividend since the early 1970s. This policy of consistently rewarding shareholders provides a steady source of income for investors, and also encourages them to reinvest that income in the company. It’s a win-win policy.
As a long-term investment, JNJ has, like Apple, proven its worth. The stock has gained 56% in the last 5 years, and shows a 9% gain over the past 12 months. And also like Apple, JNJ has proven resilient in the face of adversity: last December, the stock took a hard hit from bad press related to the widely reported talcum powder recall, but has since regained most of that loss. In another example of corporate resiliency, JNJ was recently given a buy rating with a $157 price target by five-star analyst Joanne Wuensch (Track Record & Ratings) of BMO Capital, after she reviewed the status of current legal action the company faced in the state of Oklahoma in regard to the opioid abuse epidemic. Wuensch notes that the case will likely be resolved quickly, and points out, “Litigation is a common occurrence in the health care sector that takes significant time to resolve, and often headlines are worse than reality.” Her price target indicates confidence in the stock, and a 12% upside.
Johnson & Johnson’s success rests on two separate bases. The first, and most widely recognized, is the company’s array of popular consumer brands. JNJ is the producer of Band-Aids, Listerine, and Tylenol, to name just a few. Consumer products provide a respectable 16.7% of annual revenue (nearly $14 billion), but the real money for JNJ lies in pharmaceuticals. To put it in perspective, two drugs – Remicade and Simponi – account for 11.3% of the company’s total revenues, two-thirds as much as all of the consumer products.
Unlike many large-scale drug producers, Johnson & Johnson is not deeply exposed to payment issues with the Medicare and Medicaid systems. This is important for investors, as both programs have reputations for underpaying, and with an election year coming up both programs are likely to become political footballs as candidates promise ever more benefits. This is a key point noted by Terence Flynn (Track Record & Ratings). Writing for Goldman Sachs, Flynn says, “The company has the lowest exposure to Medicare/Medicaid within the group. As a result, the stock will be less impacted by potential drug pricing headlines/policy proposals ahead of the 2020 presidential election.” Flynn sets a price target of $163 for JNJ, suggesting an upside of 16%.
JNJ’s consensus rating of ‘Moderate Buy’ is derived from 7 buy and 5 hold reviews. The stock’s $149 average price target and $140 share price equate to an upside potential of 7%.
McDonald’s Corporation (MCD)
Fast food burgers might not come immediately to mind when you hear the phrase ‘Return on Investment,’ but McDonald’s has been delivering more than just quick eats. The company has gained an impressive 16% so far this year, rising from $176 on January 2 to a closing price of $205 on June 14. Even more impressive, between May 3 and June 3, while the S&P 500 was slipping 6.8%, MCD shares were gaining 1.2%.
It’s all part of a steady-growth story going back to May of 2015, when current CEO Steve Easterbrook took over. McD’s had just posted its first sales decline in more than a decade, and the new chief’s mandate was simple: refresh a stale brand. His ‘Turnaround Plan’ got the company back to basics, emphasizing fresher, higher quality ingredients; a streamlined menu; and physical rebuilding efforts in the company’s aging franchise locations. Through it all, McDonald’s has maintained its high dividend; the payout is now $4.64 annually, for a yield of 2.26%.
The market’s analysts agree that MCD is on a stable upward path. Writing at BTIG, Peter Saleh (Track Record & Ratings) says, “The company's menu strategy shift has boosted comps. Expect the increased menu focus on bundles and full price items – and away from deep discounts - to drive higher U.S. average check for the next couple of quarters.” Saleh boosted his price target to $220 on MCD, suggesting an upside of 7%.
Saleh’s not alone. Weighing in from Merrill Lynch last week, Gregory Francfort (Track Record & Ratings) sees “2Q-4Q same-store sales (including 3.9%-4.2% for the U.S.) looking conservative with more upside potential than downside risk.” Like Saleh, he gives MCD a $220 price target.
Overall, MCD has a ‘Moderate Buy’ consensus based on 19 analyst ratings given in the last three months, including 14 buys and 5 holds. The stock sells for $205 as of June 14, and the average price target of $216 indicates an upside potential of 5.5%.
Lowe’s Companies, Inc. (LOW)
If the US economy does turn down to recession, Lowe’s is in an excellent position to take advantage of the changed conditions. The do-it-yourself home improvement supplier operates on the big-box model, using bulk to offer discounts on the products and services that, in bad times, homeowners are more likely to handle as DIY.
This puts Lowe’s strength as a defensive play is in its niche – the stores offer products that most people need, at discounts that grow more attractive in a downturn. Home maintenance won’t stop for a recession, and DIY really is a good way to save money. In addition, Lowe’s has maintained its lucrative contractor business.
And now we get to the weakness in this stock. Lowe’s is the second largest home improvement superstore, after Home Depot (HD), and the company is having trouble boosting revenues and earnings against its larger competition. LOW shares have been on a roller coaster ride for the last 18 months, although they are up nearly 8% year-to-date. On an operational level, Lowe’s has had difficulty executing online sales strategy and home delivery, and managing inventory control. Both are putting serious drag on the bottom line, and holding down revenue growth.
Pushing back is CEO Marvin Ellison, who took over in July of last year. He has marked both online sales and inventory control as key parts of a turnaround effort to improve the company’s sales and revenue growth. Early assessments of Ellison’s success are guardedly optimistic; LOW did beat sales and revenue expectations in its most recent quarterly report, although EPS missed by 8%. As Keith Hughes (Track Record & Ratings), of SunTrust Robinson points out, “The recovery will not be a "quick story", even though we are positive on the re-set of expectations and maintain that the 10% projected earnings growth this year still tops Home Depot's (HD) expected flat growth.” Hughes sets a $120 price target on LOW, suggesting an upside of 20%.
UBS analyst Michael Lasser (Track Record & Ratings) also sets a buy rating on LOW, with an upbeat $115 target and 15% upside. He writes, “The risk-reward ration on the stock is attractive.”
On consensus, Lowe’s keeps a ‘Strong Buy’ rating, based on the 14 buys and 4 holds given in the past three months. While the company faces headwinds, it holds a strong position in a valuable niche, and is widely perceived as facing its difficulties effectively. Of the stocks in this article, LOW offers the best upside potential, at 16%, based on the $99 share price and $115 average price target.
Walmart, Inc. (WMT)
Like Lowe’s, Walmart gains its defensive-stock status from its business model. The king of brick-and-mortar retailers offers discount customers the ultimate in one-stop shopping, putting everything that consumers could want or need under one roof, from baby diapers to daily groceries to minor car repairs. Really, there’s nothing you can’t get at Walmart and that fact has made it the world’s largest company by revenue and the world’s largest private employer.
Walmart’s biggest competition comes from Amazon.com (AMZN), but it is more of a whale and elephant story than a cage match. Each company is dominant in its own domain, and each has faced challenges trying to expand on the other’s territory. Walmart may have found a way to leverage its existing stores for an online advantage – rather than offer home delivery (an area in which Amazon already excels), Walmart offers online purchasers an option to pick up their merchandise at the nearest Walmart location. This is a viable alternative, since according to some estimates everyone in the US lives within 10 miles of a Walmart store.
As a defensive play, Walmart’s greatest advantage is the pedestrian nature of its business. Everyone needs the products they offer, and in hard times, Walmart’s famously low prices will simply look more attractive. Writing after WMT reported FY20 Q1 earnings, Raymond James’ Budd Bugatch (Track Record & Ratings) said, “Investors should be most encouraged by the U.S. segment, which showed a 5.5 percent year-over-year increase in operating income to $4.1 billion. The business saw strength from a favorable sales mix while e-commerce margins came in better than management's own expectations.” While he believes the company is on firm footing, his price target, at $110, suggests only a modest 1% upside.
Guggenheim’s Robert Drbul (Track Record & Ratings) sums up Walmart’s case quite well in his recent research note: “We believe the business remains quite healthy, with solid physical/digital results in recent quarters… We continue to believe WMT’s resources uniquely position it to successfully evolve in an ever-changing retail environment. While trade concerns/tariffs may create quarter-to-quarter fluctuations, we believe the management team will astutely navigate any changes.” Drbul maintained a $115, which indicates a 5.5% upside from current levels.
On average, WMT shares have a price target of $113, which gives an upside of 4.5% from the share price of $109. The analyst consensus of ‘Moderate Buy’ is based on 8 buys, 2 holds, and 1 sell set in the last three months.
You can learn more about these stocks using TipRanks Stock Comparison tool. This is a powerful new tool that shows all the data on multiple stocks. See for yourself how the Comparison Tool works, by using it to look at the stocks in this article.
Disclosure: This author holds a long position in Apple, Inc.