A defensive business> with a high stock price is no refuge.
Earlier this week I cited a brewer, a drug maker and a car-parts distributor as companies that might hold onto sales or even increase them while shoppers are loath to spend. Heart pills are what economists call an inelastic good; customers keep buying even when their incomes drop. Cheap beer and wheel struts are inferior goods. That s not a value judgment, but rather an observation that falling incomes actually lift demand as customers pass up new cars and pricey ale.
Plenty of companies sell inelastic or inferior goods and services, and investors have shown a strong preference of late for their shares. Last year the S&P 500 index, which tracks the broad American stock market, lost more than 38%. But drug makers within the index lost only 21%. The sole car-parts chain, AutoZone (AZO), gained 2%. Deep discounters like Wal-Mart (WMT) surged 9%.
That has led to what I ll call General Mills (GIS) syndrome. Sales-wise, the company is as safe as any cereal aisle name. When customers feel the economy is after their Lucky Charms, they cling tighter, or switch to a store brand that s often quietly made by the same company. Empty restaurants and full dinner tables at home mean General Mills is growing. Sales are seen increasing 7% in its fiscal year to May 25 and more than 3% the year after. But in late October I noted that General Mills had gained 19% since I recommended it in February, outperforming the market by 50 percentage points. Suddenly, it looked expensive. It has since lost 9%, versus a 6% drop for the market, and isn t yet cheap. Shares fetch 16 times trailing earnings at a time when the broad stock market goes for 13 times earnings. The 2.9% dividend yield is safe, but you can get more than that in a broad-market index fund or a bank certificate of deposit.
Below are some other defensive names with indefensible prices.
Movies on DVD might still qualify as inferior goods in the economic sense, since they re cheaper than a trip to the multiplex. Indeed, Netflix (NFLX) is growing its sales at about 13% a year. But increasingly, DVDs also qualify as inconvenient compared with movies streamed over the Internet. Netflix offers a streaming service for a small portion of its movies. It s great if your must-see list includes the sequel to Ace Ventura. (There was one.) If not, Apple s (AAPL) $4 new releases might prove more tempting. In fairness, the Netflix service is new and its selection seems to be improving, and DVDs are far from dead. But I don t want to own Netflix shares at 22 times earnings in hopes its online service will prove as dominant as its mailbox one.
Constellation Brands (STZ) looks like a bargain at just nine times earnings, and the booze distributor is expected to grow profits 8% this year. But it has more debt than stock market value. That doesn t mean it s in financial trouble, but it does mean the company s true price the one you d have to pay to own it free and clear is around 19 times earnings. That s no bargain. Worse, Constellation pays no dividend.
Finally, Abbott Laboratories (ABT) has plump profit margins and what suddenly qualifies as enviable growth. Earnings per share are expected to increase 10% this year. Shares go for 15 times earnings, which is only ambitious, not nutty. But I m wondering why Abbott, faced with the best stock buyer s market in a generation, just agreed to pay $22 a share for American Medical Optics (EYE), which makes eye surgery lasers and cataract implants. The price works out to 29 times earnings. Add the debt Abbott will assume and you re at 62 times earnings yikes. If Abbott had a burning wish to spend $2.8 billion, the deal s cost, and if it didn t want to repay its own debt, it might better have paid a one-time dividend of 3.6%, thereby topping up the stock s undersized yield of 2.9%.
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