Best Blue Chip: Johnson & Johnson

In the spirit of the Winter Olympics, which start Friday in Torino, Italy, The Motley Fool is pitting companies against one another. The writers will outline why their company is the best, and our very own panel of judges will decide the winner after a period of deliberation. Stay tuned for more!

It's always easier to walk away with the gold when you have a strong sense of what the judges are looking for. However, when it comes to a subjective competition like "best blue-chip stock," there is hardly a uniform set of criteria to determine the elite. Yet, when all those varied opinions are distilled down to the essence of a superior blue-chip company, you generally end up with four principal components: quality products, reliable dividends, steady earnings growth, and stable share prices.

There's a reason why blue chips are some of the world's most sought-after companies, since only a select few can post outstanding scores in each of those key categories. And among that small group, one well-rounded participant stands head and shoulders above the competition -- Johnson & Johnson (NYSE: JNJ  ) .

Impressive product lines
Considering that more than 200 distinct operating companies fall under the Johnson & Johnson umbrella, it's not surprising to know the health-care giant is the name behind many of the world's most trusted brands, including Aveeno, Band-Aid, Neutrogena, Splenda, and Tylenol. What you may not realize, though, is that nearly three-fourths of the firm's products rank either No. 1 or 2 in terms of market share.

Aside from its broad portfolio of well-known consumer products, the company is also a world-class provider of medical devices and diagnostic equipment, and it trails only Amgen (Nasdaq: AMGN  ) as the nation's largest seller of biotech pharmaceuticals. Thanks to attractive long-term demographics, each of these three segments is poised to thrive in the years ahead.

Dependable dividends
By nearly any definition, a consistent stream of dividends is a core prerequisite of a blue-chip stock. And in that department, there are only a handful of companies that can compete with Johnson & Johnson. Not only has the firm paid uninterrupted dividends for more than forty years, but it has increased the distribution everysingle year during that remarkable span. Over the last five years, it has generated sufficient cash to bump up its payout at a healthy 14% annual clip, to a current annual dividend of $1.32, or 2.3%. With the company paying out just over one-third of its earnings, there is ample room for that streak to continue.

Prolific profits
Speaking of earnings, Johnson & Johnson skates circles around the competition. The company has consistently delivered bottom-line gains year in and year out for the past two decades -- double-digit gains. Of course, it doesn't hurt that operating margins checked in at an enviable 27% last year, expanding from less than 19% ten years ago.

Stable shares
During turbulent times, investors often flee the uncertainty of weaker companies and seek shelter in stable blue-chip leaders. It follows, then, that such firms must be able to withstand the most challenging operating environments and hold their ground during severe market downturns. As for the first of those two requirements, Johnson and Johnson's financial track record underscores an ability to weather any storm. At the same time, the company's shares have rewarded investors in both good times and bad, chalking up an impressive 10.8% annual return over the past decade.

Throw in a sterling reputation, a rock-solid balance sheet, and a top-notch management team, and it is easy to see why this venerable 120-year-old company deserves to carry home the gold.

More on the battle of the blue chips:

Fool contributor Nathan Slaughter owns none of the companies mentioned. The Fool has adisclosure policy.


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