Stability is something that's arguably not at the forefront of investors' minds at the moment. With 2013 being such a great year for the stock market, it seems as though many market participants are very much in "risk-on" mode and are keeping both eyes firmly fixed on growth prospects and whether a company can hit that all-important double-digit growth rate.
However, the large fall in the S&P 500 on Friday could be a timely reminder that markets don't always go up, and, as such, it could be the case that investors begin to seek out one or two more stable companies in case the market trades sideways or experiences a further dip.
So what is stability? Of course, different investors will have different viewpoints on what defines a stable company, but it could be reasonably expected that a stable company has a good track record of delivering profits, because this could indicate that it is more likely to continue to have a healthy bottom line -- even if economic conditions worsen in future years.
In addition, a stable company should have a relatively generous yield, so that if capital growth is not forthcoming in the future, investors in the stock can still rely on an income in the form of a dividend with which to pay the bills, or to invest in other stocks at suppressed prices.
Furthermore, a stable business may have a beta of less than 1. This means that it has been less volatile than the wider market over a specific time period (usually six to 12 months) and should, in theory, fall by a smaller amount than the wider market in the future.
Of course, the flip side is that it should (in theory) also gain by less than the market in the future, meaning it should outperform the rest of the index in a downturn but underperform in an upturn.
So here are three businesses in the health-care space that could fit the bill for investors seeking more stable stocks:
1. Pfizer (NYSE:PFE) -- over the past four years it has grown revenue at an annualized rate of 5.1%, with profits growing by 5.7% over the same period, as the company was able to grow the top line ahead of its cost base. In addition, it pays a yield of 3.2%, which is well above the S&P 500 yield of 2.2%. Furthermore, Pfizer's beta is 0.8, which further highlights its credentials as a more stable stock.
2. Merck (NYSE:MRK) -- although revenue growth has been highly impressive in the past four years (growing by 18.7% per annum), profits have been fairly volatile. Although profits have been made in all years, they have ranged from $1.6 billion to $15.3 billion, thereby highlighting that Merck's performance as a business isn't quite as stable as that of Pfizer. However, as a stock, it offers a lower beta than Pfizer (0.6 versus 0.8) and a slightly higher dividend (3.3% versus 3.2%).
3. Johnson & Johnson (NYSE:JNJ) -- although revenue is only slightly higher now than it was four years ago and profits are slightly lower than in 2008, Johnson & Johnson remains among the most stable stocks in the health-care sector, with the historical revenue and profit range being relatively narrow. Its beta of 0.8, combined with a yield of 2.8% (versus the S&P 500 yield of 2.2%), mark it out as a potentially more stable option for risk-conscious investors.
So while 2014 could be another great year for the S&P 500, the events of Friday showed that growth and recovery is not a given. Therefore, keeping an eye on stability could prove to be a worthwhile counter to further market turbulence.
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Fool contributor Peter Stephens has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends and owns shares of Johnson & Johnson. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.