Best International Stock: Unilever

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With stock markets around the world on edge, investors are seeking safe investments that will withstand a global downturn. Just as many in the U.S. have taken a closer look at stocks in defensive sectors, those who see international stocks as the best place for promising stocks are looking for ways to protect their gains.

Unilever (NYSE: UL  ) is a global player in the food and consumer staples sector. You're probably familiar with its products -- the company sells everything from Ben & Jerry's ice cream and Klondike bars to SlimFast diet drinks and Suave shampoo. Based in London, the company had sales of more than 40 million euros in the past 12 months, putting Unilever in the same league as American companies Kraft Foods (NYSE: KFT  ) and Procter & Gamble (NYSE: PG  ) .

Slow and steady does it
During better economic times, you wouldn't expect to find top stock prospects in the diversified food industry. More focused plays, such as java producer Green Mountain Coffee Roasters (Nasdaq: GMCR  ) or cooler-filler Reddy Ice (NYSE: FRZ  ) , have higher potential for growth. When competitor Heinz (NYSE: HNZ  ) tops the list of diversified food companies in year-over-year revenue growth at 13% last quarter, it's clear you're not talking about a high-growth sector. Unilever is no exception; company revenues have been relatively flat since 1998, and gross margins and returns on capital and equity have reached a plateau.

Yet as a defensive play, Unilever offers stability -- along with a healthy dividend. The stock currently carries a 2% dividend yield, and unlike high-yielding stocks that are in the financial industry, Unilever doesn't have any obvious concerns that threaten its payout.

Prospects for growth
Meanwhile, investors in Unilever have seen nice results in the past year. The stock broke out of a decade-long rut to set all-time highs in 2007. Analysts see growth accelerating in the future toward double-digit annual rates, and while 11% earnings growth may not seem like much, it would be a major boost for the company.

On Motley Fool CAPS, where more than 83,000 professional and novice investors have rated 5,400 stocks, investors overwhelmingly agree that Unilever has what it takes to withstand a global downturn and outperform the overall market. With the top rating of five stars, Unilever has the support of 97% of those who've given its stock a rating.

CAPS players cite a number of reasons why they like the stock. Some merely see it as a short-term defensive play that they'll exit when the economy improves. But others point to competitive advantages over other industry players that will persist even after the economic downturn ends.

Do you agree? If so, head over to CAPS right now and give Unilever a thumbs-up. And while you're there, take a look around and see all the ways CAPS can make you a better investor.


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