Hunker Down With These 3 Defensive Shares

LONDON -- It's the battle of the QE bulls versus the eurozone bears. Markets have enjoyed a good run in the summer, with the FTSE 100 up 8% since June 1. Trading has been thin over the holiday period, but sentiment has been buoyed by expectations of more government stimulus.

Bulls are looking for action at Friday's meeting of central bankers at Jackson Hole, Wyo. They are also hoping for policy stimulus to come out of the European Central Bank governors' meeting on Sept. 6.

Perma-bears
Perma-bears such as myself see a head of steam building in Europe. Those tax-dodging, early-retiring, welfare-cushioned, government-paid southern Europeans are about to savage our savings and pensions once again. When debt market traders get back to their desks next month, they will see a deteriorating environment in Europe.

The Greek prime minister is asking for more money and looser terms from an impatient German electorate. The peripheral northern European economies -- Finland, the Netherlands, and Austria -- are becoming more vocally intransigent. The Spanish regions are queuing up to beg money from central government.

Italian politicians can't agree how to elect a new government to replace Mario Monti's unelected administration. If Italians prove as reluctant to vote for austerity as Greeks, that would surely kill the euro.

Hunker down
Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and Bank of England Governor Sir Mervyn King have both said that repeated bouts of easing have diminishing returns. To me, it looks as if markets are likely to head downwards. So it's time to take some cash profits from the summer's rally and hunker down with a defensive portfolio.

I'm looking for shares in defensive sectors with decent yields and relatively low eurozone exposure. I'd also like a decent slug of emerging-market business, as that still offers growth potential. I'm going to pick three shares to illustrate my thought process.

Outstanding
Pharmaceuticals and tobacco were the two outstanding sectors in the financial crash of 2008 and 2009. They fell 15% and 17%, respectively, between Oct. 31, 2007 and March 3, 2009, while the FTSE 100 halved.

Tobacco investors face a binary choice: British American Tobacco (LSE: BATS.L  ) or Imperial Tobacco (LSE: IMT.L  ) . Despite the antismoking lobby, which scored a notable victory in Australia with the introduction of plain packaging, the sector remains resilient. BAT is the more expensive stock, but it rewards that with a bigger emerging-market business and lower dependence on Western Europe. With a higher payout ratio, it yields about the same as Imperial at 3.8%.

In the pharma sector, realistically the choice is also binary -- between GlaxoSmithKline (LSE: GSK.L  ) and AstraZeneca (LSE: AZN.L  ) .

Risk
But AstraZeneca is facing the challenge of replenishing half its current income stream by 2016, when current patents expire, and to me it's a relatively high-risk share. The appointment of Pascal Soriot from Roche suggests that it will try to do that through research and development rather than mergers and acquisitions, and it raises the danger that interim CEO Simon Lowth will not hang around as financial director. To my mind, that increases the strategic risk.

I like GSK for its 4.8% yield and superlative dividend track record. Twice the size of Astra, the brute force of R&D expenditure had reaped better rewards in replenishing its drugs pipeline, while diversification into consumer goods adds to its defensiveness, and emerging-market penetration boosts growth prospects.

Credentials
Vodafone
(LSE: VOD.L  ) didn't distinguish itself during the financial crash, when its shares fell nearly 40% -- barely better than the FTSE. Nevertheless, it now has great credentials as a defensive stock, and the 5.1% yield is superlative. Dividends from its 45% interest in Verizon Wireless add yet more to a prodigious cash flow underpinned by its massive scale.

It's no surprise that these shares are all held by Invesco Perpetual's Neil Woodford, the U.K.'s leading dividend stock picker. But to produce great returns like him -- he achieved a near 350% return over the 15 years to the end of 2011 -- it's just as important to know what stocks he avoided. You can learn more about that in a free Motley Fool report: "8 Shares Held By Britain's Super Investor." You can download it to your inbox here.

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Tony owns shares in AstraZeneca, GSK and Imperial but no other shares mentioned in this article. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Vodafone Group. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.


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