Don't let it get away!
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"Troubles are only opportunities in work clothes."
Henry Kaiser harnessed that attitude to build an industrial empire in difficult economic times: He helped build the Hoover Dam in the Great Depression and then made ships for the Navy in World War II.
I'm not underestimating the dire straits we're in -- unemployment looks poised to rise above 10% nationally -- but investors should ponder Kaiser's advice. Even if this economy is harsh on some companies, others are thriving.
For the many luxury retailers having hard times, many discount stores have done better. For every car company that goes bankrupt, an existing competitor -- or a brand-new upstart -- will flourish. This is progress. It is messy, but ultimately America will be better for it. A rising savings rate may be deflationary in the short term, but it will be good in the long run -- provided it keeps rising and stays high.
I think consumers will keep doing what they can to save money. Here are two companies I believe are well positioned to capitalize on that trend, along with a group of additional stocks within a broader sector that stands to benefit.
It's got to be good
J.M. Smucker (NYSE: SJM ) recently reported great earnings and rising margins after its acquisition of Folgers coffee from Procter & Gamble (NYSE: PG ) late last year turned out to be the right move at the right time. Apparently, consumers are still bypassing luxury brands like Starbucks (Nasdaq: SBUX ) and are instead opting to buy more Folgers coffee.
Smucker delivered $1.02 per share in earnings during the quarter, excluding one-time costs related to the merger, convincingly beating estimates of $0.63. Gross margins rose to 37.4%, from 30.9% in the year-ago quarter. Something right is going on here.
Rising sales are clearly a function of the rediscovered frugality of the U.S. consumer. With the future of the economy still murky, I expect Smucker's stellar performance to continue.
Moreover, the stock isn't ridiculously expensive, despite its 13% rise from a year ago. The stock trades at 15 times earnings and pays a current dividend yield of 2.9%, and the company has boosted its dividend for eight straight years. Even better, Smucker's balance sheet is in good shape, with low long-term debt levels and a fair amount of cash on hand.
Click 'n' save
Amazon.com (Nasdaq: AMZN ) has come a long way from being a dot-com bubble symbol to a real retailer with a successful business model. Amazon has stellar customer service and a wide selection, and its value-priced goods are delivered in a timely and cost-effective manner. No wonder it has managed to double the value of its brand in just seven years, according to Interbrand.
The company is also good at selling its own products. Amazon's Kindle has been a smash hit, selling out in two consecutive holiday shopping seasons. Kindle capitalizes on the ongoing trend of information going electronic. As print-based newspapers struggle to remain relevant, it's only natural that books would be next to go digital.
The company has become a leader in the electronic book concept, just as it was a leader in selling paper books online. Some estimates show that Amazon will make $2 billion in revenue annually by 2012 just related to Kindle.
Amazon shares are up more than 50% on the year. The technology sector in general has performed very strongly this year, and I've argued that many now view the sector to be defensive, especially compared to risky financial stocks. Amazon shares could be volatile in the short term, but the long-term value of the franchise is unquestionable, in my view. (Click here to see how Fools are voting among Amazon, Google, and Apple.)
Get a degree
The final consumer-oriented opportunity isn't a specific stock but a sector: for-profit education. The premise here is that if you can't get a job now, you might as well get an education to put yourself in better position to get one later.
This was the situation during the 2001 recession, when many education stocks did very well. Between mid-2000 and mid-2003, Corinthian Colleges (Nasdaq: COCO ) saw its stock rise more than 600%, while Strayer Education (Nasdaq: STRA ) more than tripled, and Apollo Group (Nasdaq: APOL ) posted a 350% gain -- even as the overall stock market fell substantially.
Given that the economy is struggling quite a bit more this time around, education stocks should do well again. And although there are questions surrounding potential new regulation of these companies, I believe they're overblown. The business environment for for-profit education companies has never seemed better.
The economy may not be doing well, but some businesses thrive in such environments. Focus on those and you should see your results improve.
Do you have other ideas for stocks that can handle a consumer pullback? Share them in the comments section below.
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