Some investors shun the stock market because they believe it's too risky. While some individual stocks are highly speculative, there are a handful of companies that run extremely low-risk businesses and are quite safe to own.
Walt Disney: Safe as a brick House of Mouse
Anders Bylund (Walt Disney): Let's face it: Walt Disney is not going away anytime soon. It's the kind of stock you can buy today, forget about for a decade or three, and be pleasantly surprised by the returns at that point.
The core value of Disney lies in its powerful brand. The name is synonymous with quality entertainment, especially for younger consumers. Got kids? Chances are you already know everything about Disney. The kids just won't let you ignore what's going on in the House of Mouse.
The company's rich storytelling legacy has blossomed into a multimedia empire, covering everything from silver-screen movies and cable TV channels to theme parks and time-share resorts. All of these businesses make put the Disney brand front and center. And under the deft hand of CEO Bob Iger, the company has made a plethora of value-added acquisitions that are paying back their multibillion-dollar price tags many times over.
Sure, Disney runs into the occasional speed bump. In recent quarters, sports channel ESPN has had trouble delivering its usual level of profitable growth, for example. Looking ahead, we still don't know who will take over the reins when Iger retires in 2018.
But Disney has a deep bench, ensuring a smooth CEO transition when the time comes. ESPN may or may not recover, but it's one piece in this colossal cash machine -- and in the worst case, Disney is not above selling off underperforming divisions. Either way, the show will go on.
This is the stock that legendary investing guru Aswath Damodaran uses to illustrate the concept of low market risk through economic booms and downturns. Whatever the market may be doing, Disney is likely to prosper on its own merits.
I can't think of a safer stock to buy today, or to put in your kids' college fund. In the final analysis, Disney will be around approximately forever -- delighting both consumers and investors along the way.
Delicious food never goes out of style
Brian Feroldi (McCormick): When I think of "safe" stocks, I naturally gravitate toward food makers, since consumers don't stop eating during periods of economic stress. One of my favorite stocks from this industry is McCormick, a leading provider of spices, seasonings, condiments, and other flavor products.
Beyond just selling products that are recession resistant, McCormick also boasts a number of other attributes that make its business highly resilient. As an example, McCormick boasts a significant presence in both the consumer and industrial markets. Thus, it doesn't matter if you're cooking at home or ordering from a restaurant -- either way you're likely consuming one of McCormick's products, even if you don't know it.
Another factor that helps make McCormick's business so safe is that the company sells both branded and generic spices. The company cranks out profit and maintains its market share even when consumers trade down to lower-priced offerings.
Finally, McCormick's business also benefits from geographic diversification. The company sells its products in more than 140 countries, providing it with a nice growth tailwind as consumer spending in emerging markets rises.
It's no wonder McCormick has been able to raise its dividend for 31 years in a row. If safety is what you seek, I think McCormick is about as good as it gets.
Diverse in the right ways, right now
Cory Renauer (CVS Health Corp.): Generally, a geographically diverse revenue stream is a safe revenue stream. A rising dollar, though, has turned the old axiom on its head in recent years. That's one reason CVS Health is one of the safest stocks you can buy right now, and last year's 38.4% tax rate means potential reforms could provide a huge bottom-line boost in the near term.
You'll be happy to learn that a low price now and high expectations for the future suggest that CVS Health doesn't need tax relief to provide market-beating gains over the long term. At around 16.2 times trailing earnings, the stock looks awfully cheap, considering the average analyst following CVS predicts annual bottom-line growth of about 10.4% over the next five years.
Insulation from exchange rates and a favorable valuation aren't the only factors boosting CVS Health's safety profile. The most important safety factor for CVS is a vertically integrated business model. You're probably familiar with the company's retail pharmacy operations, but it also runs a pharmacy benefit manager with nearly 90 million plan members, over 1,100 walk-in clinics, and -- through a recent acquisition -- handles the pharmaceutical needs of over a million patients in senior care facilities, just to name a few of its largest channels. A higher margin than its peers indicates that the unique mixture of operations not only provides a diverse revenue stream but also boosts profitability.
Income investors will also appreciate CVS Health's commitment to send profits where they're safest -- in shareholders' pockets. Last year the company generated about $8 billion in free cash flow and returned about $6 billion in the form of buybacks and dividends. It's increased the quarterly payout at a stunning 25.2% annual rate over the past five years and reduced its outstanding share count by about 18.5% over the same time frame. Add it all up, and you've got a great stock that won't send you to the drugstore in the middle of the night for heartburn medication.