Recession. The dreaded R-word strikes fear into investors' hearts.
A chorus of voices has been growing this year, suggesting that an economic contraction is near. And though the decibel level has zero bearing on whether a recession actually happens, many investors have been quick to make portfolio adjustments.
It's not a bad move to consider, though, and not just because global economic growth is showing signs of slowing. Owning businesses that do well no matter the health of the economy is a winning investment strategy. It's no guarantee that share prices won't decline, but it does offer a buffer from other riskier operating models and could mean a quicker rebound once a recession ends.
1. Comcast: It's all about the internet
When it comes to resilient businesses, Comcast likely isn't one of the first names to come to mind. The company often makes it onto the lists of the most-hated companies in America for its cable segment's poor customer service reviews. No one likes to have their internet and TV messed with.
Nevertheless, this is a well-diversified media empire -- from connected-TV services to European broadcasting to home health monitoring -- not to mention the consistent migration of consumers and businesses to higher-speed internet service.
In today's world, internet access is a staple, and this segment looks particularly powerful. Not only is faster internet becoming more widespread, but it's also getting cheaper. That provides a floor for Comcast's largest segment, cable communications, which made up half of revenue and two-thirds of profits during the second quarter of 2019. If recession strikes, consumers are less likely to ditch their internet for cheaper options than in the past -- or to find cheaper options, for that matter. Plus, its broadcasting segment and soon-to-launch Peacock streaming service provide a cheap alternative to expensive cable packages.
Comcast did well during the last recession (revenue kept steadily climbing, as did the results on the bottom line), and there's no reason it won't during the next one. With the stock currently going for just 14.7 times price-to-free-cash flow (basic profits measured by revenue less operating and capital expenditures), it looks like a timely add in the face of mounting economic worry.
2. General Mills: Food is the ultimate commodity
When it comes to investing during a recession, food companies are often a good place to start. Recessions are driven by falling or reduced consumer spending, but basic food items are one area that's hard to cut when households are slimming down their budgets. Everyone has to eat.
Case in point: General Mills was a standout in the last recession. It peaked in mid-2008 before the stock tanked during the worst of the financial crisis. But it had fully recovered those losses by the end of 2009, all the while continuing to pay and increase its dividend.
General Mills and its other food-giant peers have come under pressure in recent years. Healthy and fresh food alternatives have made some serious headway, capitalizing on shifting consumer tastes. General Mills has responded by making some acquisitions -- its latest being pet food company Blue Buffalo in early 2018 -- but for the most part, it has focused on updating its brand portfolio in-house. The results have been mixed, and organic revenue growth has shown only a few signs of life in the last year. However, operating profit did grow 10% during the company's fiscal 2020 first quarter.
But here's the thing: If the going gets tough, newer food companies with higher prices on their products and slimmer profit margins may have less room to maneuver than General Mills and its large stable of brands. Plus, it currently carries a solid dividend yield of 3.6%. For investors looking to play defense, General Mills is a rock.
3. T-Mobile: Mobility matters like never before
During the 2008 financial crisis, mobile carriers did pretty well. Network coverage, reliability, and the ability to cart one's phone around everywhere meant that many axed their landline before they touched the mobile phone. With that trend already well entrenched and most American households free of a phone attached to the wall, the next recession might play out a little differently. Consumers might start slimming down on connected devices, data, etc.
But then again, they might not. Mobility is less of a luxury than it was in the past, and once-expensive unlimited data plans have fallen in price. Competition has been a key contributing factor to this, and T-Mobile has been at the forefront of the pricing war, bundling freebies and keeping its unlimited plans under what's charged by AT&T (NYSE:T) and Verizon (NYSE:VZ). T-Mobile is gearing up to do the same with its new 5G mobile network, opting for greater coverage rather than maximum speed. More subscribers could help it keep costs down, which in turn could give the company greater pricing power during the next wave of mobile network rollouts.
There's another reason T-Mobile could be a winner. While Verizon and AT&T have taken on large amounts of debt in the last decade -- mainly to fund their problematic media acquisitions, like Verizon's AOL and Yahoo! takeovers and AT&T's purchase of Time Warner -- T-Mobile focused on improving its network and is now much more nimble than its larger rivals.
That's another reason T-Mobile might be a good bet headed into a recession: Its clean balance sheet could give it maneuverability to keep catching up with Verizon and AT&T while enjoying what could be a very durable and sticky wireless subscription business. Of course, debt will increase if T-Mobile's merger with America's smallest network Sprint (NYSE:S) goes through, but the two companies have said they see tens of billions of dollars in redundant expenses that can be cut to keep the books looking clean.
In short, this discount carrier should be able to continue undercutting its bigger rivals even if the economy goes south.