The market has been a roller coaster for many investors over the past year, due to escalating trade tensions, tariffs, and geopolitical risks. Therefore, investors might be tempted to take profits, hoard cash, and wait out the seemingly inevitable plunge.
However, it's wiser to simply pivot away from riskier growth stocks and toward more defensive plays with decent dividends. Today, I'll highlight three well-run stalwarts -- General Mills (NYSE:GIS), AT&T (NYSE:T), and Philip Morris International (NYSE:PM) -- that fit the bill.
General Mills is the packaged foods giant that owns well-known brands like Cheerios, Yoplait, and Häagen-Dazs. Like many food companies, it has struggled with shifting consumer tastes and competition from private label brands.
To offset those declines, General Mills expanded its portfolio by acquiring higher-growth brands like the organic food maker Annie's and the premium pet food maker Blue Buffalo. It also launched new versions of its classic brands, like Blueberry Cheerios and Yoplait Smoothies, to keep shoppers interested.
To offset its slower shipments, General Mills raised its prices to preserve its margins. As a result, it expects its organic sales to rise 2%-3% this year as its adjusted EPS grows 3%-5%. Those are slow but steady growth rates for a stock that trades at just 16 times forward earnings. General Mills currently pays a forward yield of 3.6%, and it's hiked that dividend annually for 15 straight years.
Over the past 12 months, General Mills spent just 52% of its free cash flow (FCF) on its dividend, which indicates that it has plenty of room to raise its payout. These factors all make it one of the easiest defensive stocks to recommend for a volatile market.
AT&T is one of the largest wireless carriers in the US. It's also the country's top pay TV company thanks to its acquisition of DirecTV in 2015, and its purchase of Time Warner last year made it one of the world's biggest media companies.
Those businesses give AT&T a massive moat and bundling firepower, but it still has notable weaknesses: Its wireless growth is sluggish, it's losing pay TV customers, and its streaming media strategy remains fragmented across multiple platforms.
However, activist pressure is forcing AT&T to shape up and mull some fresh options for streamlining its sprawling business, including sales of non-core assets and a spin-off of DirecTV. Doing so could significantly reduce its long-term debt, which stood at $158 billion last quarter. It would also free up more of its cash for buybacks and dividend hikes.
Analysts still expect AT&T's revenue to stay roughly flat next year (after it fully laps the Time Warner acquisition) and for its earnings to rise just 2%. Those growth rates look anemic, but the stock trades at just ten times forward earnings and pays a forward yield of 5.5%. It's also raised its dividend annually for over three decades.
AT&T spent just 50% of its FCF on its dividend over the past 12 months, and it expects to generate about $28 billion in FCF this year, up from just $22.4 billion in 2018. That figure could come in even higher if it spins off DirecTV, and already makes it a dependable long-term dividend play.
Philip Morris International
Tobacco giant Philip Morris International was spun off from Altria (NYSE:MO) over a decade ago. Since that split, PMI has focused on higher-growth overseas markets while Altria stayed in the U.S.
This was a double-edged sword for PMI: It generated stronger growth from countries with higher smoking rates, but it was also heavily exposed to currency headwinds. But over the past five years, PMI wisely expanded beyond its core cigarette market with iQOS, a "heated tobacco" product that heated tobacco sticks instead of burning them.
PMI's total cigarette shipments dipped annually in recent quarters, but it's been hiking its average prices to offset those declines and boost its revenue. Shipments of PMI's iQOS products have also been surging by the high double-digits, which gives it a way to pivot its business away from traditional cigarettes without dabbling in the troubled e-cigarette market.
That's why Philip Morris still expects its adjusted EPS to rise about 9% on a constant currency basis this year, which is a solid growth rate for a stock which trades at less than 14 times forward earnings. It also pays a forward yield of 6%, and it's raised that payout ever year since it split with Altria. It spent about 93% of its FCF on its dividend over the past 12 months. That low valuation, high yield, and strong cash flow growth make PMI a solid defensive play for a turbulent market.