The stock market is down nearly 30% from February's all-time highs, diminished by the COVID-19 pandemic. Only four members of the S&P 500 market index have posted positive returns over the last month, leaving many investors licking their wounds in a broad market panic.
At the same time, lower stock prices are making some investors anxious to put their capital to good use. This is where the old adage to "buy low, sell high" starts. Picking up shares of great companies at huge coronavirus discounts can set you up for incredible long-term returns.
The trick is to separate the wheat from the chaff. Some of the stocks that are falling right now simply won't make it back. On the other hand, many of the best businesses in the world are taking extreme price cuts, even as they set themselves up for massive rebounds when this health crisis ends.
If you have any cash to put into the market today, take a closer look at the following top stocks. They were affordable before the COVID-19 crash and are even better deals today.
Technology powerhouse IBM (IBM 1.57%) has been undervalued for several years. Big Blue's quest to become a leader in artificial intelligence and cloud computing may have started a couple of years too early, and the process has taken too long. Shareholders had to watch IBM's stock price fall 27% in the seven-year period between 2012 and 2019 while the S&P 500 posted a gain of 157%. And then the coronavirus panic started.
Now under new leadership, IBM is shifting gears again with a newfound focus on quantum computing added to its existing list of foundational technologies in artificial intelligence (AI) and cloud computing. There aren't many companies as perfectly positioned to make a big splash in the next era of enterprise computing as IBM is, and you can buy the stock at price-to-earnings and price-to-cash-flow ratios not seen since the early 1990s.
IBM is a cash machine with a downright exciting plan for the next decade. The stock is trading as if Big Blue were destined to crash and burn in 2020. And don't forget about that massive dividend yield of 5.8%. Long story short, IBM is a screaming buy today.
Semiconductor giant Qualcomm (QCOM 3.14%) was one of the first large companies to take the coronavirus threat seriously. Investors wondered whether the company was overestimating the impact of a minor health crisis in a single Chinese city. Share prices fell as much as 5% that day, three weeks before the broader COVID-19 panic kicked off.
I'm bringing this up in order to highlight Qualcomm's forward-thinking leadership team. This company has been leading the charge into wireless networking, pretty much every step of the way. The next big push is coming from 5G networking, which will lead to an explosion of Internet of Things (IoT) devices and a smartphone refreshment cycle like we haven't seen since the early days of 4G networks. Qualcomm chips will power the 5G networking functions in many of these devices, as well as the infrastructure equipment on the telecom industry's side of each connection.
Yes, the coronavirus outbreak is slowing down this game-changing wave of wireless upgrades. Qualcomm investors should think of this as a delay rather than a missed business opportunity. The 5G sales will come, driving a fantastic rebound in Qualcomm's financial results and share prices.
By the way, it doesn't really matter all that much whether Qualcomm's own chips make it into the leading 5G phones, IoT devices, and cell towers. Chip sales generated an operating margin of just 15% in 2019, while technology licensing deals recorded a 64% reading on the same line. Qualcomm and its investors win even if some other chipmaker is implementing its industry-standard networking technologies.
The 5G revolution is already here and will only grow stronger over the next few years. Qualcomm is a surefire bet on this generational sea change, and the stock is incredibly cheap at 18 times trailing earnings.
Virtual-computing veteran VMware (VMW 2.98%) is one of the best-run companies in the tech sector. The company's software-based operations generate some of the strongest profit margins and returns on invested capital you'll see anywhere, and earnings are expected to notch double-digit annual growth rates for the foreseeable future.
That's the kind of business story you'll usually hear in relation to some hot new start-up whose nosebleed valuation ratios are based on skyrocketing top-line growth rather than on profitable operations. Yet VMware's price-to-earnings ratio sits at a bargain-bin 7.7 times trailing earnings and 13 times free cash flow today.
This is, perhaps, the most underestimated tech stock on the market today. VMware is poised to dominate the data center this decade.