It's been nearly two months since Wall Street's wild ride began, and a persistently high CBOE Volatility Index suggests that it's nowhere near finished.
At the center of this volatility is the spread of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), which has more than 1.4 million confirmed cases worldwide, and has led to over 81,000 deaths, as of late evening April 7.
What's particularly worrisome is that the U.S. remains the unparalleled epicenter of this outbreak, with our country accounting for more than 1 in 4 confirmed cases. While the mitigation measures currently in place throughout most U.S. states to slow the rate of disease transmission are absolutely necessarily, they're exacting untold damage on the economy. It's this immediate uncertainty that's been weighing on the stock market and creating record-breaking volatility.
Dividend Aristocrats provide a safety net for investors during times of extreme turbulence
However, there is a relatively smart way for investors to put their money to work without the edge-of-your-seat worries that might typically accompany such wild vacillations in the stock market. This not-so-secret strategy is to buy into dividend stocks.
Think about it this way: Dividend stocks are often profitable (otherwise why pay a dividend?), and they usually have time-tested business models. In theory, this makes them the perfect safe-haven investment during periods of instability.
Then again, not all dividend stocks are created equally. Since yield is simply a function of payout relative to share price, a struggling business could see its yield soar and "trap" unsuspecting income seekers in a less-than-desirable situation.
That's where Dividend Aristocrats come into play. A Dividend Aristocrat is an S&P 500-listed company that's raised its aggregate annual payout for at least 25 consecutive years. These aren't just companies that occasionally share a percentage of their profits with shareholders and then curl up in the corner when a recession strikes. These are the epitome of time-tested businesses that, in many instances, are household names. Consider them the elite of dividend-paying stocks.
Assuming tech giant IBM raises its payout within the next couple of weeks, there'll be 58 Dividend Aristocrats. Among them, three stand out as screaming buys.
Feel free to call me biased since it's a holding in my personal portfolio, but there's probably not a cheaper Dividend Aristocrat you can buy right now than telecom behemoth AT&T (NYSE:T). Though AT&T's high-growth days are long gone, it's been at least a decade since you could scoop up shares for 8 times next year's consensus earnings, according to Wall Street.
One of the keys to AT&T's consistent dividend growth is its high-margin wireless division. Since wireless consumers are on subscription plans, and smartphones have become something of a necessary good for people to have in order to stay connected with family and friends, there's some degree of predictability when it comes to AT&T's wireless cash flow.
AT&T is also set to benefit from wireless infrastructure upgrades – i.e., the 5G network rollout. It's been about a decade since consumers and businesses were privy to a major wireless upgrade, which will undoubtedly lead to a consistent and year's long technology upgrade cycle. Since data is where AT&T's best margins lie, 5G could prove to be a real shot in the arm for the company's growth prospects.
Additionally, don't overlook AT&T's streaming assets. The May launch of HBO Max, coupled with utilizing its Time Warner assets (CNN, TNT, and TBS) as a lure, could make AT&T a major streaming player.
In short, don't pass up this exceptionally inexpensive, brand-name business that's currently paying out almost 7% annually.
There might not be a Dividend Aristocrat that's taken it on the chin harder of late than integrated oil and gas company ExxonMobil (NYSE:XOM). The shutdown of nonessential businesses, along with other coronavirus mitigation measures, has caused global oil demand to plummet. In fact, oil just wrapped up its worst quarter in history with a loss of more than 60%. And yet, ExxonMobil remains a stock that investors can confidently buy.
One reason ExxonMobil has been able to survive previous shocks to the U.S. and/or global economy is its diversified business model. Although it generates juicier profits from drilling for oil, it has other means of hedging its bets when these upstream operations are impacted by a steep drop in the price of crude. Namely, the company's refinery and petrochemical operations are able to purchase oil for substantially lower prices and crank out refined products and chemicals that should, in theory, be in higher demand due to lower oil prices. Once the worst of the COVID-19 crash has passed, this refining segment should be a primary driver of cash flow for ExxonMobil.
This is also a company with plenty of levers it can pull in the expense department. Last week, ExxonMobil announced that it would cut approximately 30% off of its planned capital expenditures in 2020, which had been $30 billion to $33 billion. This means up to $10 billion in cost-savings in response to the decline in the price of crude. While this would potentially delay the Payara Project offshore of Guyana, it's a smart move for ExxonMobil that should, for now, allow it to continue paying out a superior 8% yield.
With ExxonMobil's share price about as cheap as it's been in 16 years, now is the time for opportunistic investors to strike.
I'm generally not a fan of chasing so-called "coronavirus stocks," but healthcare services provider Cardinal Health (NYSE:CAH) was inexpensive long before COVID-19, and it's even more so now. Similar to AT&T, it's been at least a decade since Cardinal Health has been this inexpensive on a forward earnings basis.
One of the most obvious reasons Cardinal Health is suddenly in focus has to do with its medical equipment supply segment. This is a company that acts as a personal protection equipment (PPE) supplier to hospitals and ambulatory centers around the country. As long as COVID-19 persists, demand for Cardinal Health-branded and national-branded product will remain high. Although this is a relatively low-margin segment, the sheer volume alone for PPE in recent weeks should push Cardinal Health's profits higher.
Personally, I'm far more excited about what Cardinal Health brings to the table on the pharmaceutical distribution side of the business. With little exception, we've witnessed life expectancy in the U.S. grow steadily for decades. As people live longer, they're expected to become more reliant on maintenance therapies. This places Cardinal Health and its pharmaceutical distribution operations at the center of a no-brainer growth trend.
Plus, with the November presidential election likely coming down to President Trump on the Republican Party ticket and former Vice President Joe Biden on Democratic Party ticket, no major healthcare or pricing reforms are expected anytime soon. The status quo means big profits await Cardinal Health, while a nearly 4% dividend yield awaits Cardinal Health's shareholders.