In this bizarre market, it seems harder than ever to know what to expect. After falling 34% in 33 days, the market has rebounded sharply. The S&P 500 is up 27% since March 23, even as the economic outlook under the COVID-19 crisis continues to deteriorate. We've already seen 20 million Americans file for unemployment in the past month, and another wave of layoffs as businesses remain closed could take an even bigger bite out of the economy.
What's an investor to do? A great starting point is to find high-quality businesses with good near-term and long-term prospects that are trading for a discount. And two that look particularly good right now are Coca-Cola (KO 1.16%) and Brown-Forman (BF.A 1.17%) (BF.B 1.25%).
Moving the bar to the living room
Historically, "sin stocks" like booze and beer companies do well in typical recessionary periods. Simply put, people are more likely to have an adult beverage when times are tough. And while this recession is anything but typical -- not many bars are open for business under the COVID-19 crisis -- one thing that's proven consistent is the sale of alcohol.
Recent data shows that, despite wide-scale closures of bars and the cancellation of major sporting events, concerts, and conventions, hard liquor sales were up 55% in late March. The difference is, people are ordering it online and having it shipped to their homes.
This bodes well for Brown-Forman, the company behind popular spirits including Jack Daniel's and Finlandia vodka. At recent prices, you can buy Brown-Forman shares for a 13% discount to their pre-crash price. That may not be as attractive as the 35% happy-hour deal investors could get a few weeks ago, but it's still a great price for a solid company that owns multiple timeless labels.
What else does Brown-Forman serve up? How about a shot of quarterly dividends for 74 years and still going strong, with a 36-year chaser of annual payout increases? The dividend yield may not look like much at 1.1%, but when paired with those annual increases, it's helped make Brown-Forman's "B" shares a market-crushing investment over the long term:
Brown-Forman is a rare mix of premium brands and a recession-resistant business trading at a nice discount at recent prices. Mix it together, and that's a top-shelf market-beating cocktail you can buy for "today's special" prices.
An even bigger beverage brand on sale right now
Coca-Cola may be the most-recognizable brand in the world. The company does business in every country (except North Korea), giving it massive scale in distribution that's a powerful competitive advantage. And yes, it's struggled some over the past decade as consumer tastes have shifted away from sugary sodas, with coffees and energy drinks taking more market share.
Yet as consumer tastes have shifted, Coke continues to remain relevant and dominant by expanding its portfolio of beverage offerings. Last quarter, sales volume was flat in North America (it's often been down over the past decade), while organic sales on a global basis increased 7%. The company's earnings are coming up on April 21, so we'll get some indication of how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting its results, but Coke seems set to come through the crisis just fine.
Coke's sales, like those of alcohol, have historically held up well during past recessions. But also like Brown-Forman, the company is facing the same repercussions of this unprecedented environment, with much of its distribution from restaurants, sporting events, concerts, and conventions now on hold. What we won't know for sure is how much of that slack is being picked up by its retail sales, but it's likely the company will report an increase in bottle and can sales from supermarkets and online orders next week.
This uncertainty is part of the reason why Coca-Cola's stock is down more than 20% heading into next week's earnings -- there's been more uncertainty after the company pulled its 2020 outlook in late March. But the company has an incredibly strong balance sheet, having just added another $5 billion in low-cost cash from a debt offering.
Also like Brown-Forman, Coca-Cola is a Dividend Aristocrat, with an even longer track record of annual dividend growth at 56 years and counting. It also pays a much higher dividend yield of 3.4% at recent prices.
Coke is one of the biggest brands in the world and is on sale for 20% off, with a 3.4% dividend yield and a stellar record of dividend growth. Coke's results will probably fall a bit this year, but the company is likely to be far more resilient than many consumer brands. Investors who pay today's prices should be well-rewarded over the long term.