Being an investor over the past three months has been challenging. The panic created by the spread of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) wound up pushing the benchmark S&P 500 to its fastest bear market in history, with the index taking just 17 sessions to lose more than 20% of its value. All told, the S&P 500 lost 34% of its value in 33 calendar days before retracing as much as 60% of its losses.
The near term continues to remain bleak, with more than 36 million Americans filing for initial unemployment benefits over the past eight weeks, and the official unemployment rate likely to rival the highest unemployment rate in U.S. history of 25%, set during the Great Depression. With no clear-cut end to COVID-19 in sight, uncertainty is still the name of the game.
A handful of Dow stocks are looking mighty cheap
The thing about uncertainty is that it opens the door for opportunistic investors, allowing them to scoop up exceptional companies at discounted prices. Even though we may not know when the stock market will bottom or how low the indexes will go, we do know that every stock market correction in history was eventually put into the rearview mirror by a bull market rally. Nothing is a given on Wall Street, but that's as close to a guarantee as you're going to get.
Where should investors be looking for great stocks right now? As crazy as this might sound, the iconic Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJINDICES:^DJI) might be a smart place to scour for value stocks. Although the Dow Jones has its flaws as an index, it's still home to 30 outstanding multinational businesses that are all time-tested. That means they know how to get through a bear market and possible recession.
What's more, you don't need to be a millionaire to make money by investing in Dow components. With most brokerages eliminating commissions for stocks purchased and sold on major U.S. exchanges, and some even allowing fractional-share purchases, any amount is the right amount to get started. If, say, you have $4,000 in disposable income that you won't need to pay bills or for your emergency fund, consider investing it into these extremely cheap Dow stocks.
There's little question that the next year or two could be challenging for bank stocks. The federal funds rate is liable to be held at record lows by the Federal Reserve, and delinquency rates on various types of loans will likely rise as stimulus money dries up. But that's no reason for investors to overlook a bargain with JPMorgan Chase (NYSE:JPM).
What's really interesting about JPMorgan is that it's been able to grow its business on two fronts. Most banks are focusing a lot on their digital and mobile banking operations -- and rightly so, since digital banking results in a significantly lower transactional cost to a bank than an in-person transaction. To this end, JPMorgan Chase has grown its active mobile base to 38.2 million users, as of the end of March, up from 34.4 million in the year-ago period.
But JPMorgan is also growing its physical presence. Last year, it opened a couple of dozen new branches in what it perceives to be underbanked markets of the United States. Most of the company's peers are closing their branches to cut operating expenses, so this gives JPMorgan yet another opportunity to grow its consumer banking business.
Currently, investors can pick up a share of JPMorgan Chase for just 13% above its book value. That's its cheapest valuation relative to book since the end of 2015, and the perfect catalyst to get value investors to buy this cheap Dow stock.
While far from a popular pick, oil and gas giant ExxonMobil (NYSE:XOM) also looks to be a cheap Dow stock that long-term-oriented investors can consider scooping up.
Similar to JPMorgan Chase, there are going to be some very clear hurdles the company will need to deal with in the near term. This includes a substantive build-up in domestic reserves and the very real possibility of another coronavirus flare-up in the U.S. or abroad that could absolutely ravage oil demand for a second time. Thankfully, ExxonMobil has a few tricks up its sleeve.
First of all, it's an integrated oil and gas company, with the key word being "integrated." Though the bulk of its growth and profitability typically come from its upstream operations (drilling and exploration), it also possesses refineries and petrochemical operations that benefit when crude prices fall. These downstream operations are able to buy at a lower input cost and take advantage of what's often higher demand when crude prices fall.
Secondly, ExxonMobil has levers it can pull in the cost department. It's already reduced its 2020 capital expenditures by as much as $10 billion (the previous forecast called for $30 billion to $33 billion in spending), and could, as a last resort, reduce or shelve its dividend to save almost $15 billion a year.
With ExxonMobil now trading just below its book value, yet keeping key growth projects like (Payara in Guyana) in sight, it looks like one heck of a value play.
Walgreens Boots Alliance
A final Dow stock that looks too cheap to pass up is pharmacy-chain giant Walgreens Boots Alliance (NASDAQ:WBA).
Even though Walgreens is a healthcare stock, it's not been completely immune to the effects of COVID-19. For instance, even though sales increased in the company's fiscal second quarter, likely due to consumers stocking up on goods prior to stay-at-home orders being issued in their respective states, there's clear concern that shoppers might stay at home during much of the third quarter, which could be a drag on earnings. Nevertheless, focusing on these very short-term concerns would be a mistake.
One thing Walgreens has going in its favor is long-term trends. Front-end retail sales, while meaningful to total sales, don't account for much in the margin column. Walgreens' bread and butter will be growing its pharmacy segment. To that end, it's well-positioned to take advantage of an aging population with growing access to medical care, and it has been working hard with drug suppliers to lower its expenses. Over time, we should see steady sales and margin expansion for the company's pharmacy operations.
Furthermore, Walgreens Boots Alliance has placed an increasing emphasis on service to drive repeat business and reduce its operating costs. The company's digital Find Care marketplace drew 2 million visits, an increase of 40% from the previous quarter, while website Boots.com delivered 23% year-over-year sales growth. Walgreens understands that convenience is what'll drive repeat business.
Investors can pick up shares of Walgreens Boots Alliance for about 6.5 times its forward price-to-earnings ratio and just 5 times its cash flow. Both figures are less than half of its five-year average forward P/E and price-to-cash-flow ratios. It's quite the bargain.