The stock market has been volatile lately, with wild swings on Wall Street generating plenty of headlines. "Insiders" seem equally split on whether to panic and sell everything while you can before the next big crash, or to get greedy and go on a buying spree. 

The fact is, there's no way to tell what the market's going to do, but it's always a good idea to be prepared for anything. Smart investors should keep a watch list of top stocks to buy if the market crashes. We asked five Motley Fool contributors for top picks from their "crash watch lists." They came back with NextEra Energy (NEE 0.19%)Verizon Communications (VZ -0.17%), Canadian National Railway (CNI 0.14%), Brookfield Infrastructure Partners (BIP -0.52%) (BIPC -0.39%), and Waste Management (WM 0.39%). Here's why.

A man watches a large red arrow crash downward through the pavement in front of him.

Image source: Getty Images.

Stability amid the storm

Matt DiLallo (NextEra Energy): When the stock market plunges, it usually takes most stocks down with it, even those that aren't experiencing the same issues that drove the sell-off. That was clear earlier this year as shares of top-tier electric utility NextEra Energy plunged more than 30% during the initial panic from the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, sell-offs like those tend to be great buying opportunities for top-notch companies like NextEra. That was certainly the case this time around, as its shares have already rebounded more than 35% from their bottom. Powering that rally is the realization of investors that NextEra's utilities and renewable energy assets are largely immune to issues in the economy. Electricity demand tends to remain relatively steady in a recession. Meanwhile, NextEra's rates are either set by long-term contracts or government regulators, enabling it to continue generating stable earnings.

Instead of declining, NextEra continues to expect that its earnings will grow at a 6% to 8% annual rate through 2022 as it continues expanding its utilities and renewable energy business. That should give it the power to increase its dividend at an even higher 10% yearly clip during that time frame. The company further supports that view with a low dividend payout ratio and top-tier balance sheet, which give it the financial flexibility to continue investing.

Given that rock-solid outlook, NextEra is a great stock to consider buying on the next major market sell-off. 

Can you hear me now?

Travis Hoium (Verizon): As we've seen in the last few months, consumer spending can be turned on its head extremely quickly. E-commerce spending is up sharply, online-meeting use has jumped, and some consumer-staple companies haven't been nearly as safe as we once thought. One business that doesn't seem to be going anywhere is wireless telecommunication. 

When COVID-19 hit, Verizon actually saw an increase in use on its networks, and connections remained relatively flat. The company lost 307,000 connections in the first quarter of 2020, but when you compare that to 93.9 million connections in total, it's a drop in the bucket. Operationally, the business is doing well and is poised to grow as 5G networks are rolled out nationwide.

Verizon also happens to have a 4.3% dividend yield and room to grow that payout long term. You can see that just over half of the company's net income is paid out as a dividend. 

VZ Cash from Operations (TTM) Chart

VZ Cash from Operations (TTM) data by YCharts.

What I like about Verizon long term is the positive optionality of the wireless business. 5G will allow Verizon to reach into the home to provide service, it should bring in millions of new connections, and on top of that the merger of T-Mobile and Sprint takes out one competitor. I think these factors will drive both revenue and margins higher over the next decade, which is a great reason to load up on this stock if the market crashes. 

A best-in-class railroad is hard to replicate

Tyler Crowe (Canadian National Railway): In a market crash, some of the best opportunities are buying durable businesses that don't go on sale that much. Railways, and Canadian National Rail in particular, are companies that investors should keep on their radar for the next downturn. 

One of the particular appeals of Canadian National over other rail companies is that it has a much more diverse revenue stream than most other North American railroads. The company's cargo is divided up into nine categories, and no single product makes up more than 22% of total revenue. While we can reasonably expect a decline in volumes in a recession, Canadian National's diverse revenue streams mean it can offset weakness in a couple of categories. In fact, we're seeing this happening today as grain shipments are up significantly while coal and oil are down. 

Another advantage for Canadian National is that it has years of experience in running a lean operation that can help it through tougher times. The company's operating ratio of 62.5% is one of the best in the business. So even if we see a decline in volume and revenue, there is a decent cushion there for the company to remain profitable and generate cash for investors. 

Management has also done a great job creating value for investors over time. It has consistently generated a return on invested capital above 15% over the past decade and has grown its dividend 16% annually since going public in 1996. Shares currently trade at a P/E ratio of 15.2, which is reasonable (but not cheap) for railroads. But if shares were to drop again, it could be a great opportunity for investors to jump in. 

Things we need, no matter the economy

Jason Hall (Brookfield Infrastructure Partners): Water. Energy. Communications. Transportation. No matter the state of the economy, society runs on this sort of infrastructure. And when it comes to the best infrastructure company to own, Brookfield Infrastructure is at the top of the list. Since going public over a decade ago (in the middle of the Great Recession), it has grown its dividend 165%, and increased it every year (adjusted for the recent creation of BIPC and the shares that were awarded to BIP shareholders). 

That incredible record of dividend growth has powered it to wonderful returns:

BIP Total Return Price Chart

BIP Total Return Price data by YCharts.

Even with all that growth, Brookfield Infrastructure is still cheap. The dividend yield, near 4.8% at recent prices, is well above the historical average; it has only gotten above 5% a few times over the past decade, and it's always proved a bargain afterward:

BIP Dividend Yield Chart

BIP Dividend Yield data by YCharts.

Put it all together, and you have the sort of business worth owning through every market and economic condition, with a wonderful track record of delivering great results, trading for what history tells us is a bargain price. That's worth buying now and holding through any market crash. And if it falls even more in the next crash, it will be at the top of my "buy more" list. 

We'll always have trash

John Bromels (Waste Management): Shares of the largest trash hauler and landfill operator in North America have taken a hit so far in 2020. They plunged along with the rest of the market in March, of course, and they're still down 7% year to date. Investors are concerned that the company's revenue for commercial and industrial waste collection will plummet due to shuttered businesses, and that residential collection expenses will cost the company more as everyone stays home generating more trash. 

Both of those are legitimate concerns, but temporary ones. And they've taken the stock from a valuation of more than 30 times earnings to a more-reasonable 26 times. The company's dividend yield has risen in response to the sell-off, too, and is now 2%. For a reliable outperformer with massive advantages of scale and a big competitive moat, that looks like a fair valuation. 

But if the stock market crashes again, taking Waste Management's stock along with it, the company might enter a rare period of being undervalued. Considering that trash hauling and landfill operations are essential services that only grow in volume as the population grows, long-term investors should get ready to pounce if Waste Management shares tumble again.