While many investors like to talk about diversity in their portfolios, perhaps not enough attention gets paid to diversity within individual businesses. That's too bad; large businesses with multiple product lines are often safer, since if one business struggles, another segment can make up for it. Additionally, having multiple business lines under one roof allows for savvy marketing teams to cross-sell existing customers and bundle products.
In times of uncertainty, large-cap stocks are often safer due not merely to their size but also this diversity. Ironically, "pure plays" are often priced higher than diversified conglomerates these days. But if you're looking for rock-solid stocks to buy in the current recession, the following three offer the safety, growth prospects, and dividends you're looking for.
It's no secret that technology has been king during the recent market recovery, and really over the past 10 years. The ascension of cloud computing, social networking, and general digital trends have provided a powerful tailwind to large companies and start-ups alike.
Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) has stood out as the "legacy" technology company that has perhaps transitioned best to the new cloud age.
Since Satya Nadella became CEO in 2014, Microsoft has grown its Azure cloud platform into an industry giant. It has also made a number of high-impact acquisitions including the LinkedIn social network, the GitHub code repository, and several video game content plays to strengthen the Xbox ecosystem. These newer businesses complement Microsoft's existing Windows, Office, and Dynamics products, as well as the ascending Azure.
Basically, Microsoft has not one but several large, profitable, and growing divisions that should benefit the company for years to come. And with the new Xbox consoles set to hit the market this fall, growth could get a boost into 2021. Microsoft also just hiked its dividend nearly 10%, even amid all the uncertainty in the market.
While shares aren't exactly cheap at 37 times trailing earnings, Microsoft's safety and earnings growth in a low-interest rate environment looks like a solid bet, even near all-time highs.
Like Microsoft, Comcast (NASDAQ:CMCSA) is doing an admirable job of transitioning as a legacy company into a new age -- in this case, from its traditional cable ecosystem to over-the-top streaming. While Comcast's legacy video bundle is hurting at the moment, its high-margin broadband business is booming. That highly profitable core business has served it well amid COVID-19, even as other parts of the business, namely its NBCUniversal content business and European Sky video segments, are hurting.
Concerns about certain parts of Comcast have made its shares look quite cheap for such a profitable, safe business. Shares go for just 15.4 times next year's earnings estimates, and its well-covered dividend yields 2%.
As a result, Comcast seems to be suffering from some sort of conglomerate discount. Pure-play broadband rival Charter Communications is priced much, much higher than Comcast in the market, to the point where the market is almost giving away the NBCUniversal and Sky businesses for peanuts. That hidden value is likely why activist investor Trian Fund Management just took a large stake in this communications giant last quarter.
It's not as if Comcast is standing still, either. It's retooling the NBCUniversal segment, which may include consolidating its portfolio of cable channels; meanwhile, the company launched over-the-top streaming service Peacock earlier this year, which just made its way onto Roku streaming devices. Speaking of Roku, Comcast has also launched its own streaming device called Xfinity Flex, which should help the company get at least some of the streaming and advertising video-on-demand revenue it will have to pay Roku. Comcast is also building up its mobile business, which uses the Verizon network and which it bundles with broadband and other services, further tying customers to its ecosystem.
As it's both a COVID-resistant play and recovery play all in one -- with an activist investor on board and a nice, growing 2% dividend -- risk-off investors could do much worse than investing in Comcast this fall.
Thinking that we'll have a vaccine soon? You might want to look toward more beaten-down parts of the market for "recovery plays," including banks and financial stocks. American Express (NYSE:AXP) is a truly unique player in the financial space, as it's a hybrid of a card network and a lender. The company is often valued in a strange middle ground, as "pure" card networks, which earn revenue off of spending volume, are thought to be safer and are thus valued higher than "risky" lenders -- especially in a recession.
American Express is still down about 30% from its pre-COVID-19 highs and trades at just around 12.5 times its 2019 earnings. However, the majority of its business actually comes from discount fees, with only 25% of revenue coming from net interest income on loans. To me, it seems the company should be valued closer to Visa at 33 times forward earnings or Mastercard at 37 times forward earnings than the 14.7 times forward earnings at which Amex currently trades.
While there's some concern about Amex's exposure to business travel spending, the company has also pivoted to offer deals on purchases from local restaurants and digital services for the stay-at-home economy. And while the company also had to take a large writedown on its loans last quarter, it still remained profitable, and its current 1.7% dividend yield should be safe, even with new Federal Reserve restrictions on bank payouts.
Meanwhile, earnings should fully recover once we have a vaccine and travel and entertainment spending returns. But even if that doesn't occur for a while, American Express is a safe stock to hold until that happens, and you get paid to wait.