These are turbulent times for the market. With political drama, a resurgence of COVID-19 cases, and calendar-based tendencies, anything could happen from here.
In this sort of environment, sometimes the best move to make is stepping into a big stalwart you know isn't going to be pushed around (much) by these external forces. The more beaten-down a stock is, the better. To this end, large caps like CVS Health (CVS 1.61%), Verizon (VZ -3.19%), and Alphabet (GOOG 0.69%) (GOOGL 0.77%) make for particularly compelling picks right now.
Most stocks took hits in February and March, and CVS Health was no exception. All told, CVS shares tumbled 30% from January's high to March's low.
Where CVS Health differs from other names is what happened afterward. The S&P 500 rebounded to reach record highs in September, and despite the recent wave of selling, it remains near that peak. CVS is still just a bit above its March bottom, with its rebound effort petering out early on. Investors collectively presumed the pandemic was doing more harm than good. Not only have coronavirus-wary consumers been less likely to step foot in its stores but also, like other health insurers, CVS Health's insurance arm, Aetna, is exposed to much higher payouts than usual thanks to COVID-19.
There's been little in the numbers to suggest these worries are fully merited, however.
Revenue for the quarter ending in March was up a little more than 8%, driving an 18% year-over-year increase in per-share profits. For the quarter ending in June -- right in the middle of the brunt of the pandemic -- sales grew 3% and per-share earnings were up 40% year over year. CFO Eva Boratto conceded during Q2's conference call that COVID-19 had cost the company's healthcare benefits business about $2 billion while costing its retail long-term care results roughly an extra $550 million during the same quarter. These aren't small numbers. Worse, the company expects payouts to be heavier in the second half of the year.
Largely overlooked, however, is the upside for the company in all this. Not only has CVS Health been a pivotal player in the war against the coronavirus by acting as a testing center, the pandemic has already prompted $4.3 billion worth of new insurance business for the coming year. Friday's third-quarter report might show bigger coronavirus-related expenses, but with it trading at 8.9 times its trailing profits and 7.4 times next year's estimated earnings, the worst-case scenario already seems more than priced in.
Verizon is old, boring, and one-dimensional. That's the point. It's old and boring because its services are perpetually marketable, and being one-dimensional means it can focus on doing one thing -- telecom -- exceptionally well. Unlike rival AT&T, for instance, Verizon isn't looking to divest struggling satellite cable brand DIRECTV for what will probably be a price less than it paid for the company back in 2015. And, Verizon hasn't created a new streaming video service only to see so-so interest in it. That too is AT&T. It recently chose to monetize its 2018 acquisition of Warner Media by introducing HBO Max, but only 8.6 million consumers have activated their service as of the and of September. That's not a strong start, particularly given how many of them could get it for free.
Rather, Verizon has worked to win and keep more of the nation's wireless market than any other provider. Morningstar estimates the company controls around 40% of the country's postpaid cellphone business -- easily more than AT&T's share, or even T-Mobile's share after its Sprint acquisition.
The company may be about to shine even brighter, too.
While major investments in its fiber-optic network initially appeared to cost more than they were worth, the advent of 5G is changing this. Namely, to achieve the sort of speeds promised by 5G on a coast-to-coast basis, fiber-optic lines are necessary infrastructure. And this is the year the proverbial 5G switch is being flipped. Now the fiber-optic network that's powered J.D. Powers' highest-rated residential broadband service for the past seven years will be able to show its stuff as the backbone of next-gen mobile networks.
Finally, add Alphabet to your list of large caps to buy in November.
It would be naive to suggest the parent company to search engine Google isn't showing some of the wear you'd expect with age. When you're the biggest player in any market, everyone else is gunning for you. Eventually, they figure out how to compete.
This aging outfit is hardly in decline, though.
Last quarter's results remind investors of this reality in no uncertain terms. Despite the impact of the coronavirus pandemic during the previous quarter, revenue was up 15% year over year for the three-month stretch ending in September. That in turn prompted a nearly 60% increase in net income. Both figures crushed estimates.
Those are the sort of results made possible when you dominate the web's most important components: search and mobile operating systems. GlobalStats' StatCounter indicates that, as of October, Alphabet's Google still facilitates nearly 93% of the world's web queries. Meanwhile, NetMarketShare says the company's Android operating system powers 71% of the world's mobile devices. Alphabet is obviously still able to monetize both of them quite nicely despite the coronavirus-crimped environment.