In less than 48 hours, one of the most volatile years in decades for the stock market will come to a close. Although it's probably been a profitable year for long-term investors, there's hope that a break is coming from these wild vacillations in the upcoming year.

However, hope isn't a recommended investment strategy. If you want to avoid being whipsawed by a volatile market, your best bet is to buy high-quality businesses that have a track record of outperforming year after year. If you have $3,000 ready to invest, you have more than enough to buy stakes in these three safe stocks for 2021.

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Intuitive Surgical

Though this might come as a bit of surprise to some investors, growth stocks can be safe stocks, too. Robotic surgical systems developer Intuitive Surgical (NASDAQ:ISRG) is a perfect example.

The healthcare space is often considered defensive because we don't get to choose when or how we get sick. Typically, this means healthcare stocks in the drug development and device space generate consistent cash flow regardless of how the U.S. economy is faring. Even though Intuitive Surgical's 2020 was choppy at times due to elective procedures being delayed, demand for robotic-assisted procedures continues to climb.

Intuitive Surgical is also incredibly safe thanks to the company's overwhelming share of the surgically assisted robotics market. As of the end of September, 5,865 of its da Vinci surgical systems were installed worldwide, mostly in the U.S. You could add all of the company's competitors together and not even come close to the breadth of share that Intuitive has gobbled up over the past 20 years.

Perhaps the best thing of all about Intuitive Surgical is that its business model is built to deliver higher operating margins over time. In its early years, the company generated most of its sales from selling its da Vinci systems. Unfortunately, these are intricate and costly systems to build, meaning the margins aren't always the best. Nowadays, the company's higher-margin operating segments -- i.e., instruments sold with each procedure and system servicing -- supply the lion's share of sales. The more systems installed, the higher the percentage of revenue derived from instruments and services.

Intuitive Surgical is also innovating beyond da Vinci. For example, the minimally invasive Ion system could revolutionize lung biopsies, much in the same way that the da Vinci system is improving soft tissue surgeries.

Intuitive Surgical is a growth stock -- but it's a safe stock, too.

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Image source: Getty Images.


Another safe stock that investors can confidently put their $3,000 to work in is payment facilitator Visa (NYSE:V). Like Intuitive Surgical, it's also a growth stock.

I know what you're probably thinking, and you are correct: Virtually all financial stocks are cyclical, and Visa is no exception. Recessions are natural parts of the economic cycle. When contractions arrive, consumer and enterprise spending tends to decline. As a company driven by gross payment volume traversing its network, Visa theoretically might see recessions halt its revenue and profit growth. 

There's a sizable gap between economic booms and busts, however. Recessions usually last no more than a few quarters. Meanwhile, periods of expansion last many years, or perhaps even more than a decade. Visa's operating model is set up to take advantage of these long periods of economic expansion. It's a simple numbers game that allows Visa's long-term shareholders to win every single time.

Visa is also safe thanks to its avoidance of lending. Although some of its peers, such as Discover Financial Services and American Express, double-dip by processing payments and collecting interest via credit cards, Visa strictly sticks to payment facilitation. This fiscally conservative decision pays dividends every time there's a recession. Visa has no direct liability if credit delinquencies rise. This is a big reason why its profit margin is consistently at or above 50%.

Though Visa's share of credit card network purchase volume in the U.S. is over twice that of Mastercard and AmEx, it's the company's overseas opportunity that may allow it to maintain double-digit growth potential. Over three-fourths of the world's transactions are still conducted in cash, giving Visa ample runway to expand its convenient payment platform to multiple underbanked regions.

In other words, Visa should continue to charge higher, especially with a young bull market finding its legs.

A CVS pharmacist helping a customer pick out supplies.

Image source: CVS Health.

CVS Health

Don't fret, value investors. I have a safe stock for you, too: pharmacy chain CVS Health (NYSE:CVS).

CVS has struggled a bit in 2020 due to the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic. Foot traffic into its stores has fallen, reducing activity in its clinics. It also hasn't helped that Amazon announced its entrance into the online pharmacy space in mid-November. Despite these short-term hiccups, CVS Health has all of the tools needed to deliver for investors.

COVID-19 has presented a challenge in 2020, but it'll likely be a boon for the company going forward. CVS is one of a handful of companies that will be responsible for vaccinating potentially tens of millions of people in 2021. This mass-vaccination campaign should dramatically increase foot traffic into CVS stores, as well as boost engagement at the grassroots level.

As for Amazon, CVS Health has a trick up its sleeve. In 2018, it acquired health insurer Aetna. Initially, the deal had folks scratching their heads, but it actually makes a lot of sense. It will result in significant cost synergies while lifting CVS Health's organic growth rate. More importantly, it provides an incentive for Aetna's more than 20 million members to stay within the CVS Health network of services.

Furthermore, CVS can do what Amazon can't -- provide in-person service. CVS Health's HealthHUB health clinics will serve as the bridge between patients with chronic health conditions and specialty physicians. This is just one of the many ways that CVS is aiming to attract and hang onto repeat business at the grassroots level.

CVS is certainly slower-growing than Visa or Intuitive Surgical, but it's no less safe for long-term investors.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.