The market is still hovering near all-time highs even as the pandemic rages on, unemployment rates remain elevated, and political chaos ripples through Washington. Some investors might attribute that optimism to the rollout of new vaccines and expectations for less political turmoil under the Biden Administration, but the aftershocks of the pandemic could still derail this euphoric market.
Tech outperformed many other sectors last year as the usage of cloud services, online software, and e-commerce soared throughout the COVID-19 crisis. But that enthusiasm also propelled many tech stocks to unsustainable valuations -- and those bubbles could easily pop during a market downturn.
Therefore, investors should stick with safer tech stocks this year if they're worried about a market crash. Here are three well-run companies that fit that description: Qualcomm (NASDAQ:QCOM), Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT), and Salesforce (NYSE:CRM).
Qualcomm is the world's largest producer of mobile chipsets, which bundle together CPUs, baseband modems, and GPUs. It also owns the world's largest portfolio of wireless patents, which entitles it to a cut of every smartphone sold worldwide, even devices which don't use its chips.
The company's dominance of those markets attracted major antitrust lawsuits from governments and OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) in recent years, but Qualcomm gradually resolved those challenges. Major OEMs like Apple and Huawei -- which both wanted Qualcomm to lower its licensing fees -- eventually backed down.
Qualcomm also moved past a messy triangle of attempted acquisitions. Its takeover of NXP, which would have made it the world's largest automotive chipmaker, failed in 2018. It barely survived a hostile takeover from Broadcom that same year.
But after moving past most of that corporate drama, Qualcomm is growing again. In fiscal 2020, its adjusted revenue and earnings per share rose 12% and 18%, respectively, as sales of its new 5G chipsets accelerated. It also sold more chips for the RF front-end, automotive, and Internet of Things (IoT) markets.
This year, analysts expect the top and bottom lines to rise 40% and 70%, respectively, as more smartphone users upgrade to 5G devices. Those are incredibly high growth rates for a stock that trades at just 23 times forward earnings estimates, and Qualcomm pays a decent forward dividend yield of 1.7%.
Microsoft stock has quadrupled over the past five years as CEO Satya Nadella pivoted the tech giant away from older desktop software and legacy services with its "mobile first, cloud first" strategy.
That strategy expanded Microsoft's commercial cloud business, which includes Office 365, Dynamics, and its Azure cloud platform; tethered more iOS and Android devices to its ecosystem; and transformed its Windows operating system into a cloud-based service. The company also expanded its Surface lineup with new products, which pushed other OEMs to develop more innovative devices for the mature PC market.
Microsoft's commercial cloud revenue rose 36% to more than $50 billion, or over a third of its top line, in fiscal 2020 (which ended last June). Azure is now the world's second-largest cloud infrastructure platform after Amazon Web Services (AWS), and it continues to attract new companies that don't want to feed Amazon's most profitable business.
The company easily weathered the pandemic as the strength of its cloud, consumer-facing software, and gaming businesses offset the weakness in enterprise-oriented software.
For 2021, analysts expect Microsoft's revenue and earnings to rise 11% and 17%, respectively, fueled by rising sales of new Xbox consoles, rebounding enterprise sales, and the growth of its cloud services. The stock might look a bit pricey at 32 times forward earnings, but the company's resilience and diversification easily justify that premium. It also pays a forward dividend yield of 1.0%.
Salesforce, the market leader in CRM (customer relationship management) software, helps companies stay connected with previous, current, and potential customers on its cloud-based platform. It also provides other cloud-based services for e-commerce, marketing, and analytics.
The company's services enable users to streamline their operations, automate repetitive tasks, use accumulated customer data to drive business decisions, and reduce their dependence on human workers.
That forward-thinking business model insulates Salesforce from economic downturns. Revenue rose 29% to $17.1 billion in fiscal 2020, which ended last January. It then grew another 26% year-over-year to $15.4 billion in the first nine months of fiscal 2021 even as many companies shut down during the pandemic.
Salesforce expects its revenue to rise about 23% for full-year fiscal 2021, while adjusted earnings per share grow 55%. Those robust growth rates support its forward P/E ratio of 63, and it remains cheaper than other high-growth cloud stocks trading at eight times next year's sales.
Salesforce stock stalled over the past month after it agreed to buy Slack for $27.7 billion, since the takeover would throttle its near-term earnings growth. However, the integration of Slack's communication platform into Salesforce's services could make it much easier for companies to connect with their employees, customers, and external partners, which would widen its moat against its CRM rivals.
Salesforce might not be as exciting as some other cloud stocks, but it remains a safe, reasonably valued leader in a high-growth market.