A little over a year ago, things couldn't have been better for Wall Street. The major U.S. indexes were a year removed from their pandemic bottom and had delivered one of the strongest bounces from a bear-market in history. What's more, there was abundant access to cheap capital and the Federal Reserve was intent on maintaining its dovish monetary stance.
But over the past 12 months, the wheels fell off the wagon in dramatic fashion -- and the nation's central bank may be to blame.
While no one ever said overseeing monetary policy for the largest economy in the world would be easy, in hindsight the Fed left its foot on the accelerator for far too long. A combination of historically low lending rates and ongoing quantitative easing measures designed to drive down long-term bond yields has played a big role in sending the U.S. inflation rate to a four-decade high. In fact, a good argument can be made that the growth-focused Nasdaq Composite's brief tumble into bear market territory was primarily Fed-induced.
Although big drops in the market can be scary at times -- especially when they're caused by the Fed shifting course -- they're historically the best time to put your money to work. That's because all notable declines are eventually erased by a bull market rally.
Below are three of the smartest stocks investors can buy in a Fed-driven bear market.
Berkshire may not be a household name, but its CEO, billionaire Warren Buffett, probably is. Since taking over as CEO of the company in 1965, Buffett has overseen more than $760 billion in valuation creation for shareholders (himself included), and he's led Berkshire's Class A shares (BRK.A) to an average annual gain of just over 20%. In aggregate, we're talking about an increase of 4,210,069%, as of April 7.
One of Buffett's not-so-subtle secrets to success is that he's packed Berkshire Hathaway's portfolio with cyclical companies. These are businesses that thrive when the economy is firing on all cylinders and struggle a bit when recessions strike. Instead of trying to time these inevitable downturns, Buffett has positioned Berkshire Hathaway and its investment portfolio to take advantage of long-winded expansions. After all, economic expansions last considerably longer than recessions.
Something else to consider is that a sizable percentage of Berkshire Hathaway's owned and invested assets are in the financial sector. The Fed has made clear that it intends to reduce its balance sheet (i.e., sell Treasury bonds) and raise interest rates. Higher lending rates will be a boon for bank stocks that have variable-rate outstanding loans, and it'll also allow insurance companies to generate more interest income on their float (i.e., their unused premium). In short, Berkshire Hathaway is well-positioned to navigate a rising-rate environment.
Berkshire Hathaway's success is also a function of Buffett's love for dividend stocks. Companies that pay a dividend are often profitable, time-tested, and have transparent long-term outlooks. This year, Berkshire should collect in excess of $5 billion in dividend income, with north of $4 billion coming from just a half-dozen holdings.
Long story short, riding Buffett's coattails has long been a moneymaking investment strategy.
Just because the stock market is falling and the Fed is scrambling to control historically high inflation, it doesn't mean growth stocks are off-limits for patient investors. A perfect example of a fast-paced company that's a smart buy is cybersecurity stock CrowdStrike Holdings (CRWD 0.03%).
Since the pandemic began more than two years ago, businesses have accelerated the pace at which they've moved data online and into the cloud. Given that hackers and robots don't take time off just because Wall Street had a bad day, the onus of protecting this data is increasingly falling onto third-party providers like CrowdStrike. Put another way, cybersecurity has evolved from an optional to essential service over the past two-plus decades.
While the cybersecurity industry should be home to a number of winners, CrowdStrike really stands out for its cloud-native Falcon security platform. Falcon oversees approximately 1 trillion events per day and relies on artificial intelligence to grow more efficient at recognizing and responding to potential end-user threats. CrowdStrike isn't the cheapest solution in cybersecurity, but its gross retention rate of 98% suggests it's one of the best.
Additional proof of Falcon's success can be seen in CrowdStrike's subscriber figures and organic growth rate. Over the past five years, the company's subscriber count has grown by an annual average of 105%. What's more, CrowdStrike has reported 16 consecutive quarters with a dollar-based retention rate of at least 120%. This is a fancy way of saying that existing clients spent at least 20% more on a year-over-year basis for four consecutive years (16 quarters).
As the premier name in cybersecurity, any significant pullback in a Fed-driven bear market should be viewed as a buying opportunity.
Walgreens Boots Alliance
A third exceptionally smart stock to buy during a Fed-induced bear market is pharmacy chain Walgreens Boots Alliance (WBA -1.54%).
Generally, healthcare stocks are nearly impervious to wild vacillations in the stock market and, to some extent, the U.S. economy. Because we can't control when we get sick, there's always demand for prescription drugs, medical devices, and healthcare services.
However, Walgreens proved to be a bit of an exception to this rule during the initial stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. Since pharmacy chains are reliant on foot traffic into their stores, the pandemic put a hurting on Walgreens and its peers for a couple of quarters. With the worst of the pandemic likely in the rearview mirror, Walgreens looks poised to shine no matter what the nation's central bank does on the interest rate front.
What makes Walgreens Boots Alliance such an attractive investment is the company's multipoint strategy to lift its margins and organic growth rate. As an example, Walgreens has slashed more than $2 billion in annual operating expenses a full year ahead of schedule. At the same time, it's spent aggressively on digitization initiatives that'll promote direct-to-consumer sales. Even though its brick-and-mortar locations will remain its primary revenue driver, the convenience of online sales should have no trouble boosting the company's organic growth rate.
Speaking of organic growth, Walgreens has also partnered with and invested in VillageMD. The two have opened more than 100 full-service clinics nationwide, as of Feb. 28, 2022, with the goal of reaching at least 600 clinics in more than 30 U.S. markets by the end of 2025. The key here is that these are full-service, physician-staffed clinics, and can therefore handle much more than administering a vaccine. The ability to court repeat clients and funnel those patients to Walgreens' pharmacy should help improve brand loyalty and the company's bottom line.
With Walgreens valued at just 9 times Wall Street's forecast earnings for fiscal 2022 (ended Aug. 31, 2022), now is the perfect time to pounce.