With the market recognizing and reacting to the risks of inflation and the Federal Reserve's response to it, it's clear that we're in for a bit of a rough journey ahead. Despite those very real risks, it's difficult to justify pulling money out of stocks. After all, there are very few investments out there that currently offer strong risk-adjusted returns after accounting for inflation and taxes. That leaves stocks the least ugly alternative for long-term money, even in the current environment.
Still, not all stocks are created equal. In such a tough market, it makes sense to look for solid companies trading at reasonable valuations that pay their owners well for the risks those investors take by owning those stocks. Companies like that are few and far between, but there's at least one business that meets those criteria, and that investment is in my portfolio for what I hope to be the long haul. That company is insurance and financial services giant Prudential Financial (PRU 0.74%).
Does it get any more rock solid than this?
Prudential Financial is so focused on being a rock-solid insurance company that it uses an actual rock -- the Rock of Gibraltar -- as its corporate logo. It backs that symbolism up with an extremely strong balance sheet, complete with over $370 billion in bonds held as assets and over $60 billion in net shareholders equity.
Insurance is the business of pricing risk -- and on paying out on those risks even when they happen to be larger than the insurance company initially thought they would be. When an insurance company underestimates its risk, it relies on the strength of its balance sheet to make its claims and remain solvent. Prudential Financial's balance sheet means that though a lot can go wrong, above and beyond what the company is planning on, it can still wind up OK.
Beyond its balance sheet, Prudential Financial also offers investors a very well-covered dividend with a yield of above 4%. Despite that juicy yield, the dividend actually consumes a bit less than 25% of the company's trailing earnings. It pulls that fairly rare combination off because it trades at a value price around 0.7 times its book value and less than 10 times its expected earnings .
As if that weren't enough, Prudential Financial actually increased its dividend by a reasonable 4.3% earlier this year. This bodes well with the thesis that its insurance-related business has something of a natural ability to fight inflation over time. After all, inflation tends to raise asset prices, increasing the value of insurable interests, and thus the justification for higher insurance premiums.
So what's wrong with the company?
Despite everything that Prudential Financial has going for it, a key reason why its shares trade at a value price comes from the fact that it is not expected to grow very fast. Analysts currently estimate that it will only be able to increase its earnings at around a measly 3.25% compounded annual rate over the next five or so years.
In a stock market that values strong growth, a business focused on being rock solid gets "rewarded" with a low share price -- a price that largely reflects those modest expectations. Still, even that brings with it two potential positives.
First, with low expectations largely priced in to the stock, if it does manage to grow faster than that, there's good reason to believe its stock could rise in response. Second, if the market does fall in response to slower growth expectations, a company like Prudential Financial, which is already priced based on low expectations, might have that much less far to fall.
That combination brings with it a bit of a "heads I win, tails I likely won't lose all that much" scenario. When added to the fact that the most likely outcome is a solid overall return driven by a solid, slowly growing dividend and slow overall earnings growth, it makes for an attractive investment to consider.
In my portfolio, that's a winning play
Because it's a dividend stock with some growth potential and a value price, Prudential Financial earned a slot in my portfolio. Because it has such a rock-solid balance sheet and a structure designed around that sort of staying power, it might very well keep that spot for a very long time.
While there's always a chance that something could get me to change my mind, it would probably take a tectonic shift in how the company operates. Given that it has used the Rock of Gibraltar as its logo since the 1890s, that would be a tall order, indeed.