Has the economy bottomed, or is the floor starting to give way to new depths?
It's a trick question, because I don't know the answer. You may think you know, but trust me -- you don't.
The only thing we can all probably agree on is that when the economy does bounce back, a new consumer mentality will have taken root. We will no longer be a nation of leveraged spenders. We will be a nation of prudent savers.
It's not as if we have much of a choice. Even those who haven't learned the lessons of the crumbling banking system will have the choice made for them. Credit-card issuers are reeling back open credit lines, and shell-shocked lenders are tightening their borrowing requirements.
If you're nodding along with me, knowing that this is how things will unfold, then it's time to begin exploring the companies that will profit from a generation of savers. There are plenty of stocks that stand to benefit from the inevitable trend. I'm going to review a few of my favorites.
Online discount brokers are logical winners. Savers hitting up local banks will soon discover that better money market and CD rates can be had through online banking, and that will open the door to new ways to save and invest.
Schwab's money market yields aren't all that impressive right now, but that's a universal problem. The leading discounter's appeal is from new initiatives that are bound to attract new savers -- and investors. Two months ago, Schwab dropped the expense ratio of its proprietary S&P 500 index fund to a mere 0.09%. That's even lower than Vanguard's industry standard. Schwab's fund also has a cheap $100 minimum investment requirement -- Vanguard's threshold is 30 times as high.
Naturally, Schwab isn't going to make money from someone who invests a flat $100 in the fund. A single account mailing will cost more than the annual revenue of $0.09 it stands to generate. However, getting a foot in the door will help Schwab to market its other financial vehicles. With the discounter ready to make a splash in the ETF market, the financially sturdy Schwab is just where it needs to be.
T. Rowe Price
Mutual funds will also be big winners, especially the families that have historically performed well. As of the end of March, at least 77% of T. Rowe's funds were beating their comparable Lipper category averages over the past three and five years.
T. Rowe's investor-friendly approach of offering no-load funds with low expense ratios and reasonable minimums will serve it well. When investors realize that the $3,000 they were going to blow on a family vacation next summer may be better off in a T. Rowe Price mutual fund, that will be the icing on the cake for an operator that experienced net inflows even during the market downturn in the first quarter of 2009.
Movie theaters have been magnetic this summer, but Netflix is growing even faster. The allure of staying in, ripping open a red paper envelope, and catching a movie is a slam dunk. Now that Netflix is expanding its library of digitally delivered flicks -- and the devices that can stream them -- couch potatoes don't even need to risk paper cuts.
With 10.3 million subscribers and growing, Netflix has mastered the art of DVD rentals and digital streams. Nice timing, too, as the value proposition of paying as little as $9 a month for unlimited celluloid is an easy sell, since that's less than a single movie ticket.
BJ's Wholesale Club
Warehouse clubs are going to hold up nicely in a growing country of savers. Many of the weaker restaurant chains have either shut down or scaled back during the downturn, and great prices on bulk groceries will make more sense as we stay in and eat at home more often. How can you not like the key players in this sector -- BJ's, Sam's Club, and Costco
On the surface, my theory would seem to shatter when you look at a warehouse club that suffered a 7.5% decline in comps last month. But you just have to dig deeper. These chains typically do brisk business selling gasoline, and prices at the pump are lower now than they were a year ago. Back out gasoline, and merchandise comps fell by a more modest 2.7%. When you stack that up against last year's spike of 16.5% (with gasoline contributing 8.2%) in June, you begin to see that last month's shortfall isn't really bleak at all.
Food stocks have historically been viewed as defensive investments, because we always need to eat. Saving money while we're at it? That's a bonus. I was going to go with McDonald's
So let's go with supermarket staples -- but don't settle for the companies you know. Going that route is actually dangerous these days, since the brand giants have been hurting. Folks are trading down to store brands, and that's where TreeHouse Foods comes in.
According to TreeHouse, the private-label industry for food and beverage products is an $81.6 billion sector. Demand for private labels has also grown twice as quickly as branded products have over the past six years. From salsa to canned soup to salad dressing, TreeHouse is a heavy hitter in private labels.
And it shows. North American retail sales, margins, and adjusted profitability all clocked in higher during TreeHouse's latest quarter. The company also increased its guidance at the time -- something that few food makers have been able to do this year.
I think the savings trend will last for a while. Companies like these that are jumping on the bandwagon early could benefit the most.
Other ways to spend your time saving:
Costco, Netflix, and Charles Schwab are Motley Fool Stock Advisor selections. The Fool owns shares of Costco, which is also a Motley Fool Inside Value recommendation. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.
Longtime Fool contributor Rick Munarriz relishes the irony of profiting from a nation of savers. He owns shares of Netflix and is also part of the Rule Breakers newsletter research team, seeking out tomorrow's ultimate growth stocks a day early. The Fool has a disclosure policy.