The Dow Jones Industrials (^DJI -1.63%) fell 161 points Thursday, or nearly 1%, as investors went into a mini-panic on news that a Malaysian airliner carrying almost 300 people crashed in eastern Ukraine. Investors immediately suspected foul play related to the ongoing conflict between Ukraine and Russia, and what had looked like another possible record run for the Dow early this morning turned into a rout. Broader market benchmarks lost even more than the Dow in percentage terms. But within the Dow, defensively oriented names Coca-Cola (KO -0.45%) and Home Depot (HD -2.36%) played their roles in limiting their losses and providing investors with some protection against the full extent of the decline.
Coca-Cola only fell about 0.25% as the soft-drink giant said it would maintain its current commitment to the Mexican market. Mexico represents Coca-Cola's largest international market, but it has also been a source of strife for the company, as government officials have imposed taxes at a rate of 12% on certain soft drinks and other beverages that they think could be contributing to Mexico's increasing rates of obesity and diabetes. Nevertheless, given the value and potential of the country's market, Coca-Cola said late yesterday that it would invest more than $8.2 billion between now and 2020 toward growth efforts in Mexico. If Coca-Cola can successfully navigate the political environment in Mexico and thrive despite the tax, then it could create a model that Coca-Cola could use throughout the emerging-market world to try to restore growth to past levels.
Meanwhile, Home Depot fell just 0.1%, as shareholders assessed the state of the housing market in light of earnings reports from key lenders during the past week. For the most part, higher rates have crushed the refinancing market, and so a potential source of funds for renovations and remodeling efforts has largely dried up compared to where it was during the housing boom. Yet, the Federal Reserve has been more than accommodative in delaying the onset of higher interest rates, and that could give would-be renovators some leeway in taking on debt in order to get projects done, boosting Home Depot's sales prospects. Some troubling numbers in housing starts suggest that the contractor side of Home Depot's business could come under pressure, but it's too early to tell from short-term data whether weakness in housing will become a well-established longer-term trend.
Defensive stocks are supposed to help protect investors from major declines like today's, but they're far from perfect. The right stocks, though, can help you minimize your losses, even if the Dow Jones Industrials and other major markets perform badly in the days and weeks to come.