The economy isn't recession-proof. It often follows a somewhat predictable, if irregular, pattern known as the economic cycle. Periods of expansion can often last for years before hitting a peak. What follows is a period of contraction -- a recession -- before the economy enters a trough ahead of the next expansion. 

Recessionary periods can be brutal for investors. Stock market corrections and bear markets commonly occur during the contraction phase. Cyclical stocks -- companies in industries highly sensitive to the economic cycle -- are often the hardest hit during a recession.

However, some stock market sectors are relatively immune to the ups and downs of the economic cycle. They offer investors somewhat recession-proof stocks that they can hold when economic turbulence arises. Here's a closer look at where to invest if you're worried that the economy is about to hit a rough patch.

Historically recession-proof industries

Historically recession-proof industries

Several industries tend to experience relatively steady demand in both good times and bad. That makes them fairly recession-resistant (though no industry can be accurately labeled 100% "recession-proof"). These industries include:

Healthcare

Healthcare

Healthcare stocks tend to be relatively recession-resistant. People can't defer most healthcare spending. When you're sick, you need to see a doctor and buy medicine. Some examples of companies in the healthcare industry that tend to do well in recessions are:

  1. Johnson & Johnson (JNJ 0.84%): The iconic healthcare company makes well-known consumer products such as Band-Aids and Tylenol. It also develops and sells medical devices and pharmaceuticals. These products benefit from stable demand throughout the economic cycle, making investing in Johnson & Johnson stock relatively safe during a recession.
  2. CVS Health (CVS -1.02%): This health company operates a leading drugstore chain, administers a large-scale pharmacy benefits program, and provides health insurance to many people. Demand for its services remains relatively stable even when the economy falters.
  3. Pfizer (PFE -0.11%): Together with its partners, Pfizer makes some of the world's best-selling pharmaceutical drugs and vaccines, covering a wide range of medical issues. People need access to these lifesaving products, no matter what's happening in the economy.
  4. UnitedHealth Group (UNH -0.09%): The diversified healthcare company offers a broad array of products and services. These include information and technology-enabled health services, healthcare coverage, and benefit services people need during economic downturns.
  5. Walgreens Boots Alliance (WBA 1.5%): The leading global retail pharmacy benefits from relatively steady demand for the products sold in its stores.

Consumer staples

Consumer staples

People need to eat even when the economy hits a rough patch. However, consumers tend to shift their eating habits from dining at restaurants to preparing more food at home. Grocery stores and packaged food makers tend to be highly recession-resistant. Likewise, other consumer staples, such as household and personal products, tend to experience stable demand in recessions.

Some examples of recession-resistant companies that manufacture or sell consumer staples are:

  1. Kroger (KR 0.76%): Grocery stores such as Kroger, one of the country's largest supermarkets by revenue, tend to benefit from recessions as consumers cook more often at home.
  2. PepsiCo (PEP 1.4%): Pepsi makes several well-known brands (e.g., Pepsi, Tropicana, Quaker Oats, and Aquafina) that line grocery store shelves. PepsiCo's sales tend to remain relatively stable during difficult times, putting it in a strong position to weather a recession.
  3. Procter & Gamble (PG 0.64%): The household and personal products company sells familiar brands, such as Pampers, Downy, Tide, Charmin, Gillette, Head & Shoulders, Dawn, and Crest. Its consumer product brands remain in demand during recessions.
  4. General Mills (GIS 2.62%): The leading maker of packaged food products owns beloved brands such as Cheerios, Nature Valley, Blue Buffalo, Häagen-Dazs, Pillsbury, Betty Crocker, Yoplait, and Annie's. Its brands never go out of style. Instead, demand tends to pick up when people shift their food spending from restaurants to eating at home.
  5. Tyson Foods (TSN 1.75%): One of the world's largest food companies focused on protein, Tyson's brand portfolio includes its namesake, as well as Jimmy Dean, Hillshire Farm, Ball Park, and others. Demand for its products tends to remain steady no matter what's going on in the broader economy.

Utility companies

Utility companies

Even when businesses close, and people lose their jobs during recessions, demand for electricity, water, waste collection, and natural gas remains relatively stable. Utilities and utility-like companies generate reasonably consistent earnings throughout recessions. Some examples of utility-type companies include:

  1. American Water Works (AWK -1.35%): The nation's leading water and wastewater utility company produces steady earnings supported by government-regulated rates. As a result, it tends to generate very stable revenue.
  2. Brookfield Infrastructure (BIPC 0.79%)(BIP 0.22%): The globally diversified infrastructure company owns utilities, pipelines, power lines, data centers, cell towers, and a range of other infrastructure assets. Its businesses generate contractually secured or government-regulated cash flows that remain stable during a recession. 
  3. NextEra Energy (NEE -0.74%): The company owns a large-scale Florida-focused utility and a leading energy resources business that produces renewable energy, transports natural gas, and transmits electricity. Its businesses generate stable revenues secured by government-regulated rates and long-term, fixed-rate contracts.
  4. Williams (WMB -0.58%): The natural gas infrastructure giant operates critical pipelines that move gas and other energy commodities from production basins to market centers. Williams' assets generate stable cash flows backed by long-term contracts or government-regulated rates. 
  5. Waste Management (WM 0.12%): This waste collection and recycling company generally has steady revenue streams since the demand for its services doesn't diminish much in recessions.

Cloud Computing

Cloud computing is a network of interconnected servers and data centers working together to deliver a service through the Internet.

Cost-conscious retail

Cost-conscious retail

Consumers tend to spend carefully during recessions. Many people begin buying less-expensive items. They also typically eliminate optional expenses, such as paying professionals to take care of routine home and car maintenance. Instead, they usually spend more money at dollar stores, home improvement centers, discount retailers, and auto parts stores. Some examples of retail companies that typically benefit from recessions include:

  1. Walmart (WMT 3.23%): The leading chain of grocery and discount department stores tends to benefit from recessions as more consumers shop its "always low prices" to save money.
  2. Dollar General (DG 0.7%): Cost-conscious consumers shifting their spending to discount items often buy from this low-priced retailer.
  3. Home Depot (HD 0.06%): The leading home improvement retailer benefits from recessions because they spur consumers to tackle more do-it-yourself projects to save money.
  4. Costco (COST 0.23%): The membership-only warehouse store operator allows customers to save money by purchasing goods in bulk. 
  5. Dollar Tree (DLTR 2.04%): The leading operator of discount variety stores (Dollar Tree and Family Dollar) benefits as customers become more cost-conscious.

Dividends Per Share

The dividends a company pays out per share and a commonly used per-share metric.

Diversified portfolios better withstand recessions

Diversified portfolios better withstand recessions

Recessions are inevitable, so investors should construct truly diversified portfolios to weather downturns. The key to creating a diversified portfolio is investing in companies across multiple sectors, including recession-resistant ones.

Any diversified portfolio should include a mix of financially strong blue chip stocks with the financial fortitude to withstand a recession. Blue chip stocks are attractive to investors during recessions because they typically pay dividends, providing them with a tangible return in the form of income. Blue chip stocks in recession-resistant industries tend to be especially stable, which can help lessen the blow of a market sell-off from a recession.

Related investing topics

Add some recession-proof businesses to your portfolio

Add some recession-proof businesses to your portfolio

The hottest stocks in recent years have been in the technology and communications industries. Many investors found it easy to build a portfolio that skewed toward these growth-focused sectors by buying stocks related to megatrends such as 5Gstreaming servicescloud computing, social media, and artificial intelligence (AI).

Unfortunately, these sectors are not immune to a recession. An economic slowdown could cause businesses to reduce capital spending, which might cause them to cut back on expensive upgrades to 5G or cloud computing. Companies also tend to pull back on advertising during recessions, hurting ad-driven sectors such as social media and some streaming services. As previously noted, consumers tend to eliminate extra costs during recessions, which can affect streaming services and other entertainment options.

That's why it's important to diversify your portfolio to better withstand a recession by adding some defensive or countercyclical stocks in the consumer staples, utilities, bargain retailing, and healthcare industries. Doing so can help your portfolio blunt some of the potential negative impacts of a recession.

FAQs on recession-resistant stocks

What stocks do well in a recession?

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Companies with durable demand for their products or services tend to do best during a recession. Often called defensive stocks, these companies sell products or offer services people need, regardless of economic conditions. Many healthcare, consumer staples, utility, and cost-conscious retail companies do well in a recession.

What stocks should I buy before a recession?

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You should consider buying economically resilient or defensive stocks before a recession. These include healthcare, consumer staples, utilities, and cost-conscious retail companies. Demand for the products and services provided by these companies tends to hold up relatively well during a recession. That should enable their stock prices to hold up or continue gaining value.

What stocks to avoid during a recession?

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You should avoid cyclical stocks during a recession. These companies need the economy to be in an expansionary phase to thrive, so their earnings and share prices tend to decline sharply during a recession.

Where is your money safest during a recession?

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During a recession, your money is safest in places with little to no risk of loss. Low-risk places to put your money include savings accounts, money market funds, certificates of deposits, or government bonds. Investment-grade corporate bonds and high-quality defensive stocks are also relatively safe places to invest money during a recession. Many also advocate buying gold or silver during a recession.

Matthew DiLallo has positions in Brookfield Infrastructure, Brookfield Infrastructure Partners, Home Depot, Johnson & Johnson, NextEra Energy, and Waste Management. The Motley Fool has positions in and recommends Costco Wholesale, Home Depot, NextEra Energy, Pfizer, and Walmart. The Motley Fool recommends Brookfield Infrastructure Partners, CVS Health, Johnson & Johnson, Kroger, UnitedHealth Group, and Waste Management. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.