5 big and steady stocks

Investors can find safety not just in gold and Treasury bonds, but also in some of the market's large cap stocks.

By John Reese Feb 8, 2012 10:32AM

Photodisc/PhotolibraryOver the past few years, a number of macroeconomic events -- ranging from the 2008 financial crisis to the Arab Spring uprisings in the Middle East to Europe's debt problems -- have led investors to load up on assets that offer (or at least are perceived to offer) safety. Since the start of 2009, gold prices have just about doubled, and since mid-2009, yields on 10-year Treasury bonds have been just about cut in half.

But what's interesting is that many of the stocks that should be considered safest -- big, high-quality blue chips -- haven't been getting much love from investors. Over the past three years, the Vanguard Mega Cap 300 Index ETF (MGC) is up 59%; the Vanguard Total Stock Market ETF (VTI) meanwhile is up 68%, and the Vanguard Small Cap ETF (VB) is up more than 100%.

So, a dichotomy has emerged: It seems that many investors have been running away from stocks, looking for supposedly safer investments, while those who have been buying stocks have been leaning fairly strongly toward more aggressive shares.

That's created a number of bargains among some of the market's biggest, steadiest companies. In fact, of the 45 stocks in my database that have a market capitalization of at least $100 billion, two-thirds get strong interest from at least one of my Guru Strategies, each of which is based on the approach of a different investing great.

Many of these companies have lengthy histories of increasing earnings and sales through good times and bad, solid balance sheets, cheap shares, and stellar dividend yields. And many provide the types of products and services -- such as food or household consumer staples -- that people buy even when the economy struggles. To top it all off, many have been making more and more inroads in some of the fastest-growing emerging markets in the world, tapping into hot growth spots at a time when the U.S. and other developed markets have been struggling.

Here's a look at a handful of mega-caps that my strategies are high on right now.

Apple, Inc. (AAPL): I track thousands of stocks in my database, and this tech giant is currently the largest one out there in terms of market cap ($433 billion). Apple's growth has been remarkable over the past decade, part of why my Martin Zweig-based model gives the stock a perfect 100% score.

The Zweig approach looks for companies whose earnings aren't just growing, but growing at an accelerating rate, and Apple delivers. The company has grown earnings per share at a 62.3% rate over the long term (I use an average of the three-, four-, and five-year earnings per share growth rates to determine a long-term rate); an average rate of 85% in the first three quarters of 2011 (vs. the three year-ago quarters); and an even-better 115.9% rate in the last quarter of 2011 (vs. the year-ago quarter). Its earnings growth is supported by strong sales growth, which Zweig liked to see -- long-term revenue growth is 42.6%, and it accelerated to more than 70% last quarter.

While Zweig is a growth investor, he also look at value. He has written that he avoids growth stocks that have price-to-earnings ratios that are more than three times the market average (currently 17.0), or whose price-to-earnings ratios are greater than 43 (regardless of the market average). Apple's price-to-earnings ratio is actually below the market average, at 13.2, a remarkable number given its growth.

One more reason the Zweig-based model likes Apple: The company has no long-term debt.

Chevron Corporation (CVX): One of the world's largest oil and gas companies ($212 billion market cap), this California-based titan is also involved in the lubricant, petrochemical products, geothermal energy, and biofuels arenas. Over the past twelve months it has raked in over a quarter-trillion dollars in sales. 

Chevron gets strong interest from my Peter Lynch-based strategy. The approach considers it a "slow-grower" because of its single-digit (9.2%) long-term earnings per share growth, the type of stock that is attractive in large part for its dividend. Chevron has a 3.0% dividend yield, which is nearly 30% higher than the market average, a good sign.

Lynch famously used the price-to-earnings-to-growth ratio to find bargain stocks, adjusting the "growth" portion of the equation for yield in the case of larger dividend payers. When we divide Chevron's price-to-earnings ratio of 7.9 by the total of its earnings per share growth and dividend yield, we get a yield-adjusted price-to-earnings-to-growth ratio of just 0.65, well below this model's 1.0 upper limit. Chevron is also conservatively financed, with a debt-to-equity ratio below 10%.

The Coca-Cola Company (KO): Coca-Cola's global reach and name recognition give it an incredible competitive advantage over its peers. And that's part of the reason it gets high marks from the model I base on the approach of Warren Buffett, whose Berkshire Hathaway is a longtime Coca-Cola shareholder.

Coca-Cola has a market cap of $155 billion and has taken in about $46 billion in sales in the past year. My Buffett-based model likes its persistent growth -- the company's earnings per share have dipped in only one year of the past decade. It also likes the company's manageable debt -- with $12.6 billion in annual earnings and $13.7 billion in debt, it could pay off that debt in a little over a year if it so choses, which the model considers exceptional. And it likes that Coca-Cola has averaged a return on equity of more than 30% over the past decade, more than doubling the model's 15% target. That's a sign of the durable competitive advantage Buffett is known to cherish.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (WMT): Arkansas-based Wal-Mart has nearly 10,000 stores across more than two dozen countries, and a market cap of $212 billion. While it's enormous, my James O'Shaughnessy-based model actually sees it as a growth play. When looking for growth stocks, the approach targets companies that have upped earnings per share in each year of the past five-year period, which Wal-Mart has done. It also looks for a key combination of variables: a high relative strength, which means the market is embracing the stock, and a low price-to-sales ratio, which means its shares remain cheap. Wal-Mart's 12-month relative strength is a solid 73, and its price-to-sales ratio is 0.48, well below the model's 1.5 upper limit.

Microsoft Corporation (MSFT): Who says you have to choose between Macs and PCs? My strategies think there's plenty of room for both Apple and Microsoft in a portfolio. My Lynch-based model is high on Microsoft ($253 billion market cap). It considers the company a "stalwart" -- the type of big, steady company that tends to do well in downturns or recessions -- because of its moderate 15.9% long-term earning per share growth rate and high ($72 billion) annual sales. The strategy likes Microsoft's 10.9 price-to-earnings ratio, 0.59 yield-adjusted price-to-earnings-to-growth, and very reasonable 18.6% debt-to-equity ratio.

I'm long AAPL, CVX, KO, and WMT.  

John Reese is founder and CEO of Validea Capital Management and Validea.com, a premium investment research site, and the author of "The Guru Investor: How to Beat the Market Using History's Best Investment Strategies". 



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