Defensive Plays For A Weak Economy

There are plenty of safe havens in the stock market during a weak economy.
Things still aren’t great in the American economy.  Despite the occasional chatter of “record breaking profits”, the truth is that when you examine those profits, you realize a lot of it has to do with cost-cutting.
So if you still are concerned about where the economy is headed — and what to do about your stock positions — you definitely should fill out that diversified portfolio with some defensive names.  The same goes if you feel the stock market is getting ahead of itself.
“Defense” means different things to different people. To me, it means at least these three: Consumer staples, utilities and dividends.
Consumer staples are those products that you and I must buy if we are going to live in a relatively normal fashion: food, beverages, household products, prescription drugs and the like. I know a stock is a defensive consumer staple if I look around my house and find a bunch of its products.
This morning I did my treasure hunt and found all of the following: CD-ROMs, Nexcare bandages, Scotch tape, Scotch tape dispenser, Scotch-Brite detergent (and pads), Oxy Carpet Cleaner, Post-It Notes, Scotchgard (on the couch), O-Cel-O Sponge cloth, Scotch Cassette Deck Head Cleaner, Scotch micro-fiber cleaning cloth, 3M cushioned mailers, 3M glue sticks …
Yes, that’s right. I’m talking about 3M (NYSE:MMM). With $4.3 billion in cash, and TTM free cash flow of $4.3 billion, 3M can weather any storm, and it pays a 2.4% dividend.
If you want to go broader, try the Select Sector Consumer Staples SPDR (NYSE:XLP), which contains some of the most well-known global brands in its top ten holdings.
Utilities are great choices because they are regional monopolies that are regulated by the government, and those regulations allow them to enjoy sizable profits. Obviously, the best thing about a utility is that it provides a product nobody can do without — energy. Utilities also traditionally provide stable and reliable dividends. Even better, because regulators permit inflation-indexed price increases, utilities are an effective inflation hedge.
I like National Grid (NYSE:NGG), a U.K.-based utility that provides gas and electricity to both U.K. and northeastern U.S. customers. It yields 4.5%. Likewise, you also can diversify your choice with Select Sector Utilities SPDR (NYSE:XLU). There are numerous familiar names here as well, with a 6.4% yield.
As for dividend stocks, there is no shortage of them. It might be difficult to choose exactly which ones are right for your particular strategy, though. Dividends are not exclusively large-cap names that have been around forever. Many smaller companies offer payouts as well. You also have to be cautious about over-weighting in financial stocks, which I still am wary of in this environment, and those stocks are usually the big dividend payers.
Instead, I like the WisdomTree Dividend Ex-Financials Fund (NYSE:DTN), which consists of non-financial dividend-paying stocks. I also like that there are some unusual names in the top ten holdings. DTN pays 2.74% and has returned a solid 10% YTD.
There are many other ways to play defense in your portfolio, but the trick is always to customize it for your own risk tolerance and long-term strategy.

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