The stock market has had a great 2019. Year-to-date, the S&P 500 is up about 28%. If the index were to trade flat into the end of the year, then 2019 would go down as the best year for the stock market since 2013, and the third-best year of the 2000s.
But the stock market has also had a volatile 2019. Year-to-date, the S&P 500 has experienced more than 10 pullbacks of 2% or greater. By itself, that’s not shocking. But what is shocking is that pretty much all of those 2% pullbacks have had the same culprit: the U.S.-China trade war.
So, while I think U.S.-China trade tensions will ease going forward and the markets will consequently power higher, I also recognize that the trade war isn’t over. Flare-ups will happen throughout 2020. Each one of those flare ups will be followed by a harsh stock market correction.
Given that, I don’t blame you if you want sit out all the volatility and buy safety stocks in 2020 that don’t have trade war exposure. If you’re in that boat, this gallery is for you. I’ve hand picked a group of five safety stocks to buy for their strong internal fundamentals and lack of external trade war exposure.
Safety Stocks to Buy: AT&T (T)
The core reason to be attracted to telecom giant AT&T (NYSE:T) in the midst of the U.S.-China trade war is that this company provides various wireless and wired communication services which consumers in the U.S. need (and will continue to pay up for), regardless of the global trade situation. Broadly, then, no matter how the trade war plays out, AT&T’s revenue and profit trends should remain relatively stable, leading to a relatively stable AT&T stock price.
Further, AT&T stock has two huge catalysts on the horizon which could propel shares higher in 2020. First, there’s the big mainstream 5G push, which will lead to increased demand for AT&T’s wireless services at more favorable price points, as well as an increase in the number of connected devices in AT&T’s wireless network. Second, there’s the big streaming push with HBO Max. If that service gains healthy momentum in the streaming world, then the company will have found a cure for its cord-cutting headwinds, and the stock will benefit from multiple expansion as secular cord-cutting fears disappear — just see what happened with Disney (NYSE:DIS) stock and Disney+.
Of course, any mention of T stock as a safety stock would be incomplete without mentioning that: 1) this stock is incredibly cheap at just 11-times forward earnings, and 2) the stock also has a huge dividend yield that is north of 5%.
Perhaps shockingly, social media giant Facebook (NASDAQ:FB) makes this list of safety stocks to buy without trade war exposure because, at its core, this company does not have much trade exposure.
Facebook doesn’t operate in China, so there are no levers China can pull here to hurt Facebook. Further, FB’s properties will remain highly engaging in all other countries that they do operate in, regardless of the trade situation. That’s because Facebook provides entertainment and communication services which consumers deem as central to their day as brushing their teeth or combing their hair. So long as consumers remain engaged, advertisers will continue to pour money into the Facebook ecosystem to chase that engagement.
Sure, there’s the risk that escalating trade tensions depress capital spending plans. Advertising is part of those capital spending plans. In theory, if the trade war gets really bad, Facebook ad budgets could get hit. But that has yet to happen. It’s unlikely to happen anytime soon, because cutting Facebook ad budgets is something no one wants to do unless things get really ugly. Things won’t get really ugly in 2020. If anything, trade conditions will improve.
In the big picture, then, FB stock is actually well shielded from trade war volatility. At the same time, this is a 20%-plus revenue and profit growth company trading at less than 25-times forward earnings, an attractive combination which implies minimal valuation risk and huge upside potential.
American Electric Power (AEP)
The three big reasons to like U.S. utility company American Electric Power (NYSE:AEP) so long as the U.S.-China trade war wages on are that this company: 1) has minimal trade exposure, 2) is characterized by unparalleled stability, and 3) has attractive safety stock characteristics.
American Electric Power is a U.S. utility company which provides electricity and power services to U.S. consumers. They don’t operate outside of the U.S. This 100% domestic focus shields the company from international trade war noise.
At the same time, the electricity and power services which AEP provides are necessary, with unwavering demand. That is, regardless of how the U.S.-China trade situation plays out, U.S. consumers will forever need and pay up for electricity and power services. Demand isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Neither are AEP’s revenues or profits. This financial stability creates tremendous support for AEP share price stability.
Lastly, AEP stock trades at a reasonably 21-times forward earnings multiple, has a rock solid 3% dividend yield, and is supported by stable and sizable cash flows. These ideal safety stock characteristics imply that investor demand for AEP stock during turbulent times will remain strong.
Investors may be shocked to see global retail giant Walmart (NYSE:WMT) on this list. After all, Walmart does operate in the retail world, and tariffs do have a direct negative impact across the entire retail world in the form of higher input prices.
Walmart is no exception here. The higher tariffs go, the higher Walmart’s input costs will go, and the more that will either: 1) weigh on Walmart’s margins, or 2) push up Walmart’s shelf prices. But if you zoom out, it’s easy to see that Walmart is actually a winner here.
One of two things will happen in 2020. Either U.S.-China trade tensions will meaningfully de-escalate, or they won’t. If they do, Walmart will continue to fire on all cylinders through sustained omni-channel and e-commerce expansion. If they don’t, tariffs will pressure the entire retail sector. But, consumers won’t stop shopping. They will just become more price-sensitive. The more price-sensitive they become, the more likely they are to shop at off-price stores, and Walmart is king in the off-price category.
This is exactly why WMT stock was a huge out-performer during the last economic downturn. Consumers don’t stop shopping when times get tough. They just shop smarter.
Big picture, then, it looks like WMT stock is a strong safety stock to buy, because it will outperform regardless of which way the trade war swings.
Last, but not least, on this list of safety stocks to buy without trade war exposure is global fast-casual food giant McDonald’s (NYSE:MCD).
The bull thesis on MCD stock as a safety stock is pretty simple. Regardless of how the trade war progresses, consumers globally still need to eat. Consequently, they will still visit McDonald’s stores. Further, if trade tensions do escalate, that will cause broad consumer concern, which will in turn force consumers to become more price-sensitive. The more price-sensitive they become, the more they will cut back on costs. One way to cut back on costs? Stop going to expensive restaurants, and start going to McDonald’s.
As such, much like Walmart, McDonald’s is supported by this fact that consumers don’t stop buying things when times get tough — they just start buying cheaper things.
Also of note, tariffs have not created much noise in McDonald’s financials, nor will they anytime soon. The word tariff wasn’t mentioned even once during the company’s most recent earnings call. Nor was the U.S.-China trade war. This lack of financial noise will help keep MCD stock shielded from trade-war-induced market volatility in 2020.
As of this writing, Luke Lango was long T, FB, and WMT.