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10 'Best Stocks' to Buy Now

Aren't some of the big consumer products stocks in my "50 Best Stocks in the World" portfolio "buys" right now?

Certainly, stocks such as Coca-Cola (KO), Gillette (G) and Kellogg (K) have taken a beating over the last six months. Coca-Cola is down 4% in that period, Gillette down 16% and Kellogg down 31%. They seem cheap enough.

I'm going to name 10 stocks from that portfolio that I think are good buys now, but you won't find any of those consumer giants among them. None is so attractive at current prices that I think investors with a holding period of five years or more need to rush out and snap them up.

And I don't think any of them belongs on the "buy on the dip" watch list that I started to put together in my last column, "5 Best Buys for This Volatile Market." (Two other stocks from the "50 Best" portfolio do get added to that near-term watch list later in this column.)

Mind you, I don't think there's anything radically wrong with these consumer stocks. To me, it looks like management at Coca-Cola, Gillette and Kellogg are making the right moves to fix problems at the companies. I'd even go so far as to say I see encouraging signs of progress at deeply troubled companies such as Avon Products (AVP) and Mattel (MAT).

Peer Pressure Cools Consumer Stocks

All this internal progress isn't going to do the trick, however. Research that I find pretty convincing argues that over the short term (by that, I mean six months to a year), a stock's industry or peer group accounts for most of its momentum. True, the stocks of well-run companies can fight against the currents moving the group. If management is really good, the stock may decline less than its peers. But decline it will. There's very little profit to be made, within this time horizon, from fighting the trend of the group. And for the next year, I see the tides of the economy and the financial markets running strongly against this group of stocks. (For more on this idea, see "Do Industries Explain Momentum?" by Tobias Moskowitz and Mark Grinblatt in the August 1999 Journal of Finance.)

I think three things are running against Coca-Cola and friends.

  • Inflation is just not high enough to let consumer companies raise prices easily. It's easy to overlook how important modest inflation is as a cover for price increases. A price jump of 2% or so above the rate of inflation is pretty much invisible to consumers. If prices in general are going up 5% or 6% a year, a company easily can get away with increasing its prices by 7% or 8%. Who notices? But when inflation is low, companies that try such aggressive price increases are likely to see unit sales decline. They may even face a rebellion by consumers or middlemen. Coca-Cola bottlers balked when the company raised prices for its syrup concentrate, for example. The bottlers feared that they wouldn't be able to pass the cost along to consumers and would wind up eating the increase themselves.

  • Right now, the Federal Reserve seems determined to raise interest rates to slow the growth of the economy. And mature consumer-goods companies find it difficult to increase unit sales faster than the growth of the general economy. Grabbing a significant increase in market share is extremely expensive -- if it's even possible. Increasing productivity and cutting costs is relatively difficult for mature consumer-goods companies as well. It's not like Coca-Cola is about to find some breakthrough technology for producing soda, after all. Add in difficulties in raising prices in a low inflation environment and it's easy to see why these companies have produced only single-digit increases in revenue and income in recent quarters.

  • These trends, and events like the 1998 crisis in Asia that sent demand for consumer products into a regional decline, have seriously eroded the financial rationale for owning these stocks. Sure, these stocks weren't expected to grow at the rates of an Oracle (ORCL) or a Texas Instruments (TXN), but they had dependably produced double-digit growth. The boring predictability of that growth had justified a price-to-earnings ratio of 50 to 70 for a stock where earnings were growing by 15% to 18% a year. But that changed. First, investors discovered management couldn't deliver the traditional numbers. Then they were surprised again when management, after much pain, produced lower targets and still missed them. With earnings growth of these companies seemingly no longer so predictable, investors lost a major reason to own the group. And that's a problem, given that many of these stocks still trade at almost twice the multiple of the S&P 500. (Coca-Cola's P/E ratio, for example, is still 58 as I write this.)

What will it take to reverse the tide now running against the group?

  • A tad more inflation would help. These companies need to regain some pricing power.

  • An end to worries that the economy is going to slow. That will take a clear declaration from the Fed that it's done raising rates for a while.

  • A return to predictable growth, even at a lower level, for a long enough period of time to persuade investors to trade some of their volatile technology stocks for safer shares.

Frankly, I don't see these three factors coming together this year. Two of them may indeed be contradictory: It's hard to see how we'll get more inflation to grease price increases and have the Fed declare it's done raising rates at the same time. The individual companies have the most power to bring about the third change, but that will require them to put together a string of predictable quarters and for technology stocks to experience an extended dip that sends a significant number of investors looking for "safe" growth.

'Buys' Right Now

To me, though, this analysis does suggest what kind of stocks might be "buys" right now in the 50 Best portfolio. A "buy" would be a stock that's depressed in price because investors are worried about the company's ability to grow in a slowing economy, but where the company has shown an ability to grow unit sales faster than the economy as a whole.

Take Dell Computer (DELL), for example. The stock clearly is depressed in price. It has fallen 16% in the last month alone. But Dell is also growing faster than the economy and its own industry by taking market share away from competitors and by finding new markets to enter. The stock could decline a bit further on fears of an economic slowdown and on the bumpiness in its own transition to a 30% annual growth rate from the previous 60%. But I think the shares are now close enough to a bottom to make it a buy for long-term investors. Remember, as I explained in my last column, that calling the absolute bottom in price is relatively unimportant for the long-term investor.

What nine other stocks get a "buy" for a long-term investor right now? American International Group (AIG), Citigroup (C), Fannie Mae (FNM), Home Depot (HD), Lear (LEA), MSN MoneyCentral publisher Microsoft (MSFT), Pfizer (PFE), Wal-Mart (WMT) and MCI WorldCom (WCOM). I think all of these may trend downward while the Fed is at work, but many already are trading near 52-week lows. (Fannie Mae is just about $4 a share above its 52-week low of $54.87.) For investors building a long-term portfolio, these stocks are worth a look at current prices.

And two are even worth adding to my watch list for the short term.

Wal-Mart has pulled back almost 12% in the last month after a big end-of-the-year rally in 1999. The retail group is under pressure, since investors believe that higher interest rates aren't likely to make consumers more willing to spend, which is fine with me. I'm hoping such worries will give me a chance to buy Wal-Mart in the next few months on a dip that's big enough to make the stock appealing for my short-term Jubak's Picks portfolio, with its 12-to-18-month holding period. I certainly like the stock's prospects in the second half of the year -- a traditionally strong season for retailers that should be even stronger for the stock since interest-rate increases are likely to be behind us.

American International Group is already at a price that makes it appealing to a long-term investor. But, as with Wal-Mart, for the shorter holding period of Jubak's Picks, I'd like to see interest-rate worries and rumors of an impending acquisition or two drive the stock down even further toward a near-term bottom. I think the insurance sector is likely to be very hot in the second half of the year once investors stop concentrating on interest rates and start paying attention to the possibilities opened up by recent legislation that took down the barriers between banks and insurers.

With the addition of these two names, I've now lined up seven of the 10 stocks I want for my "buy on the volatility" watch list. In my next column, I'll round out the list by looking at some currently hot sectors underrepresented in either my 50 Best or Future 50 portfolios, and give you my take on a purchase price range for all 10 stocks.

Jim Jubak is senior markets editor for MSN MoneyCentral. At time of publication, he was long American International Group, Cisco Systems, MCI WorldCom, Microsoft, Texas Instruments and Wal-Mart, although holdings can change at any time. Under no circumstances does the information in this column represent a recommendation to buy or sell stocks. Jubak welcomes your feedback at mctsc@microsoft.com.

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