Las Vegas casinos are raking in all-time record revenues; tobacco companies have overcome those astronomical jury verdicts; hard liquor sales are booming; and, of course, defense spending is through the roof.
Times are good for Charles Norton and for those who invest with him.
Norton manages the
Vice Fund (VICEX), a mutual fund that unabashedly invests in alcohol, tobacco, gambling and defense companies, also known as "booze, bets, bombs and butts."
Human nature being what it is, these have been some of the most reliable ways to make money in the stock market for a long, long time. Just ask Tony Soprano.
The Vice Fund's problem right now? According to Norton, it's an embarrassment of riches. He is free to place his bets across the four industries wherever he sees the best opportunities. But he thinks all four industries are looking as good as ever.
Big tobacco, he says, seems to have won its legal battles here in the U.S. -- at least for now. "On the legal front in the U.S., it's been nearly all positive," says Norton, who is also a contributor to RealMoney.com. "The industry really did have its back in the corner. But all of that has now been resolved, in favor of the industry. The bigger picture has become much, much better."
Not only were the biggest judgments overturned on appeal, but the cigarette makers passed the cost of its legal settlements to its customers by charging extra for each pack.
As a result, Norton points out, last year saw an overseas company make a big acquisition in the U.S. for the first time in a decade. Britain's
( ITY) bought No. 4 domestic cigarette maker Commonwealth, whose brands include USA Gold and Malibu, for $1.9 billion.
Cigarettes are a remarkably profitable industry. In the words of Warren Buffett, "I'll tell you why I like the cigarette business. It costs a penny to make. Sell it for a dollar. It's addictive. And there's a fantastic brand loyalty."
As Norton points out, "it's a great business to be in ... but the stocks still trade at a discount to other consumer staples."
No wonder Vice Fund's top holding is
, the company formerly known as Philip Morris.
Loews Carolina Group
are third and fourth, respectively.
When it comes to booze, Norton says there is money to be made here in the U.S. because consumers are trading up -- to craft beers and to the hard stuff. "North America is where we are seeing the most growth," he says.
And that leads to
, the world's biggest liquor company. Diageo controls about one-third of the Scottish single malt whisky business and owns a long list of other brands, including Vodka-maker Smirnoff and Bailey's Irish Cream.
Oh, yes, and it also makes Guinness. "It's the clear leader," says Norton. "It's one of our favorite companies." It's also his second-biggest holding.
When it comes to beer, the real growth story is in emerging markets. The top pick there is
, a Belgian company that is now the biggest brewer in the world. Another pick is Holland's
As for gambling, which the gambling industry likes to call "gaming," there's a boom both home and abroad. Las Vegas did more business last year than ever before, Norton says.
At the same time, Asian markets are starting to take off. The best known location is Macau, the Chinese territory that is turning into the Las Vegas of the East. "But it's much bigger than Macau," says Norton. "It's all of Asia." Singapore has opened up its gambling market for the first time in decades. Thailand and Japan are looking at taking steps to liberalization.
Norton's top picks include
, the world's biggest maker of slot machines, plus Nevada-to-China giant
Las Vegas Sands
So far, so entertaining. But Norton points out that the defense industry is also booming, and he likes the big contractors in the sector for at least another couple of more years. That means the likes of
Norton has run charts going back decades, and he says they show something clear: "Defense stocks outperform the
during times of increasing Defense Department budget authority." As long as that authority keeps rising, defense stocks will keep beating the market, he says. "It's as clear as night and day."
The Vice Fund is ahead more than 30% since Norton took over management in September 2005. That includes a 23% gain last year. No wonder assets under management have more than doubled, although they remain tiny by the standards of the mutual fund industry at $102 million.
In keeping with TSC's editorial policy, Brett Arends doesn't own or short individual stocks. He also doesn't invest in hedge funds or other private investment partnerships. Arends takes a critical look inside mutual funds and the personal finance industry in a twice-weekly column that ranges from investment advice for the general reader to the industry's latest scoop. Prior to joining TheStreet.com in 2006, he worked for more than two years at the Boston Herald, where he revived the paper's well-known 'On State Street' finance column and was part of a team that won two SABEW awards in 2005. He had previously written for the Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail newspapers in London, the magazine Private Eye, and for Global Agenda, the official magazine of the World Economic Summit in Davos, Switzerland. Arends has also written a book on sports 'futures' betting.