With both the Dow Jones Industrial Average (up 8.8% so far this year) and the S&P 500 (SPY) (up almost 13%) poised to end the year near all-time highs, investors -- thinking a pullback is always around the corner -- have begun to look for safety. And beverage stocks have established a reputation as good defensive investments.
As a group, beverages have done well in 2014, posting an aggregate gain of 15%, according to Fidelity, and helping the PowerShares Dynamic Food & Beverage Portfolio (PBJ) to surge nearly 18% for the year.
Can these stocks stay bubbly in 2015? Yes, they can. But the gains won't come from the stock that may be most familiar to readers. Take a look at the chart below, courtesy of YCharts.
KO data by YCharts
PepsiCo (PEP) shares have risen 17% in 2014, vs. Coca-Cola's (KO) year-to-date gain of only about 4.0%. PepsiCo shareholders can smile and don't have to care who won the taste test. The investment is all that matters, and PepsiCo is going to be a force to be reckoned with in 2015 and beyond.Coke seems to have run out of innovative ideas of its own. In an effort to quench Wall Street's thirst for growth, Coke has been taking stakes in other beverage companies to help offset its own weak sales. Its recent 17% stake in Monster Beverage ( MNST) for nearly $2.2 billion is the latest example. This comes after Coca-Cola scooped up a 16% stake in Keurig Green Mountain ( GMCR) back in May.
Coke's investments have surged. Keurig Green Mountain shares have soared more than 82% this year, while Monster stock has added more than 66%.
Even though Coke's common stock pays a solid dividend yield of 2.90%, however, it makes more sense to buy shares of Monster and Keurig Green Mountain, instead of the investment fund that Coke has become.
Where Coke hasn't done so well, Pepsi, which has a strong-performing beverage business of its own, has thrived. Unlike Coke, Pepsi's success was well planned. The company has fully embraced snack foods, and this has become the key differentiator between it and Coke.
What's more, fast-growing restaurants such Buffalo Wild Wings (BWLD) , are ditching Coke's products in favor of Pepsi's. This is partly because Pepsi landed sponsorship rights to the NFL and Major League Baseball, making it a perfect match for a sports-focused restaurant such as Buffalo Wild Wings.
All told, Pepsi's management is on the right track. With shares trading around $97, the stock should reach $120 in the next 12 to 18 months.
Likewise, Dr. Pepper Snapple (DPS) (up 51%) was a top performer in 2014. Aside from paying a decent yield of 2.35%, Dr. Pepper has paid back roughly $513 million to shareholders in 2014 via buybacks and dividends. And not only does the stock have a high analyst 12-month price target of $86.80, which suggests it can gain 20%, the company has insisted it will continue to return cash to shareholders.
SAM data by YCharts
Constellation Brands, which is known for its fine wine and spirits, has posted more than 500% gain in the last five years. Shares have surged ever since the company sold off its less-appealing alcohol brands. Although the stock is trading at its 52-week high at $100.09, Constellation Brands still has a high analyst 12-month price target of $115, suggesting gains of around 15%.
All told, in 2014 beverage stocks played more of an offensive role than defense. With such strong gains on the table, this year's outperformers will have a tough time duplicating their success. But that doesn't mean they can't beat the Dow and S&P500. The good news is, their defensive qualities will limit their declines if/when the eventual market pullback emerges.Follow @Richard_WSPB