With markets volatile – bouncing around the 3,000 to 3,200 range for the last two weeks – and fears rising that a second wave of coronavirus cases will force a new round of economic shutdowns, investors are giving a second look to some strong defensive stocks. We’re talking about stocks with classic defensive profiles: high yielding dividends, combined with a high upside potential.
Using TipRanks database, we’ve pinpointed two such stocks. Both offer investors a fine combination of defensive traits: dividends yielding over 8%, an upside potential starting at 25%, and ‘Strong Buy’ consensus rating from Wall Street’s analyst corps.
Archrock, Inc. (AROC)
We’ll start with Archrock, a natural gas midstreaming company. The midstream sector connects gas extraction with the final customer; midstream companies control the pipelines, transport, and storage facilities that the natural gas industry depends on. Archrock has operations in the lower 48 states, providing the compression equipment that liquifies natural gas for transport and storage.
The economic shutdowns in Q1 forced a decline in demand, and Archrock’s Q1 EPS was a down sharply sequentially, from 27 cents to 12 cents. At the same time, revenues beat both the estimates and the year-ago number. At $249.7 million, the top line was up 5.7% year-over-year.
A strong free cash flow and heavy-handed actions to cut costs and shore up liquidity allowed AROC to maintain its dividend payment for Q1, and the company paid out 14.5 cents per share common share back in May. This was unchanged from Q4, and up 10% from the first quarter of 2019. It’s a measure of Archrock’s underlying soundness and commitment to the dividend that the company has kept up the payment even during the corona crisis. At 58 cents per share annualized, AROC's dividend yield is an impressive 8.54%.
5-star analyst T J Schultz, of RBC Capital, believes AROC has a firm foundation to move forward. He writes of the stock, “We expect lower associated gas production to have an impact on AROC utilization into 2021, but we think manageable debt leverage and ample dividend coverage provide some flexibility… we think the riskreward is decent at current levels given AROC’s liquidity, lack of near-term debt maturities, and ability to pull additional levers to manage liquidity further if needed.”
Schultz’ Buy rating on the stock is supported by an $11 price target, which suggests an impressive 68% upside potential for the year. (To watch Schultz’ track record, click here)
Overall, the Strong Buy analyst consensus rating on AROC is unanimous, based on 3 recent Buy reviews. Shares are priced at $6.55, and the $9.17 average price target implies a one-year upside of 40%. (See Archrock stock analysis at TipRanks)
Altria Group, Inc. (MO)
The next stock on our list is a classic ‘sin stock.’ Altria is a tobacco company, the maker of Marlboro cigarettes. Tobacco companies have a long history of outperforming market downturns, and the reason is psychological. People will make big changes when financial hardship hits. They’ll give up luxuries and large purchases, and even delay home and repairs – but they’ll keep buying small pleasures like cigarettes. It’s a quirk that has helped make MO a strong defensive play even as overall smoking rates decline.
A look at the Q1 numbers bears out Altria’s solid position. Revenues and earnings – the top and bottom lines – both beat the estimates. Revenues, at $5.05 billion, were 9% above forecasts, and 15% over the year-ago number. EPS came in at $1.09, 12% higher than expected and up almost 7% year-over-year.
Wise diversification from the company has also helped. Altria has taken strong positions the cannabis industry, the vaping sector, and in alcohol, with large-scale investments in Cronos Group, JUUL Labs, and AB InBev. These moves mark a shift for Altria, from pure-play tobacco to the full spectrum of vices.
Altria’s sound niche has allowed the company to keep its solid dividend – with a 12-year history of reliable payments and steady growth – up to date. The company declared its next payment for July 10, of 84 cents per common share. This gives and annualized rate of $3.36 per share, and a yield of 8.56%. The 77% payment ratio is high, showing a commitment to returning profits to shareholders – but it also shows that the company can sustain the dividend at current income levels.
Piper Sandler analyst Michael Lavery sees Altria’s overall position as favorable, even during the pandemic. He states his belief that “We believe consumption may have actually increased during the pandemic, as smokers spend more time away from offices, restaurants, and places with smoking bans. Lower income consumers have also benefited from increased unemployment benefits and the government stimulus... Altria has a vast database of adult US smokers, and it has data at the zip code level to inform pricing and couponing strategies. Altria can monitor and manage mix with its revenue management system on a very targeted basis.”
Lavery’s Buy rating on the stock is backed by his $57 price target, which implies a robust upside for MO shares of 45%. (To watch Lavery’s track record, click here)
With 6 Buy ratings set in recent weeks, MO shares have a Strong Buy from the analyst consensus rating. The $54.50 average price target suggests an upside of 39% from the $39.24 current trading price. (See Altria stock-price forecast on TipRanks)
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