Where to buy defensive stocks at the right price

Defensive stocks buy right price ASX 2021
What are some of the well-priced mid-caps for troubled times?

If the coronavirus were an Olympic athlete, it would be smashing the best-ever marathon time by taking a sneaky short cut, or else heaving to a weightlifting record with a belly full of steroids.

Yep – the vexatious virus is not playing by the rules, which puts paid to the notion that ‘recovery’ stocks such as Sydney Airport (ASX: SYD) or Flight Centre (ASX: FLT) are going to rebound in a hurry (unless they’re taken over).

With equity markets taking a definitive (albeit expected) nervy term, now’s the time to consider the shares that will perform in good or bad – or, more likely, ambivalent – times.

Defensive stocks can be expensive

The enduring problem with the defensives is that they’re usually expensive, which poses risks of their own.

Some of the classic resilient stocks can no longer be relied on. Examples are generators such as AGL Energy (ASX: AGL) and Origin Energy (ASX: ORG) – now with the pariah status once accorded to forest-lopper Gunns – and casino stocks.

The supermarkets Woolworths (ASX: WOW) and Coles (ASX: COL) are okay, albeit boring. They’re also ‘cycling’ last year’s peak Covid sales.

Healthcare is an ultra-resilient sector as whole, but stocks such as CSL Limited (ASX: CSL) and private hospital operator and Ramsay Healthcare (ASX: RHC) look eternally expensive (and the latter suffers from the drop off in elective surgeries).

Mid-caps for troubled times

Although the majors can be expensive, there are some well-priced mid cap stocks for troubled times.

Collins Foods

The country’s biggest franchisor of KFC outlets, Collins Foods (ASX: CKF) reported an “exceptional” financial year to March 2021.

“During really challenging periods people tend to gravitate to brands that they know,” says Collins chief Drew O’Malley, noting that takeaway and drive-through more than compensated for the lost in-house custom.

One reason for the 12% jump in turnover and 50% profit rebound was a sharper focus on delivery, via closer collaboration with the likes of Menulog, Deliveroo and DoorDash.

But while the company is happy to cede this ‘last mile’ delivery, it’s keeping tight control over the branding and the customer experience.

O’Malley says home delivery now accounts for 6% of sales, from virtually nothing three years ago.

(The virtue of chicken is that it holds its heat better than, say, a hamburger).

Of course, the fast food, er, quick service restaurant sector is ultra-competitive.

O’Malley reckons the Collins’ KFC outlets market share grew by 5% in the March quarter while the overall category fell 4%.

“We believe the big guys are taking share and the smaller independents are probably giving up that share.”

Locally, Collins accounts for 250 of the 700 KFC outlets, mainly in Queensland and WA.

The company has also acquired outlets in Germany and the Netherlands and locally is building the Taco Bell chain.

COVID posed more challenges to the European business than the local one.

But the key point is that overall sales haven’t swooned during the pandemic and are unlikely to after the plague has lifted.

Domino’s Pizza Enterprises

Collins’ ASX peer Domino’s Pizza Enterprises (ASX: DMP), which is headquartered in the same building in the Brisbane suburb of Hamilton, can also be seen as defensive.

The stock always trades on a hefty earning multiple – about 60 times as present – but apart from some short-term hiccoughs the company has never failed investors.

Ingham’s Group

At the risk of appearing poultry-obsessed, your columnist also notes the resilience of Ingham’s (ASX: ING) during the pandemic.

One of the country’s biggest chicken growers, processors and distributors, Ingham’s services client such as the aforementioned KFC, Coles, Woolworths as well as and McDonald’s.

In late May Ingham’s earnings guidance revealed an underlying full-year net profit of $96-103 million – well ahead of market expectations and the previous year’s $78.8 million.

One reason for the outperformance is that Ingham’s sales are predominantly via grocery channels. In the longer-term, consumers continue to shift from red to white meat, albeit with an emphasis on ethically reared birds.

Ingham’s shares have had a good run but trade on a defensible earnings multiple of 22 times for the 2021-22 year and a none-too-paltry 6% yield.

Propel Funeral Partners

Deathcare stocks are not the dead-cert defensive plays they are often purported to be, with both Propel Funeral Partners (ASX: PFP) and bigger listed rival Invocare (ASX: IVC) impacted by attendance limits on funerals during the pandemic lockdowns.

Ironically, the world’s biggest health threat in decades also reduced the mortality rate because flu cases dropped to next to nothing.

Having said that, Australia’s below-trend death rate will almost certainly pick up, unless ageing Baby Boomers discover the elixir of eternal life.

Propel shares have easily outperformed Invocare’s over the last 12 months – gaining 30% compared with 4% – but the stock still looks better value.

With 138 locations weighted to Queensland and NSW, Propel has a circa 7% of the national market compared with Invocare’s dominant 23%.

Propel investors last month green-lighted a motion to internalise the company’s management at a cost of $15 million, after the independent expert grudgingly ticked off the proposal as not fair but reasonable.

Telstra

We recently nominated the laggard telco Telstra (ASX: TLS) as a ‘sell’, but in the context of those desperately seeking a pre-June 30 tax loss to offset gains elsewhere.

Telstra has been one of the worst telco performers, with its shares tumbling 33% over the past five years.

The stock has also rebounded 23% since January, partly on the back of the $2.8 billion of the telco’s towers business, which is expected to spur a $1 billion capital return.

A point of intrigue is the telco’s involvement with the feds in a mooted $2.8 billion acquisition of Digicel Pacific, which provides communications services to our South Pacific Island neighbours.

Telstra likes the business because it’s highly profitable, while Canberra is more motivated by keeping China well at bay. It may be best for Telstra if it walks away, but it’s hard to know.

Telstra is also expected to win market share with the rollout of its 5G network, which should spur customers to upgrade their phone plans.

Let’s not forget Telstra remains the country’s biggest telco, which should inherently benefit from the remote working economy and internet of things connectivity.

Telstra trades on an earnings multiple of 25 times, which doesn’t exactly scream deep value. But there’s some positive things going on and while investors are waiting, they can reap a 4% yield.

NextDC

Special mention to pure-play data centre operator NextDC (ASX: NXT), which will be a defensive play as long as we continue to produce trillions of gigabytes of data.

People forget that all this data stored in the cloud, in fact, has to be kept in earthly locations such as NextDC’s vast custom-built facilities.

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