7 Stocks for the Growth Drought

11/04/2011 9:43 am EST

Focus: STOCKS

Jim Jubak

Founder and Editor, JubakPicks.com

No matter where you look, you're not likely to see much economic growth in the near future. Stocks like DuPont and Nestle should help get us through the desert.

Take a deep breath, and let's decide not to talk about the Greek debt crisis, the Italian debt crisis, or the euro debt crisis.

Let's instead think long term-say, eight or nine months down the road. (Yes, that's long term in this volatile market.)

Greece will or won't have defaulted. (I bet on default.) Italy will have finally replaced its government and restored some confidence in its finances. Eurozone leaders will be buried in negotiations to amend the treaties that govern the monetary union.

And what will be top of the mind for investors?

Growth-and where to find it in a world where economic growth is scarce. Rather than building portfolios with a goal of avoiding a potential blowup in Greece, Italy, or the European banking sector in general, investors will be trying to build portfolios that wring the last drop of growth out of what will be a very slow-growth world.

Shall we get a head start? (Please think of this as an update and fine-tuning of my October 11 "road map for the next nine months.")

We'll begin with the macroeconomic picture, then get to some picks.

The Developed World Is Pulling Back
Growth in the world's developed economies in 2012? Dream on.

On October 31, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development lowered its growth forecast for the United States to 1.8% for 2012. (That comes after US economic growth picked up to a 2.5% rate in the third quarter. For all of 2011, the projection called for 1.7% growth.)

For the Eurozone, the organization said, growth will fall from a projected 1.6% in 2011 to just 0.3% in 2012.

And the actual results could be even worse, the OECD said. If the Eurozone can't come up with a solution to its current crisis, the region might slip into a recession in 2012.

That's essentially the view that new European Central Bank President Mario Draghi outlined in his first bank press conference on Thursday. When the bank releases its new economic forecasts for 2012 next month, they will likely project lower growth, he said, and the Eurozone could see a mild recession next year.

There are, unfortunately, good reasons to think that these seemingly pessimistic forecasts for growth in the Eurozone and in the United States are correct-and maybe even too optimistic. It's not just that growth is slow now, but that governments in the developed world seem committed to removing the last bits of stimulus left from the 2008 Lehman Brothers crisis (the United States) and to cutting government spending (the Eurozone and the United States).

In the United States, stimulus measures-such as a reduction in the Social Security payroll tax and another round of extensions to unemployment benefits that were put into place in the 2010 lame-duck session of Congress-are set to expire at the end of 2011. And right now, I'd say the odds are that Congress won't renew them.

New stimulus measures proposed by President Barack Obama are also unlikely to pass, and new stimulus from the Federal Reserve now under discussion, such as plans to buy mortgage-backed securities (in yet another effort to lower mortgage rates), are likely to have very limited effects on the economy.

In the United States and the Eurozone, governments are looking at budget cuts that are necessary to bring long-term deficits under control, but that will cut into economic growth in the short term. In France, for example, plans to bring the 2011 budget deficit down have run into lower government revenue due to a slowing economy, and that has led to plans to cut government spending even further.

In the US the so-called supercommittee (officially the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction) is under a November 23 deadline to produce a package of budget cuts and tax increases (excuse me, I mean "revenue enhancements").

If the committee can't come up with at least $1.2 trillion in spending cuts and/or tax increases-or if Congress in a straight-up-or-down vote doesn't pass the committee's recommendations-then a menu of automatic budget cuts would go into effect in January 2013 (after the election, of course).

NEXT: Emerging Economies Won't Help Much

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Emerging Economies Won't Help Much
It would be nice to think that emerging economies are set to bail out the developed world, but that doesn't seem likely-not in the first half of 2012, anyway. The BRIC nations-Brazil, Russia, India, and China-are seeing growth slow as a result of measures designed to lower inflation.

It now looks as if those economies are starting to reverse those policies. Brazil, for example, has started to cut interest rates. What isn't clear is how quickly economic policies will shift direction. Growth in Brazil looks unlikely to pick up significantly in the next six months, for example.

The big question, of course, is China. And there, I think investors can see the first steps that will lead to a reversal in policy strong enough to put a bottom in on economic growth around the middle of 2012. Here's part of a timetable put together by Caixin Online:

  • October 25: The China Banking Regulation Commission published new policies for granting preferential loans to small companies and limits on service charges to small companies. China's smaller companies have been hit hard by the government's attempt to rein in bank lending.
  • October 29: Premier Wen Jiabao spoke of the need to fine-tune China's macroeconomic policies.
  • Fourth quarter of 2011: The government looks to be planning to move from a slight budget surplus in the first nine months of 2011 to a slight deficit in the fourth quarter. The total deficit for the year would be only about $130 billion, but the switch from surplus to deficit would signal a move to stimulate the economy.

All this, in my opinion, puts China on track for a growth bottom near an 8% annual growth rate (down from the current 9.1%) in the middle of 2012, and then a gradual acceleration in growth.

That's roughly the picture that the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development sees as well: Growth in the world's 20 largest economies will slow to 3.8% in 2012 from 3.9% in 2011, before accelerating to 4.6% in 2013. (I've got my doubts about that 2013 part, but let's leave that for another day.)

So what investors are really looking at is a kind of growth desert in the first half of 2012, with growth slowing in both the developed and developing economies before picking up in the developing economies in the second half of 2012.

Stocks for This Desert
Now on to the hard stuff-where do you put your money? Four answers:

Dividend stocks: While we're waiting for the growth train to come in, getting paid a yield of 3.5% or more while we wait seems attractive. That was part of the logic behind my recent recommendation of DuPont (DD) (You can read it here.)

Developing-economy bank stocks: Bank stocks will be one of the first sectors to pick up as central banks in these countries cut interest rates, because that will increase the net interest spread for the banks and lower the risk of loan defaults. One to consider is Brazil's Itau Unibanco (ITUB). I'd stay away from China's banks because of big, unrecognized, bad loan problems.

Developing-economy stocks that focus on the domestic economy: If developed-world export markets grow slowly or not at all, a majority of acceleration in developing-economy growth will come from domestic sales. I'd rather own a Baidu (BIDU) or a Ping An (PNGAY) in China or a Gol Linhas (GOL) in Brazil than an exporter such as Brazil's Vale (VALE).

Developed-market stocks with a big exposure to developing economies: China is the big growth market for Coach (COH), and the emerging markets are the big targets for a food company such as Nestle (NSRGY).

(Coach and Gol are members my Jubak's Picks portfolio, and Baidu and Itau Unibanco are members of my long-term Jubak Picks 50 portfolio.)

Any investing road map is subject to revisions. The main reason for this one is even-slower-than-expected growth in the world's developed economies over the next nine months.

If the euro debt crisis has proved nothing else, it has proved that investors should never underestimate the ability of politicians to muck things up.

Full disclosure: I don't own shares of any of the companies mentioned in this post in my personal portfolio. The mutual fund I manage, Jubak Global Equity Fund, may or may not now own positions in any stock mentioned in this post. The fund did own shares of Baidu, DuPont, Gol Linhas, Itau Unibanco, Nestl?and Ping An as of the end of June. For a full list of the stocks in the fund as of the end of June, see the fund's portfolio here.

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