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Are these the best defensive stocks to watch?


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A short description of defensive stocks, and five of the best defensive stocks to watch in 2024. These are the five largest defensive FTSE 100 companies.

defensiveSource: Bloomberg
 

Written by: Charles Archer | Financial Writer, London
 

Defensive stocks are companies whose underlying business is expected to generate reliable revenue and profits regardless of the wider economic environment. This could be because they hold a dominant market position, hold a reputation for value for money, or even simply provide the bare necessities.

Accordingly, they are usually blue-chip companies benefitting from inelasticity of demand, making them ‘safe havens.’ In other words, if they raise prices to match inflation, consumers will continue to buy the products regardless.

Defensive companies rarely deliver significant capital growth, and therefore tend to underperform during bull markets, even underperforming passive investment in indices such as the FTSE 100. But in bear markets, they can appear more attractive for the consistent earnings.

By contrast, cyclical stocks are businesses which tend to outperform in the good times and fall sharply during downturns. These might include consumer discretionary stocks, miners, or oilers, all of which depend on a healthy economy to thrive.

Investing in defensive stocks — and particularly the timing of an investment — is not simple. If you reposition your portfolio too early, you might miss out on additional growth before a downturn becomes too severe. And when the economy recovers, defensive stocks can become undervalued as investors sell in favour of growth.

This makes buying these types of shares in a bull market and then selling them in bear market a popular contrarian investing strategy; though as always, this is harder to do than it sounds.

The following FTSE 100 dividend stocks can be considered to be some of the more popular defensive companies to own in the UK as many have a reliable history of paying out. But remember, past
performance is not an indicator of future returns.

The best defensive stocks to watch

These stocks are the largest defensive stocks on the FTSE 100, if you consider defensive sector companies to be only those which deal in healthcare, consumer staples, utilities or tobacco.

AstraZeneca

AstraZeneca is a multinational pharmaceutical titan which focuses on the development and commercialisation of novel prescription medicines. It works in areas such as cardiovascular, oncology, and respiratory medication — though has a presence across almost the entire development market.
Healthcare sector stocks remain highly defensive, and AstraZeneca is no exception.

In FY23 results, total revenue rose by 6% to $45.8 billion, despite a decline of over $3.7 billion in covid-19 medication sales. When excluding covid-10 medicines, revenue rose by 15%, with oncology revenue up by 21%. And the company boasted a core product sales gross margin of 82%.

CEO Pascal Soriot enthuses that he expects ‘another year of strong growth in 2024, driven by continued adoption of our medicines across geographies. Our differentiated and growing portfolio of approved medicines, global reach and rich R&D pipeline give us confidence that we will continue to deliver industry-leading growth.’

Excitingly, the company recently reported success in its Laura Phase III trial for its Tagrisso treatment, which showed a ‘statistically significant and highly clinically meaningful improvement’ in progression-free survival.

Unilever

Unilever is a multinational consumer goods company which produces a wide range of products including food, drinks, cleaning agents, beauty and personal care products. Some of its well-known brands include Dove, Ben & Jerry’s, and Hellmann's. While the company has arguably underperformed in recent years, it is working at a turnaround plan.

FY23 results saw underlying sales growth at the FTSE 100 defensive company rise by 7% — with a turnover of €59.56 billion. Encouragingly, the business’s underlying operating margin rose by 60bps to 16.7%.

CEO Hein Schumacher notes that ‘2023 Full Year results show an improving financial performance, with the return to volume growth and margins rebuilding. We are moving with speed and urgency to transform Unilever into a consistently higher performing business.’

GSK

GSK — formerly GlaxoSmithKline — is a global biopharma company which aims to positively impact the health of 2.5 billion people by the end of 2030. After spinning out consumer healthcare company Haleon, GSK’s R&D focus is on four therapeutic areas: infectious diseases, HIV, respiratory/immunology and oncology.

FY23 sales rose by 5% year-over-year to £30.3 billion, and by 14% when excluding covid-19 based sales. Top vaccine patent Shingrix, which protects against shingles, generated £3.4 billion alone. Further, adjusted operating profit rise by 12%, reflecting ‘strong sales ex COVID and higher royalty income, partly offset by increased investment in R&D and new product launches.’

With 71 vaccines and specialty medicines now in clinical development, CEO Emma Walmsley notes the company is ‘now planning for at least 12 major launches from 2025, with new Vaccines and Specialty Medicines for infectious diseases, HIV, respiratory and oncology. As a result of this progress and momentum, we expect to deliver another year of meaningful sales and earnings growth in 2024.’

Diageo

Diageo is a global leader in premium alcoholic drinks, controlling over 200 brands and with sales in nearly 180 countries. The company owns distilleries which produce 40% of all Scotch whisky including Johnnie Walker — and it also owns Guinness, Smirnoff, Baileys, Captain Morgan, Tanqueray and Gordon's.

In recent interim results, net sales declined by 1.4% to $11 billion, driven by an unfavourable foreign exchange impact and the widely reported net sales declines in Latin America and the Caribbean. Accordingly, operating profit fell by 11.1% to $3.3 billion — though this fall was just $205 million when excluding the LAC region.

CEO Debra Crew admitted that ‘the first half of fiscal 24 was challenging for Diageo and our sector, particularly as we lapped strong growth in the prior year and faced an uneven global consumer environment…looking ahead to the second half of fiscal 24, despite continued global economic volatility, we expect to deliver improvement in organic net sales and organic operating profit growth at the group level, compared to the first half.’

British American Tobacco

British American Tobacco is one of the world’s largest tobacco companies, boasting a brand portfolio including Lucky Strike, Dunhill, and Pall Mall. In terms of defensiveness, tobacco is a popular investing theme given the addictive nature of nicotine — though of course there is an ESG element to consider.

However, the company is contending with changing consumer preferences and government intervention. It wrote off circa £25 billion in value of its US-based cigarette portfolio in December 2023 as smoker rates fall — while the UK is planning to implement a ban on disposable vapes soon.

In full-year results, revenue dropped by 1.3% (though rose by 3.1% at constant rates). For context, ‘new category’ revenue grew by 21% — and revenue from non-combustibles now makes up 16.5% of the group’s overall revenue. Importantly, new categories achieved profitability in 2023 after years of losses and two years ahead of target, contributing £398 million to the profit pile.

CEO Tadeu Marocco notes that the ‘refined strategy commits us to 'Building a Smokeless World', a predominantly smokeless business, with 50% of our revenue from Non-Combustibles by 2035.I am confident that the choices we have made will drive our long-term success and create sustainable value for all our stakeholders.’

 

 
 

This information has been prepared by IG, a trading name of IG Markets Limited. In addition to the disclaimer below, the material on this page does not contain a record of our trading prices, or an offer of, or solicitation for, a transaction in any financial instrument. IG accepts no responsibility for any use that may be made of these comments and for any consequences that result. No representation or warranty is given as to the accuracy or completeness of this information. Consequently any person acting on it does so entirely at their own risk. Any research provided does not have regard to the specific investment objectives, financial situation and needs of any specific person who may receive it. It has not been prepared in accordance with legal requirements designed to promote the independence of investment research and as such is considered to be a marketing communication. Although we are not specifically constrained from dealing ahead of our recommendations we do not seek to take advantage of them before they are provided to our clients. See full non-independent research disclaimer and quarterly summary.

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