Crisis Investing: Focus on Essential Services

Over the years, I’ve often remarked that a global pandemic is one of my greatest fears. As the world’s population rises, so do the opportunities for novel viruses to emerge.

My thoughts, however, were always on the health risks. I didn’t spend nearly as much time thinking about the economic risks. As we have seen over the past month, those economic risks can be devastating. Society is grinding to a halt. People are being asked to work from home, or not at all.

Certain industries have been hit hardest. Oil is a critical sector of the economy. However, oil production has expanded so much in recent years, we find supply way in front of demand. Oil prices and the energy sector were crushed by the coronavirus-induced economic slowdown, with a strong nudge from the Saudi-Russo oil price war.

Of course the carnage goes well beyond the energy sector. The travel and hospitality sectors have seen their share prices decimated. Restaurants and hotels are empty. Airplanes are half full. It will take months these industries to recover.

But I’ve also been observing the other side of the coin: the industries that actually benefit from the coronavirus crisis. Let’s focus on industries that are absolutely critical to maintain modern society.

Setting the table for profits…

When we think about immutable human needs, food is at the top of the list. We all need to eat. The food supply chain includes farmers that grow the food, to manufacturers that supply farmers with equipment, to the trucking companies that move the food, to processing plants and grocery stores.

Read This Story: Agricultural Assets: Shelter from the Storm

Grocery stores are thriving right now, but their business model has suddenly changed. Those that are designed to either deliver to your home or to your car are in the best position.

Amazon (NSDQ: AMZN) has become one of America’s most important companies. This e-commerce giant even delivers groceries like milk and eggs. That’s an important service right now. I took my first delivery of groceries from Amazon this past week.

In addition to Amazon, other shipping companies are critical, but some may be in the same boat as the oil industry. While the importance of certain deliveries has increased, shipping volumes of those deliverables could be down, because some businesses have been clobbered, or supply chains have been interrupted. Affected shipping companies may suffer. However, Amazon has developed such a diversified business, it will weather this crisis better than most shippers.

Utilities are essential as well. Despite economic ups and downs, we always need water, electricity and power. Most of us enjoy cable television or satellite services. Internet service is especially critical right now. Even though utility stocks overall have taken a gut punch in this down market, utilities won’t go out of business. They will eventually rebound. For a list of appealing dividend-paying utilities stocks, click here.

As I write this article, I’m reminded that tomorrow is trash day for our household. Where would we be without trash pickup? That’s a critical service. Out of curiosity, I decided to see how the nation’s largest trash hauler, Waste Management (NYSE: WM), has fared during the current crisis. I’ve looked at Waste Management in the past and the price-to-earnings (P/E) ratio was always high. I think coming out of this bear market, investors will once again pay more attention to this valuation metric.

But Waste Management has held up well. It sold off during the prolonged crash in equities, but WM dropped less than the overall market. You might have expected it to drop more given its elevated P/E ratio and the fact that it has doubled the performance of the S&P 500 over the past five years, but the company provides a critical service. I suspect that’s why it held up as well as it has.

Companies that enable people to work remotely will take on increasing importance. So will health care providers. Companies such as Teladoc Health (NYSE: TDOC) combine both qualities: remote services and medical care. Teladoc allows patients to get diagnosed and in many cases treated remotely. Health care companies, especially technology innovators such as Teladoc, are likely to see their businesses surge.

During the coronavirus pandemic, investors should emphasize America’s critical service industries and make sure they’re represented in their portfolios.

Another asset that you need represented in your portfolio, especially during this time of crisis, is gold.

The yellow metal is a classic safe haven against the sort of tumult we’re now witnessing. The yellow metal’s price has been on a tear but it has much further to run. Looking for a well-positioned gold play now? Get our special report on gold investments.