Consumer spending accounts for a whopping 70% of the U.S. economy, which could make consumer stocks -- including the eight names below -- an intriguing patch of the investment landscape in 2017.
For openers, sector is compellingly defensive. Folks buy soap and peanut butter in roughly the same quantities regardless of how the broad economy looks -- and the U.S. economy will definitely face risks in 2017. After all, nine of the past 14 recessions have occurred during a new president's first year. There's also the potential for additional U.S. rate hikes, which could curb what's already been rather tepid economic growth.
Could there also be inflation risk, especially after so many years of waning price growth? If so, consumer products tend to be a good inflation hedge, as shoppers aren't as skittish about an uptick in pricing as would be the users of, say, telecommunications services, transports or industrial products.
Other possible tailwinds for the sector include continued food deflation, possible U.S. corporate-tax cuts, increased government spending and decreased regulation. Discretionary spending in places like restaurants and specialty stores could also grow if U.S. consumers feel better about the economy.
Lastly, with Wall Street's major indices swelling to record levels, the consumer sector could perform well regardless of which way the market goes. If the surge persists, Wall Street's rising tide will lift all boats. But if we're in a bubble that "pops," there might be an appetite for a reliable defensive sector like consumer stocks.
Which consumer firms look the most inviting? Real Money recently spoke with a number of analysts who cover the consumer world to ask for their best picks for 2017. Here's their take:
Blue Buffalo Pet Products
Premium brand Blue Buffalo Pet Products (BUFF) makes "healthy" pet foods, meaning it eschews the fillers and additives found in conventional chow for dogs and cats. That's made BUFF one of the market's fastest-growing brands. While its market share is small -- less than 3% of total U.S. pet-food sales -- Blue Buffalo has a lot of headroom. It also has more pricing elasticity than competitors do. The company went public in 2010 with the distinction of being profitable before its debut, and Blue Buffalo has beaten analyst earnings estimates by more than 10% in the past two quarters.
The rap against BUFF is that it's expensive at roughly a 23x price-to-earnings ratio. Still, earnings growth and conservative forecasts make the stock a compelling investment in a sector that analysts favor. "We are supportive of the pet-food category in general and the premium sub-segment in particular," J.P. Morgan's Ken Goldman says.
There's also a change coming to top management, with Billy Bishop, son of the company's founder, slated to move into the CEO role after having served as president.
Some investors are spooked by Constellation Brands (STZ) in the wake of Donald Trump's election given that the firm owns Corona and other Mexican beers that the new president could slap with tariffs.
But Wells Fargo analyst Bonnie Herzog believes such fears are unfounded. The market is "mispricing downside risk to potential beer-import tariffs," she says. "We believe potential tariffs could be successfully passed through to consumers in the form of higher prices with limited negative volume impact" due to high-end beer's relatively low price.
In addition, "the rotation out of staple stocks is unfairly hurting STZ given its very impressive top-line growth," Herzog says. The analyst has an "Outperform" rating on the stock and a $189 to $191 price target vs. STZ's current $152 or so.
Herzog expects double-digit earnings growth to continue, with the company's own mid- to high-single digit growth target through 2020 too conservative. Noting that the stock currently trades at below her worst-case scenario, she recommends investors buy STZ on weakness, adding that Constellation management itself is taking advantage of the stock's weakness by launching a $1 billion share-repurchase program.
Spanish fast-fashion retailer Inditex (IDEXY) could be set to outperform in 2017 as the firm's sales growth outpaces that of its competitors. IDEXY, whose brands include Zara, Massimo Dutti and Bershka, saw double-digit market share growth throughout 2016 despite a difficult trading environment.
Performance benefited from an operating model that allows the latest fashion trends to reach stores much more quickly than what happens with other European and American fast-fashion retailers. However, the stock has gained about 1% since 2016 began, and Jefferies analyst James Grzinic said IDEXY's "recent pause leaves it trading at the lower end of its recent valuation context, providing a good base for outperformance in 2017."
Another plus: Inditex's supply chain isn't heavily exposed to the U.S. dollar, which makes the company resilient if we see a strong greenback next year. Inditex also has plenty of room to grow, given that the firm is only in the early stages of development in the United States and China.
Consumers might buy more and more clothes online rather than visiting the mall, but that doesn't mean Macy's (M) will be dead in the water in 2017. In fact, the iconic department-store chain could see several catalysts that propel its shares higher.
"Macy's has several initiatives in place to spur growth," says Jefferies analyst Randy Konick. Potential drivers include Macy's new Bluemercury cosmetics shops, as well as an off-price retail concept called Backstage.
Macy's management could also have more of an immediate, positive effect on the company's stock by selling more real estate to fund share buybacks. New CEO Jeff Gennette also intends to outline a bullish five-year plan sometime by mid-year.
Norwegian Cruise Line
Investors might want to board the stock of Norwegian Cruise Line (NCLH) in 2017. After all, the chain recently won clearance to sail to Cuba from Miami in March.
NCLH can also combat oil's recent spike with a deeper hedge book than competitors Royal Caribbean Cruises (RCL) and Carnival Corp. (CCL) have. Ivan Feinseth, chief investment officer and research director at Tigress Financial Partners, adds that "greater economic and demographic trends favor cruise-line companies in general because they offer affordable vacation options and appeal to various age groups, including older generations.
B. Riley & Co. senior analyst Linda Bolton Weiser likes Prestige Brands (PBH) , which sells over-the-counter health-care and household-cleaning products. She says CEO Ron Lombardi has continued the strategy of using high consistent cash flow to make strategic mergers and acquisitions and invest in core brands to drive organic growth between 4% and 5%.
"While (Prestige) is not a growth story per se, it's more wisely using high cash flows to create shareholder value in M&A deals," Bolton Weiser notes.
Take-Two Interactive Software
BMO Capital Markets analyst Gerrick Johnson's top video-game stock for 2017 is Take-Two Interactive Software (TTWO) . The New York-based video-game developer's release of Red Dead Redemption 2 in autumn 2017 is expected to be highly successful.
"Much like an entertainment stock would react, I think the stock will rally into that release," Johnson says. Take-Two also has a "very strong foundation" with its Grand Theft Auto and NBA 2K franchises, he adds. In addition to $60 upfront costs, these titles "monetize" after purchase better than many other games, thanks to micro-transactions and additional downloadable content.
Gabelli & Co. analyst Adam Trivison tells Real Money that CEO Steve Wynn of Wynn Resorts (WYNN) has turned his casino-resort company into the Disney World of gaming, building unrivaled, imaginative resorts.
But the stock has traded weakly relative to the rest of the sector's run-up, although 2017 looks to be the year it catches up to and surpasses competitors. "Steve Wynn properties have a long history of opening slowly, but the Macau property will ramp up after a slow start," Trivison observes.
He also sees Wynn's key Las Vegas market as beginning to show signs of recovery. For example, the analyst points to new non-stop flights between Beijing and Las Vegas as a potential catalyst for the city's tourism industry.
Long-term, Trivison sees the planned $2.1 billion Wynn Boston Harbor property as potentially becoming America's strongest regional casino. The analyst believes the site will add $300 million to the company's annual EBITDA when the casino opens in 2019.
Contributors to this article include Brian Sozzi, Rachel Graf, Lindsay Rittenhouse, Kaya Yurieff, Bob O'Brien, Tony Owusu, Lisa Botter and Laura Berman.