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Discretionary purchases surge as recession ebbs

Discretionary purchases surge as recession ebbs

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Andrew Leckey

Levolor blinds, Hot Wheels and fragrances such as Wild Elixir could be leading Americans out of recession in 2011.

Companies that make such products tend to excel as consumers gain confidence and begin to treat themselves to discretionary items whose purchase didn't seem pressing in the midst of an economic downturn. Beauty products are an example of goods that usually gain in sales as the economy perks up.

"In an economic recovery — which we're 'sort of' in now — the more discretionary consumer names are the outperformers," said Linda Bolton Weiser, managing director for equity research at Caris & Co. in New York. "That has been my investment stance in the past year, and it continues into 2011."

The reason for her 'sort of" caveat is the nagging problem of high unemployment that can't be disregarded. Yet there has been talk of companies' doing more hiring and investing in 2011, she notes, and many economic indicators look promising.

Her following stock recommendations are based on a belief that consumer discretionary activity will gradually be picking up speed:

• Newell Rubbermaid Inc. (NWL) is the maker of Levolor blinds, Paper Mate pens, Lenox tools and Graco baby offerings in addition to Rubbermaid products. Expenses and exposure to commodity prices were reduced and operations centralized to position it for the economic recovery.

• Estee Lauder (EL), global manufacturer of skin care, makeup, fragrance and hair-care products, sells through department stores, specialty retailers and salons in 150 countries. It has trimmed costs and staffing. Besides countless fragrances such as the limited edition Wild Elixir, its product lines include Clinique, Origins, MAC and Aveda.

• Mattel Inc. (MAT), whose brands include Hot Wheels, Barbie, Fisher-Price and American Girl, also produces toys under exclusive entertainment licenses. Besides selling through mass retailers and specialty toy stores, it owns retail shops in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.

• Tupperware Brands Corp. (TUP), which manufactures and sells the products for food storage and preparation that bear its name, also makes BeautiControl beauty and skin care products. Products are sold directly to consumers through distributors and dealers around the world.

The less exciting side of the consumer equation involves those companies that deal with "must-have" consumer staples, which includes stocks in common household products, prescription drugs, discount chains, food and beverages.

These sturdy investments led the way during the depths of the recession but have lost some steam lately.

Even though consumer staples may not be as popular as they once were, hedging bets in a quirky recovery makes some sense. After all, investing is all about diversification, and owning stocks of companies with trusted names and hard-to-replicate distribution networks can be reassuring.

"While they don't capture the imagination, consumer staples do have their finger on the pulse of the nation and appeal to a variety of investors looking to familiar names," said Jeff Tjornehoj, senior research analyst with Lipper Inc. in Denver, Colo. "These should be a part of an investor's portfolio because these companies have actual earnings, employ a lot of people and aren't going to be going away."

A good way to invest in such bellwether stocks, Tjornehoj believes, is Vanguard Consumer Staples ETF (VDC). This exchange-traded fund gained 15 percent last year, 16 percent in 2009 and has a five-year annualized return of 8 percent. Unlike conventional mutual funds, ETFs are traded on an exchange like a stock.

Tracking the MSCI U.S. Investable Consumer Staples Index, its low-turnover portfolio of 113 stocks emphasizes nondiscretionary North American consumer staples with dominant market shares and stable cash flows. Although its portfolio consists of North American based firms, the majority generate a significant portion of sales and profits abroad.

Its largest holdings include Procter & Gamble Co., Coca-Cola Co., Wal-Mart Stores Inc., PepsiCo Inc., Philip Morris International Inc., Kraft Foods Inc., Altria Group Inc., CVS Caremark Corp., Colgate-Palmolive Co. and Walgreen Co. Nearly two-thirds of assets are kept in those top 10 holdings, so it is highly dependent on their success.

Some other ETF alternatives are Consumer Staples Select Sector SPDR (XLP), iShares S&P Global Consumer Staples (KXI) and iShares Dow Jones U.S. Consumer Goods (IYK).

"Investors should hold on to the consumer staples companies that they have in their portfolios, or even add to their positions, because of the current economic landscape," said Andrew Fitzpatrick, director of investments for Hinsdale Associates in Hinsdale, Ill. "Although I have an optimistic outlook for a positive year, there will still be volatility, and it is nice to have stocks with defensive characteristics because they are market share leaders with staying power."

Consumer staple stocks feature goods that are needed day to day, he said. Names such as Procter & Gamble are well positioned for a global recovery because they are benefiting from the growth in the middle classes of the emerging markets.

Just don't expect them to take off like a rocket even if the economy does, because that's not what they're all about.

"In 2008, when the stock market was really bad, the Proctor & Gamble and Clorox stocks of the world were its heroes because they didn't decline as much as other stocks," cautioned Weiser. "Yet they're contrarian to the market, so when the market is up those stocks can underperform."

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