U.S. Markets close in 4 hrs 48 mins

3 Blue-Chip Stocks for a Market Slowdown

The global economy is starting to look a little shaky. Between the US-China trade tensions and now the Iranian-sponsored attacks on Saudi Arabian oil output, the pressures on the world system of trade and commerce are increasing. As CLSA’s Eric Fishwick said, “Trade both ways has slowed… the trade wars are definitely having an impact.” And in an effort to calm markets after the drone attack on his company’s largest facility, Saudi Aramco CEO Amin Nasser said, “We have enough oil products to supply the local market.”

After posting losses on Monday, both the S&P 500 and the Dow Jones were up slightly on Tuesday. The S&P gained 0.26%, while the Dow added 0.13%. A look at the charts, however, shows that the sharp gains the markets have posted since August 23 have slowed and levelled off. Investors are watching the news and getting nervous.

A wise investor will move to protect his portfolio, and we’ve found three Strong Buy stocks in the TipRanks database to do just that. These are large-cap health insurers, offering a product that remains in high demand no matter what the economic conditions, and generating high returns through share appreciation over the long-run. They are not cheap stocks, but they are classic defensive plays for an uncertain market environment.

Anthem, Inc.

With 40 million members, Anthem (ANTMGet Report) is the largest managed care company in the Blue Cross Blue Shield network. It is the largest health insurer in California, the country’s largest state-wide market. ANTM shares are up 123% over the past five years, and the company’s dividend, while yielding a modest 1.24%, pays out an appreciable $3.20 per share annually.

Anthem’s earnings reflect the company’s strong position in the health care market. In the second quarter, Anthem reported a net profit of $1.14 billion on quarterly revenues of $25.47 billion. EPS, at $4.64, was in line with the expected $4.62. Both profits and EPS were up year-over-year; net profits by 8.5% and EPS by 9%.

Robust earnings and a solid position in its industry prompted Deutsche Bank analyst George Hill to start coverage of this stock with a Buy rating. He set a $323 price target, and noted, “The company's execution has been strong recently, even though we see some implementation risk [from] relatively lower exposure to the faster-growing segments of the market.” Hill’s price target suggests an upside potential of 25%.

ANTM stock has a unanimous Buy consensus from the Street; 7 analysts have given this company a Buy in the past three months. Shares sell for $257, and the average price target of $345 implies a potential upside of 34%.

Cigna Holding Company

With 5-year growth of 75%, and a Q2 earnings positive surprise of 13%, Cigna (CIGet Report) is another solid performer in the health insurance industry. The company offers medical and dental, as well as accident, disability, and life insurance products around the world.

Oppenheimer analyst Michael Wiederhorn, who has a 65% success rate with his stock recommendations, sees CI as a compelling buy. His price target of $254 suggests an impressive upside of 57%. In his comments, Wiederhorn states, “The [business] environment has certainly changed, with regulatory pressure affecting all ends of the pharmaceutical supply chain, but he believes the depressed multiples are well overdone.”

Analyst George Hill, quoted above, also likes CI, enough to initiate coverage with a Buy rating. He writes, “The company's PBM segment does not contain the significant short-term earnings risk implied by the steep discount of the stock price. We believe its core commercial MCO and the perceived cross sales benefit could drive its multiple expansion.” Hill’s $207 price target implies an upside of 28%.

Like Anthem, Cigna has a unanimous consensus rating of Strong Buy – in the last three months, the stock has been given 8 buy ratings. Cigna shares sell for $161, making it significantly less expensive than Anthem or UnitedHealth (see below), and its average price target of $214 gives the stock a 32% upside potential.

UnitedHealth Group, Inc.

UnitedHealth (UNHGet Report) benefits from scale – it is the world’s largest health insurer and boasts over 115 million customers. Its 2018 revenue totaled over $225 billion, with over $17 billion realized in profits. More recently, UNH posted a 3.9% positive earnings surprise on Q2 EPS of $3.60. While the company’s growth has slowed in the past year, sheer scale ensures that it will remain profitable. The strong dividend, paying out $4.32 per share annually, makes this stable stock a favorite for return-minded investors.

Continued profitability lies behind 4-star analyst A. J. Rice’s optimism on the stock. The Credit Suisse analyst gives UNH a buy rating with a $293 price target. Rice says of UNH, “The company gave the impression that the moderation in enrollment growth it’s seeing this year was largely expected... However, it also stressed that its goal of 13-16% EPS growth is a long-term target implying that 2020 is an unlikely timeframe to see such substantial improvements.

"Our current 2020 estimates anticipate 10% Y/Y growth. If UNH posts modest upside relative to our Q3 and Q4 2019 estimates, our 2020 $16.30 EPS est could then represent roughly 8-10% growth. This type of growth seems a reasonable initial target.” Rice’s price target suggests a potential upside of 26% for UNH shares. He has a 63% success rate with his recommendations on this stock.

Overall, UNH holds a Strong Buy from the analyst consensus, with 10 buys and 2 holds given in the past three months. Shares in UNH sell for $232, making it the most expensive of the stocks in this list. The $298 price target suggests an upside of 28%.

Visit TipRanks’ Trending Stocks page and find out what else the Street’s top analysts are looking at.