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Is AT&T the Best Defensive Stock Against a 2017 Market Correction?

Jon C. Ogg

Now that we basically are one-third of the way through 2017, one amazing trend is that this eight-year-old bull market continues to rage on. Despite a weaker-than-expected gross domestic product report and weaker durable goods report this week, investors have continues to line up and buy the stock market pullbacks without fail. Even with the president's pro-growth policies not yet implemented, equity investors have not see any of the major gains since the election get taken away.

Stocks have risen well over 200% from their V-bottom lows in March of 2009. For investors who have been in the markets for decades, it is no secret that markets can change quickly. In fact, many sell-offs and mini-bear markets can come on without warning. Some sell-offs come out of thin air for reasons that most investors had not considered at the time. Maybe it is time for investors to reconsider all the growth-chasing in favor of some of the safer dividend-paying stocks that are highly defensive stocks.

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24/7 Wall St. recently screened out eight defensive stocks targeted specifically toward the summer of 2017. As the summer approaches, many investors fear that a stock market correction could come at almost any time. Of the eight defensive stocks outlined for the summer of 2017, AT&T Inc. (NYSE:T) has held up better than some expected after rival Verizon Communications Inc. (VZ) reported earnings.

Is it possible that AT&T is the best defensive stock for the summer of 2017? It was the highest dividend yield of the eight stocks, yielding almost 5%. While there is a four-way wireless war among Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint, it was AT&T that came out on top, even though AT&T shares have, according to FINVIZ, underperformed the broader market:

  • On the last trading day of April, the Dow Jones Industrial Average was up almost 2% for the week, up about 1.5% for the month, and up almost 7% so far in 2017.
  • AT&T was down 1% for the week, versus a drop of over 3.5% for Verizon. AT&T was down 2.8% over the past month, but less than the 4.2% drop for Verizon. And for a year-to-date run, AT&T's 4.0% drop was less than the 10.5% drop seen in Verizon shares.

Many investors only care absolute returns. It makes sense on the surface, because no investors like to lose money. This begins to change when it comes to defensive stocks because many investors look at these as a "chicken bull" way to play the stock market. Dividends and stock safety may suddenly become much more important than chasing the broader risk that the stock market as a whole takes on.

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When it comes to AT&T, it feels like the sell-off from its highs of 2016 may offer at least some cover for investors who might worry about a stock market sell-off. We have yet to hear much about "sell in May and go away" as an investor mantra in 2017, but then again we try to get you thinking about things ahead time rather than just trying to figure out how to react once an event comes into play. And then there are the summer doldrums to consider.

The pro-growth economic Trump policies are still potentially months away from being finalized, and many Americans feel that they may not come to fruition at all. There are many skeptics about the likelihood and magnitude of the tax plans the administration actually will get passed. Economic growth under gross domestic product (GDP) remains somewhat muted. Some of the strong January and February economic readings have been followed by more tempered growth. The Federal Reserve still wants to keep raising interest rates. And international tensions remain high.

Does all this add up to a big stock market sell-off being imminent? Maybe, but maybe not. The stock market has yet to get hit by any silver bullet that has managed to kill the bull. As mentioned, there is always the “sell in May and go away” mantra to be considered. Summer is traditionally a time that the stock market is not at the top of investors’ minds and goals. They call it the “summer doldrums” for a reason.

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AT&T's earnings report showed that the company still added subscribers. That was better than what was shown by Verizon, but long-term investors should consider that the winds can change over time. It might be just as easy to argue now that the drop of Verizon being so much greater than the one in AT&T makes Verizon that much more attractive for defensive investors.

AT&T’s pending merger with Time Warner Inc. (TWX) also has some investors concerned. It has other investors excited, particularly when considering that AT&T already has acquired DirecTV. AT&T now has a $246 billion market cap, higher than the $192 billion market cap for Verizon. Still, Verizon has bought AOL and is in the process of acquiring Yahoo! Inc. (YHOO), and there is more talk that Verizon is open to a more transformational merger in media or in cable. If that were to occur, then a new Verizon versus AT&T review might look entirely different. After all, these are all relative outlooks that change as values change.

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With AT&T shares ending trading at $39.63 last week, the stock has a 52-week range of $36.10 to $43.89. Its consensus price target is $42.80, and some analysts are more positive. Jefferies had an above-consensus target and Merrill Lynch recently defended AT&T.

Perhaps the biggest kicker of all, outside of a defensive stock stance for what some investors feel is a utility stock, is that AT&T currently pays 4.9% dividend yield. The company also has raised its dividend for 33 consecutive years and is expected to keep doing so with minor dividend hikes.

Regardless of whether investors think that AT&T or Verizon is more attractive at any point if the market were to sell off, investors need to at least consider what to expect if that overdue stock market correction doesn’t come this year. Defensive stocks can rise in a rising stock market, but growth stocks that dominate the Nasdaq and S&P 500 would almost certainly trump defensive stocks if the rally continues without fail.

Stay tuned.

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