Four Stocks to Buy, Hold During Treacherous Times: John Dorfman

There’s truth in the old Wall Street saying, “The market climbs a wall of worry.” The only thing that changes is the graffiti on the wall.

The crises that preoccupy investors keep changing. At any given time, there are a few issues that they can’t stop obsessing about. Last year everyone’s attention was on the three Gs: the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, Goldman Sachs Group Inc. (GS)’s legal problems and Greece’s solvency worries.

You hear little about these situations today. Just as I predicted last year, the issues remain unresolved yet they have mutated from crises into ordinary problems. Investors’ attention has moved elsewhere.

Today’s preoccupations are Japan’s earthquake devastation and nuclear crisis; Libya’s potential to become a third front to bog down the U.S. military; and uprisings elsewhere in the Middle East.

I believe that investors nonetheless can expect that stocks of good companies purchased today will be worth more in two or three years. I’m thinking of companies such as Vishay Intertechnology Inc. (VSH), Buckle Inc. (BKE), MKS Instruments Inc. (MKSI) and Carter’s Inc. (CRI)

I’ll tell you why I like these stocks in a moment. First, let me elaborate on the wall of worry concept.

In 1998 an Asian currency crisis took center stage. In August of that year, the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index fell about 15 percent. Some pundits thought the world financial system would unravel. It didn’t, and the S&P went on to post a 29 percent total return for the remainder of the year.

Fall and Rise

Japanese stocks fell 26 percent in the first half of 1995 after a terrible earthquake that devastated Kobe, an industrial and shipping hub. Yet over the following 24 months, the Nikkei 225 Stock index gained almost 44 percent, including dividends.

I remember a time in the early 1970s when investors focused obsessively on the U.S. balance of payments. Back in the 1920s, rail car loadings were a key metric. It’s as if investors can never see the whole forest, only certain trees.

The wall-of-worry concept applies over long time spans as well. From December 1940 through December 2010 stocks advanced at a compound annual growth rate of 11 percent, including reinvested dividends. During that time we experienced World War II, the Korean War, the Cuban missile crisis, the Vietnam War, above-ground nuclear testing (with radioactive fallout), Watergate, the Arab oil embargo and several recessions.

Don’t Give Up

I recite that history lesson to worried clients when they call me during scary times, wondering if they should stay in the market or withdraw. You can guess my reply. As chess grandmaster Bobby Fischer once said, nobody ever won a chess game by resigning.

If you buy good stocks and hold them for two years or more, you will usually come out well. One that I recommend now is Vishay Intertechnology, based in Malvern, Pennsylvania. It makes electronic components such as capacitors, diodes, resistors and transistors. Its products are used in cars, computers, printers and mobile phones.

Vishay’s is a feast-or-famine business, and it had losses in 2008 and 2009. I believe it will stay profitable for a good while now. In 2010 it posted a return on stockholders’ equity of almost 24 percent. The stock sells for 11 times earnings.

Years of Profit

Buckle, a Kearney, Nebraska, apparel maker, never missed a beat during the worldwide recession. It has reported a profit each year since it went public in 1992. In the fiscal year that ended in January, the company posted a red-hot return on stockholders’ equity, 38 percent.

You might expect Buckle to sell for exorbitant prices, but in fact it fetches only 13 times earnings. The clothes are definitely young, casual, and mostly medium-priced, with some edging up to higher price points.

Occupying an interesting niche is MKS Instruments. The Andover, Massachusetts, company makes instruments that control and analyze gases during manufacturing processes. The products are needed to make semiconductors, flat panel displays, optical storage devices and solar cells.

The company lost money in 2009 yet bounced back in 2010, posting a 19 percent return on equity. I think the technology and manufacturing segments are heating up, and more profitable times should lie ahead for MKS.

I’ll close with Carter’s, the largest U.S. manufacturer of baby clothes. The Atlanta-based company has four major sales channels: its own stores, department stores, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Target Corp. It makes the Child of Mine brand for Wal- Mart and the Tykes brand for Target.

Having acquired its leading competitor, Oshkosh B’Gosh Inc., in 2005, Carter’s has market dominance and some degree of pricing power. It earned almost 24 percent on equity last year. The stock sells for 11 times earnings. It pays no dividend but would be wise to start doing so, in my opinion.

Disclosure note: I have no long or short positions in the stocks mentioned in this week’s column, for clients or personally.

(John Dorfman, chairman of Thunderstorm Capital in Boston, is a columnist for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own. His firm or clients may own or trade securities discussed in this column.)

To contact the writer of this column: John Dorfman at jdorfman@thunderstormcapital.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this column: James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net

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