Be Prepared for Earnings Season with these Stocks

The overall tone at the start of the earnings season is looking downbeat.  The S&P 500 index is on pace for its fourth day of declines over concern the global economic slowdown was hurting profits and causing companies to lower their outlooks.  The index is testing the technical support level of 1,440.  If the overall earnings picture does disappoint, the market can break the support level and fall into correction territory.

But as important as beating consensus earnings expectations for the third quarter are, it is even more important to provide reassuring enough guidance for the fourth quarter and beyond.  The overall earnings scorecard for the third quarter is that we have 28 companies from the S&P 500 already report results as of this morning (October 10), with total earnings down 4.9% from the same period last year and less than half of the companies beating earnings expectations.

It is still early in the earnings season, but if the quality of guidance remains weak, then estimates for the fourth quarter will have to come down from current expectations.  Prudent investors will want to protect against this potential decline by seeking safety in high quality dividend stocks.  Here are some stocks to consider if the earnings season disappoints and the markets pullback from current levels.

Food producer Conagra Foods (CAG) is showing price strength in the past few weeks on the heels of several analyst upgrades.   Conagra beat Q1 earnings and raised 2013 earnings outlook.  In addition, Conagra raised its dividend 4% and now has a dividend yield of 3.60%.  The Company has a low beta of 0.46 meaning it has low price volatility compared to the overall market.  Conagra has an equity summary score of 9.6 out of 10 for a VERY Bullish outlook.

Ketchup maker H.J. Heinz Co. (HNZ) has a flat stock price which is up only 5% year to date but it is a stable stock with a low beta of 0.50.  Heinz is continuing to exhibit strong sales in emerging markets, where organic sales rose 19.3% last quarter.  Heinz is increasing marketing efforts in the U.S. as shoppers remain frugal with their grocery budgets.  The Company has a current dividend yield of 3.63% that was increased 7.3% in the past year.  Heinz has an equity summary score of 9.1 out of 10 for a VERY Bullish outlook.

Medical device maker Medtronic (MDT) has a 1-year total return of 32%. However, it is still considered a low volatility stock with a beta of 0.67.  Medtronic just agreed to buy China Kanghui Holdings (KH) for $816 million in cash, in a growth move to enter China’s medical device market to accelerate its overall globalization strategy.  The Company has a current dividend yield of 2.41% that was increased 7.2% in the past year.  Medtronic has an equity summary score of 9.1 out of 10 for a VERY Bullish outlook.

Everyone’s favorite tobacco stock Altria Group (MO) is always a stable stock.  Altria has a low beta of 0.27.  Altria’s Board of Directors in August approved a 7.3% increase to their quarterly dividend.  Altria has a current dividend yield of 5.25%.  Altria has an equity summary score of 7.9 out of 10 for a Bullish outlook.