Merrill Lynch Makes Big Changes to Super-Safe Defensive Portfolio

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If you get the feeling that every rise in the market is being sold by institutional investors, you may not be far off base. It has become obvious since the massive February sell-off that the “buy the dip” mentality that seemed to last forever may be over. With a plethora of concerns, not the least of which are rising interest rates, the potential for trade war tariffs, geopolitical issues and a host of other potential issues muddying the water, it may be time to play it safe.

One of the best ways to play it safe may be to buy the stocks in the Merrill Lynch Large Cap Defensive and Income portfolio. The portfolio managers have made some recent big changes, selling most of their consumer staples and adding to health care, industrials, financials and more.

Here we focus on four companies the managers increased their positions in that are rated Buy at Merrill Lynch. All four are also solid buys for more conservative investors looking dividend-paying large cap leaders.

BB&T

Merrill Lynch has remained very positive on this stock. BB&T Corp. (NYSE: BBT) is one of the largest financial services holding companies in the United States, with $220.3 billion in assets and market capitalization of $37.0 billion as of September 30, 2017.

Building on a long tradition of excellence in community banking, BB&T offers a wide range of financial services including retail and commercial banking, investments, insurance, wealth management, asset management, mortgage, corporate banking, capital markets and specialized lending. The company operates over 2,100 financial centers in 15 states and Washington, D.C.

Investors receive a 2.84% dividend. The Merrill Lynch price target for the shares is $56, and the Wall Street consensus target is $58.04. Shares traded early Tuesday at $52.35.

Crown Castle International

This top cellphone tower company offers incredible growth and income possibilities. Crown Castle International Corp. (NYSE: CCI) is one of the largest U.S. wireless tower companies, with over 40,000 towers across the country. Its core business is leasing space on its wireless towers primarily to wireless carriers, government agencies and broadband data providers.

The company announced last year its intention to acquire private fiber company Lightower for $7.1 billion. Wall Street applauded the purchase, with most analysts citing the accretive transaction as a huge positive for the company’s growth metrics. Top analysts feel that the company could grow 2018 EBITDA by 8.7% in 2018, and that excludes the Lightower numbers.

Investors receive a 4.16% distribution. Merrill Lynch has a $114 price objective, while the consensus target is $116.67. Shares traded at $100.15 Tuesday morning.

Lockheed Martin

This is a top aerospace and defense stock to buy, and many on Wall Street are expecting a very solid continuation of U.S. and foreign defense spending. Lockheed Martin Corp. (NYSE: LMT) researches, designs, develops, manufactures, integrates, operates and sustains advanced technology systems, products and services. It also provides a wide range of defense electronics products and IT services.

Being the Pentagon’s prime contractor, Lockheed Martin offers a diverse portfolio of global aerospace, defense, security and advanced technologies. Its leveraged presence in the Army, Air Force, Navy and IT programs guarantees a steady inflow of follow-on orders, not only from the U.S. government but also from many foreign allies of the nation.

Despite posting outstanding earnings last week, the stock got absolutely nailed and is offering investors an incredible entry point. Merrill Lynch noted this after the earnings report:

According to Lockheed Martin, the F-35 is on track to meet its planned delivery of 90 aircraft per year. We believe the program provides long-term & visible growth for Lockheed. In our view, any sentiment-driven weakness in the stock is a particularly attractive buying opportunity, given the strong Department of Defense budget.

Investors receive a 2.49% dividend. The $400 Merrill Lynch price objective compares with a $378.68 consensus target and the recent share price of $316.00.

Stryker

This leading medical devices company is a big beneficiary in the aging of America thesis. Stryker Corp. (NYSE: SYK) operates in two business segments. Its orthopedic implants business produces implants used in joint replacement, trauma, spine and craniomaxillofacial procedures. The MedSurg segment produces surgical equipment (other than orthopedic hardware), as well patient handling and emergency medical equipment.

The company once again reported outstanding results for the quarter, and the analysts noted this:

The company put one of the strongest most complete quarters we have seen in years this quarter. Q1 revenue growth came in at a robust 8% and 50 basis points of leverage drove 14% EPS growth. Stryker’s growth outlook remains robust and we reiterate our Buy rating.

Shareholders receive a 1.1% dividend. Merrill Lynch has set its price objective at $185. The consensus target price is $175.30, and shares traded at $169.10.

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Merrill Lynch feels not only feel that these four stocks are safe for investors, but they also have a defensive posture. These are good additions for long-term growth portfolios looking to rotate to a safer stance.