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Thursday, July 2, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Motley Fool: Playing defense

The Navy’s nuclear-powered attack submarine USS Vermont is christened in October 2018 at General Dynamics Electric Boat in Groton, Conn.  (Sean D. Elliot)
The Navy’s nuclear-powered attack submarine USS Vermont is christened in October 2018 at General Dynamics Electric Boat in Groton, Conn. (Sean D. Elliot)

Defense companies expect procurement to slow while government employees work from home or are distracted by the ongoing pandemic. They may face factory shutdowns, too, if local jurisdictions recommend social distancing. But the demand for weapons hasn’t changed – and the government is still a willing buyer. So consider General Dynamics (NYSE: GD) for your portfolio.

General Dynamics has been an underperformer among defense stocks in recent years because of its Gulfstream business-jet unit. The business-jet market never recovered from the 2008-09 recession. But the company has a solid backlog of defense contracts, including landing the largest shipbuilding contract in history in December. Its shipyards are responsible for the bulk of the nation’s nuclear submarines, including the forthcoming Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine, a key cog in the U.S. military’s nuclear deterrence strategy.

In addition, General Dynamics’ huge government IT business could benefit from the pandemic if government agencies need to upgrade their tech systems to deal with many additional remote workers.

The company was recently trading with a forward-looking price-to-earnings (P/E) ratio in the low teens, and its dividend yield was about 2.8%. This could be a difficult six-month period to hold the stock, assuming the economic slowdown continues into the second half of 2020 (at least), but for patient investors, General Dynamics looks poised to pay off over the long run.

Ask the FoolQ: What’s the S&P 500 that I see referred to everywhere? – P.T., Knoxville, Tennessee

A: The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index is a list of 500 of America’s biggest companies, with a median market value of about $21.5 billion. You’ll see the term “S&P 500” all over the financial world because it’s often used as a proxy for the entire U.S. stock market, or at least for the universe of large companies. Together, the companies make up about 80% of the value of the total U.S. stock market.

The index is full of familiar names, such as 3M, Amgen, Apple, Best Buy, Chipotle Mexican Grill, Coca-Cola, Costco, CVS Health, Dollar Tree, Facebook, Ford, IBM, Johnson & Johnson, Kroger, Lowe’s, Microsoft, Netflix, Nike, PepsiCo, Starbucks, Target, Walmart and Xerox, along with some less familiar ones.

It’s useful to compare your own investments’ performance with that of the S&P 500. If you’re not beating the S&P 500 over several years, consider just investing in a low-fee S&P 500 index fund instead, such as the Vanguard 500 Index Fund (VFINX) or the SPDR S&P 500 ETF (SPY). Index funds outperform the vast majority of actively managed mutual funds – in part because of lower fees – and they’re great long-term options for all kinds of investors.

Learn more about index funds at Fool.com and Investor.gov; you can find the Fool’s guide at Mot.ly/investing-index-funds.

Q: What’s a good book to introduce me to investing? – A.K., Hackensack, New Jersey

A: Here are some good ones: Peter Lynch’s “Learn to Earn” (Simon & Schuster, $18), John Bogle’s “The Little Book of Common Sense Investing” (Wiley, $25) and “The Little Book That Still Beats the Market” by Joel Greenblatt (Wiley, $25).

My dumbest investmentMy dumbest investment was selling my shares of Netflix back in 2011, when it was plummeting because of perceived bad news. I learned not to get scared out of big winners because of short-term bad news hyped by the media. – B.T., online

The Fool responds: Netflix has been a phenomenal investment for those who bought relatively early and hung on through the turbulence of 2011. The earliest investors have done best, but even if you bought in mid-2010, before the events of 2011, your investment would have grown more than 25-fold! (And its future still seems bright.)

So what happened in 2011? Well, the company had begun by letting customers rent DVDs through the mail, and it eventually added the option to stream videos. In mid-2011, the company announced price increases, along with plans to split Netflix into two separate companies – with Netflix focused on streaming video and Qwikster focused on DVDs. The plan was not well-received, and many subscribers quit; after a poor quarterly report, shareholders sold even more, sending shares plunging more than 30%. The company abandoned the idea.

If, at the time, you didn’t have faith in management, selling was the right thing to do. (You could always have bought back into the stock later.) If you still thought the company’s future was rosy, though, hanging on would have been the best – and most profitable – thing to do.

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Matt Bergman knows the pain and anger that patients with mesothelioma feel.