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Markets

A Cushion for Uncertain Times

As the outlook clouds, investors can protect themselves from market shock.

Scarcely a day goes by that doesn't raise new questions about the strength of the economy and the durability of the stock market. Each news bite is scrutinized intensely, and a bipolar stock market soars one day and sinks the next depending on the soothsaying du jour. We think even the gloomiest scenarios have bright spots, such as opportunities arising as manufacturers and multinational companies capitalize on the improving trade picture and robust economies abroad.

But we also recognize that this is one of those stock-market moments when you want to cocoon yourself in the bubble wrap of the most shock-resistant holdings. In economically unsettled times, that means stocks of companies that make the things we keep buying, no matter what.

Who's going to stop eating, brushing his teeth or diapering the baby? That's why so-called consumer staples have beaten the overall market 90% of the time during the 11 recessionary periods since 1945, according to Standard & Poor's. Within that group, household products have gained nearly 2% on average, but alcoholic-beverage makers have risen 6% on average, and tobacco companies nearly 10%.

Utilities and health-care stocks are dependable. Ironically, financial stocks usually hold up well when economic times are tough. But not this go-round, with financials at the epicenter of the subprime-mortgage mess. Instead, look for stock-market "airbags" in companies such as Colgate-Palmolive (symbol CL), Abbott Laboratories (ABT) and gas utility Nicor (GAS). Or explore exchange-traded funds that mimic broad sectors, such as Vanguard Consumer Staples (VDC), iShares Dow Jones US Healthcare (IYH) and S&P's Select Sector SPDR-Utilities (XLU).

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A stake in dividend-paying stocks is a classic refuge (utilities fit this bill, too). If the economy stagnates and the stock market loses luster, you'll still collect a check four times a year. The key is choosing companies whose dividends are dependable. Be wary of newly high-yielding financial stocks on that score. Instead, check out old stalwarts, including Kraft Foods (KFT); an ETF, such as S&P's SPDR Dividend (SDY); or a mutual fund, say, Alpine Dynamic Dividend (ADVDX).

There's a fine line between precaution and panic. Don't dismantle a well-reasoned portfolio. On bleak trading days, remember that the stock market has telegraphed 75 of the last 11 recessions. In other words, 64 of the market selloffs since 1945 have not been linked to recession, and most of the dips soon reversed course.

Shying away from some stocks you'd normally avoid when the economy wanes could be a mistake now, says investment strategist Ed Yardeni. Industrial and materials companies (metals, paper and cement, for example) have the worst records during recessionary periods. Yet Yardeni, bullish on staples, health care and utilities, is recommending that investors load up on industrial, materials and energy stocks and avoid housing, finance and retail shares. The message: Seek beneficiaries of the global boom, shun victims of domestic gloom, and keep your defenses up.