By Gordon Wilcox
With all the talk of the fiscal cliff and elevated market volatility, perhaps it is surprising that some allegedly low-beta sectors, like telecommunications and utilities, have struggled as of late. To the group's credit, consumer staples have held up nicely. Quiet as it has been kept, one familiar staples stock has started to shine in recent weeks.
Sleepy though not small, General Mills (GIS) is up nearly 2.6 percent in the past month. The gains for the shares are made all the impressive when considering this is a dividend stock, meaning it could have been vulnerable in an environment dominated by fears of increased dividend taxes.
As the company points out on its Web site, it has paid dividends uninterrupted for 113 consecutive years. The dividend has been increased every year dating back to 1996. The annual dividend was 78.5 cents per share in 2008. Assuming no increases - an unlikely proposition - General Mills will pay $1.32 per share in dividends in 2013.
Vulnerable to the fiscal cliff? Not General Mills. At least not yet. Investors can pull up a chart and see the stock is trading just pennies away from its 52-week high of $41.06. Actually, do some more digging to discover something else few are talking about: That is not just a 52-week high. That is an all-time high for the second-largest U.S. food company.
Beyond a decent yield of 3.2 percent and dependable dividend increases, conservative investors likely love the low-beta ways of General Mills. The stock's beta against the S&P 500 is 0.17. Coca-Cola's (KO) beta is triple that. Procter & Gamble's (PG) is close to triple that of General Mills, yet General Mills has easily outperformed those two Dow components in the past month.
Or investors can just ponder this: Thirty-year U.S. Treasuries yield on 2.9 percent with little chance for capital appreciation. Why not grab another 30 basis points of yield with General Mills? Assuming five percent annual dividend growth over the next three decades for General Mills, investors land a yield on cost of 14.3 percent.
Even the pros like the low-beta posture afforded by General Mills. In the most recent round of 13F filings from hedge funds, according to Food Business News.
Overall, sales trends for 2013 look positive. The company said recent sales of its Greek yogurts have been "encouraging" and results within the natural and organic foods businesses have also been positive, Food Business reported. Should those trends continue working in the company's favor, particularly yogurt, new all-time highs for the shares will be easily reached throughout next year.
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Disclosure: I have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours.