Low oil prices hurt the big energy companies a lot, but significantly improve profit margins for companies that are burdened with transportation costs. This is why investors get interested in retail and shipping companies when oil/gasoline prices begin to fall.
Ultimately, this brings up a contradiction. If oil prices are a barometer of economic activity, a drop in prices should imply that the overall economy is stagnating. The only other explanation would be a major change in supply. This was certainly the case of natural gas (US production has exploded in recent years creating a huge supply glut), and may be contributing to weakness in crude oil.
Source: US Energy Information Administration
Still, there seems to be some basis in the idea of a weak American economy. In April 2012, employers posted the lowest number of job openings since 2011, and US housing starts for the month of May came in at a disappointing 708K. According to GDP measures the United States is still growing, but the current rate is slow and frustrating.
This is why I compiled this list of 4 stocks that are resistant to recessions due to their business. Since they happen to be retailers, they also benefit tremendously from low gasoline prices.
1.) Wal-Mart (WMT)
Wal-Mart's main strategy is simple - offer superior pricing and sell in bulk. The biggest vulnerability of this company's strategy would be the transportation costs, since their stores require a string of shipments from their distant manufacturing plants.
Due to the diversity of basic and necessary items that they offer, it's safe to say that Wal-Mart would experience lower downside risk if the US were to enter a recession.
2.) Target (TGT)
Target is a virtual clone of Wal-Mart. In a slightly dated comparison between the two retail giants on Investorplace, we see that Wal-Mart is supposed to be a bit more aggressive in terms of competitive pricing (which is beneficial in recessions). Still, Target is included here for the exact same reason that Wal-Mart is - transportation costs, recession-immunity, and margins.
3.) The TJX Companies (TJX)
This leading off-price retail company operates T.J.Maxx, Marshalls, and HomeGoods. The stock may be the best-suited candidate for this list, because the aforementioned stores actually thrive during recessions as consumers look to cut costs. The stock has a ridiculously low dividend which yields only 1.1%, but earnings growth has been phenomenal. In the first quarter of 2012, the company reported EPS growth of 41% relative to 2011. This explains why the stock has risen an incredible 72% in the last year and looks ready to extend these gains considerably.
4.) Amazon.com (AMZN)
Amazon is one of the fastest growing major retail presences in the world, and like Wal-Mart suffers from high shipping costs. In Q1 2012, the company reported $668 million in net shipping costs worldwide. This is only 5.1% of net sales worldwide, but considering how low the company's margins are this can make a big difference. Amazon's products are also diverse, and seem to be surprisingly inelastic in terms of demand (implying a degree of immunity to recessions). The only problem is that the company is heavily invested in the Kindle line, which could be vulnerable to cuts in consumer spending.
Disclosure: I have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours.