Stocks to buy

7 Stock Picks for Defensive, Low-Risk Growth

When it comes to investing, the best offense is usually a really good defense. While strong growth is important, it is usually not as important as holding defensive stocks that can hold up when a broad-based market downturn happens, such as the one we saw in 2022.

Defensive stocks can help to lessen gyrations in a portfolio during times of volatility, which is what we continue to experience now. Holding stocks that tend to skyrocket is no good if those same stocks plummets back to earth just as quickly. For long-term investors, stocks that can insulate a portfolio and provide low-risk growth is the way to go.

For buy-and-hold investors, slow and steady really does win the race. Knowing which stocks can both protect and grow a portfolio over time is important, though it’s not always easy to identify these names.

With that said, here are seven stocks picks for defensive, low-risk growth.

Bank of America (BAC)

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For a sturdy investment that can anchor a portfolio, look to Bank of America (NYSE:BAC). The second largest U.S. lender just reported earnings for this year’s second quarter and they were impressive, as usual.

For the April through June period, Bank of America announced earnings per share of 88 cents versus 84 cents that was expected by analysts who cover the company, according to Refinitiv data. Revenue for the quarter ended June 30 came in at $25.33 billion compared to $25.05 billion that had been forecast on Wall Street.

Bank of America attributed the strong Q2 print to higher interest rate income. Earlier in July, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau fined Bank of America for past customer abuses that included fake accounts and unnecessary fees. While the fine was unfortunate, it ended a contentious issue and removed a cloud of uncertainty that had been hanging over the lender.

Bank of America’s stock has declined 5% over the past 12 months due largely to the collapse of several regional lenders this past spring. Long-term, BAC stock is a winner.

United Airlines (UAL)

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Shares of United Airlines (NASDAQ:UAL) are winging higher on news that the Chicago-based carrier has achieved labor peace with its pilots. A new collective agreement provides United Airlines’ pilots with a hefty 40% pay increase over four years. While no doubt expensive, the deal ends months of tense negotiations between the two sides and avoids what would have been a costly strike at United. The agreement with the pilots also comes as United experiences a post-pandemic travel boom, lifting its share price in the process.

Year to date, UAL stock has gained 45% as investors once again warm to airline stocks. However, despite this year’s gains, United’s stock remains 33% lower than where it was trading five years ago, before the Covid-19 pandemic left its aircraft sitting idle on tarmacs around the world. This means that there is still time for investors to take a position in this reliable, blue-chip stock that can protect a portfolio over the long-term and provide steady, low-risk growth.

Ford (F)

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Shares of Ford (NYSE:F) took a hit on recent news that the Detroit automaker plans to cut the price of its fully electric F-150 Lightning pick-up truck by as much as $10,000. Specifically, Ford said that the price of its least expensive version of the Lighting truck will be cut by $10,000, while prices for all versions will decline by at least $6,000.

Unsurprisingly, F stock fell 5% on the company’s announcement. However, despite the short-term pullback, Ford remains a long-term winner and a great defensive stock to both protect and grow a portfolio.

While many investors saw the price cut as likely to impact future profits at Ford, the move highlights CEO Jim Farley’s determination to go toe-to-toe with electric vehicle market leader Tesla (NASDAQ:TSLA), which has already cut the prices on several of its cars this year to boost sales. Farley has already announced plans to triple production of the F-150 Lightning pick-up truck and other EVs by this Fall as he pushes to gain critical market share.

Ford’s stock has increased 17% over the past 12 months and is up 33% over the past five years.

Morgan Stanley (MS)

Source: Ken Wolter /

Another major U.S. lender that just released strong Q2 earnings is investment bank Morgan Stanley (NYSE:MS). The company beat expectations on the top- and bottom-lines, announcing earnings per share of $1.24, which was better than the consensus Wall Street forecast for $1.15, according to Refinitiv data. Revenue in the quarter totaled $13.46 billion versus $13.08 billion that had been anticipated by analysts who follow the company.

The Q2 beat continues a string of success for Morgan Stanley, whose CEO James Gorman has helped to distinguish by focusing on wealth management. That focus has enabled Morgan Stanley to weather a downturn in mergers and acquisitions (M&A) and initial public offerings (IPOs) better than many of its Wall Street peers. While Gorman has announced his intention to retire, he has put the company in an excellent position for continued low-risk growth.

MS stock has gained 16% over the last year and 83% over five years.

Costco (COST)

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Grocery retailer Costco (NASDAQ:COST) has proven that it can weather just about any storm the market throws at it. Having sailed through the Covid-19 pandemic, Costco has remained a durable long-term investment thanks to the loyalty of its customers, each of whom pay an annual membership fee to shop at its more than 850 warehouse club locations. Costco currently has a membership renewal rate of 92.6%, which is the envy of the entire retail sector.

Taking a page from streaming giant Netflix (NASDAQ:NFLX), Costco is cracking down on the practice of consumers sharing membership cards. In addition to asking shoppers for their membership cards at the cash registers when they checkout, company employees will also request cards with a photo at self-checkout registers, and to view photo identification if a shopper’s membership card does not have a picture. This crackdown should help boost Costco even further, say analysts.

COST stock has risen 22% this year and is up 154% over five years.

American Express (AXP)

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Credit card company American Express (NYSE:AXP) is another blue-chip stock that has a long track record of providing shareholders with steady gains. Sentiment towards AXP stock has been improving, as the global economy continues to recover from the pandemic, and a so-called “soft landing” for the U.S. economy looks increasingly likely. Consulting firm McKinsey & Co. said in a report earlier this year that credit card spending is now back to pre-pandemic levels.

In the first quarter of this year, American Express posted earnings per share of $2.74, which was up dramatically from 41 cents a share a year earlier, and handily beat analyst estimates of $1.61 per share in earnings. While overall revenue at the company declined 12% to $9 billion during Q1, spending on goods and services using American Express cards rose 6% from the previous year.

AXP stock has gained 25% over the last 12 months and has increased 77% over the past five years.

McDonald’s (MCD)

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Investors could do worse than to bet on McDonald’s (NYSE:MCD). The Golden Arches has been a solid defensive stock to own for decades.

Over the past 12 months, MCD stock has gained 16% and the share price is up 85% over five years. The largest quick service restaurant chain in the world with more than 40,000 outlets, McDonald’s can be counted on to provide strong earnings in any environment. For this year’s first quarter, the company reported earnings per share of $2.63 versus $2.33 that had been forecast on Wall Street.

McDonald’s revenue in Q1 came in at $5.90 billion compared to $5.59 billion that was expected among analysts that track the company. In its home market of America, higher menu prices and increased traffic fueled same-store sales growth that topped estimates of 7.9%. It was the third consecutive quarter that McDonald’s U.S. traffic rose, showing that the company has strong pricing power, or the ability to lift prices without losing customers. McDonald’s traditionally does well during times of economic uncertainty as consumers seek out its cheaper meals.

On the date of publication, Joel Baglole held a long position in BAC. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the writer, subject to the Publishing Guidelines

Joel Baglole has been a business journalist for 20 years. He spent five years as a staff reporter at The Wall Street Journal, and has also written for The Washington Post and Toronto Star newspapers, as well as financial websites such as The Motley Fool and Investopedia.