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Pitney Bowes Inc. (PBI), RR Donnelley & Sons Co (RRD): How To Find Rock-Solid Yields In An Uncertain Economy

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As we head into earnings season, investors have ample reason for both optimism and caution.

The U.S. economy appears to be getting healthier, as seen by the recent monthly employment report. Yet stocks, after a stunning four-year rebound, appear to already anticipate a great deal of solid economic growth yet to come.

Will the economy come through? It’s too soon to know. We are not yet at a level of self-sustaining growth that leads economists to declare with certainty that 2014 and 2015 will represent steady and strong growth.

That’s why I continue to suggest a focus on stocks with defensive characteristics. They are still capable of solid upside if the economy expands at a healthy pace. Yet they have valuations in place that will help them hold their ground if the economy (and stock market) stumbles in the months ahead.

A key measure of safety is free cash flow yield, which is a company’s free cash flow (operating cash flow minus capital spending), divided by a company’s market value. Many companies in the S&P 400 (mid-caps), S&P 500 (large caps) and S&P 600 (small caps) sport free cash flow yields in the 3% to 6% range. Yet fewer than 100 out of these 1,500 sport free cash flow yields in excess of 10%.

Pitney Bowes Inc. (NYSE:PBI)

While on the subject of yield, investors like to see a hefty amount of that free cash flow paid back to shareholders in the form of dividends. I screen for stocks that sport both double-digit free cash flow yields along with dividend yields above 4%. (I recently discussed the importance of that 4% threshold.)

These aren’t the kinds of stocks that are bound to outperform the pack in a surging bull market, but they offer a solid combination of decent upside, good yields and, most importantly, downside protection. (Those solid yields would rise higher if the stock price falls, attracting a new round of yield-seeking buyers.)

Many of these stocks are electric utilities and telecom service providers, which are expected to check off these boxes in terms of the paired yields. Here’s a look at the eight stocks that sport solid free cash flow yields and dividend yields.

The first thing to check for is the difference between these two figures: The free cash flow yield should always be higher. If not, the free cash flow is insufficient to support the current dividend.

Second, you need to assess the long-term sustainability of the business model. For example, Pitney Bowes Inc. (NYSE:PBI) and RR Donnelley & Sons Co (NASDAQ:RRD) both live in a paper-based world at a time when the world is going paperless.

A pair of stocks in this group holds appeal. Calamos Asset Management, Inc (NASDAQ:CLMS) is remarkably inexpensive in the context of its free cash flow, which I discussed a few months ago.

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