Once again, investors are closely watching the tech sector because of its strong record of outperformance. But they're also increasingly looking at a far less risky sector: health care.
While many of those names don't have the same raw potential of tech stocks, the reliable revenue these companies generate is incredibly comforting in times of volatility. After all, seniors will keep taking their maintenance drugs and accidents will keep sending Americans to the emergency room.
Maybe that's why hedge funds have been increasing their exposure to the sector in these uncertain times, with health-care exposure for this group of elite investors recently hitting a five-year high.
The S&P 500's Information Technology group (XLK) is by far the winner over the last 12 months, with some select stocks up extraordinary amounts — like mobile payments giant Square Inc. (SQ) that has surged 160% or so in the last year, and chip maker Nvidia (NVDA) that is up almost 120% thanks to trends that include cryptocurrencies and autonomous vehicles. Its health-care sector (XLV) has posted returns of 6.5% in the last 12 months, while the S&P 500 (.SPX) as a whole has returned just under 12%.
However, there is a small group of companies that straddle the divide between the "risk on" growth potential of tech and the "risk off" stability of health care. They are either technology companies with health-care customers, or they are medical companies that are unlocking growth and innovation through the use of cutting-edge technologies.
Here are five stocks that offer a great balance between the growth of tech and the stability of health care:
One of the biggest success stories on Wall Street in the last 12 months is Align Technology, Inc. (ALGN) Shares of this oral-health company have more than doubled in the last year, and are up 16% year-to-date.
The maker of Invisalign braces and 3-D mouth scanners, which had sales of $1.5 billion last year, delivered a big beat on both the top and the bottom line in late April — and issued strong guidance yet again on forward earnings.
What's powering this success is simple: There are millions of American teens who need braces each year, and many of them don't want old-school braces they see as an eyesore and can be uncomfortable. Similarly, many adults who need minor correction or simply neglected to wear their retainers years ago don't want to go to the office with a mouth full of metal.
The Invisalign brand is strong at home, but the company is increasingly focused on markets like South America and Asia with large and increasingly affluent consumer bases.
Now, there is a bit of policy risk here since Align owns a big stake in direct-to-consumer teeth straightener company SmileDirect Club, and is its key supplier. SmileDirect sells directly to consumers without the middle man of an orthodontist's office. Some, like the Michigan Dental Association, have taken issue with its practices — and SmileDirect and Align have fired back with lawsuits alleging libel and claiming greedy Big Braces professionals are simply looking to drive up costs.
But as just as eye doctors couldn't keep down Warby Parker, I expect this direct-to-consumer push to prevail. With the biggest brand in invisible aligners, Align Technology is sure to see many years of sustained growth.
Just as it's hard to imagine modern manufacturing without automation, it's equally difficult to imagine a modern operating room without high-tech tools to assist doctors. After all, these have been shown to both reduce human error, and reduce recovery times — leading to better outcomes for everyone.
This kind of high-tech medical care is the forte of Intuitive Surgical (ISRG) with $3.1 billion in sales last year. It has been producing robotic devices and other surgery tools since the 1990s, including its flagship da Vinci surgical system, which has more than 4,200 units sold worldwide and has performed millions of procedures.
But the beauty of da Vinci for investors isn't just that it's on the cutting edge of medicine, but that it's basically a high-tech version of a shaving club; once the "razor" system is owned, customers come back for "blades" and accessory products. Of course, the big difference from shaving products is margins; da Vinci systems usually cost over $1.5 million to install.
The stock is a perennial outperformer. Not only is this stock up about 60% in the last 12 months, but it's up about 165% in the last five years vs. just 60% or so for the S&P 500.
With fundamentals that are consistently impressive, it's not hard to see why. Intuitive Surgical is projected to show 15% revenue growth this fiscal year and another 12% growth in FY2019, and just hit a new all-time high after strong earnings in April.
Midcap Mazor Robotics (MZOR) is a smaller but similarly dynamic investment. This Israeli health-care tech company specializes in robot-assisted neurosurgery via its Renaissance system. Sales totaled about $64.4 million last year.
When operating on the spine or the brain, there isn't a lot of room for human error. That's why Mazor developed its first product, SpineAssist, about 20 years ago and received FDA approval in 2004. Renaissance takes this need for precision to the next level, with its "surgical guidance system" that can achieve accuracy within 1.5 mm of the intended site on a patient.
Mazor has admittedly stumbled recently, despite record system sales in its February report. However, the long-term potential is huge here, as evidenced by an 11% revenue growth rate in fiscal 2018, and a projected 30% growth rate in fiscal 2019.
To top it off, the company should consistently reach profitability this year and see per-share earnings soar from roughly break-even to 46 cents a share in its 2019 fiscal year. If you want to get in on the ground floor of this growth story in health-care technology, now is the time to buy the dip.
Varian Medical Systems
Varian Medical Systems, Inc. (VAR) is a cancer-fighting company for the 21st century, with an innovative array of medical devices and high-tech solutions for oncologists. This includes treatments like proton therapy, a more precise form of radiation treatment, as well as radioactive inserts that put targeted treatments right next to tumors inside the patient's body. Overall sales totaled $2.7 billion in its last fiscal year.
One thing universally true is that the next generation of oncology treatments are in incredible demand. Many Americans refuse to believe that diagnoses of advanced cancer should be a death sentence, and doctors and medical technology companies like Varian are rising to the challenge. The global market for cancer treatments, of course, is even bigger.
Admittedly, not every patient will have access to Varian's cutting-edge cures. Its Halcyon radiation therapy system is priced between $2 million and $4 million per unit, and facilities that pony up that kind of cash will assuredly pass the costs on to those seeking treatment.
That hasn't curbed demand, however, and margins have been great with price points like that. Earnings per share should grow 20% this fiscal year and another 11% in FY 2019. Varian blew the doors off with its first-quarter report in January to send the stock to an all-time high, and strong earnings again in April have helped the stock hang on to a gain of more than 30% since Jan. 1.
This kind of momentum is exactly what tech investors look for. And like it or not, 1.7 million new cancer cases are diagnosed in the U.S. each year. That leads to reliable demand for its cutting-edge treatments, regardless of macroeconomic trends or broader investor sentiment.
Veeva Systems Inc. (VEEV) has had a heck of a run since February, soaring from a short-lived low of around $55 to a new all-time high of almost $80 in just a few weeks. And while shares have cooled off a bit to the mid-$70s, there's no doubt that momentum is clearly to the upside.
So what exactly does Veeva do? It's essentially an enterprise software and cloud computing company, but with a focus on life sciences and drugmakers. Some applications for its products include a cloud-based system for collecting clinical trial data, and customer-relationship-management platforms specifically for pharmaceutical companies. This kind of technology brings incredible efficiency to the industry, and quickly pays for itself at any serious biotechnology or research company.
The appeal of Veeva's platform is evidenced in its strong growth rates, with revenue set to rise 19% this year and another 18% next year. Profits are also coming strongly, with EPS set to soar 42% this fiscal year and another 15% next fiscal year. Sales in its last fiscal year hit $685.6 million.
There are admittedly concerns that the company could saturate the existing Big Pharma marketplace, but expansion into other verticals has helped keep its growth rate impressive.
Veeva crushed estimates in February, and analysts are expecting another big performance at the end of May after the company aggressively raised guidance a few months back.
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