One way for investors to seek refuge in a jittery stock market is to focus on companies that can impose their wills on customers.
Tobias Levkovich, an equity strategist at Citigroup, published a list of 50 such U.S. businesses in a note on Tuesday. In the opinion of Citi analysts, each of these enterprises is well positioned to raise prices for its products or services.
“We would expect these names to outperform in a period when the investment community is uncertain about economic cycle direction,” Mr. Levkovich wrote.
It’s easy to see why investors might prefer such stocks, especially at a time like now when many forecasters are warning of a slowing economy ahead. A business gains pricing power because it enjoys strong demand from its customers or because it faces weak competition. Those built-in advantages should buffer its results if times turn tougher and sales fall.
On the other hand, these companies are just as attractive if the economy remains robust. If rising wages or climbing raw-materials costs start pinching their profit margins, businesses with pricing power can maintain their bottom lines simply by requiring customers to pay more.
To find companies that can reach deep into clients' wallets, Mr. Levkovitch turned to Citigroup analysts in various sectors. They named businesses in industries ranging from technology to health care that have more pricing power than generally recognized.
The list is intriguing both because of the companies it includes and those it doesn’t.
Apple Inc. is not there. Neither is Alphabet Inc., the parent of Google, or Facebook Inc.,
But Microsoft Corp. and Netflix Inc. both make the grade. So do tobacco companies such as Altria Group Inc. and Philip Morris International Inc., as well as railways such as Norfolk Southern Corp., CSX Corp. and Kansas City Southern. Even paint manufacturer Sherwin-Williams Co. puts in a showing.
The Citi analysts did not provide a detailed rationale for each name on the list, but Mr. Levkovich did offer some broad clues as to why various businesses look attractive.
For instance, railways and software developers have enjoyed proven success in lifting prices. Companies that own cellphone towers, such as American Tower Corp., are well protected from competition by tight zoning regulations. Meanwhile, businesses that specialize in electronic health records, such as Nextgen Healthcare Inc., impressed the Citi team because the high cost of switching providers means it is difficult for a competitor to undercut the existing players.
In contrast, Mr. Levkovich’s team was underwhelmed by the pricing power of packaged goods companies, food producers and automakers.
So should investors load up on companies with pricing power? One potential pitfall is that Mr. Levkovich’s list doesn’t reflect how much people are paying for a business’s ability to raise prices.
Netflix, which recently boosted its rates, has demonstrated it can get customers to pay more, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a bargain for investors. Shares in the streaming service are trading for 121 times earnings, meaning shareholders are paying a hefty amount for the company’s pricing power.
A better bet might be to regard the Citi list as an ideas generator. It offers a handy guide to companies that have the ability to hike prices, but you should examine each situation individually. Just because a business has pricing power doesn’t mean you should overpay for its stock.