Merrill Lynch Says Buy U.S. Stocks Now - 4 Top Picks For The Rest Of 2018

Lee Jackson

It has become abundantly clear that for the first time in years the U.S. economy appears to be on the best footing it has been in some time. Unemployment has dropped to 3.8% and U.S. growth is averaging above 3%, and could grow even stronger in the second half of 2018.

Merrill Lynch believes that the best investment strategy now may be to overweight U.S. stocks, as growth in both Europe and Japan has recently been weaker than expected. In fact, the investment company recently increased its allocation to large-capitalization U.S. growth stocks.

We screened the Merrill Lynch research coverage universe looking for large-cap U.S. stock that are rated Buy that also pay solid dividends. We found four that make good sense for long-term growth investors now.


This maker of tobacco products has been hit hard and offers value investors a great entry point now. Altria Group Inc. (NYSE: MO) is a top mega-cap consumer discretionary stock to buy, and the company’s Marlboro brand remains one of the most recognizable in the world.

Cash-flow generation and the return of cash to Altria shareholders remain key facets of the company’s total shareholder return plan. The analysts expect continued support of the strong dividend, in addition to continued share repurchase activity.

To diversify away from cigarettes and cigars, Altria has expanded its portfolio into new categories such as wine and e-cigarettes. The company also holds a 10% stake in brewer Anheuser Busch InBev (NYSE: BUD).

Altria released first-quarter results that rose from the same period last year. The company’s earnings came in at $1.89 billion, or $1.00 per share. This compares with $1.40 billion, or $0.72 per share, from the same period last year. Excluding items, Altria reported adjusted earnings of $1.80 billion or $0.95 per share, for the period. Despite the strong report, the stock was hit hard, and still trades near a 52-week low.

Altria investors are paid a hefty 4.94% dividend. The Merrill Lynch price target is posted at $70, and the Wall Street consensus estimate is set at $70.38 The stock closed Wednesday at $56.73.

Exxon Mobil

This company remains a top Wall Street energy pick and is on the US1 list at Merrill Lynch. Exxon Mobil Corporation (NYSE: XOM) is the world’s largest international integrated oil and gas company that explores for and produces crude oil and natural gas in the United States, Canada/South America, Europe, Africa, Asia, and Australia/Oceania. It also makes and markets commodity petrochemicals, including olefins, aromatics, polyethylene and polypropylene plastics, and specialty products; and transports and sells crude oil, natural gas, and petroleum products.

Exxon Mobil announced estimated first-quarter 2018 earnings of $4.7 billion, or $1.09 per share, assuming dilution, compared with $4 billion a year earlier. Cash flow from operations and asset sales was $10 billion, including proceeds associated with asset sales of $1.4 billion.

The company recently raised the dividend by $.05 per share to $0.82. That now translates to a solid 4.02% dividend. The Merrill Lynch stock price objective is $100, while the Wall Street consensus is set much lower at $87.79. The stock closed Wednesday at $81.51.

Kraft Heinz

The Kraft Heinz Company (NYSE: KHC) was formed almost three years ago via the merger of H.J. Heinz Company and Kraft Foods Group. The food company has $29 billion in annual revenue generated by well-known brands such as Kraft, Heinz, Oscar Mayer and Maxwell House. Kraft Heinz is the third-largest food and beverage manufacturer in North America and derives 76% of revenue from that market and 24% from the international segment.

The company’s additional brands include ABC, Capri Sun, Classico, Jell-O, Kool-Aid, Lunchables, Ore-Ida, Philadelphia, Planters, Plasmon, Quero, Weight Watchers Smart Ones and Velveeta.

Shareholders are paid a 4.16% dividend. The Merrill Lynch stock price target is posted at $85. The Wall Street consensus target price is $73.82.The shares closed Thursday at $60.10.

Simon Property

Simon Property Group Inc. (NYSE: SPG) invests in real estate markets across the globe. The company engages in investment, ownership, management, and development of properties. Simon Property primarily invests in regional malls, premium outlets, mills, and community/lifestyle centers to create its portfolio.

Through its subsidiary partnership, it owns, or has an interest in, about 230 properties in the United States and Asia. The company also has a 28.9% interest in Klépierre, a European real estate investment trust with more than 260 shopping centers in 13 countries.

One key driver of growth will include the $1.0 billion+ of development/redevelopment planned over the next few years. The Merrill Lynch team also believes that the company’s high quality portfolio is weathering the retail storm better than most.

Shareholders are paid a 4.75% distribution. The Merrill Lynch stock price target is $190. The consensus price target on Wall Street is $184.86. The shares ended trading Thursday at $162.50.

Four top companies that are liquid, pay big dividends, and look like safe havens as the market volatility continues to churn. Needless to say, a massive market sell-off will take everybody down, but these four will handle the turbulence better than tech momentum darlings.