I went hunting for income earlier this week, somewhat out of necessity. Allow me a chance to explain.
Over the past couple of years, I haven’t had a problem parking my idle cash in a money market fund. With current yields above 5% — and until recently rising — it was a logical place to ride out the market volatility beyond my highest conviction stocks.
However, with fixed income rates starting to head lower and likely to continue, I was looking to move some of that allocation back into income-generating stocks. I screened for stocks yielding north of 6% and focused on companies instead of real estate investment trusts (REITs), master limited partnerships (MLPs), or other high-interest havens. Where did I land?
I bought shares of AT&T (T -2.97%), Leggett & Platt (LEG -1.02%), and Cracker Barrel Old Barrel Store (CBRL -1.62%) on Monday. They’re far from perfect companies, but that’s probably a given for most businesses with chunky distributions. Let’s take a closer look.
One of my smallest stock positions heading into this week was AT&T. With the telco giant reporting fresh financial results on Wednesday morning, I figured it was an opportunistic time to grow that stake. The stock’s 6.5% yield made the cut, and after landing just ahead of Wall Street’s profit targets consistently over the past year, it felt like a pretty safe bet.
I was wrong. AT&T’s report on Wednesday proved disappointing. Revenue rose 2% to $32 billion, as a 4% gain for its flagship mobility business and upticks elsewhere were held back by a 10% decline in its business wireline segment.
The top line wasn’t the problem and was actually ahead of Wall Street’s flat expectations. The dagger came elsewhere, as adjusted earnings delivered a rare miss on the bottom line. Guidance also fell short of analyst targets.
AT&T isn’t at a point where it will impress investors with its organic growth. After shedding the last of its distracting entertainment assets, the company’s goal now is to become a lean, clean, money machine. It generated $16.8 billion in free cash flow for all of 2023, including $6.4 billion in its latest quarter, and expects to generate between $17 billion and $18 billion in free cash flow this year.
The stock’s dividend may be its most appealing feature right now, but the company continues to see its 5G and fiber connectivity businesses as growth drivers. AT&T is targeting a 3% increase for its wireless services revenue this year, enhanced by a 7% gain in its broadband business that has come through with at least a million net adds for six consecutive years.
The stock is cheap at just 7x adjusted earnings. If it can continue to boost its dividend while also cleaning up its debt-heavy balance sheet, it may go from being a payout story to one of capital appreciation. The shares are already 20% higher than their summertime low.
This week’s report wasn’t great, but I still think buying AT&T this week was the right call.
2. Leggett & Platt
On the surface, Leggett & Platt checks off many of the red flags I try to avoid in my investments. Revenue is declining, and profits are falling even harder.
Analysts have been paring back expectations, and Leggett & Platt has still fallen short on the bottom line in back-to-back reports. Those same Wall Street pros see slight declines on both ends of the income statement in 2024.
Here’s why I still chose to buy into a stock trading near its 52-week low. Leggett & Platt’s business isn’t very exciting. It makes components used in bedding, furniture, and flooring solutions. It also has a smaller business providing automotive seat support and lumbar systems, but let’s get back into the home.
The housing market was rocked last year, and the lack of home turnover obviously ate into demand for furniture and bedding sales. It’s easy to see that business bouncing back if mortgage rates continue to head lower this year.
Leggett & Platt’s 7.9% yield is as beefy as it is important. The company has found a way to boost its dividend for 52 consecutive years, surviving all kinds of operating climates. It announced a restructuring plan last week, withdrawing its long-term financial targets in the process.
The stock has plummeted to its 2020 pandemic lows, but the outlook for home goods and the automotive market are more promising now. The leveraged balance sheet makes this a high-risk play until it can turn itself around, but history is on its side.
3. Cracker Barrel Old Country Store
When a restaurant stock is yielding north of 6% — 6.9% in this case — you might want to keep the antacid nearby. If you’ve traveled across the country, you’re probably familiar with Cracker Barrel.
You may even have some locally. The unique front porches with rocking chairs and checkerboard sets lead into a country store attached to the more lucrative restaurant specializing in comfort cooking.
Things haven’t been as fluffy as its biscuits. Revenue growth has been sluggish, particularly on the country store side. Net income is falling for the third year in a row. It has fallen short of analyst earnings estimates in three of the past five reports.
Cracker Barrel is still a reasonable pick if you think the economy will hold up and folks will continue to travel and dine out. The same can be said for most restaurant stocks without the saucy quarterly disbursements.
The stock trades at a forward earnings multiple in the mid-teens, but there’s a catalyst here that people aren’t talking about. There’s more to Cracker Barrel than just its namesake restaurant.
It operates a trendier small-box concept called Maple Street Biscuit Company. It’s not moving the needle just yet, but it’s at the heart of the restaurateur’s expansion strategy. It expects to open just a pair of its Cracker Barrel stores this year, but its goal is to open nine to 11 Maple Street locations.