Nowhere to hide

February 6, 2009

Shampoo, margarine and medicine – surely some things will be okay in a recession?

Unfortunately, the concept of defensive stocks is taking a big knock along with so much else this time round. Companies making the stuff are themselves no longer certain what the future holds.

Unilever’s decision to scrap its financial targets sent its shares skidding this week and raised the spectre that more companies may follow suit.

So far, U.S.-based groups such as Procter & Gamble, Kraft and Sara Lee have trimmed their guidance rather than abandoned it. But some analysts think other consumer goods powerhouses in Europe, where the tradition of giving clear earnings guidance is less well-rooted than in the U.S., might copy Unilever in throwing in the towel.

Nestle, Danone and Reckitt Benckiser all report results in the next two weeks.

At the same time, the world’s second largest drugmaker, GlaxoSmithKline, is also giving up the practice of guiding the market on profits.

Glaxo insists the move is all about focusing management and investor sights on the long-term. But its decision is bound to leave investors uncertain about what the future holds for the supposedly ultra-defensive pharmaceuticals sector, where global recession coincides with an unprecedented “cliff” of patent expiries.

One consolation for investors – if not staff - may be come in cost cutting. Both Unilever and Glaxo have been ahead of the curve in improving efficiency in their operations in the good times; now both plan to drive their savings programmes even harder.

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