Worried about the economy? Perhaps your family should tighten its belt a bit.

Stop using so much soap, for example. Don't clean the kitchen floor quite so frequently. If you have allergies, sneeze into your newspaper instead of a tissue. While you're at it, reduce your dog's food intake by one-fourth.

We all know that won't happen. That's why investors during worrisome times often turn to the stock of companies that produce household necessities.

As A.G. Lafley, the chief executive of Procter & Gamble Co., said of the recent slowing economy: "People are not reducing tooth-brushing incidence. They are not going to the bathroom less often. They are not shaving meaningfully less often."

Consumer staples include household products such as laundry detergent and deodorant, as well as food, drugs, beverages and tobacco. Because of the constant and predictable demand for such products, they're considered defensive investments to reduce portfolio risk.

These stocks had a price run-up on growing economic fears last year and have slipped back a bit this year. The reason to invest now is if you believe the economy is going to worsen.

Yet however the economy performs, such household names are frequently counted upon to provide a foundation for a personal portfolio. They are becoming increasingly global in their reach.

Another plus is that you can actually understand what they do.

"If there are signs of economic recovery sometime this year, you can expect this group to lag, but until then it will be front and center," said Jack Russo, senior consumer analyst with Edward Jones in St. Louis. "While there is some concern that domestic growth is slowing for these companies, they do have broad international exposure."

The prices that these firms pay for the materials used to make their products have been on the rise, but that isn't the worry that it once was.

"Pressure from commodity prices began in 2003, and around 2004 the companies were able to raise prices," said Steven Ralston, analyst with Zacks Investment Research in Chicago, noting that productivity gains have also accelerated. "The consumer is willing to accept price increases more readily now, so they have become a non-issue."

There are many ways to play the consumer staples.

For example, in mutual funds the $872 million Fidelity Select Consumer Staples Fund (FDFAX) has a 12-month return of 12 percent and three-year annualized return of 14 percent. Among its largest holdings are Procter & Gamble, CVS Caremark Corp., Colgate-Palmolive Co. and Kroger Co. This "no-load" (no sales charge) fund requires a $2,500 minimum initial investment.

In an exchange-traded fund, the $465 million Vanguard Consumer Staples ETF (VDC) has a one-year return of 5 percent and three-year annualized return of 9 percent. It also focuses on profitable, dividend-paying global companies that have name brand products. The quality of its holdings makes it less risky than typical sector funds.

The one unavoidable company in this mix is Procter & Gamble (PG), the world's largest consumer product manufacturer with famous brands such as Tide, Charmin, Pantene, CoverGirl and Iams.

"Procter & Gamble is a behemoth and that is why Warren Buffett has a position in it," said Ralston, who has a "buy" recommendation on the stock. "It uses its cash flow to not only grow internally, but to make acquisitions."

Since 2001, P&G has doubled its sales derived from developing markets. Meanwhile, its acquisition of Gillette in 2005 has helped improve its operating margins and distribution. Yet it must cope with tough overseas discounters and those nagging commodity costs. Its stock is down 4 percent this year after last year's 14 percent gain and an 11 percent gain in 2006.

Clorox Co. (CLX), which acquired the Burt's Bees natural personal-care products, is a time-tested company that is turning increasingly green. It is introducing a natural line of household cleaners under the GreenWorks brand, which will join its existing consumer brands such as Pine-Sol, Formula 409, Armor All and Liquid-Plumr.

The stock is down 15 percent this year after gains of 2 percent last year and 13 percent in 2006.

Paper products are another noteworthy staple.

Kimberly-Clark Corp. (KMB), the maker of Kleenex, Cottonelle, Scott, Kotex and Huggies, also makes health-care products such as surgical gowns and face masks. Its products cover a broad range of price levels. To help balance out raw material prices, the company has completed a significant cost-reduction program. The stock is down 8 percent this year after a gain of 2 percent last year and 14 percent in 2006.

Clorox is a five-star stock recommendation of Morningstar Inc., while Kimberly-Clark receives four stars and Procter & Gamble receives three stars.

Russo is recommending only the stock of Procter & Gamble for now, and Ralston isn't suggesting any of the consumer staples at current prices. Some naysayers are avoiding them because they remain relatively optimistic about the economy.

"In a recovery you don't want to be in staples stocks and 'steady-Eddie' earnings growers because they have done so well in the market turmoil and are overvalued," said James Paulsen, chief investment officer with Wells Capital Management in Minneapolis. "I think the financial markets have already had their recession, even though the economy itself may or may not have a recession."


Andrew Leckey answers questions only through the column. Address inquiries to Andrew Leckey, P.O. Box 874702, Tempe, AZ 85287-4702, or by e-mail at [email protected]