Woolworths Limited vs Wesfarmers Ltd: Which share is best in a market crash?

On Tuesday the S&P/ASX 200 (Index: ^AXJO) (ASX: XJO) got a case of the jitters with the index closing down around 0.5%.

Interestingly, the share price performance of two stocks which are generally regarded as blue chip and defensive – Woolworths Limited (ASX: WOW) and Wesfarmers Ltd (ASX: WES) – was starkly different.

At the close of trade, shares in Woolworths had fallen 1.4%. In contrast, the share price of Wesfarmers had risen 0.5%.

The divergence in share price movement could reasonably lead one to surmise that Wesfarmers is considered a more defensive, safe haven stock to hold during volatile times.

I’d argue however that, right now, Woolworths is the better defensive stock. Here’s why…

More predictable earnings

While earnings predictability might not have been a feature of the past couple of years for Woolworths, looking forward there is reason for hope.

Wesfarmers’ conglomerate structure can be viewed as a strength, however outside of its retail operations of Coles, Bunnings and Officeworks its coal and industrial businesses are prone to significant swings in earnings.

Similarly, even its retail businesses need to be approached with caution. Bunnings’ exposure to the cyclical housing market and the risks that online competition pose to Officeworks mean these important profit contributors could face challenges.

In contrast, Woolworths’ renewed focus on supermarket retailing – thanks to jettisoning the hardware business – should return the group to a more predictable earnings stream.

More attractively priced

Another important way to protect your portfolio during a market crash is to own attractively priced stocks. Undervalued shares, in many instances, fall less than fully valued or overpriced shares during market sell-offs.

Based on analyst consensus estimates for financial year (FY) 2018, both Woolworths and Wesfarmers are trading on price-to-earnings (PE) ratios of approximately 17 times.

While the entry of Bunnings into the UK is an exciting growth prospect, the recent experience of Woolworths’ attempt to enter the domestic hardware market should give pause for thought.

Woolworths had strong local knowledge and significant systems already in place, yet failed to successfully execute its strategy.

A similar fate could await Bunnings – only time will tell.

Meanwhile, Woolworths’ ability to turn around its recent underperformance could reasonably be considered low risk and achievable.

If this view turns out to be accurate then there could be greater upside earnings potential for Woolworths, making its stock more attractively priced.

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Motley Fool contributor Tim McArthur has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool Australia has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy. This article contains general investment advice only (under AFSL 400691). Authorised by Bruce Jackson.

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