Time to buy: blue chip stocks are on sale

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The U.S. economy is a mess, and Europe and Japan aren’t doing any better. At first blush, shunning stocks altogether seems the wise course — even after September’s rally.

But a funny thing has happened in the stock market.

High-quality, large companies — blue chips — are trading at steep discounts to smaller, debt-laden stocks. Ditto for mutual funds that invest in them.

These huge, growing companies typically have little or no debt, and many are carrying billions of dollars in cash on their balance sheets. They’re making increasing sales into the one part of the global economy that’s growing rapidly— emerging markets.

I’m baffled as to why these stocks are so cheap. My pet theory: Large-company growth stocks, particularly those in technology and telecom, were slaughtered in the 2000-2002 bear market. Perhaps investors are still gun shy.

But the truth is it doesn’t matter much why the best companies in the world are selling at dirt-cheap prices relative to their earnings, revenues, book value and any other measure you can think of.

What matters is that this is probably aonce-in-a-lifetime opportunity to buy these companies or funds that specialize in them. Even after last month’s market rise, these stocks still look like fabulous bargains tome.

A few personal favorites

Pfizer (symbol PFE) is the world’s largest drug company with annual sales of nearly $70 billion. Pfizer’s revenues will take a hit when cholesterol drug Lipitor loses patent protection next year.

But its takeover of Wyeth brings in a stable of new drugs to boost sales. The stock trades at just 8 times analysts’ estimated earnings for the next 12 months. In comparison, the long-term average price-earnings ratio for Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index is 15.5. Pfizer yields 4.2 percent.

Apple (AAPL) is arguably the most innovative company in the world. It continues to turn out gadgets that people buy — even in a terrible economy. Its new iPhone and iPad have had terrific launches.

Here’s the kicker: Apple trades at price earnings ratio of just 16 on estimated earnings. That compares with a P/E of 250 in 2002! So long as CEO Steve Jobs, apparentlyrecovered from a liver transplant,stays healthy, the stock looks solid.

Right behind Apple in creativity in technology is Google (GOOG). It dominates advertising sales on the Internet — which will surely rise in coming years. It’s using some of its $25 billion cash hoard to develop a host of new businesses. Yet its P/E is 17 — compared to 132 in 2004, the year it went public.

Johnson & Johnson (JNJ) boasts a huge and widely diversified health-care business, including consumer products, pharmaceuticals and medical devices. It has had recent problems with manufacturing safety. But the stock trades at a mere 12 times estimated earnings.

PepsiCo (PEP) may not sell the healthiest snacks, but people eat them. Lay’s and Doritos are big global brands, as are Pepsi, Gatorade and Tropicana. Sales are increas ing rapidly in emerging markets. PepsiCo trades at a P/E of 14.

Funds offer security

Prefer funds? I think they’re a safer bet. My favorite is Primecap Odyssey Growth (POGRX; telephone 800-729-2307). A few managers who left the highly regarded adviser-sold American funds founded Primecap in 1984.

Over the past 20 years, Vanguard Prime caphas returned an annualized 12.4 per cent— an average of 3.5 percentage points per year better than the S&P 500.

The Vanguard fund is closed to new investors, but Primecap Odyssey is run by the same managers, and charges annual expenses of just 0.71 percent. The man­agers currently have 40 percent of the fund invested in healthcare stocks.

Fidelity doesn’t offer too many funds that I like. Its corporate culture is ruthlessly competitive; I don’t think it fosters success.

But Fidelity Contrafund (FCNTX, 800-544-9797) is an exception. Manager Will Danoff has steered the fund to an annualized return of 12 percent over the past 20 years.

The fund has assets of $68 billion, but Danoff has managed this much money for years. What’s more, the fund’s size doesn’t pose much of a problem in buying and sell ing the mega-caps he favors today. About 30 percent of the fund is in tech and telecom. Expenses are 1.01 percent annually.

Steven T. Goldberg is a freelance writer and investment advisor in Silver Spring, Md. He welcomes reader questions. E-mail steve@tginvesting.comor write to Steven Goldberg, 9005 Woodland Dr., Silver Spring, MD 20910. You may also call him at (301) 650-6567.