Recessions are hard on everyone - aren't they? Actually, just as wars have their war babies (companies that perform well during war and suffer during peace), recessions have their tough offspring as well. In this article we'll take a look at the industries that flourish in the adversity of a recession and why they do so well when everyone else is struggling to make ends meet. (For related reading, see Recession: What Does It Mean To Investors? and War's Influence On Wall Street.)

Discount Retailers
It makes sense that, as budgets feel the strain of an economic downturn, people turn to the stores that offer the most for the least. Discount retailers like Wal-Mart (NYSE:WMT) do well at any time, but this is not entirely true. They often suffer in good times as people flush with money buy higher-quality goods at competing outlets. To remain competitive, they are forced to upgrade their product lines and change the focus of their business from thrift to quality. Their profits suffer from either lost sales or less margin on the goods they sell.

In hard times, however, these retailers excel by going back to core products and using vast economies of scale to give cheap goods to consumers. Designers and producers of lower-end products also see an upswing as more people jump from brand names to make their paychecks go further. People may not like discount retailers, but in a recession most people end up shopping there. (Learn one way these companies make their money in What Are Economies Of Scale?)

Sin Industries
In bad times, the bad do well. Although it seems a little counterintuitive, people patronize the sin industry more during a recession. In good times, these same people might have bought new shoes, a new stereo or other, bigger-ticket items. In bad times, however, the desire for comforts doesn't leave, it simply scales down. People will pass on the stereo, but a nightly glass of wine, a pack of cigarettes or a chocolate bar are small expenditures that help hold back the general malaise that comes with being tight on cash.

Be warned, though - not all sin businesses prosper in a recession. Gambling, with the exception of the truly troubled gamblers, becomes an extravagance and generally declines during recessions. In fact, casinos do their best trade when the economy is roaring and everyone feels lucky. The most prosperous businesses in this industry are the purveyors of small pleasures that can be bought at a gas station or convenience store. (To find out if it pays pick your portfolio based on ethics, read Socially Responsible Investing Vs. Sin Stocks and Socially (Ir)responsible Mutual Funds.)

Selected Services
Expect a downturn in the service industry as a whole, as companies and families are willing to do more themselves to save money. A certain class of service providers will see an upswing during hard times though. Companies that specialize in upgrading and maintaining existing equipment and products see their business increase as more clients focus on working with what they have now rather than buying a newer model. (Read Less Trash For More Cash to learn how eco-friendly practices can be good for your wallet as well as the planet.)

In the real estate industry, they say renovators hire as builders fire, and this holds true for many other industries as well.

The Statics
In a recession, simply carrying on with business as usual can be an achievement. Pharmaceuticals, healthcare companies, tax service companies, gravediggers, waste disposal companies and many others are in a category that, while not jumping ahead during a recession, can plod along while other companies suffer. This is simply because people get sick, get taxed and die (not always in that order) no matter what the economy is like. Sometimes the most boring businesses offer the most consistent and, in context, exciting returns. (Read A Checklist For Successful Medical Technology Investment and Build Your Portfolio With Infrastructure Investments to learn more about putting your money into these stable industries.)

The Benefits Of Recession
The biggest benefit of hard times is that companies get hurt for inefficiencies that they laughed off in better times. A recession means general fat trimming for companies, from which they should emerge stronger, and that's good news for investors.

One of the best signs is a company in a hard-hit industry that is expanding anyway. For example, McDonald's (NYSE:MCD) continued to grow in the 1970s downturn even though restaurants generally suffered as people cooked rather than going out to eat. Similarly, Toyota (NYSE:TM) was opening new American plants in the 1990s downturn when the Big Three were closing theirs due to falling sales for new cars. (Read more about the 1970s economy in Stagflation, 1970s Style.)

A recession can be a blessing for investors, as it is much easier to spot a strong company without the white noise of a strong economy. (Read how certain strategies can help you cut through market noise in Trading Without Noise.)

Waiting It Out
Although it is good to know which companies excel in a recession, investing according to economic cycles can be difficult. If you do invest in these industries during a recession, you have pay careful attention to your investment so you can readjust your portfolio before the economy rebounds, stemming the advances the recession-proof industries have made. (Read more about how to take advantage of market fluctuations in The Ups And Downs Of Investing In Cyclical Stocks.)

Some of the companies performing well in a recession will also perform well in a recovery, and more will change their business to take advantage of it, but many will be passed by their toughened-up brethren that race ahead in bull markets - financials, technology firms and other faster-moving industries. With the proper timing, however, these industries can provide a buffer within your portfolio while you wait for your high fliers to take off again.

For further reading, see Four Tips For Buying Stocks In A Recession and Recession-Proof Your Portfolio.

Related Articles
  1. Mutual Funds & ETFs

    Top 3 Japanese Bond ETFs

    Learn about the top three exchange-traded funds (ETFs) that invest in sovereign and corporate bonds issued by developed countries, including Japan.
  2. Taxes

    Here's How to Deduct Your Stock Losses From Your Tax Bill

    Learn the proper procedure for deducting stock investing losses, and get some tips on how to strategically take losses to lower your income tax bill.
  3. Mutual Funds & ETFs

    What Exactly Are Arbitrage Mutual Funds?

    Learn about arbitrage funds and how this type of investment generates profits by taking advantage of price differentials between the cash and futures markets.
  4. Stock Analysis

    3 Solar Stocks to Add to Your Portfolio

    Understand the growth and challenges of the renewable energy market and its success in 2015. Learn about the top three energy stocks to add to a portfolio.
  5. Professionals

    10 Must Watch Documentaries For Finance Professionals

    Find out about some of the best documentaries that finance professionals can watch to gain a better understanding of their industry.
  6. Professionals

    How to Sell Mutual Funds to Your Clients

    Learn about the various talking points you should cover when discussing mutual funds with clients and how explaining their benefits can help you close the sale.
  7. Mutual Funds & ETFs

    Top Three Transportation ETFs

    These three transportation funds attract the majority of sector volume.
  8. Investing Basics

    Statistical Proof That Buy-and-Hold Investing Pays Off

    Learn about how the data suggests that the buy-and-hold investment strategy still works, even after the huge declines of the Great Recession.
  9. Investing Basics

    5 Things To Ask Before Hiring A Financial Advisor

    Choosing a financial advisor isn't an easy task. Here's a list of the most important things to consider when planning for your financial future.
  10. Investing

    5 Recession Resistant Industries

    No companies are completely recession proof, but some industries perform better in a weak economy than others.
  1. What are the main kinds of annuities?

    There are two broad categories of annuity: fixed and variable. These categories refer to the manner in which the investment ... Read Full Answer >>
  2. What are the risks of rolling my 401(k) into an annuity?

    Though the appeal of having guaranteed income after retirement is undeniable, there are actually a number of risks to consider ... Read Full Answer >>
  3. How do I get out of my annuity and transfer to a new one?

    If you decide your current annuity is not for you, there is nothing stopping you from transferring your investment to a new ... Read Full Answer >>
  4. What are the risks of annuities in a recession?

    Annuities come in several forms, the two most common being fixed annuities and variable annuities. During a recession, variable ... Read Full Answer >>
  5. Are high yield bonds a good investment?

    Bonds are rated according to their risk of default by independent credit rating agencies such as Moody's, Standard & ... Read Full Answer >>
  6. How does the risk of investing in the industrial sector compare to the broader market?

    There is increased risk when investing in the industrial sector compared to the broader market due to high debt loads and ... Read Full Answer >>

You May Also Like

Hot Definitions
  1. Capitalization Rate

    The rate of return on a real estate investment property based on the income that the property is expected to generate.
  2. Gross Profit

    A company's total revenue (equivalent to total sales) minus the cost of goods sold. Gross profit is the profit a company ...
  3. Revenue

    The amount of money that a company actually receives during a specific period, including discounts and deductions for returned ...
  4. Normal Profit

    An economic condition occurring when the difference between a firm’s total revenue and total cost is equal to zero.
  5. Operating Cost

    Expenses associated with the maintenance and administration of a business on a day-to-day basis.
  6. Cost Of Funds

    The interest rate paid by financial institutions for the funds that they deploy in their business. The cost of funds is one ...
Trading Center
You are using adblocking software

Want access to all of Investopedia? Add us to your “whitelist”
so you'll never miss a feature!