Investors of all stripes have been spooked by the stock markets' gyrations and the Standard & Poor's 500's struggle to break even this year. But there are clear buying opportunities for those with a long-term time horizon and the presence of mind to tune out the day-to-day market noise.
Investors should be richly rewarded if they pick and stick with companies that have a proven record of rock-steady, double-digit returns, stand as leaders in their industry and can claim an unassailable competitive edge.
Three industries that fit the bill, according to a review of investment-bank analysts, research firms and fund managers, are energy, technology and health care.
In the energy sector, there are two players that stand out: Schlumberger, a pioneer in the oil-field services industry, and Kinder Morgan, which, coming off a merger this year, stores and delivers natural gas via its own grid of pipelines.
In technology, Qualcomm owns industry-standard patented technologies that are integral to every wireless-communications device, while Visa, which is not traditionally considered a tech company, is in a position to leverage the use of mobile devices as point-of sale payment platforms and e-commerce for new avenues of growth.
The health-care sector is benefiting from the demographics of an aging populace and government-mandated coverage, the latter a double-edged sword for the industry.
But two firms should be able to weather any obstacles: the nation's largest private health insurer, UnitedHealth, and drug-store chain and pharmacy-benefits manager CVS Caremark.
What follows is a synopsis of those six companies and their investment theses:
Company Profile: Schlumberger is the world's largest oil-services provider, and owns and develops new exploration and production technologies that far exceed those of competitors.
2011 Return: down 21 percent; 15-year average annual return of 8 percent. Its shares have a 1.54 percent dividend yield.
Investment Thesis: The company has particularly well-respected technological capabilities ranging from exploration to delivery capabilities. It also has built trusting relationships with governments from the turbulent Middle East to Russia. Schlumberger has operations in 80 countries, including the booming U.S. oil shale fields.
Essentially, many countries with economies based on oil production can't survive without Schlumberger, which gives the company tremendous pricing leverage. As oil and natural gas prices continue to rise, especially when the economy rebounds, it will be a profit powerhouse.
Kinder Morgan Energy Partners
Company Profile: Kinder Morgan operates more than 37,000 miles of pipelines for oil and natural gas transport, and owns 180 terminals that store liquids, gases and dry-bulk materials such as coal.
2011 Return: up 21 percent, consistent with its 15-year average annual increase. Its shares carry a 5.78 percent dividend yield.
Investment Thesis: The company announced a merger with the oil pipeline giant El Paso earlier this year, which is still awaiting regulatory approval.
The deal creates a series of complex partnerships, but given the exclusivity of the pipeline and storage facilities it now controls, including the largest natural gas pipeline operation in the country and serving every major U.S. market, Kinder Morgan has tremendous leverage to raise prices as demand for natural gas grows.
The company is a virtual monopoly in some markets, but has to deal with regulatory oversight and tariffs.
Company Profile: Qualcomm makes digital wireless telecommunications products and services based on its proprietary code division multiple access (CDMA) technology. Its products are an integral part of most mobile devices.
2011 Return: up 6.6 percent; 15-year average annual return: 15 percent.
Investment Thesis: As the developer of CDMA, Qualcomm gets a slice of royalty revenue from virtually every wireless-communications device by licensing its intellectual property, and it has branched out that expertise into the semiconductor market, where the firm is a key supplier of chips to wireless handset makers.
It owns patents that are used in all 4G technologies, such as Long Term Evolution (LTE).
Qualcomm isn't standing still, as it has several new products under development including a mobile display technology. Every service upgrade by carriers will result in greater revenue for Qualcomm.
S&P gives it a "buy" rating and a 38 percent, 12-month upside based on target price of $73, while Wells Fargo recently added the company to its "priority" stock list.
But its long-term prospects are what are most exciting as the rapidly evolving wireless communications world can't grow without its technology.
Company Profile: Visa is the leading brand in the global credit card processing industry, with a global market share of more than 60 percent.
2011 Return: up 41 percent; three-year average annual return of 22 percent (it's only been public for that period). The shares carry a 0.89 percent projected dividend yield.
Investment Thesis: Visa's network of financial institutions can't be duplicated and its members aren't likely to defect, given the time and expense involved for a company to change its network to one of its competitors.
Despite the recession, there is still strong growth in the use of credit cards worldwide, but the real growth opportunity here is in the shift to electronic payments using mobile devices.
Instead of swiping a credit card through a processing device, the "card" holder will flash his mobile-communications device, whether phone or Wi-Fi device, in a merchant's electronic reader.
That's a trend that is still in the early stages but it's sure to boost earnings when it becomes more widespread.
Last week, Nomura Securities started coverage of Visa and other credit card processors, with a "buy" rating, saying that "these businesses all generate significantly more cash than they need to operate, do not have to retain any capital and expose shareholders to zero credit risk."
Visa's shares are relatively pricey now at $101 per share and a price-to-earnings ratio of 21.9, but long-term investors shouldn't be scared away, given the company's prospects.
Company Profile: This health-insurance company is one of the nation's largest managed-care providers, with more than 78 million subscribers.
Products include risk-based health insurance, non-risk-based plan management for self-insured employers, Medicare and Medicaid plans, pharmacy benefit and disease management, and database and consulting services.
2011 Return: up 37 percent; 15-year average annual return of 15 percent. The shares have a 1.33 percent dividend yield.
Investment Thesis: The company's huge size gives it tremendous competitive advantages and it has massive free cash flow.
UnitedHealth's stated long-term growth target is for average annual earnings per share growth of 13 percent to 16 percent, and revenue growth of 6 percent to 9 percent over the long term, boosted by its new Optum health-care services business, which includes a pharmacy-benefit manager and other businesses.
There's no turning back from the increasing role that health-care insurance plays in our society, and this company is already one of the largest players.
Company Profile: The company is made up of one of the largest retail-pharmacy chains in the U.S., with one of the biggest pharmacy-benefit managers, thanks to a 2007 merger.
CVS operates more than 7,000 retail pharmacies and more than 500 retail health clinics called MinuteClinic.
2011 Return: up 6.6 percent; 15-year average annual return of 9.6 percent. Its shares carry a 1.37 percent dividend yield.
Investment Thesis: CVS is poised to take advantage of the demographic trend of an aging population seeking more services while big insurers are seeking cost containment. It is able to deliver relatively inexpensive clinical services, pharmacy-benefit management functions, and retail pharmacy operations.
The Caremark addition brought mail-order drug services, which stanches any erosion of its customer base.
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Correction: This story was updated to correct the CVS Caremark name.