Warren Buffett has a Coke, and a smile, for good reason

Warren Buffett has made a lot of money over decades with a simple strategy: buying stocks in goods used every day, otherwise known as consumer staples.

Toothpaste, soda and battery makers, as well as the stores that sell these goods to consumers, such as Wal-Mart, have long been Warren Buffett favorites. Wal-Mart Stores is among Berkshire Hathaway's top 10 stock holdings. Coca-Cola is another.

Still a good idea?

Warren Buffett, chairman of Berkshire Hathaway
Daniel Acker | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Warren Buffett, chairman of Berkshire Hathaway

Investors looking at the short game might take Coke's April 20 earnings — which shaved 3 percent off the stock last week — as confirmation that Coke shares are a bad bet. Wal-Mart's woeful 2015 was reason to doubt it, as well.

But after the post-earnings dip, Coke is still beating the market this year. Wal-Mart is on the rebound, up 12 percent year-to-date.

There's been a broader rally in consumer staples stocks. Consumer staples are up near-3 percent this year and 5 percent in the past one-year period, through April 22. That narrowly beats the 2 percent for the S&P 500 this year and is much better than the broader market's flat performance in the past year.

The simplest way for investors to gain exposure to this sector is exchange-traded funds. The SPDR Consumer Staples Select Sector (XLP) hasn't just cashed in on the sector's outperformance of the S&P over the past year: It has beaten its bigger brother for the past five- and 10-year periods.

"These stocks have a lot of positive characteristics," said Todd Rosenbluth, director of ETF and mutual fund research at S&P IQ. "There are a lot of tailwinds," including strong brands and products that consumers use regularly that have staying power.

Consumer staples stocks also have steady cash flow, Rosenbluth said, so they can grow dividends or buy back shares. These characteristics have historically helped them ride out slowdowns in the economy. XLP's yield is 2.4 percent, and its expense ratio is low, at 0.14 percent.

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S&P IQ has an overweight rating on XLP. "The fund is well diversified," said Rosenbluth. "We like a lot of the stocks from a risk perspective."

The Vanguard Consumer Staples ETF (VDC) is also rated overweight by S&P IQ and also offers a better-than-average yield (2.97 percent) and low expense ratio, at 0.10 percent.

Jeffrey Christakos, a certified financial planner at Westfield Wealth Management, is a fan of these consumer staples ETFs for generational planning across his clients. Consumer staples stocks let older investors live off dividends while also nabbing stock appreciation for future generations.

"Slow and steady is the road to wealth," said Christakos. "And these ETFs are low cost and no magic. ... You don't have to worry about buying the next Apple," he added.

Christakos also likes the Guggenheim S&P 500 Equal Weight Consumer Staples ETF (RHS), which takes a different approach than most broad index funds. All of its holdings, which include Constellation Brands and Molson Coors Brewing, are equal weighted regardless of their market capitalization. (The traditional approach to passive investing weights stocks based on size.)

The $678.2 million Guggenheim ETF does charge a lot more, at a 0.40 percent annual expense ratio, though it has backed up its higher fee with performance. It is up more than 10 percent in the past year, a significantly better performance than XLP and VDC.

"Without equal weighting, big stocks can dominate," Christakos said. "And you're more vulnerable, since the largest ones can produce downside risk."

Consumer staples ETFs: By the numbers

ETF ticker
Expense ratio (%)
Assets ($)
Yield (%)
1-year return (%)
XLP 0.16 $9B 2.41 8.36
VDC 0.1 $3B 2.96 7.09
RHS 0.4 $724M 1.68 11.45
FSTA 0.12 $273M 2.54 7.06
IYK 0.46 $947M 1.12 6.44

Source: XTF.com, data through 4/22/2016

Morningstar analyst Robert Goldsborough said the recent rally comes with a big caveat: He thinks that consumer staples are overvalued right now.

In a low-interest-rate world that has made bonds unattractive, investors have been looking for stocks that are as close to bonds as equities can get, and that would steer them to consumer staples. "Growing dividends have helped bid up the sector," said Goldsborough.

XLP, for example, has a price-to-earnings ratio of 21 versus a 10-year average P/E of 16. Among the 10 S&P 500 subsectors, that's the second-highest divergence between current and historical P/E, after energy (with a P/E ratio that is not "off the chart," thanks to the steep decline in oil prices).

Concentration is also a risk, at least in XLP: There are only 37 stocks in XLP, Goldsborough said. The SPDR Consumer Discretionary ETF (XLY), by contrast, has 91 holdings.

This isn't an issue for other consumer staples' ETFs, though. Vanguard's VDC, by contrast, holds 100 stocks.

What you won't get with these ETFs is fast growth. The consumer staples sector is synonymous with slow growth. "Stocks like Clorox are hard-pressed to grow much," Rosenbluth said. "So they have to find cost savings."

By Constance Gustke, special to CNBC.com