Better Buy: Kimberly-Clark Corp. vs. Johnson & Johnson

There aren't many companies that can grow sales and profits through a wide range of market conditions. But both Kimberly-Clark (NYSE: KMB), the consumer goods specialist, and Johnson & Johnson (NYSE: JNJ), the healthcare titan, have earned their place in that exclusive club. The 100 years of consecutive dividend raises that they boast between them is a testament to the enduring strength of their businesses.

Below, we'll stack these two income favorites against each other as investment ideas.

Kimberly-Clark vs. Johnson & Johnson:

Different trajectories

Johnson & Johnson is enjoying stronger operating momentum these days. Its consumer segment, which matches up most closely with Kimberly-Clark's business, grew at a 2% pace last quarter to help the total revenue base tick slightly higher. Those gains convinced management to raise their full-year profit forecast, too, even as the company predicts a bounce in pharmaceutical sales over the next few quarters.

Kimberly-Clark, in contrast, is struggling through a multiyear growth slowdown. Organic sales fell by 1% last quarter thanks to what CEO Tom Falk called a surprisingly challenging sales environment. The owner of Kleenex, Huggies, and Scott brands believes the market will eventually recover, but it still reduced its sales and profit outlook and now sees revenue declining slightly, compared to a 2% uptick last year and a 5% spike in 2015.

Cash returns

Johnson & Johnson also wins in the arena of cash returns. Its diverse -- and profitable -- business generates consistently strong operating cash, which has powered dividend increases at a 7% pace in each of the last two years. Kimberly-Clark's hikes, while slightly more generous than its consumer products peers, still trail that figure. Shareholders received a 5% increase this year and a similarly sized bump in 2016.

Kimberly-Clark is aggressively cutting costs, and that should help earnings continue to inch higher. However, with Johnson & Johnson expecting a 13% profit spike this year, it's likely that the healthcare giant will extend its dividend winning streak out at least through 2018.

Risks and valuation

I see two potential drawbacks to choosing Johnson & Johnson over Kimberly-Clark today: volatility and valuation. On the volatility front, it's important to understand that pharmaceutical sales involve uncertain results that can be dramatically reduced by health regulations and product recalls. Inventors don't have to go back far to see examples of these risks at work. Earnings tanked by 27% in fiscal 2011, after all. Johnson & Johnson has also logged profit declines in four of the past 10 years. Kimberly-Clark endures down years as well, but they tend to be less severe.

Johnson & Johnson is also the more expensive investment choice. The stock is valued at 22 times the past year of earnings, compared to Kimberly-Clark's P/E ratio of 20. And while its dividend will likely grow at a slower pace at least through next year, the consumer goods giant offers a 3.3% yield that beats Johnson & Johnson's and is far higher than the broader market's payout.

But patient investors can wait for that dividend to improve over time, which seems likely given Johnson & Johnson's entrenched market position in an industry that's poised for decades of growth ahead. That bright long-term outlook tilts the scales decisively toward the healthcare titan, in my view.

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Demitrios Kalogeropoulos has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Johnson & Johnson. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.