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Is this the most recession-proof share you can buy?

Image: Biffa: Fair use

Investors looking for a defensive, non-cyclical business may be interested in one of the LSE’s newest members, waste management firm Biffa (LSE: BIFF). After all, consumers and companies alike produce garbage and recycling even during recessions, so it stands to reason Biffa may be a solid non-cyclical stock.

But that’s not entirely the case because waste management firms are generally paid per tonne of trash or recycling collected. That means when the economy implodes and consumers buy less and produce less trash, the firms that collect it suffer.

However, this does not mean Biffa isn’t an attractive stock to own for the long term. Due to regulatory pressure in the past few years, the company has transitioned away from simple trash collection and landfill ownership into recycling and energy production as well.

The business is now much more diversified than it was when it was taken private several years ago and in 2016 its waste collection contracts with businesses and municipal governments accounted for only 48% of underlying operating profits.

This is still a significant chunk, but investors should be relieved that pre-sold energy production accounted for a full 45% of underlying operating profits during the period. This energy is generated through anaerobic digestion from the company’s landfills and is a reliable source of renewable energy.

Biffa’s overall health is still tied to the economic cycle but the company today is looking relatively diversified, is growing organically and through acquisitions and is doing well to re-position itself as a leader in an increasingly regulated industry. With stellar dividend potential in the medium term and an attractive valuation of 10.7 times forward earnings, the company is worth a closer look for investors willing to get dirty.

More reliable than trash pick-up 

A much safer non-cyclical option is credit bureau Experian (LSE: EXPN). The firm owns credit information on hundreds of millions of consumers and businesses and sells access to this data to banks and other financial firms that want to better understand the credit risk of potential clients.

This is a very defensive business as consumers continue to apply for, if not receive, credit cards, mortgages and other loans during recessions as well as bull markets. This division is still the company’s breadwinner and in 2016 accounted for 50% of revenue and 60% of EBIT. It’s also growing at a steady clip, 8% year-on-year in 2016, as consumers in developing markets such as Brazil increasingly apply for credit that was previously unavailable to them.

As the company expands into new regions and continues to add related bolt-on services such as data analytics and identity verification, it is increasing its stickiness with companies, governments and consumers alike. This is providing reliable revenue streams which, combined with high margins are producing high cash flow that is increasingly being returned to shareholders. In 2016 the company was able to return over $930m to shareholders through share buybacks and dividends thanks to operations that kicked off $1.3bn in cash flow.

Huge shareholder returns and steady non-cylical growth have me interested in Experian despite its shares’ somewhat pricey valuation of 22 times forward earnings.

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Ian Pierce has no position in any shares mentioned. The Motley Fool UK has recommended Experian. Views expressed on the companies mentioned in this article are those of the writer and therefore may differ from the official recommendations we make in our subscription services such as Share Advisor, Hidden Winners and Pro. Here at The Motley Fool we believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors.