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I think this FTSE 100 growth stock can keep growing earnings despite the coronavirus

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The panic enveloping financial markets remains at jaw-dropping levels. The FTSE 100’s dropped to its cheapest in a decade and Unilever (LSE: ULVR) is just one blue-chip that has suffered a pasting. Falling 20% during the past month, this major producer of fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) is now trading at levels not seen since spring 2018.

This rapid sell-off leaves Unilever dealing on a forward price-to-earnings (or P/E) ratio of 15.4 times. Compare this to its usual premium rating north of 20 times. It also carries a chunky 4.2% dividend yield. I’m an owner of this particular stock and I reckon it’s a brilliant buy at these prices.

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Of course, the Anglo-Dutch business is not completely without risk. It has already been suffering from tough trading conditions in some of its core regions, a reflection of a cooling global economy and intense competitive pressures. Because of these stresses, the firm has warned that underlying sales growth in 2020 would likely be located at “the lower end” of its 3% to 5% target.

On top of this, the Covid-19 pandemic has raised fears over revenues growth still further. The firm warned in January that “the impact of the coronavirus outbreak is unknown at this time.”

But I’m not fearing a sudden drop-off in Unilever’s sales any time soon. It’s possible, in fact, that sales of some of its key labels have jumped in recent weeks and could continue doing so.

Soap star

Unilever is a major player in the business of beauty and personal care. In fact, along with L’Oréal and P&G, it’s one of the world’s Big Three operators. It’s a category which generates a whopping 44% of turnover at group level. And following recent comments from Kantar Worldpanel, I believe it’s a division which could prove to be the company’s ace in the hole.

Unilever, through its beloved brands like Dove, Lux, Simple, Lifebuoy and Liril sells a ridiculous amount of soaps and shower gels all over the globe. And unless you’ve been living in a cave for the past fortnight, you’ll know how these particular products have been selling like hotcakes in recent weeks. It’s why Kantar has called the body cleansing field “a hero category”.

A top buy

Fears of contamination mean that soap might be the most obvious of Unilever’s products to be flying off the shelves right now. But this is not the only grouping in which Kantar suggests sales could leap.

The skincare category could also experience a demand boom, it says as individuals endure “long periods of staying at home, the lack of exercise, and the wearing of face masks,” and skin dullness, sensitivity and roughness subsequently increase. It says that hand cream sales could also rise due to increased hand washing. Along with some of those aforementioned labels, Unilever also has a huge stake in this area thanks to brands like Citra, Fair & Lovely, St. Ives and Pond’s.

In my opinion, then, Unilever’s remains in great shape to keep its long record of annual profits growth going.  So do City analysts who reckon earnings will rise 5% in 2020. If you’re seeking top-quality defensive stocks in these troubled times, I think this Footsie firm is one of the best.

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Royston Wild owns shares of Unilever. The Motley Fool UK owns shares of and has recommended Unilever. 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.

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