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I think this stock could be one of the best recession investments of 2020

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We’re into a pretty deep recession, and many investors are looking for defensive recovery stocks. The name CRH (LSE: CRH) might not be on the tips of everyone’s tongues. But the Dublin-based construction company has shown one of the best recoveries of the year so far. The CRH share price crashed hard when the pandemic arrived, losing almost 50% of its value by 18 March. By comparison, the FTSE 100 dipped 35% year-to-date at its lowest point.

Since then, the CRH recovery has been astonishing, despite economies worldwide heading into recession. Just about all of that early loss has been regained, and the shares are a mere 5% down in 2020 so far. Meanwhile, the Footsie still languishes around 20% down.

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The company released interim results Thursday, and the share price responded with a 2% drop. That’s hardly anything really.

Pandemic response

Chief executive Albert Manifold said: “As a group we took swift and comprehensive action in response to the Covid-19 crisis, and our ability to flex our cost base and deliver improved profitability, margins and cash generation in a rapidly evolving environment demonstrates the strength and resilience of our business.

It all seems to have paid off, with revenue for the half falling just a modest 3%. And on the earnings front, things are positive. EBITDA rose by 2%, with the firm’s EBITDA margin gaining 70bps to 13%. The company also reported record cash generation, and maintained its interim dividend in line with last year. Looking for a recession investment? CRH doesn’t appear to have seen any recession.

Liquidity

But in times like this, bottom-line profit is not necessarily what matters. I’m looking more for the safety of liquidity these days. On that score, CRH managed to reduce its net debt figure by an impressive $3.8bn — from $11.6bn at the same stage last year, to $7.8bn. That’s still a big figure, but things should improve further by the end of the year. The company said: “As in prior years, we expect a strong operating cash inflow in the second half of 2020.”

At 2019 year-end, the company’s net debt/EBITDA ratio stood at 1.7x, and that’s a level that makes me twitchy. Many investors look for a maximum of 1.5x, and I prefer to see less than that. But we should see an improvement by year-end, and CRH does say it “had $10bn of cash with sufficient liquidity to meet all maturing debt obligations for the next 4.9 years” at 30 June.

Recession outlook

We need to see how CRH progresses as the year develops. But we’re already seeing signs of a so-called V-shaped recession, and we could be out of it relatively quickly. After all, GDP actually improved in May — only by 1.8%, but I find that encouraging.

Mr Manifold went on to say: “The outlook for the rest of the year and into 2021 remains uncertain and is dependent on an improving health situation across our markets.”

So CRH still faces plenty of uncertainty. But from here, I’m seeing a well-managed and resilient company. And it looks like a good defensive recession investment to me.

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Alan Oscroft has no position in any of the shares mentioned. The Motley Fool UK has no position in any of the shares mentioned. 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.