Is It Time to Buy the S&P 500's 4 Worst-Performing Stocks of 2023?

After declining 19% in 2022, the S&P 500 has risen about 4% this year as investors grew accustomed to inflation, rising interest rates, and other macro headwinds. Bargain hunters also started to scoop up some beaten-down blue chip stocks.

However, nearly half of those 500 companies still haven’t delivered positive year-to-date gains as of this writing. Let’s see if the four worst-performing S&P 500 components so far in 2023 — Lumen Technologies (LUMN -1.86%), Moderna (MRNA 3.87%), Baxter International (BAX 0.81%) and Pfizer (PFE 1.30%) — are actually contrarian buys.

A stunned person looking at charts on computer screens.

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1. Lumen Technologies

Lumen Technologies, the telecom company formerly known as CenturyLink, lost 38% of its value so far this year. Its business and residential wireline operations struggled to keep pace with its larger competitors, while macro headwinds curbed the growth of its enterprise-facing services.

In 2022, Lumen’s revenue declined 5% to $15.5 billion and it posted a net loss of $1.5 billion — compared to a net profit of $2 billion in 2021. That loss was mainly caused by a $3.3 billion impairment charge, but it’s nonetheless an ugly setback for a company that still held $20.4 billion in long-term debt.

That high debt load, which gave it a year-end debt-to-equity ratio of 1.96, forced Lumen to eliminate its dividend last November. Analysts expect its revenue to decline another 16% this year as it posts a narrower net loss. Lumen’s stock might seem dirt cheap at 0.2 times this year’s sales, but AT&T and Verizon Communications — which both generate more stable growth while continuing to pay dividends — are much better buys.

2. Moderna

In 2022, most of Moderna’s $19.3 billion in revenue came from its COVID-19 vaccines. But its revenue only rose 4% that year, decelerating from its 2,200% growth in 2021, as vaccination rates peaked worldwide. In 2023, analysts expect its revenue to drop by 60% as rising costs from its development of new vaccines for the flu, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), cytomegalovirus (CMV), and other diseases cause it to turn unprofitable again. That’s why its stock sank 24% so far this year.

Moderna has hinted at raising the prices for its COVID-19 vaccines to cushion that blow, but it needs to take the $18.2 billion in cash, cash equivalents, and investments it accumulated throughout the pandemic to create a more diverse pipeline of vaccines. Its revenue will continue to decline until that happens, and its stock still isn’t cheap at 7 times this year’s sales. In this tough market which values stability over speculative growth, it’s arguably smarter to buy a well-diversified healthcare giant like Johnson & Johnson instead of betting on Moderna’s post-COVID future.

3. Baxter International

The diversified medical technology company Baxter International lost 23% of its value this year as macro headwinds and supply chain challenges throttle its growth. Its revenue rose 18% on a reported basis to $15.1 billion in 2022, but it only grew 2% on an operational basis after smoothing out the year-over-year comparisons from its acquisition of Hill-Rom in December 2021. It expects its revenue to only increase 1% to 2% on a reported basis in 2023.

Baxter expects the macro headwinds to persist this year, but it also plans to spin off its slower-growth Renal Care and Acute Therapies segments (which generated 29% of its revenue in 2022) within the next 12 to 18 months. That spin-off might stabilize its business in 2024 and beyond, but analysts still expect its earnings to decline 19% in 2023.

Baxter’s stock might seem cheap at 12 times forward earnings, and it pays a decent forward yield of 2.9%. But with so many other higher-growth stocks still on sale in this market, it doesn’t make sense to invest in a sluggish laggard like Baxter.

4. Pfizer

Like Moderna, the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer faces a tough post-pandemic slowdown in COVID-19 treatments and vaccines. But unlike Moderna, Pfizer has plenty of other sources of revenue. Yet Pfizer’s stock has still declined 22% this year.

Pfizer’s revenue surged 30% to an all-time high of $100.3 billion in 2022, mainly driven by its COVID-19 treatment Paxlovid and its Comirnaty vaccine, but analysts expect its revenue to decline 31% in 2023.

Excluding its COVID-19 treatments, Pfizer’s revenue still rose 2% in 2022. On that same basis, it expects its revenue to rise 7% to 9% in 2023 as its sales of other products — including Eliquis, Vyndaqel, and other newly acquired drugs — pick up the slack. The company still faces some upcoming patent expirations between 2025 and 2028, but it’s been spending a lot of the cash it accumulated throughout the pandemic on acquisitions of smaller companies to brace for that slowdown.

Pfizer’s earnings are expected to tumble 47% this year, but its stock is cheap at 11 times forward earnings and its dividend pays a forward yield of 4%. Therefore, it’s the only one of these fallen S&P 500 stocks I’d consider buying right now.

Leo Sun has positions in AT&T and Johnson & Johnson. The Motley Fool has positions in and recommends Pfizer. The Motley Fool recommends Johnson & Johnson, Moderna, and Verizon Communications. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.