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Help Jim Pick Six for His 'Fantastic 50'

Thanks. Sort of.

More than 220 readers sent in nominations for the best stocks to fill the six holes I created in the Future Fantastic 50 portfolio in my July 11 "MoneyCentral" column, Three Buy-and-Hold Stocks to Sell Now! The arguments for individual stocks were impressively detailed and thoughtful. (You can take a look for yourself in the Market Talk With Jim Jubak Community thread titled New Future 50 Picks.)

But there certainly wasn't much of a consensus behind any particular name. Five mentions qualified as a "landslide." So instead of a list of 20 or so heavy favorites that I could quickly boil down into the list of the "10 best nominations" for the vote that I promised in today's column, I was faced with 183 names to research.

And here are the 10 names that survived my vetting: Adobe Systems (ADBE), Affymetrix (AFFX), Gemstar-TV Guide International (GMST), i2 Technologies (ITWO), Phone.com (PHCM), PRI Automation (PRIA), Target (TGT), Vodafone AirTouch (VOD), CheckFree Holdings (CKFR) and VeriSign (VRSN).

Now it's up to you to decide which six of these 10 join my more aggressive long-term portfolio, the Future Fantastic 50 . Enter your choices in the voting box to the right of this column. Voting ends at 1 a.m. EDT, July 26. I'll add the winners to the Future 50 portfolio -- and give you my rundown on the picks -- in my July 28 column.

How did I get to these particular names? Identifying stocks that will dominate their competitors and their market five years from now, while that domination is still all potential, obviously isn't an exact science. In contrast to the process for picking the 50 Best Stocks in the World , the method for picking the Future 50 relies far less on current fundamental numbers. To simplify greatly, the 50 Best portfolio looks back at past fundamental performance to find stocks that are likely to continue their superior performance over the next five years. The Future 50 looks forward to find stocks that have the potential to put together a five-year track record that is as superb as that of any member of the 50 Best -- but that may not have fully realized that potential yet.

Future Fundamentals

To pick stocks for the Future 50, an investor has to focus on potential, not realized, fundamentals.

Catchy, no? But what does it mean? What are potential fundamentals?

First off, they are what a company has to work with in building its future. Potential fundamentals include such things as the size of a company's future market. For example, a company that addresses a small opportunity doesn't have much potential to outgrow that limited market.

To whittle down my 183 stocks to 10 final nominees, I developed a "potential fundamentals" checklist.

  • Size of the company's future potential market. National Information Consortium (EGOV) may have a neat business, for example, operating Web sites, building online procurement systems and designing filing systems for state and local governments. But the company addresses a limited market, and much of its expertise isn't readily transferable to the demands of corporate clients. It's not likely, in my opinion, that this will be a "must own" stock in five years.
  • Growth in the company's future potential market. Few companies -- even among the best -- can grow at a rate much faster than the growth rate in its core market. It's much easier to grow 40% a year in a market that's growing at 60% than it is to have to take share from competitors in a market growing at 20% to meet the growth target. Krispy Kreme's (KREM) doughnuts may be Bill Clinton's favorite, but mature companies in the food industry have been struggling to put double-digit growth on the books. In five years, Krispy Kreme is likely to be facing the same problem.
  • Extendibility of the company's product line. Krispy Kreme could solve any future growth problems by adding new products to the lineup once the company has built out its national chain of doughnut shops. How easy will it be to get customers who know the company for its doughnuts to buy other products? That's a good question to ask about chip, software or Internet companies, as well as the purveyors of deep-fried dough. eSpeed (ESPD), for example, has built up a solid business in electronic trading, credit analysis and clearing of government bonds and other fixed-income securities. The company wants to expand by making markets in other commodities such as electricity, where it will face already entrenched competition.
  • Maturity of the market and/or the technology. Companies such as FreeMarkets (FMKT) only exist because of the market upheaval created by technological change. But too much technological change -- say, a way to run online auctions that is faster and cheaper to implement -- can prevent an existing company from establishing any kind of lock on its market. Too much change can wipe out the value of customer relationships, installed bases and big-name partnerships. Most Internet companies face exactly this problem in their "potential fundamentals."
  • Scalability of product line. Is a company's next product a logical extension of its current product, or does it have to be invented through trial and error? Biotechnology companies, by and large, fall into this second category. The discovery of each drug is guided by the experience of discovering the prior drug, but it still must be invented from scratch in important ways. There is no way in advance to tell if a promising compound will show marketable efficacy and acceptable side effects. That's why drug development is so slow and expensive. Biotechnology companies that make their money by drug discovery have to fight uphill against this "potential fundamental."
  • By applying these five tests, I was able to whittle down the original list of 183 to just 36 (click here to see this list).To go from there to my final 10, I applied the last item from my "potential fundamental" checklist.

  • Identifiable, long-lasting and major competitive edge over the competition. It's pretty easy to judge an existing competitive edge. It shows up in a company's fundamentals. Intel (INTC) has a competitive edge in manufacturing over Advanced Micro Devices (AMD), and Cisco Systems (CSCO) dominates 3Com (COMS) through its installed base and its sales force, for example. And investors can see that competitive edge at work in such fundamental numbers as profit margin and return on investment. A potential competitive edge doesn't show up in current fundamentals, so investors have to make a judgment call on a company's ability to dominate in the future.

    Only a relatively small number of stocks on the list of 36 show a clear-cut edge. To my mind, only five leap out. Adobe has made its Acrobat Reader and other technologies ubiquitous on the Internet, and that's likely to keep the company at the center of content delivery over the Net. Affymetrix has captured enough of the market for chips that analyze genetic information to give it a sustainable leg up over the competition, in my opinion. CheckFree has built up the infrastructure and captured what I think is dominant momentum among customers to win the electronic bill-paying battle. Gemstar has tightened its grip on the market for interactive TV-programming technology with its purchase of TV Guide. VeriSign is well-launched on a path that would make it the de facto standard for digital IDs.

  • To complete the list, an investor will have to pick as best as he or she can, the winners in competitions that are still very strongly contested. In some cases I think the issue is too close to call. Will Ariba (ARBA) or Commerce One (CMRC) -- or some new contender -- become the dominant business-to-business commerce company? Will BroadVision (BVSN) create a sustainable lead over Vignette (VIGN) or Interwoven (IWOV) in the Internet content-management business? Can Exodus Communications (EXDS) grow fast enough so that competition from Intel, IBM (IBM), Global Crossing (GBLX) and other big players won't matter?

    My picks to fill out the last five slots on our voting ballot are likely to differ from yours--and I'm setting up a thread in the community called Trash Jim's Nominees so that you can voice your disagreements. But here they are, anyway.

    i2 Technologies is in the supply-chain management industry, and its partnerships with IBM and Ariba give it access to the much larger business-to-business market. Phone.com has licensed its software for bringing the Internet (and corporate intranets) to wireless phones to virtually every player in the industry. PRI Automation has the product line to dominate automation in the chip-making industry. Target has managed to find a unique approach to retailing that combines low prices and style. And Vodafone is as close as anyone has come yet to building a global wireless phone system.

    Does this mean that the other stocks on the list of 36, or even on the longer list of 183, are bad investments? Not at all. There are plenty of very interesting -- and potentially profitable -- stocks on these lists that simply aren't good candidates for a long-term "buy and hold" portfolio because they require more active management than such a strategy can provide. For example, Cemex (CX), the giant Mexican cement maker, is far too cyclical a stock to fit well into a five-year holding period -- but it might be a great way to play a rally in Mexican stocks. I don't think that Ericsson (ERICY) will be, in the long run, a better investment than Nokia (NOK). But over the next year or two, the stock might outperform on plans for next-generation wireless buildouts around the world.

    Many of the stocks that didn't make this "buy-and-hold" portfolio -- remember the holding period here is five years or more -- would be great investments over other, shorter time periods. After we've finished voting on the new Future 50, I intend to go through this list of nominees again, looking for stocks that would be good picks for a more actively traded portfolio. You can expect to see that effort get under way in my Aug. 1 column.

    At the time of publication, Jim Jubak owned or controlled shares in the following equities mentioned in this column: Cisco Systems, Intel, i2 Technologies and Nokia. He welcomes your feedback at mctsc@microsoft.com.

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