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How Stocks React in an Election Year

Viacom (VIA.B) may be set up for a good trade. The operator of Comedy Central, Nickelodeon and MTV Networks may see a big spike in ad rates as candidates court the 20-something vote. The stock is already benefitting from a hefty $10 billion stock buyback that could shrink the share count by around 10% by the end of 2012.

Business at those cable channels has been solid in 2011, but it's the Paramount movie studio division that gets some credit as well. The studio had been operating at breakeven in recent years but is on track to post 6% operating margins this year. That still trails rival Warner Brothers, which generates 12% operating margins of around 12%, implying room for further gains in 2012. Still, we're talking about a Prez. Cycle boost. "The upcoming calendar year stands to benefit from what is likely to be an extremely contentious political season that should provide a solid baseline for growth," note analysts at Barrington Research.

Ad agencies can be counted to craft clever marketing campaigns for firms that want exposure to the upcoming 2012 Olympics in London next summer. While many investors focus on industry titan Omnicom (OMC), which sports a $12 billion market value, rival Interpublic (IPG), with just a $4 billion market value, may be the better play. That's because the advertising firm is wrapping up a multi-year restructuring plan that would look really impressive were it not for the still-slow economy.

A half-decade ago, Interpublic found itself with too many layers of management after a big growth-through-acquisition phase. Starting in 2006, management sought to trim the fat wherever possible, and EBITDA margins have been trending upward in recent years.

The real payoff: free cash flow, after trending negative in 2005 and 2006, has been surging, to a recent $701 million in 2010. That's fueling a string of stock buybacks.

Heading into the "presidential cycle" year, Interpublic is already delivering solid results. Third-quarter revenue rose 10.6% to $1.73 billion, about $75 million ahead of consensus forecasts. That helped the company deliver EPS of 16 cents -- 60% ahead of forecasts.

Even in a still-restrained economy, where analysts see Interpublic's revenue rising a modest 2% to 3% in 2012, profits are expected to march steadily higher. Citigroup sees EPS rising from around 60 cents this year, to around 70 cents in 2012 and around 80 cents by 2013. The fact that Citigroup and others foresee such tepid economic growth in 2012 -- right as campaign and Olympics-related spending should be at a cyclical high -- tells you that Interpublic may once again be poised to surpass expectations.

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At the time of publication, author had no positions in stocks mentioned.

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