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The 3 Hottest Sectors for 2012

Auto-parts suppliers such as Lear (LEA) and Magna International (MGA) are 30% to 40% off of their 52-week highs and look awfully tempting trading at seven or eight times projected 2012 profits. Yet two publicly-traded auto stocks may be the biggest bargains of all, trading at even lower multiples. GM (GM) represents the biggest value in the group, as its entire operations are assigned zero value after its net cash is excluded from the market capitalization. Ford (F) represents the better operator of the two. Which one appeals the most depends on your investing preference.

3. Consumer discretionary

For the past three years, we've been hearing tales of consumer deleveraging. Millions of Americans have sought to repair their personal balance sheets by paying off credit card loans, shortening vacations and getting a little more use out of old clothes and appliances.

The retrenchment in spending has been partially fueled by fears that the U.S. economy may fall off a cliff. But it's becoming apparent that the worst-case scenarios for the U.S. economy simply won't come to pass. This should, with each passing month, make consumers a little less cautious. Few expect a spending boom in consumer discretionary spending, but even a modest upturn would have an outsized effect for any businesses that operate with high-fixed costs and low-variable costs.

Does this mean consumers will replace aging washing machines and dishwashers? If so, then Whirlpool (WHR), trading at around six times projected 2011 profits, looks like quite the bargain. Will Mom and Dad treat the kids to a vacation instead of a "stay-cation?" If so, then Disney (DIS), trading at levels seen back in 1998, may get a solid lift.

For my money, the major airline and hotel stocks stand out as consumer discretionary subsectors with the strongest upside potential. Both of these industries may sell more plane seats and hotel rooms, respectively, so they may be able to boost prices for each seat and room as well -- a double-barreled gain that could greatly enhance profit margins. Delta Airlines (DAL) should fare very well in a slowly-improving economy -- if oil prices don't shoot through the roof. In the lodging space, keep an eye on Starwood Hotels (HOT), Marriott International (MAR) and lodging REIT Host Hotels (HOST), all of which are well off of their 52-week highs.

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