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NEW YORK (
RealMoney) -- What a difference a year makes. Last year at this time I saw a continuation of worldwide growth, a nice double-digit gain in the Dow Jones Averages and some lift to interest rates.
My game plan was going along just fine, as the year, at first, seemed headed to be a good one. But then Europe intruded and all bets were off.
The question for me is how much do we have to fear Europe going into 2012, especially because I didn't fear it enough going into 2011?
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I think we have to fear it plenty, but that's not necessarily bad news for most Dow stocks. Remember, I am a bottoms-up guy and as you will see from my analysis, I think we can have a decent -- not spectacular -- but decent year, even if Europe contracts anything but severely, although we certainly have to leave open the prospect that things really break down over there. What's a breakdown mean? The nationalization of many of the biggest banks, as well as a potential receivership of sorts for Italy, which is, ridiculously, the third-largest bond market in the world.
Let me tell you how I see things shaking out on a stock-by-stock basis.
Alcoa(AA - Get Report). This was a year of colossal disappointment for Alcoa. Just an abysmal, awful year where aluminum prices plummeted and the company failed to come near any of the analysts' earnings estimates. Guess what? They won't hit them in 2012 either, as aluminum is in glut and there are many countries, notably China, where the country is committed to losing money to keep people employed. In that environment, barring a takeover bid, it is difficult to foresee how this stock can trade any higher than $10 given that I think it will be lucky to earn 50 cents a share, which is a dramatically lower estimate than what Wall Street is using. They aren't incompetent and they are extremely competitive, it's just that China has to pump out aluminum from dirty smelters just to keep people employed. In the meantime, the value of its new plants is totally lost in the lousy earnings shuffle. It would not surprise me if Alcoa actually reports a couple of quarters' worth of breakeven or losses.
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American Express(AXP - Get Report). Not clear to me what this company has to do to earn the respect it used to have.
Visa(V), two not-as-well-run companies, generated fantastic performance in 2011, up about 60% and 40% respectively, while American Express barely budged. But that's because AXP has some credit risk and those other two are simply considered tech financials. Wall Street's worried that AXP's spending too much to get new clients and that the world is slowing down, so it can't do as well. I think small business is coming back in this country and that will be terrific for AXP's bottom line. But I do think it will struggle to get much past $50.
AT&T(T - Get Report). Now that the disastrous
T-Mobile bid is behind AT&T, and its huge $4 billion separation fee, perhaps T can return to $32 where it was before its adventurism. T needed more spectrum to improve calling and T-Mobile was supposed to be the answer. If I were T, I would make major changes after this, including an evaluation of CEO Randall Stephenson, as this foray was a major debacle. Did anyone float this one past the lawyers who know anything about the Obama administration? Too bad they agreed to the big penalty on the walkaway because otherwise they did so much to destroy a competitor like T-Mobile that it would have made great sense. Of course it was just the opposite, so $32 is about as lofty as you can expect to get.
Bank of America's(BAC - Get Report) in trouble. How much trouble? Enough that this will be the year where management is replaced if nothing good happens. Bank of America has devolved into a collection of losing lawsuits connected to a deposit company. I have never seen so much legal exposure to one solvent firm except the asbestos makers, and we know how that turned out. I thought that BAC would turn the corner under Brian Moynihan. Instead it fell off a cliff. No bank's been that good in 2011 but this one's been disastrous. It will be lucky if it can get back to the $7, where Buffett put his imprimatur on it. If gigantic European banks implode, you are looking at a price as low as $3.
Boeing's(BA - Get Report) at the beginning of a gigantic aircraft cycle, the 787, and when we have had these cycles they tend to last for seven years. That means Boeing's become one of my favorite stocks in the Dow because it has literally done next to nothing despite this huge catalyst and a decent dividend. I thought the stock would go to $85 last year and that was way too bullish. The story is even better this year, so am loath to cut my price target and am leaving it at $85 and calling myself "early."
Caterpillar's(CAT - Get Report) the kind of stock that hedge fund managers love to go short or long depending upon whether Europe or China has had a stich of positive or negative news. Caterpillar does have power to do $12 in earnings, but the slowdown in Chinese construction, the tightening of rates in emerging markets, the inability of the United States to jumpstart its housing market and, of course, Europe, combined to almost cut that projection in half. I think the company can earn $7 if all goes well and it should get a 12x multiple for the high-quality company it is. All that said, if Europe takes another leg down or China doesn't cut rates fast enough you will see $6 and a 12x multiple. All depends on the ECB and the Chinese central bank and neither is all that trustworthy.
Chevron(CVX - Get Report) has been in a plateau around $100 for some time now and I think it will take oil to go convincingly through $100 to get this stock to advance above these levels. I am betting that oil's not going anywhere for now, with OPEC seemingly bent on keeping prices no higher than this for fear that the developed world will push harder for alternative fuels. But the combined return with Chevron's terrific dividend makes it worth buying any time the stock goes to $90.
Cisco(CSCO - Get Report). I predicted this stock would have a disappointing year, but I never figured it would be this disappointing and I thought the stock could trade to $21. All that said, the last two quarters from Cisco were positive surprises and the cost structure is lean enough for me to think $21 is a realistic goal for the year.
Coca-Cola(KO - Get Report). Despite its 2.75% yield and its consistent growth, KO went nowhere this year, which is a real disappointment. Some of it is simple high valuation because on a price-to-earnings multiple vs. its growth rate the stock is fully valued in the high $60s. I think that KO's consistency isn't fully represented in the price and it can inch its way to $70 without stretching the valuation too much. They have accelerating sales in Asia, which is where the growth has to come from because it is not going to put up any appreciable numbers in the United States.
Disney(DIS - Get Report) boosted its dividend by 40% that was the signal that management realizes how bright the future for the company is. I think that in the mid-$30s Disney represents compelling value. Down about 20% from its high with terrific momentum to its parks and its ESPN unit, but not its films, Disney could deliver more earnings surprises like the last one and go back the $40 level.
DuPont(DD - Get Report) yields almost 4%, but it is an accidental high-yielder, meaning it is only because business turned so disappointing that it got to that level. What happened? Too much cyclicality and not enough agriculture and safety. At least not yet. There's still too much exposure to the housing and auto cycles and while the latter is coming back, there's not a lot of money to be made in it. And the former is simply awful. I think that Ellen Kullman's recent preannouncement to the downside made people suspicious of the turn. I think that without some strong economic growth in either Europe or the United States this stock will remain hunkered down in the $40s and it will become a total return vehicle, meaning you will be paid to wait with a bountiful dividend until worldwide GDP growth kicks in.
ExxonMobil(XOM - Get Report). This company is still living with its colossal overpay for XTO as the price of natgas crumbles. Meanwhile, the company's growth away from natgas remains subpar. If oil can go to $110 I can see the stock going to $85, slightly less than it was when oil was that lofty last time. I can't be as bullish because natgas had been so atrocious.
General Electric(GE - Get Report). I am partial to 4% yielders because they pay you to wait, in this case paying you to wait for the transformation from a financial company with manufacturing abilities to a manufacturing company with financial savvy and credit availability for large financing purchases. I think the basic businesses (health, aerospace and energy) are all in a very good place and I think that the company's not done raisings its dividend. Stock goes to $20 if it continues to deliver these strong earnings and continues the dividend increases.
Hewlett-Packard(HPQ - Get Report). I was incredibly negative about this stock going into last year, thinking it could lose a few points because I was concerned about the newness of management and the competition from everyone from IBM and
Dell(DELL) to Cisco and
Accenture(ACN - Get Report). Turns out I was too bullish! Everything seemed to hit a wall for these guys and, for the first time I can recall, the balance sheet's been dinged. That's how bad things are. I do like Meg Whitman for her stability at the helm though and the fact that she has lowered the bar enough that it can be beaten. Call it $30 and change, no more because of a huge business in Europe.
Home Depot's(HD - Get Report) doing everything right and we are still in a housing crisis. Who knows what this company could do if we actually catch a bottom in housing, which is something that is possible in 2012 given that we are building so few homes in this country these days, about as many as we built when we had half as many people. CEO Frank Blake's done a remarkable job steering Home Depot back from a Bob Nardelli-inspired oblivion and I think the good news continues, which will allow HD to appreciate another 10% without much problem, including the dividend as this company, like so many others in the Dow, keeps boosting its payout.