Timing is everything. While the S&P 500 index ended 2016 with 11.96% gains for the calendar year, that performance shoots up to 20.8% when measured from a year ago today. That's a hefty premium for sitting out on the first couple weeks of 2016.

Likewise, good timing in Wall Street's biggest stocks could be about to pay off in 2017.

That's because, as I write, a handful of blue-chip stocks are teetering on the edge of breakout territory. These big stocks could hand investors the most substantial returns in the months ahead.

To find the stocks that look primed to become performance leaders in January, we're turning to the charts for a technical look at five big stocks that are signaling breakouts -- and when to buy them.

First, a quick note on the technical toolbox we're using here: Technical analysis is a study of the market itself. Since the market is ultimately the only mechanism that determines a stock's price, technical analysis is a valuable tool even in the roughest of trading conditions. Technical charts are used every day by proprietary trading floors, Wall Street's biggest financial firms, and individual investors to get an edge on the market. And research shows that skilled technical traders can bank gains as much as 90% of the time.

Every week, I take an in-depth look at big names that are telling important technical stories. Here's this week's look at five big stocks to trade.

Dow Chemical 

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Up first on our list of large-cap breakout trades is $64 billion chemical giant Dow Chemical (DOW) - Get Report. Dow Chemical has been a stellar performer in recent months, rallying more than 20% from its lows last summer. But don't worry if you've missed that recent upside in Dow - shares look ready to kick off a second leg higher this month.

Since December, Dow has been forming a textbook example of an ascending triangle pattern, a bullish continuation setup that's formed by horizontal resistance up above shares at $59, and uptrending support to the downside. Basically, as this stock pinballs between those two technically significant price levels, shares have been getting squeezed closer and closer to a breakout through their $59 price ceiling. When that breakout happens, we've got our new buy signal in Dow Chemical.

Dow Chemical is a holding in Jim Cramer'sAction Alerts PLUS Charitable Trust Portfolio. Want to be alerted before Cramer buys or sells DOW? Learn more now.

Relative strength, the side-indicator down at the bottom of Dow's chart, adds some extra upside confidence to this trade right now. That's because our relative strength line has been in an uptrend since shares bottomed back in July, signaling that Dow is outperforming the rest of the market. As long as that relative strength uptrend stays intact, this stock remains statistically more likely than not to outperform.

Honeywell International 

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We're seeing the exact same price setup in shares of industrial conglomerate Honeywell (HON) - Get Report. Like Dow Chemical, Honeywell has been in rally mode since bottoming in the second half of 2016 -- and now, an ascending triangle setup points to another up-leg in shares. For Honeywell, the big breakout level to watch is resistance up at $118.50.

What makes that $118.50 level so important for this stock? It all boils down to buyers and sellers. Price patterns, like this ascending triangle setup, are a good quick way to identify what's going on in the price action, but they're not the ultimate reason shares look attractive here. Instead, the "why" is driven by basic supply and demand for Honeywell's shares themselves.

The $118.50 resistance level is a price where there has been an excess of supply of shares; in other words, it's a spot where sellers have previously been more eager to step in and take gains than buyers have been to buy. That's what makes a breakout above $118.50 so significant - the move means that buyers are finally strong enough to absorb all of the excess supply above that price level.


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It's time for a second look at shares of $103 billion health care stock Medtronic  (MDT) - Get Report. The last time we took a look at Medtronic was back in December, when shares were looking "bottomy" after a prolonged selloff. Sure enough, Medtronic managed to crack resistance up at $74, triggering a buy signal from the double bottom pattern that had been setting up in shares. With that breakout underway, how should you trade Medtronic from here? Let's take an updated look at the chart.

Medtronic's double bottom pattern is a technical reversal pattern that looks just like it sounds. The price pattern is formed by the setup is formed by a pair of swing lows that bottom out at approximately the same level; the peak that separates that pair of lows is the breakout level that triggers the reversal. In Medtronic's case, that was our $74 price tag.

Medtronic's price pattern was relatively shallow, a fact that translates into a relatively nearby initial price target from the breakout at $77. That said, a push to $77 coincides with a break through the downtrend line that's been haranguing shares since last summer, indicating a more prolonged change in trend could be happening here. The bottom line is that Medtronic could have materially further to move this winter. If you decide to jump in here, consider parking a protective stop on the other side of support down at $71.

Canadian Natural Resources 

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You don't need a whole lot of technical trading know-how to figure out what's going on in shares of $34 billion oil and gas company Canadian Natural Resources  (CNQ) - Get Report. Instead, this big-cap exploration and production company has spent the better part of the last year bouncing its way higher in a well-defined uptrend. And CNQ is still a "buy the dips stock" this month.

The uptrending channel in Canadian Natural Resources is formed by a pair of parallel trendlines that have corralled 99% of this stock's price action stretching back over the last 12 months. So far, every test of the bottom of the channel at trendline support has provided investors with a low-risk buying opportunity before CNQ's next up-leg. Now, as shares hover around support for the seventh time, the next bounce higher is our buy signal.

Waiting for that bounce is important for two key reasons: It's the spot where shares have the most room to move up before they hit resistance, and it's the spot where the risk is the least (because shares have the least room to move lower before the channel breaks, invalidating the upside trade). Remember, all trend lines do eventually break, but by actually waiting for the bounce to happen first, you're ensuring CNQ can actually still catch a bid along that line before you put your money on shares.

American Tower

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Last on our list of large-cap breakouts to buy this week is $45 billion communications infrastructure REIT American Tower   (AMT) - Get Report. It wasn't all that long ago that American Tower wasn't a stock you'd want to see in your portfolio -- shares were showing off a bearish price pattern back in December. But with that downside setup played out, American Tower is now looking ready to get back to upside. Here's how to trade it.

Since its initial breakdown in November, American Tower has been forming an inverse head and shoulders pattern, a bullish reversal setup that signals exhaustion among sellers -- after the recent downside in shares of AMT, it's not a stretch of the imagination to think that sellers are feeling winded here. The pattern in AMT is formed by two swing lows that bottom out at approximately the same level (the shoulders), separated by a lower low (the head). The buy signal gets triggered on a move through this stock's neckline just below $108.

Price momentum, measured by 14-day RSI, is the side-indicator to look at in American Tower. Our momentum gauge has made a series of higher lows during this stock's inverse head and shoulders setup, a bullish divergence that indicates buyers are stepping in behind the scenes. If American Tower can crack $108 this week, then the selling is over and buyers are back in control of things...

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