While 2004 has been a mediocre year for the major averages, it's been simply phenomenal for stocks like
American Eagle Outfitters
In fact, all three companies have been top performers in the S&P 1500 this year after surprising investors with better-than-expected financial results.
Since January, Apple has soared 208% to a four-year high, while teen retailer American Eagle has climbed 162% and design software firm Autodesk has surged 173% to its best level in 10 years.
But can the winning streak continue in 2005?
For Apple, the answer could be yes, although the risk is certainly growing.
Over the past few weeks, several analysts have raised their earnings estimates and price targets on the stock, saying that sales of the company's handheld digital music player, the iPod, have been strong and should encourage customers to buy other Apple products.
On Monday, J.P. Morgan analyst Bill Shope said expectations for the company's sales and earnings growth in fiscal 2005 and 2006 "may still prove conservative."
Analysts surveyed by Thomson First Call expect Apple to earn $1.42 a share next year, up 92% from the 74 cents reported in 2004. Profits are slated to climb 24% in 2006 to $1.75 a share.
Bear Stearns analyst Andy Neff is more optimistic, however. He thinks the company will successfully launch a flash memory iPod in early 2005, and that should help earnings climb 150%. The iPods currently on the market contain a hard drive.
"If iPod drives users to Mac, it could provide more upside," he said, adding that he expects the stock to climb to $72 next year. (Bear Stearns and J.P. Morgan have no banking relationships with Apple.)
Other analysts are calling for even greater gains. Cody Willard, a partner at CL Willard Capital and contributor to
, said he thinks the stock could hit $100 or more next year, though he has been scaling back his holdings recently after a dramatic run.
"I just think there's more risk in the stock now that everybody on Wall Street seems to agree that the iPod is going to be a smashing success," he said.
Analysts at Thomas Weisel and Smith Barney agree. In the past week, both have downgraded the stock, saying it is simply too expensive at current levels. (Smith Barney and Bear have received non-investment banking business from Apple in the past 12 months.)
Valuation is also a concern at Autodesk, a company perhaps best known for its AutoCAD software that enables businesses to design everything from toys to bridges.
"While we continue to like management, the company, its positioning and its strategy, its valuation is rich by any measure," said Eric Wanger, an analyst at Barrington Research.
At $67, the stock is trading at almost 40 times this year's earnings estimates and six times sales.
Still, Wanger noted that Autodesk "still has a lot of growth left in it." Indeed the company is expected to see earnings per share climb as much as 27% next year, although that is down from 152% growth estimated for this year.
Autodesk has performed solidly in 2004, partly because of a renewed commitment to fiscal discipline. Operating margins are now heading toward 25%, compared with zero less than two years ago.
In addition, Wanger said the firm has replaced stale and out-of-date software with a "function-rich, modern and competitive suite of products." (Barrington has no investment banking business with Autodesk.)
While analysts say it is unlikely that the stock will be among the top performers in the market next year, further gains are possible if it becomes clear that the recent upswing in demand has come mainly from a new global interest in the firm's products, not just from upgrades and long-overdue enhancements.
American Eagle Outfitters is also likely to fade from the list of highfliers in the year ahead, as earnings comparisons become increasingly difficult, analysts say.
"Margin and comp compression could make significant, rapid stock appreciation difficult from current levels," said Adrienne Tennant, an analyst at Wedbush Morgan Securities. (Wedbush makes a market in the stock.)
While other retailers reported disappointing results in November, American Eagle saw a 23% jump in same-store sales and raised its earnings targets for the fourth quarter.
Pamela Nagler, an analyst at Fulcrum Global Partners, said the company has benefited this year from improved merchandising under the reins of Roger Markfield. The firm has refocused its attention on the 20-year-old consumer vs. the high school student, renewed its focus on denim and improved its customer service, leading to 11 straight months of positive same-store sales.
Still, profit growth is expected to slow next year from a rapid pace in 2004. Analysts estimate that profits will rise 156% in 2004 but just 12% next year.
"It's a story that's now known," said Nagler. "I think there are other names where there are more attractive opportunities to make more money." (Fulcrum has no investment-banking business with the company.)
On Monday, American Eagle fell 0.7% to $42.92, while Autodesk was up 0.5% at $67.18. Apple Computer gained another 5% to $65.78.