Editors' Pick: Originally published Dec. 28.
Cybersecurity stocks like Palo Alto Networks (PANW) - Get Report (up 46% year to date) and Juniper Networks (JNPR) - Get Report (up 24% year to date) entered 2015 as one of the safest industries to bet on, owing to -- among numerous cyber threat-related events -- Sony's (SNE) - Get Report controversial movie "The Interview," released at the end of 2014 and the subsequent hack of Sony's internal network. In terms of cyber-espionage fears, investors learned Sony's hack was just the beginning.
From China's hack of federal employee personal data to the large-scale breach carried out against website Ashley Madison in July -- where names, email addresses, dating preferences and some credit card details from more than 36 million global user accounts were released -- the importance of cybersecurity protection could not be overstated in 2015. And to say nothing about the ongoing threat to retailers, where hackers -- looking for quick cash -- target consumers' credit and debit card data.
All told, with corporations and consumers constantly on high alert -- wondering if they're next -- if you invested in cybersecurity stocks in 2015, you likely have made money. Heading into 2016 there's tons of more money to be made in cybersecurity companies, if you've noticed the disparity between the industries winners and the stocks that were -- at best -- mediocre.
For instance, stocks like Santa Clara, Calif.-based Palo Alto Networks skyrocketed to new highs, gaining 46% year to date, crushing both the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJI) (down 1.5%) and the S&P 500 (SPX) index (flat in 2015). But the PureFunds ISE Cybersecurity ETF (HACK) - Get Report is down 1.3% in 2015. HACK is home to leading cyberthreat stocks like Cyberark Software (CYBR) - Get Report , which has surged 16% year to date, besting the 12% rise in the iShares North American Tech-Software ETF (IGV) - Get Report .
In other words, in 2015 only a handful of cybersecurity stocks contributed to the majority of the index's rise. For that matter, if you invested in Symantec (SYMC) - Get Report (down 18%) -- maker of Norton Antivirus -- you lost money. It was even worse for FireEye (FEYE) - Get Report (down 31%). And then there's Cisco (CSCO) - Get Report , which, despite ramping up its anti-hacking software/network capabilities, its 1.5% stock decline year to date is a disappointment, especially after its shares gained more than 26% in 2014.
The question remains, to what extent these companies can grow enough market share to meet Wall Street's expectations and keep their forward estimates climbing. In that vein, it's tough to bet against a proven winner like PANW. Despite its strong performance year to date, the shares still have a consensus buy rating and an average price target of $210, suggesting 16% gains from current levels of around $179.
At the same time, 2015's losers can become winners in 2016. To that end, keep Cisco on your watch list. CSCO shares have a consensus buy rating and a high analyst price target of $37, suggesting almost 40% gains. Even its median target of $31 would yield gains of almost 15%. The company looks reinvigorated under its new CEO Charles Robbins, suggesting it will spare no expense to grow future revenue.
After closing its deal for anti-hacking software giant SourceFire last year, with a net cash position of roughly $35 billion, Cisco has tons of options to fuel its cybersecurity growth. Not to mention, tons of ways to return cash to shareholders via buybacks and higher dividends. Likewise, there's FireEye, which in October was added to Merrill Lynch's Cybersecurity top stock picks.
FireEye’s addressable markets could potentially triple in size in the next four years, noted the analysts. This would imply an addressable market of about $1.5 billion by 2019. Merrill Lynch has a $50 price target on FEYE stock, implying about 140% gains from current levels of around $21. Indeed, that's a highly optimistic target. But consider, even FireEye's average analyst 12-month target of $30 would yield 42% gains.
Finally, there's Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Fortinet (FTNT) - Get Report . After FTNT shares surged more than 60% in 2014, they still beat the market in 2015 with gains of around 15%. This company is growing both its product revenue and services revenue at rates of more than 40% and has beaten Wall Street's earnings and revenue estimates in three straight quarters and has done so in nine out of its last ten quarters. At around $31 per share, the stock has an average analyst 12-month target $49, suggesting 53% gains.
This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held no positions in the stocks mentioned.