3 Auto Stocks to Buy Instead of Ford, GM

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- In several recent articles, I have been pretty hard on Ford ( F) and GM ( GM).

Nutshell version: Ford and GM run in practically impossible competitive spaces right now.

A considerable amount of growth depends on Europe. Even once the European Union finds a political "solution" to its various crises, don't expect the European masses to run out and buy new cars. It will take some time for the deck to reshuffle in a collection of countries where even the relatively healthy ones must struggle through periods of profound change.

For all of the perceived uncertainty in the U.S., I agree with Doug Kass of TheStreet's Real Money premium service: Buy American. Kass provides 10 solid reasons why he favors domestic equities and has faith in the U.S. economy and consumer.

I offer an 11th that drills things down a bit.

If you live on or visit the coasts, particularly places such as New York City, Boston, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco and Southern California, you quickly realize that investors need to stop being so scared.

There's a reason why rents have gone through the roof in some of the nation's most unique and sought-after urban cores. I have read so many stories of rising rents over the last several days, I can barely keep track of them.

The folks paying these prices -- and buying homes in these communities -- have money to spend. And they're not spending it on the cars and trucks Ford and GM produce. They're not spending cash on products associated with construction sites and Middle America.

Given that this affluent bunch not only has the funds to burn and appears relatively stable and financially healthy, why shouldn't investors shun stocks like F and GM in favor of auto plays that mesh with urban lifestyles?

In the above-cited article where I chided Ford and GM, I suggested Tesla Motors ( TSLA) as one of the few automotive stocks I would go long. Tesla is not a traditional auto stock; it's a tech stock. That's exactly why it's one of the few places in the sector to dabble.

It's not simply that Tesla targets the types of markets I reference in this article. It's attractive because, despite popular opinion, it needs to accomplish much "less" for Wall Street to perceive success than entrenched behemoths like Ford and GM.

While I would not necessarily consider TSLA a trusty long-term investment, it's the type of holding that might warrant a meaningful spot in an aggressive portfolio, as long as you're willing to trade it. As Tesla CFO Deepak Ahuja told TheStreet's Chris Ciaccia last month, the "20,000 unit Model S sales target that we have set for ourselves is quite modest".

Ciaccia also wrote an article about the similarities between retail models at Tesla and Apple ( AAPL). Keep an eye on that 20,000 number as it relates to demand. Remember words that also often pertain to Apple: Under-promise, over-deliver.

Big carmakers like Ford and GM do not have this luxury. They play by a set of industry-wide, long-established rules. They need to put up massive numbers to even come close to impressing investors. In some respects, particularly in an uncertain economy, they're too big not to fail. Meantime, Tesla superserves a market that identifies with its product, absolutely can afford it and salivates at the thought of a $7,500 federal tax credit.

Playing off of the notion of an urban lifestyle, I also like Zipcar ( ZIP) for a trade. By "trade," I mean accumulate for a period, set a relatively conservative stop loss and take profits as you get them. This does not necessarily have to happen over a short timeframe; rather, ZIP, at this stage, does not look like long-term, buy-and-hold investment material.

As rental markets in places like San Francisco continue to heat up, I expect ZIP to respond as a derivative play of sorts. Life in many urban neighborhoods does not require car ownership. That's always been the case, but the ongoing hiring surge by tech companies across the country, particularly in some of the aforementioned hot spots, could contribute to near-term swelling in Zipcar's membership rolls.

Coming off of a fourth-quarter earnings beat in May, I like a buy-write covered call trade on Avis Budget Group ( CAR) heading into its Q2 report, likely out in early August.

Despite the economic turmoil in Europe, Avis continues to successfully expand its presence there, relying on and seeking out new partnerships. But it hardly relies on Europe for a significant portion of its business. According to the company's most recent quarterly report (via the SEC Website), approximately two-thirds of its business happens domestically. And not all of its international business comes from Europe.

I like CAR as a long-term play despite recent volatility. In these types of situations, I often write covered calls as I buy the stock. This provides income, which doubles as downside protection. You must be bullish long-term to employ this strategy. If the stock drops considerably you could be stuck with a losing trade.

Consider the following example to how covered call income offsets a decrease in the value of the stock leg of the trade.

If you purchased 100 shares of CAR at this past Friday's closing price of $15.92 per share, you're in for $1,592. You proceed with a normal, un-hedged stock trade.

If, however, you sell the CAR Nov 2012 $18 call and collect 90 cents (though I might hold out for 95 cents or $1.00 using a limit order), you lower your effective purchase price of the stock. It comes down to $15.02 because the 90 cents worth of income comes into your account as a credit. You spend $1,592 on the stock and receive $90 (options use a multiplier of 100) to sell (or write) the call. That means you're on the hook for $1,502.

You do not start to lose money on this trade until CAR breaches $15.02. That gives you some breathing room.

On the flip side, you supercharge your potential gains.

Consider a scenario where your shares get called away at $18. If you sold 100 shares of CAR, purchased for $15.92 each, at $18, you realize a 13.1% profit. Factor in the covered call income you received and that gain kicks up to approximately 19%.

While some investors consider options inherently risky, many strategies, particularly ones such as covered calls that provide a built-in hedge, actually mitigate at least some risk.

To that end, while I would buy TSLA, ZIP and CAR over F and GM in the near-term. If I had to touch F and GM I would not do it without the support of covered calls.

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This article is commentary by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.
At the time of publication, the author held no positions in any of the stocks mentioned in this article.

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