BALTIMORE (Stockpickr) -- The first trading sessions of May kick off at the end of this week, and that could be a very good thing for investors who have been watching the calendar closely in 2014.
"New month, new market" has been the name of the game this year, with vastly different trading environments from the moment the calendar flipped to January, February, March and April. The big question is whether May will be a return to the kind of straight-up market environment that we got back in February. If the end of April has been any indication, that may well be the case.
The line in the sand is 1,890 in the S&P 500 -- that's the resistance level that swatted the big index down into its most recent correction this past month. If buyers can absorb the selling pressure up there, then we'll have considerable room to keep rallying.
That's why we're turning to a brand new set of "Rocket Stocks" for this week.
For the uninitiated, "Rocket Stocks" are our list of companies with short-term gain catalysts and longer-term growth potential. To find them, I run a weekly quantitative screen that seeks out stocks with a combination of analyst upgrades and positive earnings surprises to identify rising analyst expectations, a bullish signal for stocks in any market. After all, where analysts' expectations are increasing, institutional cash often follows. In the last 246 weeks, our weekly list of five plays has outperformed the S&P 500 by 80.68%.
Without further ado, here's a look at this week's Rocket Stocks.
Discount airline Southwest Airlines (LUV) has been a stellar performer in 2014. Since the first session of 2014, LUV has managed to rally 27% higher. Recall that that's all during a period where the S&P hasn't managed to climb by even a full percentage point. From here on, Southwest looks well-positioned to continue its climb.
Southwest is league leader in the low-cost air carrier segment. The firm was a pioneer in the point-to-point airline model, eschewing the hub and spoke system that legacy carriers used in favor of more nonstop flights between key cities. The strategy has worked too: Southwest has seen 41 consecutive years of profitable operations, quite a feat given the rough ride that legacy airlines have encountered along the way.
Prescient fuel hedges have been a key part of the firm's success during periods of volatile jet fuel prices, but LUV took most of those hedges off its balance sheet after the Great Recession. Despite triple digit oil prices, that's probably not a bad thing; there are considerable secular pressures on the cost of crude oil right now.
In the years ahead, new lucrative routes should help drive margins and win new customers. Flights to vacation destinations such as Hawaii, Cabo and Cancun command premium pricing and should push net margins closer to the mid-single digits. With rising analyst expectations this week, we're betting on shares of LUV.
While the threat of patent drop-offs has plagued the pharmaceutical industry for the last several years, one company has been rooting for those patent expirations: Mylan (MYL). As the world's fourth-largest generic pharmaceutical maker, Mylan benefits when new drugs join the pool of 900 products that it sells worldwide. The firm's unique positioning gives it some important advantages in 2014.
Mylan isn't strictly a generics firm. The company owns a few brand-name pharmaceuticals, such as EpiPen, and it's also developing biosimilars, which comparably fewer generic pharma firms are equipped to work on. That, combined with growing demand for drugs (particularly generics, whenever they're available) among an aging demographic in developed countries, gives MYL big growth opportunities in the year ahead.
In previous years, MYL's growth strategy has been acquisition-based. And while that's provided Mylan with new exposure to injectable drugs, for instance, it's also saddled Mylan with $6.7 billion in debt. That balance sheet leverage isn't cause for concern at this point, but it's something investors need to be cognizant of when weighing MYL's price tag in 2014.
Food and beverage giant PepsiCo (PEP) owns unique positioning in the market -- not only is this firm the No. 2 non-alcoholic beverage maker in the world, Pepsi is also the biggest snack food company. Exposure to both snacks and soda gives Pepsi more diversification than its peers, even if it lacks the dominant share of top rival Coca-Cola (KO).
PepsiCo owns an impressive array of brands that ranges from its namesake Pepsi to Gatorade and Tropicana on the beverage front -- and Lay's, Doritos and Quaker on the snack side. Revenues are split evenly between food and drinks, and while that's led some investors to suggest spinning off snack foods to unlock value, management is resolute in saying that the firm is able to hold onto more efficiency as a single entity.
That's a sticking point because PEP has spent the last few years working hard to improve efficiency internally. The firm acquired two of its biggest bottlers in 2010, a deal that's already saved more than half a billion dollars to date. The fact that PEP can leverage its immense distribution network for snack foods and drinks helps spread the costs better than a split-up business could. That's especially true for smaller overseas markets where PEP is working to expand.
As I write, PepsiCo earns more than half of its sales in the United States. But the firm has been working hard to expand its presence in emerging markets, where a burgeoning middle class is spending more on packaged snack foods and sodas. Organic growth should be a non-trivial source of earnings in the near-term.
The last year has brought some spectacular performance to shares of United Rentals (URI). The equipment rental giant has rallied 76% in the past 12 months, making the S&P 500's 18% climb look trivial by comparison. And as May approaches, United Rentals' momentum isn't showing any signs of stopping.
United Rentals is a heavy equipment rental firm that boasts a network of more than 830 locations across the U.S. and Canada. If you need access to anything from a pressure washer to excavator or a backhoe, United Rentals can provide it. Because URI's customers are industrial and commercial, the firm provides much-needed equipment capacity without the huge capital costs of leaving a forklift sitting idle in the corner of a warehouse for 10 months out of the year. Renting heavy equipment makes a lot of sense for a wide array of clients.
URI has been working hard to court specific sub-industries with specialized tools: for instance, the firm rents industrial HVAC equipment for commercial power failures, and it has a website devoted specifically to oilfield services customers. The rental business is capital intense, but URI maintains reasonable levels of debt, as evidenced by the deep margins that the firm is able to earn for its trouble. Operating margins have grown consistently since 2009, and they're on track to pass 25% in 2014.
With rising analyst sentiment in this Rocket Stock heading into May, we're betting on shares.
Marvell Technology Group
Last, but certainly not least, on our Rocket Stocks list is Marvell Technology Group (MRVL). Marvell is a chip designer whose bread and butter is supplying control chips to hard drive manufacturers. Data storage has been an in-demand market over the last several years as increased use of memory-intense technologies like HD video recording and cloud computing increase firms storage needs. That growing demand bodes well for MRVL.
Storage isn't MRVL's only source of revenue, however. The firm has become a major manufacturer of Wi-Fi chips and processors for cellular phones. While hard drive control chips still make up around half of MRVL's sales, it's the other businesses that offer some of the biggest profit growth opportunities in the years ahead, especially given the mobile chip business's exposure to China.
Financially, Marvell is in spectacular shape. The firm doesn't manufacture its own chips. Instead, it outsources that job to third-party foundries. Because of that lack of big capital costs, the firm is debt-free with around $2 billion in cash sitting on its balance sheet. That big cash cushion pays for 25% of the firm's shares at current prices, providing investors with a big discount. Semiconductor stocks haven't been treated well for the last several years, but the tide is turning in 2014 with a double-digit rally already behind MRVL. Look for that bullishness on chipmakers to continue this year.
To see all of this week's Rocket Stocks in action, check out the Rocket Stocks portfolio at Stockpickr.
-- Written by Jonas Elmerraji in Baltimore.