BALTIMORE (Stockpickr) -- Earnings season officially kicks off on Tuesday, when Alcoa (AA) reports its second-quarter numbers to Wall Street. With U.S. stocks pressing up against all-time highs this summer, the stakes are higher this quarter: good earnings numbers could help keep bears quiet about the record price tag on stocks.
Meanwhile, price action continues to point higher. Despite some corrective action this morning, last week added 1.25% to the S&P 500, a hefty week that puts year-to-date performance at 8.54% when dividends are factored in. That puts the big index on track to record 17.6% gains for 2014, a big performance considering last year's earth-moving rally.
But as well as the broad market is performing this summer, there's one category of stocks that's stomping it. I'm talking, of course, about the "Rocket Stocks."
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 256 weeks, our weekly list of five plays has outperformed the S&P 500 by 80.19%.
Without further ado, here's a look at this week's Rocket Stocks.
We're starting things off with $153 billion oil field servicer Schlumberger (SLB). Schlumberger has been a spectacular performer in 2014, rallying more than 30% since the calendar flipped over to January. And with bullish analyst sentiment piling into shares of SLB this week, it makes sense to give this energy giant a closer look.
Schlumberger is the largest oil servicer in the world. The firm's revenue comes from a menu of niche services such as seismic surveys and well drilling and positioning. In a nutshell, SLB's job is to pull oil out of the ground as efficiently as possible. Oil firms turn to Schlumberger because the tasks they need to accomplish are too nuanced or proprietary to pull off in-house. A consistently strong R&D budget means that SLB has been able to differentiate itself from other oilfield servicers thanks to valuable IP. Those investments will need to continue for Schlumberger to keep its edge.
High oil prices have been a major factor in SLB's recent success. The economics of SLB and oil prices are pretty simple: higher energy prices mean that more sites are economically viable for oil companies, and thus Schlumberger can do more work as its customers ramp up production. That makes SLB a good hedge against the ill effects of rising energy costs.
Look out for the firm's second-quarter earnings numbers to hit on July 18.
UnitedHealth Group (UNH) is the world's largest managed care organization, sitting 85 million members strong. Size has its advantages in the healthcare business, and UNH's unparalleled scale means that the firm has leverage over medical providers, which in turn drives cost-conscious patients to turn to UNHs services. The transition from being a "health insurer" to performing more lucrative (and less stringently regulated) back-office functions means that UNH has a bigger moat than its peers.
In recent years, UnitedHealth has acquired physician's practices, a move that gives the firm much lower in-network costs. UNH is also one of the few U.S.-based health care providers that have significant overseas exposure. The firm carries significant exposure to Brazil, through a stake in a health insurance provider in 2012, as well as less material exposure to some 125 countries overall. Those are initiatives that a smaller health care firm would have no chance at expanding into -- and both diversification efforts actually help to solidify UNH's core health business.
UNH still carries considerable exposure to businesses that are impacted by the Affordable Care Act. That adds some uncertainty to shares in 2014, when much of the legislation is scheduled to go into effect. Despite the flux in the health space, the Medicare and Medicaid businesses still provide an important chunk of revenues today.
UNH reports its second-quarter numbers on July 17.
Chipmaker Broadcom (BRCM) has seen some impressive price action so far this year: since January, shares of the $22 billion tech name have rallied more than 27%. And that rally could see itself get extended in the second half of the year, as new mobile device releases drive chip shipments onto Broadcom's income statement.
Even if you don't know the Broadcom name, there's still a good chance that you've used the firm's products or even carry them around on a daily basis. Broadcom's chips are found in many popular consumer electronics, including the iPhone. Broadcom's semiconductors help devices communicate -- its most popular chips provide networking connectivity such as Bluetooth, GPS and WiFi on a single piece of silicon, and BRCM was one of the first commercial names to perfect all-in-one communications solutions for OEMs.
Considering the high real estate value of mobile device internals, that expertise at shrinking the footprint while expanding the feature set is hugely valuable.
Unlike most of its peers in the semiconductor business, Broadcom doesn't own its own chip foundries. Instead, it outsources those tasks to third parties. While that means that BRCM cedes some profitability to its manufacturing contractors, the fact that BRCM doesn't carry chip factories on its balance sheet (and their associated overhead on its income statement) means that the firm cuts a leaner profile when times get tough. That's a big part of why BRCM is able to boast $3.51 billion in net cash and investments on its balance sheet today.
Americans love their pets -- and that's why pet supply retailer PetSmart (PETM) has seen so much success in recent years. Per capita, we spend more on our pets than ever before, a trend that's been translating into bigger sales numbers at PetSmart's 1,300 big-box stores. With activist investors piling up a big stake in PETM this quarter (the reason for Thursday's big spike in shares), it makes sense to follow suit.
PetSmart sells pet food, supplies, services and even small pets at its locations. Importantly, approximately 55% of the firm's sales mix comes from consumables, and another 11% comes from services such as grooming and training. Not only are consumables and services typically higher margin -- they're also usually recurring. That means that PETM enjoys a sticky customer base with a big proportion of repeat sales.
The addition of Banfield veterinary clinics at around two-thirds of PetSmart locations provides an important sales driver for the firm. Not only does the strategic relationship with Banfield drive revenue directly, but it also gives pet owners yet another reason to walk through PetSmart's doors and potentially spend money. As more emphasis on higher-quality all natural pet foods and more expensive and elaborate toys and grooming products fill the shelves, PETM stands to grow its already hefty margins.
Analyst sentiment is on the rise this week, so we're betting on shares of this Rocket Stock.
Last up is LinkedIn (LNKD), the professional social network. There's no doubt about it: LinkedIn has been a horrible performance drag on investors' portfolios this year. Since the start of 2014, LKND's share price has slid by 20% -- but that slump could be about to turn around in the second half of the year, as momentum starts to heat back up and tech names return to favor among investors.
While it may not pack the "star power" of Facebook (FB) or Twitter (TWTR), LinkedIn owns one of the most attractive businesses in the social media space. That's because it's the only social network thats actually monetized users by helping them do what they want to accomplish on the site. While other social media firms earn revenue by distracting their users from what theyre trying to do (and getting them to click on ads while stalking their friends, for instance), LNKD makes money by helping users with the task that brought them to the site: find a job, network or hire someone. That seems like a small distinction, but its critical to LinkedIns ability to make money off of each user.
With some 290 million users, LinkedIn's value as a professional resource is undeniable today. And that network benefit should keep job hunters and hiring managers coming back, particularly as conventional job sites grow their reputation for being ineffective and impersonal. Look for an important earnings call on July 28, as investors look for LinkedIn to become more consistently profitable.
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.