BALTIMORE (Stockpickr) -- Don't let last week's stumble in stock prices fool you -- this earnings season is coming in with a vengeance. So far, 84% of the S&P 500 components that have reported their first-quarter numbers have also beaten analysts' expectations. On average, profits have ended up almost 9% higher than Wall Street's best guess.
That's the biggest beat-rate we've seen in years -- and that's a big part of why stocks bounced so hard yesterday. Put simply, U.S. stock fundamentals still look good now.
The good news is that you don't need to roll the dice and bet on individual stocks' pre-earnings moves to make money from them. Instead, good earnings results are helping to buoy all stocks as a group. As buyers start waking up this earnings season, we're turning to a new set of Rocket Stocks worth buying here.
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 295 weeks, our weekly list of five plays has outperformed the S&P 500's record run by 79.39%.
Without further ado, here's a look at this week's Rocket Stocks.
It's a little hard to believe that oil service company Schlumberger (SLB - Get Report) is making our list of Rocket Stocks today. After all, SLB has been pummeled just like the rest of the energy sector in recent months, in this case down more than 20% since last summer. But energy stocks are finally turning around, and Schlumberger is one of the best examples of that.
Schlumberger is the biggest of the oilfield service companies. The firm's revenues come 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. Schlumberger has been cutting costs aggressively to reduce the impact of low oil prices on its business -- and with oil finally catching a bid this spring, SLB has been able to stick a plug in the profitability leak. Last week's earnings beat was proof of that.
What many investors don't realize is that most large oil companies are actually marginally profitable at much lower costs per barrel than their official breakeven oil production costs. That's because those breakeven costs include sunk costs that have already been paid. For SLB, that means that the firm can continue to stay very active with its existing customers' well-sites even if oil prices trip again.
With rising analyst sentiment in Schlumberger this week, we're betting on shares.
$22 billion utility PPL (PPL - Get Report) has been a mixed bag in 2015. With a hefty 4.4% dividend yield, this stock has had a big target on its back as the Federal Reserve has hinted at interest rate hikes later this year. But nervous investors need to take a deep breath with PPL. This big utility has been improving its earnings quality in recent years, and it's finally picking up some momentum since mid-March.
PPL is an integrated utility, with more than 10,500 megawatts of generation capacity and distribution networks in Pennsylvania, Kentucky and the U.K. The firm's decision to spin off its merchant generation business into a publicly traded company called Talen Energy should help improve earnings quality starting in the middle of this year by moving more of PPL's revenues to the regulated side of the business.
Operating a completely regulated business means that there aren't big surprises, for better or worse. The fact that PPL has a good relationship with most of its regulators means that it's able to generate attractive returns on equity, plus modest incremental growth rates. That's not a bad combo, and it helps to set the stage for PPL to keep paying its huge dividend checks each quarter.
Specialty chemical maker Eastman Chemical (EMN - Get Report) operates in a cyclical business that ebbs and flows with the global economy. That's not a bad thing -- with the global economic engine firing on all cylinders today and with basic materials catching a bid again, Eastman is pretty well-positioned heading into its first-quarter earnings call at the beginning of May.
Eastman is a major supplier of the chemicals used to make adhesives and coatings, as well as plastics and fibers. Customers include everyone from automakers and construction companies to clothing manufacturers. While the chemical business tends to be very commodity-like, Eastman has done a good job of specializing by shedding its most margin-sensitive businesses and focusing on products where it can actually carry a moat and pass input costs to customers. Very low-cost operations are a big piece of the puzzle at Eastman. That lean operation was a big reason why EMN converted almost 8% of every sales dollar into profit last year.
There's a lot of comfort in Eastman's sales diversification. Because the firm touches so many different industries, it's less impacted by any single sector. Instead, EMN's fortunes are tied to the global economy. Less than half of sales come from the U.S. Instead, EMN is more closely tied to manufacturing centers in Asia, where demand for raw chemicals is high.
With rising analyst sentiment in shares of EMN this week, we're betting on this Rocket Stock.
2015 has been a good year so far for shareholders of Akamai Technologies (AKAM - Get Report). Since the calendar flipped to 2015, this $13 billion tech stock has rallied almost 17%, leaving the rest of the broad market in its dust. That momentum isn't showing any signs of slowing down as we get further into April – in fact, Akamai is making new multi-year highs this week.
Akamai is the biggest content delivery network in the world. The firm's internet services help to speed up users' internet performance for e-commerce and media websites. In short, Akamai gets paid to make sure that more than 1,100 global networks are actually usable when put under load. Rapidly increasing bandwidth usage and data demand make AKAM's product all the more important today; the wind is most certainly at Akamai's back in 2015.
Akamai has the scale that gives it a big moat versus rivals. Because running a competitive CDN requires significant infrastructure, Akamai's 170,000 servers are able to get physically closer to the user's machine. That hard-to-replicate infrastructure makes Akamai an increasingly valuable vendor as more and more content makes its way to "the cloud". Look for a rapid ramp-up of internet TV usage to provide a major boost for Akamai.
Last, but not least, on our list of Rocket Stocks is beverage bottler Coca-Cola Enterprises (CCE). CCE has undergone some massive shifts in recent years, after selling off its North American bottling operations to Coca-Cola (KO) back in 2010. Today, CCE focuses exclusively on Europe, producing Coke products for eight countries in the Eurozone.
CCE's positioning as Coke's anchor bottler in Western Europe is attractive. While per-capita consumption of soft drinks isn't as high as in North America, Europe provides a mature market with approximately 170 million customers and a diverse set of products. Besides CCE's namesake brands, the firm also produces Fanta, Sprite and bottled water, energy drinks and juices.
While bottling is a capital-intense business, CCE's balance sheet leverage is reasonable. The firm currently carries just $3.7 billion in net debt at the moment. As Coke expands its product offerings in the European market, CCE is well-positioned to grow its top line, which has been more or less static for the last few years. In the meantime, look out for earnings to hit on April 30.