The correction continues -- after giving back just under 1% of its returns last week, the S&P 500 is up only 3.4% since the calendar flipped to January. But that stat doesn't tell the whole story for stocks in 2016.
In a lot of ways, we're getting a repeat of 2015. While the big averages put up uninspiring numbers this fall, the individual stocks that are working this year are really working. Just about 60% of the S&P is actually up year to date. Of those stocks, almost two-thirds are up 10% or more. Put simply, this is a market of stocks that are up a lot and down a lot, with few in between and that means stock picking still matters a lot in this environment.
To get on the right side of the price action, we're turning to a new set of "Rocket Stocks" worth buying for gains this October.
For the uninitiated, Rocket Stocks is 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 past 370 weeks, our weekly list of five plays has outperformed the S&P 500's record-breaking run by 79.73%.
Without further ado, here's a look at this week's Rocket Stocks.
Leading off our list of outperformers is semiconductor giant Intel (INTC - Get Report) , a megacap stock that's been no stranger to our Rocket Stocks list in 2016, and for good reason. Year-to-date, Intel has handed investors total returns of 11.5% -- and this stock looks positioned to keep on outperforming in the final stretch of the year. That's doubly true now, following a surprise boost to guidance last month that could potentially point to an end to the biggest black cloud that's hovered over Intel's share price this year: pressured PC sales.
Intel dominates the processor business, with about 80% market share, making the firm the largest semiconductor company on the planet. That huge market share means that Intel has more scale for R&D and negotiating with PC makers. It also means that Intel benefits disproportionately from improvements in the PC business.
Expansion to mobile chips has been slow for Intel, particularly as major OEMs like Apple (AAPL - Get Report) , a holding in Jim Cramer's Action Alerts PLUS, and Samsung (SSNLF) develop processors in-house for their flagship phones. Intel's market penetration in PCs and high-end servers should remain relatively more attractive (with fatter margins) than mobile components.
Financially, Intel is in strong shape. The firm boasts about $3 billion in net cash after all of its debt has been accounted for, leaving Intel plenty of room on its balance sheet to return value to investors or apply leverage for acquisitions. Buyers are clearly in control of the price action in Intel right now--and shares are hovering at 52-week highs this fall.
Adobe Systems (ADBE - Get Report) , a $53 billion software stock, is another big tech stock that made our cut of Rocket Stocks this week. Like Intel, Adobe has been a notable leader in 2016, up almost 15% since the calendar flipped to January. And it's another stock that's hitting 52-week highs in October at the same time the rest of the broad market is retreating.
Adobe's software is used by creative and marketing professionals to make and promote digital content. The firm's best-known content creation applications include Photoshop, Acrobat, Dreamweaver and After Effects, which are used by creative professionals the world over to create images, videos, page layouts and Web sites.
As the standard toolbox for creatives, Adobe has a built-in advantage versus rivals--after sinking the time to learn a complicated software package and build a collection of digital assets in a file format, users are less likely to abandon it.
Adobe has been a pioneer in the cloud software business, transitioning from selling one-time licenses for its software to selling users ongoing Creative Cloud subscriptions that keep the latest version of its applications on those users' machines. That move not only smooths out revenues, it also tamps down the sticker shock of getting access to Adobe's tools, which previously could cost thousands of dollars.
That lower barrier to entry should be especially important in emerging markets, where piracy has been a persistent challenge for Adobe. Moving to the cloud changes that problem--and customer adoption has been ahead of schedule to-date. Look for this outperformer to keep beating the rest of the market.
Utilities are in focus in 2016. As the Federal Reserve continues to tease investors over the prospect of an interest rate hike before year's end, the rate sensitivity of high-yield stocks like utilities has helped to propel this usually boring sector higher than most this year. And Southern Co. (SO - Get Report) has been one of the best of the breed, up more than 8% in the past nine months.
Southern Co. is the local power company for more than 9 million customers in Alabama, Florida, Georgia and Mississippi. The firm also owns more than 44,000 megawatts of generating capacity, and more recently, seven gas distribution companies through its acquisition of AGL Resources, which closed at the start of July. Between an attractive regulatory environment and expansion into far more territory through the AGL acquisition at the same time natgas prices are hovering near lows, Southern looks attractive long-term.
The regulated utility business is attractive because there aren't many surprises. That's particularly important for high-yield dividend payers like Southern, which hands out a 4.4% annual payout to investors. In an environment where yield is hard to come by, Southern should continue to look particularly attractive to income investors, who are paying a premium for that recurring yield. After correcting at the end of September, Southern is taking off for higher ground again in October.
The global push to cashless payments continues to be a major tailwind for PayPal (PYPL - Get Report) , which went public last summer in a long-awaited spinoff from online marketplace operator eBay (EBAY - Get Report) . PayPal operates one of the largest independent closed-loop payment networks on the planet, with more than 188 million active users worldwide. And as the rising tide of electronic payments buoys the whole industry, PayPal has some of the biggest growth potential.
PayPal offers solutions for consumers as well as merchants, with more than $282 billion in total payment volume last year. The firm's independence is an important selling point--banks, merchants and credit card companies are more apt to work with PayPal than they are with a network that's owned by a company that competes with them.
Smart acquisitions, like the purchase of payment processor Briantree (which included peer-to-peer payment service Venmo), have greatly increased PayPal's presence in the brick-and-mortar retail space, making it far more appealing for consumers in the process.
Financially, PayPal continues to look attractive, with no debt and just under $5 billion in cash. At current price levels, that means that PayPal's balance sheet pays for about 10% of its market capitalization, providing investors with some pretty meaningful risk reduction here. This stock's upside is likely to keep on climbing in 2016.
Rounding out our list of Rocket Stocks this week is $29 billion railroad stock CSX (CSX - Get Report) . CSX corrected hard in 2015, and this stock has been playing catch-up this year, up nearly 20% since the calendar flipped to January. That rebound should continue to accelerate as commodity prices rally and the dollar softens this fall.
CSX is one of the biggest railroad operators in the U.S., with more than 20,000 miles of track focused on the eastern half of the country. The firm has huge commodity exposure, both in its operating costs and its shipment volume.
It may seem unintuitive, but CSX is actually a net winner when commodity prices are high -- that's because about 40% of the firm's shipment volume comes from coal and commodity chemical products, which drive more rail shipment demand when prices are high. At the same time, rail transport is typically a quarter the cost of truck shipping per ton, a differential that becomes particularly significant when oil prices are high.
Like other railroads, CSX has spent the past few years driving efficiency improvements. Net margins are approaching 20%, and those returns should only accelerate as commodity prices continue to track higher. With rising analyst sentiment in shares of CSX this week, we're betting on shares.