If you're even the slightest bit of a sports fan, the NCAA basketball tournament in March provides a level of excitement paralleled only by the Super Bowl. Seemingly every year, Yahoo! will offer a growing cash prize to anyone who can correctly predict the outcome of all 63 games, and invariably, often after just the first round, not a single one of the millions of brackets is ever perfect. The surprise factor is what makes the NCAA tournament so great.
Today, I want to take the excitement of this 64-team field and bring it over to the stock market. No, I'm not going to sit here and list out 64 stocks, seed them, and give you my play-by-play. Nor am I going to break down a smaller bracket like my Foolish colleagues have done with the Dow Jones Industrial Average's components over the past month. Instead, I'm going to skip straight to what I consider to be my picks for the final four stocks that you'll ever need to own.
Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT )
You are indeed reading that correctly -- Microsoft, not Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL ) , is getting my nod in the tech sector.
Old Softy hasn't exactly had a good run over the past decade. In fact, many would just as soon throw Microsoft out of all long-term buy-and-hold discussions because of its lack of movement. This is, however, precisely why I feel Microsoft sneaked into my final four. Although Apple has outlasted predictions that its growth would taper for years, I just don't see it being able to double iPad and iPhone sales every year.
Microsoft, on the other hand, has morphed from a growth stock to an income/value-investor play over the past decade. This doesn't mean you're going to give up growth if you buy Microsoft, but you're going to get more stable, less recession-sensitive cash flow. While Apple's products are still mostly consumer-driven optional purchases, many consumers don't exactly have much say when it comes to purchasing Windows, which is still by far the most dominant operating system in existence.
With Microsoft you get a dividend that will grow for the sixth year in a row this year, and a company valued at just 11 times forward earnings with almost $38 billion in net cash on its balance sheet. Slow but steady easily gets Microsoft into my final four.
Intuitive Surgical (Nasdaq: ISRG )
Intuitive Surgical reminds me of the Cinderella team that went 30-1 in the regular season, but never achieved a top-five ranking because it didn't face any top-tier opponents. Personally, that's fine with me because Intuitive is truly in a class of its own.
Intuitive's da Vinci surgical system, which is sold to and used by hospitals and universities in a myriad of robotic surgeries, has no true competition. This leaves Intuitive Surgical with the pricing power to rake in enormous profits and an insatiable demand for its surgical machine from hospitals.
If you don't believe that this company is a game-changer, then you should take a closer look at its latest quarterly filing, which was headlined by its 11th consecutive quarterly EPS beat. The company's fourth-quarter revenue popped 28%, and it forecast an increase of 24% to 26% in the number of procedures to be performed in 2012. Because it has no near-term competitors, the price of its da Vinci system is expected to remain elevated, which will add even more to the company's impressive $2.17 billion in cash.
With little in the way of robotic alternatives and the need for medical care increasing with each passing day, the long-term prospects for Intuitive Surgical look fantastic, and it easily punches its ticket to my final four.
MasterCard (NYSE: MA )
Despite a near-collapse of the U.S. financial system in 2008 and sovereign debt worries threatening to curb European spending, MasterCard has grown voraciously.
Unlike traditional credit card companies like American Express, MasterCard and its peer Visa don't have to worry about customer default risk since they are simply a processor of credit transactions. The debts themselves are held by the credit issuers. This makes both MasterCard and Visa excellent long-term candidates that should be remarkably insusceptible to economic downturns. Now let me tell you why I went with MasterCard and not Visa.
The way I see it, MasterCard holds three key advantages over Visa. For one, MasterCard has a lot more cash on its balance sheet, which means more of a buffer during poor economic times and a greater ability to shop around for acquisitions. Secondly, MasterCard has a much better chance of offering a higher dividend yield than Visa. With that extra cash, and a current payout ratio of 4%, MasterCard could easily yield 4% to 5%, perhaps even higher, whereas Visa, which is only yielding 0.7% and has a payout ratio of 16%, probably won't get much past 3% on yield in my opinion. Finally, MasterCard noted in its latest quarterly report that it's taking debit-card market share from Visa. With both companies similarly valued on a forward earnings basis, I'd rather have MasterCard.
There's a reason CEO Ajay Banga earned my nod as the top CEO of 2011. And there are reasons, outlined above, why I feel smart investors are putting credit card processor MasterCard into their portfolios for the long haul.
Home Depot (NYSE: HD )
I guess if a No. 1 seed did have to make it to my final four, Home Depot would be it. As the king of do-it-yourself home repairs and improvements, Home Depot has all of the tools to capitalize on American's obsession with home ownership.
As I've described in recent weeks, the advantage to owning Home Depot is that it will outperform regardless of the condition of the housing market. When housing is booming, contractors and businesses are keeping Home Depot busy with orders. When the housing market is weak, homeowners choose to stay put and instead remodel their homes. The sales here may not be as robust, but the margins are much sweeter. Basically, heads or tails, Home Depot wins!
The company has also been garnering significant market share from Lowe's and the ailing Sears Holdings. Sears plans to close as many as 182 stores in 2012 to stave off an impending cash-crunch. Home Depot has been able to utilize its workforce efficiently and implement new technology in its stores to undercut Lowe's on pricing and drive more traffic. This consistent outperformance of its competition has afforded Home Depot the luxury of stable cash flow and given it the ability to grow its dividend annually by 19% over the past decade. It's a perfect top seed to round out my final four.
Please keep in mind that it's quite rare for the final four of the NCAA tournament to be comprised of all No. 1 seeds. In fact, since the NCAA tournament began, all four No. 1 seeds have only advanced to the final four one time, and two years featured a final four with zero No. 1 seeds. This means upsets are more or less the norm.
But I still maintain that these are good candidates for the final four stocks you'll ever need. Notice we are once again diversified with tech, health-care, financial, and consumer goods plays in the mix and three out of four pay a dividend (give it time, Intuitive Surgical will come around).
Disagree with me? Share what your final four stocks would be in the comments section below and consider adding these four stocks to your free and personalized watchlist.
If you're looking for more great stocks that'll help you retire rich, then I highly recommend getting your free copy of our latest special report. Hurry, though -- it's only free for a limited time.