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Why United Online, Portfolio Recovery Associates, and AVG Technologies Are Today's 3 Best Stocks

Although we don't believe in timing the market or panicking over market movements, we do like to keep an eye on big changes -- just in case they're material to our investing thesis.

With the absence of housing data on the docket today, a trio of positive economic stories helped to push the broad-based S&P 500 (SNPINDEX: ^GSPC  ) higher, recouping nearly all of yesterday's loss.

It certainly wasn't a large decline, but a dip of nearly 1% in initial weekly jobless claims to a seasonally adjusted 336,000 would signify slow but steady improvement in the jobs market and could speak to the continuing decline in the national unemployment rate.

Similar to yesterday's Labor Department Producers Price Index reading of a  0.2% expansion in January, the Consumer Price Index last month rose by just 0.1% for both the CPI as an aggregate and core CPI figure. Economists would certainly prefer to see some expansion in this number, but would ultimately like it to remain low, since it's a measure of inflation. This modest increase simply signals that consumers are paying a bit more for the same basket of goods, which is generally good news for businesses and bottom-line profits.

Finally, the U.S. leading indicators index rose 0.3% in January, matching the forecast from economists and pointing to an economy that is likely to rebound after much of the nation was smacked with extremely cold weather in January.

Tack on a number of positive earnings reports and the S&P 500 ended the day decisively higher by 11.03 points (0.60%) to close at 1,839.78, the index's sixth gain in eight sessions.

Leading the pack to the upside today was social networking and Internet access provider United Online (NASDAQ: UNTD  ) , which surged 29.5% after reporting its fourth-quarter earnings results. This quarter was a bit confusing because it excluded FTD  (NASDAQ: FTD  ) , the floral retailer that was spun off from United Online in October of last year. Strictly comparing its Internet and social networking businesses, United Online's revenue fell 5% to $62.6 million, while adjusted net income per share rose 167% to $0.32 from $0.12 in the prior year. Now here's the confusing part: earnings per share missed by $0.14, but revenue handily topped the $58.5 million-$61.5 million guidance from its third-quarter report. While I'm pleased to see its Internet business performing better than internal estimates, the fact that United Online discontinued its quarterly dividend program at the end of January doesn't give investors much reason to hold a company with unexciting top-line growth. I'd consider today's pop an opportunity to take some money off the table.

Portfolio Recovery Associates (NASDAQ: PRAA  ) , a purchaser and manager of defaulted consumer receivable in the U.S. and U.K., vaulted higher by 17.7% after announcing fourth-quarter results and the purchase of Aktiv Kapital for $880 million. The deal will be completed using a combination of cash and other debt/credit instruments, and will cost Portfolio Recovery about $15 million spread over its first- and second-quarter results. However, Aktiv Kapital will expose PRA to new markets in Europe and Canada, along with creating one of the largest nonperforming consumer debt acquirers in the world. Despite the expensing, the acquisition will also be immediately accretive to earnings. For the fourth quarter, PRA matched expectations by reporting a 20% increase in net revenue to $184.9 million as adjusted EPS improved 30% to $0.91. While I do share investors' optimism with today's purchase, I'd suggest waiting for a sizable pullback before reevaluating PRA.

Finally, Internet and networking security company AVG Technologies (NYSE: AVG  ) soared 13.2% after reporting much better than expected fourth-quarter results. For the quarter, AVG delivered a 7% increase in revenue to $101.9 million as EPS galloped to an adjusted $0.52 from $0.32 in the year-ago period. Wall Street had only expected AVG to earn $0.41 in EPS on $95.2 million in revenue. What really has shareholders excited is the 25% increase in subscription revenue to $67.3 million. Subscription revenue is recurring, thus providing low turnover and reliable cash flow for AVG. Looking ahead, AVG anticipates emphasizing its subscription-based model which could impact the 2014 top and bottom lines in a negative fashion. It issued a full-year forecast that was in line with the Street at $365 million-$405 million in revenue and EPS ranging from $1.80-$2.10, which would be down at the midpoint from the $407 million and $2.16 in EPS it reported for the full year last night. However, with a growing need for cybersecurity, I'd personally consider any sizable pullback a buying opportunity. 

United Online, Portfolio Recovery Associates, and AVG may have soared today, but they'll all likely be hard-pressed to keep up with this top stock in 2014
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Sean Williams

A Fool since 2010, and a graduate from UC San Diego with a B.A. in Economics, Sean specializes in the healthcare sector and in investment planning topics. You'll usually find him writing about Obamacare, marijuana, developing drugs, diagnostics, and medical devices, Social Security, taxes, or any number of other macroeconomic issues.

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