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My 3 Top-Performing Stocks of 2021, and Why I'm Still Buying for 2022

By Nicholas Rossolillo – Dec 23, 2021 at 6:31PM

Key Points

  • Nvidia is redefining the semiconductor industry with innovative hardware and software.
  • Fortinet is a seriously underrated leader in the cybersecurity world.
  • Upstart is still a young fintech, but it's off to a hot start as it injects some efficiency into the consumer lending space.

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Not all growth stocks had a terrible outing this past year.

The final month of 2021 has been brutal for growth stocks, with some names down double-digit percentages again. Some companies' shares have struggled all year, suffering from a change in investor sentiment after a booming 2020 for all things digital in the midst of economic lockdowns.

But not all growth stocks are down in the dumps. As of this writing, Nvidia (NVDA 1.44%), Fortinet (FTNT 0.99%), and Upstart (UPST 11.98%) are up a respective 125%, 132%, and 258% year to date, making them by far my best stocks of 2021 and helping prop up my portfolio overall. 

As I explained this time last year, over the long term, it pays to keep investing in companies riding strong momentum. Here's why I think Nvidia, Fortinet, and Upstart are still buys to kick off 2022 if you plan to stick with them over the next decade.

Someone using a tablet to monitor manufacturing robots.

Image source: Getty Images.

Nvidia: A new industry-defining leader is born

2021 will go down as the year everyone woke up and realized how powerful a tech platform Nvidia is -- it's not just a top video game chip designer. Through the first nine months of the company's current fiscal year, revenue is up 65% to $19.3 billion, and free cash flow is up 85% to $5.37 billion, helping the stock more than double in year two of the pandemic. 

But Nvidia's current financial explosion only tells part of the story. The company's pioneering work in artificial intelligence (AI) -- everything from advanced data center hardware to self-driving car training to healthcare and robotics applications -- could keep Nvidia's growth going strong for many years to come. For years, Nvidia has been talking about this coming wave of innovation, and has been steadily piling billions of dollars into research and development every year (at one of the highest rates among tech giants as a percentage of revenue). With many of these projects just now coming to fruition, everyone is suddenly taking note. 

Chart showing rise in Nvidia's revenue and research and development expense since 2018.

Data by YCharts.

This is likely the reason regulators around the globe are suddenly slamming on the brakes and indicating they may put the kibosh on Nvidia's acquisition of leading chip design licensor ARM Holdings. No worries, though -- Nvidia is itself now a top silicon designer, it's gradually expanding its reach into new areas of the semiconductor world, and it's building an incredible software division atop its best-in-class hardware. It doesn't need ARM to continue its march higher.

Nvidia stock is off 20% from all-time highs, but still trades for 103 times trailing-12-month free cash flow. I don't expect a repeat triple-digit percentage performance from shares next year. On the contrary, be ready for some serious volatility at some point. However, Nvidia is redefining the semiconductor industry, and I believe it will be one of the best stocks to own throughout the 2020s. I'm happy to be along for the ride. 

Fortinet: An incredible compounder of wealth

Cybersecurity has had to undergo rapid change in the last two years. Cloud computing is booming, workforces have gone remote, and criminals are getting smarter to take advantage of a world in flux. As a result, young high-flying cloud-native security software firms like CrowdStrike Holdings (CRWD 4.21%) and Zscaler (ZS 4.11%) have been getting all sorts of attention.

In comparison, Fortinet goes mostly ignored, and that's a real shame. This year's blockbuster returns merely compound what has been an incredible run in the cybersecurity industry. The stock is up more than 4,000% since its IPO in late 2009. And while Fortinet has chosen to slowly expand its cloud-based offerings via mostly organic development, it is the leader in providing security hardware for data centers -- the very computing units that make the cloud possible in the first place. 

Through the first nine months of 2021, revenue has climbed 29% higher to $2.38 billion, and free cash is up 43% to $988 million. That makes for an incredible free cash flow profit margin of nearly 42%. Given Fortinet's well-entrenched position in the fabric of the global security ecosystem and ample cash to continue developing new capabilities, I believe the company will enjoy double-digit percentage growth for a long time to come. 

Fortinet isn't the fastest-growing cybersecurity stock around, but that's OK. If slow-and-steady wins the race, fast-and-steady can certainly help you reach your financial goals. And at 46 times trailing-12-month free cash flow, shares are a bargain compared to many of the company's youngest cloud security peers. Fortinet still looks like a fantastic buy for investors in it for the long haul. 

Upstart: A wild yet still profitable year

Financial technology has been a hot investment theme the last two years. As younger generations born and raised in front of screens start to mature, digital payments and banking services are becoming the norm. A slew of fresh IPOs have hit the market, all looking to capitalize on this consumer banking sea change. 

One of them is Upstart, which made its public debut at the tail end of 2020. It has been an absolute rodeo for this stock thus far. After multiple swings up and down, culminating in a near-70% decline from all-time highs the last few months, Upstart stock is up a whopping 258% with just a week and a half to go until 2022. 

Will Upstart quickly recover its peak valuation in the new year? Perhaps, but I'm not holding my breath. Instead, I'm doing what I have been doing all year and focusing on the great work the company is doing. Its AI-powered software is being used by a fast-expanding list of banks and lenders to assess consumer creditworthiness for personal and auto loans. It's still early in the game, but early indications show Upstart's expanded use of data points not captured by traditional credit scores is helping more households get access to loans, while helping lenders get more efficient. 

The result has been quarter after quarter of big financial guidance upgrades. Specifically, revenue is up 270% to $544 million, and free cash flow swung into positive territory to $170 million through the first nine months of 2021. I don't think the company's massive outperformance of expectations will continue at the same magnitude in 2022, but it's certainly on pace to extend its expansion in the multi-trillion-dollar-per-year lending industry. At 54 times trailing-12-month free cash flow, this is no value stock -- but it's not an unreasonable price tag if you think this company will remain in growth mode for at least a few years. I'm still a buyer headed into the new year.

Nicholas Rossolillo and his clients own CrowdStrike Holdings, Inc., Fortinet, Nvidia, and Upstart Holdings, Inc. The Motley Fool owns and recommends CrowdStrike Holdings, Inc., Nvidia, Upstart Holdings, Inc., and Zscaler. The Motley Fool recommends Fortinet. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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