The new month brings new opportunities for investors to put their cash to work in solid stock picks. We asked some of our top contributors covering technology and consumer goods stocks to weigh in on their top stocks to buy in December. Read on to see what they had to say about Priceline (NASDAQ:BKNG) Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) Zoe's Kitchen (NYSE:ZOES) Starz (NASDAQ:STRZA) Windstream Holdings (NASDAQ:WINMQ) Procter & Gamble (NYSE:PG), and Lions Gate Entertainment (NYSE:LGF-A).
Andrés Cardenal (Priceline): Shares of Priceline are down by more than 15% from their highs of the year. The company has a big presence in Europe, and a depreciating euro could hurt its business over the coming months. Management warned about this factor in the company's latest conference call, and it seems to be a material concern for investors in Priceline stock lately.
On the other hand, Priceline is the global leader in online travel services, an industry which offers exceptional opportunities for growth in the coming years. Although exposure to Europe could be a drag on performance in the short term, Europe is a leading destination for travelers from all over the planet, and Priceline will most likely benefit substantially from its leadership position in such a key market in the years ahead.
The business is firing on all cylinders. Sales during the last quarter increased 25% to $2.8 billion, while earnings per share grew at an even stronger 28%. Even if Priceline will be facing currency headwinds in the coming months, the company will most likely continue delivering attractive growth rates for a business of its size.
Economic conditions come and go, but high-quality growth companies tend to outperform the market in the long term, especially when purchased at discounted prices due to temporary weakness.
Tim Brugger (Microsoft): It may seem counterintuitive to include Microsoft on a list of stocks to buy in Decemeber. After all, including its latest stock price pop due to some acquisition rumors -- more on that shortly -- Microsoft shareholders are already enjoying roughly 30% appreciation year-to-date. But like Microsoft itself, investors would be wise to look to the future, which is when CEO Satya Nadella and team are really going to shine.
It was clear last quarter that Nadella's "mobile-first, cloud-first" emphasis is taking hold. Cloud revenues, one of Microsoft's two strategic pillars, jumped a whopping 128% compared to the year-ago quarter, led by its bevy of cloud-delivered software and services solutions. Mobile hardware sales are also taking hold, led by Microsoft's newest form factor, the Surface Pro 3. But Nadella's vision of mobile-first isn't limited to hardware, which brings us to the now-confirmed purchase of email mobile app Accompli.
Just as with the introduction of Office 365 for iOS, and more recently Office for Android, the deal to buy email management app Accompli for roughly $200 million is right in Microsoft's wheelhouse. Nadella's mobile plans include getting Microsoft solutions into as many devices, regardless of platform, as possible. Accompli extends Microsoft's mobile objectives by supporting its email and cloud-related productivity tools on both iOS and Android operating systems.
If you have funds to invest in December and are in search of the best long-term opportunity, Microsoft should make your short list. Nadella's laser-like focus on mobile and cloud services is spot-on, and there's no reason to think that'll change anytime soon. And if hitting on all cylinders isn't enough to consider Microsoft stock in December, its healthy 2.55% dividend yield might do the trick.
My top pick today is another recent IPO, Zoe's Kitchen. "Zoe" means "life" in Greek, and the company's contemporary and warmly decorated restaurants celebrate Mediterranean food and culture. Zoe's currently operates 126 restaurants, primarily located in the Southeast, of which six are franchised. The company intends to double its restaurant base over the next four years, which should significantly boost current annual revenue of approximately $174 million.
Projected 2015 comparable-store sales of 6% to 6.3% will supplement location growth. Average unit volumes of $1.5 million have a nice runway for long-term expansion. (For comparison, Chipotle's average location posts annual revenue of $2.4 million). Along with other fast-casual chains, Zoe's will need to manage future food and labor cost increases: The company's quarterly operating margin of 2%-3% will need to be improved as its restaurant base scales up.
In sum, Zoe's is a well-run, profitable niche concept which can provide more than decent growth to the patient investor. And if you visit one of its locations, be sure to try the kebabs -- they're splendid.
Anders Bylund (Windstream Holdings): This is the largest telecom you've never heard of. Right now, Windstream is in the middle of three game-changing transformations, and the stock is taking a breather from stellar gains in 2014.
The former Alltel landline spinoff has found a new core business in broadband Internet services and data center operations. Powered by a series of high-profile buyouts over the past five years, that transition also shifted Windstream's center of gravity away from consumer sales and closer to its corporate customers. These two moves are putting a damper on Windstream's revenue flows at the moment, while boosting profit margins for the long haul.
In the third game-changing initiative, Windstream is getting ready to spin out its network assets under a real estate investment trust, or REIT, structure. Besides offering a lower income tax burden, Windstream hopes to unlock more flexibility this way. With income investors focusing on the new REIT and growth enthusiasts preferring the nimbler service stock, Windstream's management will be able to take more extreme steps on each side of the split without alienating shareholders.
Windstream's share prices surged in August, when the REIT split was announced, but have dropped back to trade at prices previously seen in June and July.
I like where these three initiatives are taking Windstream. The market took Windstream's third-quarter report in exactly the wrong spirit, focusing on a slim earnings miss rather than on strong service pricing trends and the lighteningimpact of the upcoming REIT reorganization. Picking up a few shares at these low prices could pay big dividends as Windstream's three-pronged attack plays out.
Tamara Walsh (Procter & Gamble): Procter & Gamble is shaping up to be a big winner in the new year now that its turnaround plan is under way. The consumer products giant is in the process of selling between 80 and 100 of its underperforming brands in an effort to cut costs and spark new growth. This is a smart move for P&G because it will allow the company to better focus on its core brands, which currently account for about 90% of its revenue . Importantly, Procter & Gamble will be holding on to the 23 brands it owns that generate $1 billion to $10 billion in annual sales for the company . A few of the company's leading global brands include Gillette razors, Tide laundry detergent, and Crest toothpaste -- global products that should continue to drive strong sales for P&G in the year ahead.
Procter & Gamble's rich history of rewarding shareholders through dividends is yet another reason to own the stock. P&G has paid a dividend for the past 124 years, and has increased that dividend for 58 consecutive years at a compounded rate of more than 9% a year. Therefore, in addition to owning a promising turnaround story, investors have the added benefit of owning a top dividend stock. P&G stock currently yields 2.8%.
Overall, I believe Procter & Gamble's execution of its turnaround strategy coupled with its commitment to creating shareholder value makes it a top stock to buy in December.
Tim Beyers (Lions Gate Entertainment): After a brief selloff in the wake of a weaker-than-expected opening for Mockingjay - Part 1, investors are once again buying shares of Lions Gate Entertainment. Smart. The mini-major studio is still in the early stages of establishing franchises using cost discipline found nowhere else in Hollywood.
Forthcoming projects include February 2016’s Gods of Egypt, which will end up costing just $10 million out of pocket to produce. I’ll understand if that sounds crazy.Thing is, we’ve seen this before.
Studio executives pre-sold roughly $70 million in foreign rights to help fund Divergent, reducing all out-of-pocket costs -- including marketing and distribution -- to an estimated $55 million. Divergent ended its U.S. theater run having earned close to $151 million at the domestic box office, leaving Lions Gate with about $75 million in gross profit after accounting for cinemas’ 50% share of the gate. Mix in another $39.3 million in home video sales, according to The-Numbers.com, and you’ve a healthy profit for a franchise that launched in an off month and against one of the year’s hottest properties in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Call it the power of cost discipline at work.
And what’s all this worth? According to S&P Capital IQ, the stock trades for about 18.8 times next year’s average earnings target. Disney and Time Warner trade for 19.8 and 18.9 times earnings, respectively, making Lions Gate a reasonably priced bet for investors looking to cash in on Hollywood’s franchise era.
Sam Mattera (Starz): December could be a good month to buy shares of Starz. With 22.5 million subscribers, Starz is smaller than its chief rivals, HBO and Showtime, but the network has a decent (and growing) catalog of original content. Starz's exclusive series include both legacy programs like Spartacus and currently airing shows such as Outlander and Black Sails. As the competition between online streaming networks continues to intensify, Starz's original programming becomes more valuable, both as a catalyst to attract subscribers, and as a possible source of licensing revenue.
Starz's service is currently locked behind the cable complex, but the company could go over-the-top at some point in the near future. During its last earnings call, Starz CEO Chris Albrecht drew attention to HBO's broadband-only plans, and announced that Starz planned to offer its online service -- Starz PLAY -- direct-to-consumers in select international markets. Starz PLAY is currently offered through the Xbox 360 and Xbox One, and its introduction on other platforms (Fire TV, Roku, etc.) could portend a more widespread rollout of Starz's direct-to-consumer option. Ultimately, that could net Starz millions more subscribers, as Netflix's robust growth has demonstrated the viability of an Internet-based offering.
Starz could also be a buyout candidate as, according to The New York Post, it is in talks to sell itself. The potential $5 billion price tag would net shareholders a nearly 50% premium at current levels.