The Dow Jones Industrials are made up of 30 of the largest and most respected companies in the United States. But even given these companies' stature, every year, some Dow stocks outperform, and some don't.
Which Dow component will deliver the best performance in 2015? Nobody knows for sure, but here's what three Motley Fool analysts think.
CEO Satya Nadella has aggressively shifted toward cloud-based software to break Microsoft's cyclical dependence on Windows and Office upgrades. Much of this cloud software (Office 365, One Drive) is bundled with new Windows tablets and laptops. This strategy, which values user growth over margins, defends the company against Google's (NASDAQ:GOOG) (NASDAQ:GOOGL) flood of free operating systems and productivity software.
Microsoft last year dropped license fees for Windows Phones and tablets, then launched a steeply discounted version of Windows 8.1 for select OEMs. This helped low-end Windows Phones, tablets, and laptops match the prices of Android phones, tablets, and Chromebooks. Windows 10 could be a free upgrade for select users, which might reduce the fragmentation of the Windows market and set users on the path toward a subscription version of the operating system. If both Windows and Office become subscription-based products, Microsoft could generate more stable long-term revenue growth.
Looking ahead, the next Surface tablet -- which could build upon the launch of the Surface Pro 3, which was surprisingly robuse among enterprise customers -- could help Microsoft push Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) iPads out of the workplace. I believe all these transitional factors could make Microsoft a top Dow stock to watch in 2015.
While we can't know for sure which Dow company will best reward shareholders this year, my pick is Walt Disney (NYSE:DIS). There's a heck of a lot to like about the company, beyond the 2013 hit Frozen, which has generated more than $1.2 billion in global ticket sales and is now the most successful animated film of all time. Frozen isn't Disney's only successful recent release -- think of Guardians of the Galaxy, Maleficent, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier. The coming year holds a lot of promise, too, with the upcoming Avengers: Age of Ultron and, late in the year, Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
While many companies make regrettable acquisitions, Disney has made billions from acquisitions Pixar, Marvel, and Lucasfilm. It's also much more than just a movie machine, generating plenty of revenue from its resorts and television networks, including ABC and ESPN, among other businesses.
Disney also offers a dividend. Its recent 1.3% yield might not seem that tempting, but the company has been hiking its payout aggressively: Its dividend has more than tripled over the past five years, and it was most recently raised by 34%. In its last quarter, Disney posted year-over-year revenue growth of $7 billion, while earnings per share rose 12% -- impressive for an company with a market capitalization topping $150 billion. Net profit margins have also risen in recent years, recently topping 15%, and free cash flow exceeds $6 billion annually. It would seem silly to bet against Disney as a long-term winner.
By definition, Dow companies are some of the strongest, most rock-solid companies in the world, so a strong case can be made for most of the 30 stocks in the index. That said, my pick for 2015's best Dow stock is American Express (NYSE:AXP).
American Express has the competitive advantage of creating exclusive "clubs" of cardholders, most famously with its Centurion (black) card, and to a lesser extent with the Platinum card and its series of co-branded Delta Air Lines and Starwood Hotels travel cards.
American Express' products tend to attract affluent consumers, which is extremely attractive to retailers. This is why AmEx can charge retailers higher fees than can rivals Visa or MasterCard.
Recently, American Express has started to branch out, offering credit cards issued through Wells Fargo, as well as its Serve product, which is targeted at consumers without a traditional bank account. Both of these could be big growth-drivers going forward.
American Express trades for about 16.3 times its 2014 earnings, which is actually pretty cheap, considering it is expected to grow earnings per share by about 10% over the next two years. The company has done a great job of growing its revenue over the past few years, and I think this will continue in 2015.