The Dow Jones Industrials (^DJI) didn't do much in 2015, closing the year down almost 400 points from where the average started and posting just about a breakeven performance after taking dividends into account. But the best stocks among the Dow's 30 components all managed to climb by 20% or more. Let's do a New Year's-style countdown of the five best Dow stocks from 2015.
Microsoft (MSFT -2.20%), up 23%
Many investors have written off Microsoft as a relic from the PC era, but the tech giant has done a good job lately of embracing the mobile revolution. CEO Satya Nadella's efforts to seek out growth from cloud-based initiatives have paid off, and the success of the new Windows 10 operating system has been stellar, with installations on well over 100 million machines during 2015. The Intelligent Cloud segment, which includes cloud and server-based products, has done well for Microsoft, and even the long-suffering Bing search engine finally earned a profit in its latest quarter. The turnaround at Microsoft is far from complete, but even early signs are promising for its future.
General Electric (GE -2.88%), up 28%
It's rare that investors celebrate when a company gives up a business, but General Electric has climbed largely because of its decision to divest itself of most of its financial services segment. GE has sought to transform itself back into an industrial powerhouse, and the extensive financial assets that made it a systemically important financial institution in the aftermath of the financial crisis have largely moved into separate entities or been sold to former competitors. Now, General Electric has further embraced its core business, and its acquisition of the energy assets of France's Alstom has left GE with more exposure than ever. That bodes well in an environment in which cyclical trends have nowhere to go but up in most of the world.
Home Depot (HD -0.77%), up 29%
The housing market continued its climb during 2015, and Home Depot kept benefiting from it. The home-improvement retailer outpaced its competitors by focusing on both do-it-yourself homeowners and professional contractors, and its internal efforts to drive margins higher and to give customers greater ability to access products through its e-commerce channel have paid off handsomely. The acquisition of Interline Brands should help it serve professionals even better, and higher dividends and a big share buyback could help the stock continue to climb into 2016 and beyond.
McDonald's (MCD -0.58%), up 30%
McDonald's was another company that many investors had given up on because of its longtime struggles, but 2015 was a banner year for the fast-food giant. A new CEO helped reinvigorate the company, and its move to offer all-day breakfast reawakened interest from shareholders. By focusing on customer perception of the company, McDonald's has been able to turn things around relatively quickly, and there's opportunity for further progress on that front. It will take time to fully execute a comeback, but McDonald's has gotten itself out of the quicksand it was in and given investors hope for better prospects ahead.
Nike (NKE -0.91%), up 31%
Nike was the big winner in the Dow in 2015, but it largely just kept doing the same thing that it has been doing for years: taking advantage of the boom in athletic apparel. Increasingly, consumers in the U.S. and around the world have latched onto athletic footwear and clothing as appropriate for general use rather than just specialized sports activity, and a growing emphasis on fitness has put Nike in the right place at the right time. Competitors have also raised awareness of the entire industry, and even as up-and-comers snap at Nike's heels, the industry leader has still retained a lock on key endorsements and hot products. Nike's moves to grab more online business will only serve to heighten growth this year and in future years.
The Dow had a lackluster year, but these five stocks did quite well. That should serve as a reminder to you to look beyond the averages to find the best companies you can. That way, you can profit even in flat or down markets.