|To all the stocks we've loved before...
NEW YORK (CNN/Money) – Any romance needs to start with a spark, some sizzle, if you will. But for true love to blossom, there needs to be more than just sex appeal.
With that in mind, trust and dependability have been key factors we've relied on when looking for stocks to love for the long haul.
For the past three years, we've run stock screens around Valentine's Day to identify companies with histories of healthy earnings and sales growth as well as forecasts for continued fundamental strength, reasonable valuations and clean balance sheets.
Our goal was to find stocks that were worthy of a serious commitment -- they had to be more than just some proverbial flavor of the month momentum stock, definitely not the investing equivalent of Mr. or Ms. Right Now.
This approach has served us well. The five stocks we cooed over in 2002 are up 43 percent, on average, since we chose them. Our five sweethearts from 2003 have gained an average of 17 percent. And the average increase for last year's stock darlings is 11 percent.
So we've decided to put our portfolio matchmaking skills to the test once again. Fifty-eight stocks made it through our initial selection process and we decided to focus on five that represent a fairly broad swath of the economy: Legg Mason, Medtronic, Nike, Paccar and Walgreen.
It's only fitting that mutual fund superstar Bill Miller works for Legg Mason (Research). Miller is famous because his Legg Mason Value Trust fund has beaten the S&P 500 for 14 years in a row. And his employer has a track record that's just as strong.
"Legg Mason is one stock you can buy and put away. It generates consistent returns, almost like Bill Miller's fund. If you like his fund, you should buy the stock," said Todd Campbell, president of E.B. Capital Markets, an independent research firm.
The company has a robust investment banking business, in addition to its well-known asset management division, which helped fuel a 39 percent increase in net income in its latest quarter. And earnings are expected to increase at about a 15 percent clip for the next five years.
Despite this, the stock trades at just 18 times next year's earnings estimates, making it a compelling bargain.
At the risk of sounding morbid, especially for a Valentine's Day-themed story, heart disease remains a major healthcare concern. As such, Medtronic (Research), a leading manufacturer of defibrillators, looks like a sound long-term investment.
Medtronic, which also makes pacemakers and other medical devices, is expected to benefit from a recent government ruling that will increase Medicare coverage for implantable defibrillators.
Earnings and sales increased 16 percent in the past four quarters and analysts are predicting mid-teens profit and sales growth for Medtronic's next fiscal year. This is the quintessential stable stock.
"This is an extremely high quality company that's well managed and sticks to its knitting. Fundamentally, it has just been beautiful. If you can have a portfolio full of this type of stock, you'd have a lot less gray hairs" said Kent Mergler, president of Northstar Capital Management, which owns Medtronic.
Michael Jordan may have retired years ago but life goes on for Nike (Research). The company continues to make a name for itself with cutting-edge advertisements, like those bizarre new commercials featuring sports stars like baseball's Mariano Rivera and football's Ben Roethlisberger wearing extremely scary masks.
Fortunately, for Nike investors, there is more to the company than superficial marketing glitz. Nike is the clear winner in the athletic footwear and apparel world and the fundamentals back that up. Earnings surged 34 percent in the past four quarters and are expected to increase 25 percent this fiscal year.
And even though sales from outside the United States already account for nearly two-thirds of Nike's total revenues, Campbell thinks the company still has many growth opportunities abroad, particularly in markets like China.
Still, the stock trades at just 20 times earnings estimates, a valuation that might be more fitting for an aging champ on its last legs, not an industry leader that's still going strong.
It's hard to get excited about the prospects of auto stocks, which are prone to earnings volatility. That makes the performance of heavy-duty truck maker Paccar (Research) all the more remarkable.
Paccar, which manufactures the Peterbilt and Kenworth line of trucks, is celebrating its 100th year in business this year and just posted a record profit for 2004. The year was so strong, in fact, that Paccar even paid out a special $2 per share cash dividend to shareholders. That's on top of its regular dividend, which yields about 1.1 percent. That's a surefire way to make investors happy.
"We've owned the stock for over six years," said Ted Parrish, co-manager of the Henssler Equity fund. "It's a really great company and we love it a lot."
Analysts are forecasting annual profit increases of 14 percent for the next five years but the stock, given the cyclical nature of its business, trades at just 11 times 2005 earnings estimates.
And Parrish thinks as long as the economy chugs along, the stock should keep on truckin' as well since trucking firms will want to upgrade their fleets. It helps to have strong customer loyalty as well, Parrish said. "Truck drivers will tell you that before they retire, they want to drive a Peterbilt truck," he said.
The drug store industry has seen a major wave of consolidation during the past decade. But the one company that has stayed away from the takeover frenzy is the one that everyone else is still trying to catch: Walgreen (Research).
A conservative approach to growth is a plus for owners of industry leader Walgreen. There are no fears about acquisitions diluting profits or any merger integration pains. Plus, the company has no long-term debt.
Walgreen's earnings grew at a steady mid-teens clip in the past four quarters and analysts are forecasting increases of 17 percent this year and 15 percent annually for the next five years.
The stock is not cheap, trading at about 28 times earnings estimates for this fiscal year. But Parrish, who owns the stock in his fund, said that the company's impeccable performance makes it a fairly safe bet.
"This is one of those companies that's the best in its sector. It has a super consistent history of sales, earnings and dividend growth. You have to sit back and wonder how long can this continue but it just keeps going," said Parrish.