The sports world is laser focused on college hoops right now. The annual tournament is near its climax, with just a quartet of teams—cutely called the Final Four—slugging it out for the national championship title, which will be decided Monday. And since the stock market is a lot like the tournament, packed as it is with upsets and long shots, we asked half a dozen experts to come up with their own Final Four of stocks.
The answers varied widely, from natural gas and oil wells to Oreos and comfy shoes, but there were a few common themes. The pros wanted stocks that were cheap. That can be a $10 stock or a $100 stock—what matters is whether the stock price still has room to grow. They scrutinized cash flow and debt levels to get an idea of what a company is really worth, no matter what the market might be saying. They liked stocks that paid dividends, which are cash payouts that companies can give to shareholders each quarter.
They tended to favor companies that have taken a thumping, either in their stock price or reputation. Picks include BP, still under the long shadow of the Gulf oil spill; Apple, which some fear has run out of hit products; and Big Lots, whose former CEO was accused of trading on inside information.
"The ones that are unloved on Wall Street and really beaten up," says Russell Croft, who, like almost everyone we interviewed, described his investment strategy as "contrarian.
Maybe that's why so many said they'd cheer for Wichita State in the real Final Four on Saturday. Didn't know that Wichita State was in the tournament? Yeah, most fans weren't expecting that either.
Here's more from the coaches' box—our experts' picks and their opinions about each one. As with basketball brackets, remember: There are no guarantees in stock picking.
Chief investment officer at Al Frank Asset Management in Aliso Viejo, Calif.
—Apple: It should be able to keep cranking out products that its "rabid base of customers" will want to buy—unlike, say, the makers of the BlackBerry or the Palm Treo. Cash piles are high and CEO Tim Cook, the successor to Steve Jobs, is finding his footing. "The company is more than just one man."
—Newmont Mining: Even with the price of gold falling this year, it should continue to be profitable. Newmont can still sell gold for more than it costs to extract it, and it also has "substantial reserves" of the precious metal and "a very geographically diverse mix" of mines.
—Deere & Co.: Agriculture should boom as the world population expands, and investing in a company that makes farm equipment seems like a good way to get on board. Think of the gold rush: "The people who sold the picks and shovels made all the money."
—Foot Locker: Sales and revenue should continue to grow because the company has a product that Americans want, and management has been careful to not expand too quickly. "We buy shoes from them. We think it's a good customer experience."
—Hoops: He picks Louisville, the only No. 1 seed still in the tournament. "They win it for Kevin Ware," Buckingham predicts, referring to the sophomore who was injured in Sunday's win over Duke. "They've got karma on their side, they've got the best talent, they've got the best coach."
Editor of the Morningstar StockInvestor newsletter in Chicago
—Baidu: Revenue is still surging for China's most popular search engine, and it still has a corner on the market despite competition from rival Qihoo. The falling share price makes it a good buy. "It's a rapidly growing company priced like an average company."
—C.H. Robinson Worldwide: The truck broker, which connects companies who need to move their stuff with truckers who can move it, has been gaining market share for decades and should continue to do so. Its technology and scale give it a leg up on mom-and-pop competitors.
—National Oilwell Varco: It makes equipment for deep-water oil drilling and horizontal drilling, which is expected to expand in coming years. Companies that run rigs will need to update their equipment. "The more complicated drilling gets, the better it is for National Oilwell Varco."
—Charles Schwab: It's finding a comfortable niche between high-end money management services like Morgan Stanley Smith Barney and Bank of America's Merrill Lynch, and services that are more do-it-yourself like E(asterisk)Trade and TD Ameritrade. Schwab is also good at cross-selling, which means getting each customer to buy multiple products.
—Hoops: "I haven't really been following it, but I always go for the underdog," Coffina says. In other words ... Wichita State.
Portfolio manager of the Croft Value Fund in Baltimore
—Quanta Services: A boom in natural gas and increased oil production will create a bigger demand for Quanta's pipeline contracting. It also works on the North American electric power grid, which is "old and antiquated" and needs significant upgrades. "There's pressure to start spending (on upgrading the grid). You can only push it down the road so far before you get brownouts and blackouts."
—Mondelez International: The company, which spun off from Kraft Foods last year, makes munchies like Oreos, Cadbury chocolates and Ritz crackers. The snack category should keep growing, and Mondelez's large footprint in emerging market countries should help. "There's better growth power in the emerging world—rising middle class and all that."
—Johnson & Johnson: It sells a wide range of health products, from baby lotion to surgical instruments. There can be safety in variety. "If they have an issue crop up, like a consumer product callback, it's such a diverse company that it can keep moving forward."
—National Fuel Gas: This company searches for and produces natural gas, moves natural gas through pipelines and stores it. National Fuel Gas also runs a utility business. "We want to be involved in companies that are part of the North American natural gas story. ... This one is a little under the radar."
—Hoops: He's backing Wichita State. "I make out the brackets, and then I always end up rooting for the underdog anyway."
Portfolio manager of the Frank Value Fund in Manhattan
—Microsoft: The company's servers and Microsoft Office software should propel the business even if the bold new Windows 8 operating system has garnered mixed reviews. And even then, "if you despise Windows 8, you're not going to switch to Linux. You're probably just going to stay on Windows 7. It's still writing Microsoft a check—it's just for a different operating system."
—CA Inc.: The company, formerly known as Computer Associates, writes software for businesses, government agencies and other large organizations. "It's not so much linked to the economy. It's a consistent profit."
—WellCare Health Plans: It sells health plans targeted to the government-sponsored programs Medicare and Medicaid. The new health care laws should expand both. "There's very little downside now."
—Crocs: The maker of the humble, comfy clog can get its cool factor back. It's expanding in more-attractive options like sandals, boots and heels, using its trademark Croslite material as a base. Those shoes can sell at higher prices, and be marketed to people who stand on their feet all day. The company is also opening more of its own stores and growing in international markets.
—Hoops: He's cheering for Syracuse. "I have some good friends and a lot of clients out there."
Managing partner of DLS Capital in Chicago
—ChipMOS TECHNOLOGIES: It tests the chips used with LCD screens and other devices. In an earnings announcement in March, the company said demand kept growing for services related to smartphones and tablet computers. "They're in all the right businesses."
—Hewlett-Packard: The company has a CEO, Meg Whitman, who looks like she is the right person for the job after a string of short-lived bosses. HP can push its printers and servers even if people continue ditching personal computers. "The company has basically been crushed and left for dead. It doesn't take a lot—it's some basic blocking and tackling by management—to get this thing back in the right direction."
—Arch Coal: Environmental regulators in the U.S. are pushing other forms of energy. But even if coal loses ground in the U.S. to rivals like natural gas, countries in emerging markets will still want to buy it. "Coal isn't going to disappear. It's cost-effective. ... Coal will probably be the No. 1 fossil fuel driving global power."
—BP: The company is still working to redeem itself from the long shadow of the Gulf oil spill. It has sold off assets, restructured businesses and could be approaching the tail end of a long line of lawsuits. "That stock is more than discounted. Once they can see light of day here, they're going to be a big winner."
—Hoops: He's cheering for Wichita State. "The one that nobody thinks is going to win."
Lead portfolio manager of the Intrepid Capital Fund in Jacksonville Beach, Fla.
—Staples: It's focusing on online sales and closing stores in Europe, which shows it has a realistic business strategy. It could also benefit if Office Depot and OfficeMax merge, which they've said they'll do by the end of this year, because the combined new company would probably cut stores.
—Western Union: New immigration policies could bring more workers to the U.S., which could mean an increase in the number of people sending money back to home electronically.
—Big Lots: It sells a range of products, like furniture, groceries and electronics, at deep discounts, and a "business that sells to the masses" is a good investment as long as the jobless rate remains too high.
—Telephone & Data Systems: This company provides telecomm services like broadband and landline. Most enticing, though, is its ownership of the bulk of U.S. Cellular, a stake that, if it were sold, would be worth more than TDS's entire stock market value. "Warren Buffett has a concept called 'cigar butt investing'—finding a cigar butt still lit on the curb and getting the few last puffs out of it."
—Hoops: He picks Louisville. "(Rick) Pitino is a very good coach."
AP business writer Matthew Craft contributed.