Investors have to wonder over the course of this year of economic and political surprises whether the stock market will finish with a roar or with a whimper.
Because anything seems feasible, the predictions of experts run the gamut. The only consensus is that this is not a good time to pay too much for anything.
"If I were a betting man, I'd wager that a relatively weak summer for the market will give way to a decent year-end 2011 rally," said John Buckingham, chief investment officer for Al Frank Asset Management, Aliso Viejo, Calif. "Of course, that is dependent on the economy holding up and the sentiment of consumers and business improving."
Stay the course in the stock market through year's end rather than trying to play any sort of market-timing game, advised Buckingham. He considers stocks reasonably priced in light of a low-interest-rate environment and strong corporate balance sheets.
"The investor should keep buying cheap in the second half of 2011, since the cheaper the stock, the lower the risk," said Tom Jacobs, lead advisor for Motley Fool Special Ops special situations and value service in Marfa, Texas. "I have 20 percent of portfolio in cash right now because, while I'm not predicting a second stock correction, the risk of that happening in the second half of the year is high."
He is wary of high-priced growth stocks such as Netflix Inc., Salesforce.com and Green Mountain Coffee Roasters Inc. While their earnings aren't bad, he'd prefer to see more free cash flow because he isn't sure the overall market will be generous.
"Even markets in a long-run bull have moments that are interrupted," cautioned Jacobs. "I see bipolar market tendencies through year end."
Even optimistic experts have some caveats.
"Based on the stock fundamentals and valuations, my outlook is still fairly positive for gains in the second half of 2011," said Andrew Fitzpatrick, director of investments for Hinsdale Associates, Hinsdale, Ill. "There will still be concerns about debt levels, the Middle East and other global issues, but the corporate picture is so positive that it can drive stock prices higher in the second half of the year."
The investment story of emerging markets remains a good one in terms of growth, though they will be pressured by food and energy price increases, Fitzpatrick added. Defensive areas such as health care and industrial stocks make sense for the rest of this year because of a shift under way to more conservative areas.
"As always, we seek undervalued stocks trading for inexpensive multiples to their sales, earnings and book value, and we award a premium for those with generous dividends," explained Buckingham. "While we do not discriminate based on company size, we favor large-cap stocks these days." He considers these stocks ripe for the picking for the remainder of 2011:
• Whirlpool Corp. (WHR), a world leader of major home appliance manufacturing with brands such as Maytag, KitchenAid and Jenn-Air, is increasing its international presence, which is nearly half of its total revenue. It is improving its balance sheet and increasing cash flow.
• Yamana Gold Inc. (AUY), a gold and silver producer with a geographical focus in Latin America, is a way to play the longer-term global demand in precious metals. Market uncertainty, worldwide unrest and inflation are positives for this low-cost producer whose stock pays a dividend.
• Intel Corp. (INTC), the world's largest semiconductor manufacturer that supplies three-fourths of the chips used in PCs, workstations and services, has a strong competitive position and a low-debt balance sheet. It can also make future acquisitions.
• Norfolk Southern Corp. (NSC), which provides rail transportation in the eastern U.S. with 21,000 miles of routes in 22 states and Washington, is considered one of the best-run railroads in North America and has strong double-digit volume growth. It has an excellent coal-shipping business, good financials and strong cash flow.
• Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc. (TMO), the world's largest and most diversified life sciences company, sells analytical instrumentation, laboratory equipment, bioinformatics and other products and services to life science companies, governments and schools.
Meanwhile, Jacobs' choices reflect his view that health care and for-profit education stocks are underpriced:
• Wellpoint Inc. (WLP), the largest U.S. health insurer by medical membership, serves 34 million people. It holds the exclusive license to the Blue Cross and/or Blue Shield names in 14 states, including California, Georgia, New York and Ohio.
• WellCare Health Plans Inc. (WCG) provides managed-care services to about 2.5 million medical members through the government health insurance programs Medicare and Medicaid. Its principal markets include Florida, Georgia, New York and Illinois.
• Bridgepoint Education Inc. (BPI), a regionally accredited for-profit education company, offers associate to doctoral degrees in business, education, psychology, social sciences and health sciences. Students who are exclusively online make up 99 percent of its enrollment.
Selecting value stocks that benefit from current circumstances is a prudent way to get through the rest of this year and into 2012. No one believes the overall market and economy possess the power to boost all stocks.
"I do think that 2011 is setting us up for a good start to 2012," concluded Fitzpatrick. "The strength in the corporate sector, the likelihood that the Fed won't raise rates and the election year should all be generally positive for stocks."