You could sell in May -- or score by buying these stocks

Stock market surge

May is here, and the debate about whether to heed the "Sell in May" adage is as sharp as ever. The thesis that investors should "sell in May and stay away" is based on the Stock Traders Almanac's finding that the worst six months to put money in the stock market is the period from May through October. Scores of investors now swear by this conclusion.

But even if you're inclined to believe this oft-repeated mantra, a logical and more intelligent strategy is to be opportunistic: Seize these months when so many are selling as a rare chance to buy valuable stocks when their prices are sagging, if not plunging.

Smart investors should buy equities while the worriers are staying away -- especially this year, because this contrarian strategy should work particularly well as corporate earnings are surging, with many if not most corporations flush with cash. Plus, the economic outlook and expectations are upbeat.

Pursuing a buying mode would be justifiable based on those basic fundamental grounds. Indeed, it could be a perfect opportunity for the contrarians to rake in a bounty.

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"With 72 percent of the S&P 500 companies finished reporting first-quarter results, their revenue and earnings surprise metrics are stronger than at the comparable point of the fourth-quarter season," said Ed Yardeni, president of Yardeni Research, in his latest report monitoring the earnings season. 

Of the 359 companies in the S&P 500 that have reported, 76 percent exceeded industry analysts' earnings estimates by an average of 6.3 percent. At the same point in the fourth quarter of 2016, a lower percentage of companies (69 percent) in the S&P 500 had beaten consensus earnings estimates by a smaller 4 percent, Yardeni pointed out. 

The first quarter would have shown even better results had it not been for Apple (AAPL). Without it, the S&P 500 first-quarter earnings growth improves 4 percentage points to 10 percent, according to Yardeni.

So far, investors feel quite relieved that the "bad outcomes predicted by the naysayers about Trump in the White House haven't happened." But Yardeni also conceded that "the anticipated bullish outcomes are also still mostly on-the-come." But he argued that nothing really terrible or wonderful is happening other than that "earnings are rising in record-high territory again."

He also noted that widely followed technical indicators show that "the bull market remains on solid ground."

And the economy is expected to start "growing modestly above trend in 2017, at a pace of about 2 percent," said Lewis Alexander, chief U.S. economist at Nomura in a recent note to clients. The outlook is likely to improve through next year. "We see better growth in the second half of 2017 and first half of 2018 due to a strong likelihood of fiscal stimulus primarily from tax cuts," he added.

Tom L. Stringfellow, president and chief investment officer at Frost Investment Advisors, noted that "some data points were generally positive on the economic front," including the April Conference Board measure of consumer confidence, which is still posting a 16-year high, and consistent with improving expectations for income, labor markets and consumption growth. He also pointed out that household formation spiked during 2017's first three months, "a move which we think will likely signal more growth ahead in homeownership." 

So which stocks deserve to be purchased when the selling in May starts mounting? Several investment strategists argue that the market's top gainers would be ideal buying opportunities because they've been steadily and consistently on the rise, leaving few chances to buy their shares at more affordable  prices.

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Stephen Leeb, president of Leeb Investment Management and editor and publisher of The Complete Investor newsletter, believes in the current market environment, investing in companies with global "brand identity" that have established "brand loyalty" would be the safer bets and provide attractive shareholder returns.

Among the three stocks with high brand rankings that Leeb recommends are Google parent Alphabet (GOOGL), Facebook (FB) and Amazon (AMZN). 

Leeb noted that Google this year has vaulted past Apple to become the world's No. 1 brand, according to analysts that monitor and rank brand loyalty. "By a wide margin, Google is the world's biggest avenue for online advertising," noted Leeb. Its No. 1 brand position provides Google with "automatic respect for any venture, from self-driving (or even flying) cars to using artificial intelligence as a medical diagnostic tool," he said. The company aims high, Leeb added, "meaning success for any of its new products could hike growth to 20 percent or more."

Scott Kessler, senior equity analyst at CFRA Research, who rates Alphabet a "strong buy," last week raised his price target for the stock by $70 a share, to $1,070, based on expectations that its earnings will keep on rising. Kessler has hiked his earnings forecast for 2017 to $41.99 a share from $41.08, and his 2018 estimate to $49.35 from $48.23.

CFRA has also raised its price target for Amazon, by $75 a share, to $1,050, although CFRA equity analyst Tuna Amobi has reduced his earnings estimate for 2017 by 22 cents a share, to $7.12, and his 2018 estimate by 33 cents a share, to $12.55. Amobi said in a report that the reductions reflect Amazon's increased investments in its "fulfillment, content and international" activities. The stock is currently trading at $934 a share, not far from its 52-week high of $954.

UBS also raised its price target for Amazon, to $1,100 a share from $930, based on the company's "solid set of first-quarter operating results." UBS noted that Amazon is benefiting from increased "shopping velocity" and "strong adoption of Prime membership." UBS said for long-term investors, Amazon still presents a secular growth category winner in two categories: "global e-commerce and cloud computing adoption."

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Facebook's first-quarter revenue and operating income came in ahead of expectations, and equity analyst Ali Mogharabi of Morningstar noted in a recent note that the social media company's growing monthly average users continue to indicate the strength of its "network effect, which reaffirms its leadership in the social networking and online advertising markets." The stock is currently trading at $150 a share, close to its 52-week high of $153.60.

CFRA's Scott Kessler has a price target of $165 for Facebook, which he believes has "considerable advantages in social media and increasingly in digital markets" mainly due to its "strong global brands, substantial user bases, high levels of engagement and considerable access to user data/information." 

Kessler believes global markets are prime opportunities for Facebook because it continues to build out advertising technologies and offerings, and achieves impressive progress in mobile monetization. "We forecast revenue growth of 37 percent in 2017 and 27 percent in 2018," he said, amid considerable potential related to emerging properties and offerings, most notably in video and Instagram.

And given Facebook's nearly $30 billion in cash and short-term investments as of December 2016, said Kessler, "we see notable M&A as likely."