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3 “Strong Buy” Picks from Legendary Investor Cliff Asness

To say Cliff Asness is a smart guy is an understatement. He earned his PhD in finance from University of Chicago – while building up the quantitative investment team at Goldman Sachs. He built a successful quant team, even though he won’t describe himself as a fan of that investment strategy.

In 1997, after leaving Goldman, Asness founded AQR Capital Management with a somewhat different approach. AQR aims to build diverse portfolios containing as many stocks as possible. Some would say this is foolhardy, but the unorthodox approach has paid off handsomely. In its last 13F filing, AQR showed $84.9 billion in managed securities – some one-third of its total assets under management. A firm that size can be many things, but foolhardy is not one of them.

It’s hard to pin down any one factor as a key to Asness’ success. One of his consistent views, however, has been to avoid value stocks. These are equities that look cheap, with an oversized upside, and give the appearance of being a smart investment – but as Asness points out, they have underperformed the market in the last decade. It’s not that he won’t buy them; rather, he suggests caution on them.

Last month, Asness started breaking his own rule. In comments on market conditions, he said it may be time to add “a modest extra amount” of weight to the value factor. He adds, referring to buying up value stocks, “It is indeed time to ‘sin a little."

So, when Cliff Asness sins, which stocks does he sin with? We found three in his last 13F that showed major purchases. Asness and AQR went big on them, to a tune of nearly $1 billion. According to the TipRanks database, all three hold Strong Buy ratings and show solid upside potential. Let’s delve a little deeper and find out why Wall Street Agrees with Cliff Asness on these stocks.

Electronic Arts (EA)

Gaming is big business. Gamers – of all stripes – are notorious for their loyalty to favored games, and their quickness to upgrade, especially in the video game segment. They’re a prickly customer base, but a company that engages their loyalty will be well-rewarded. Electronic Arts has managed this and grown to be the second largest gaming company in the US and Europe, with a market cap of $30 billion and annual revenues exceeding $5 billion.

For fiscal Q2 2020, the company reported earnings 78 cents per share compared to the 85-cent estimate. Year-over-year, EPS was down 6%. Despite the earnings miss, top-line revenues were up almost 5% yearly, to $1.35 billion. Investors were nervous at first about the EPS drop, but reassured by the top-line gains. EA stock is up 29% in 2019, slightly ahead of the S&P gain of 25%.

The overall picture for Electronic Arts is of a company with a solid base – and room to grow. Both aspects drew in Asness, whose firm picked up more than 1.1 million shares of the stock. It was a 65% increase in AQR’s holding, boosting the total to 2,806,027 shares.

Writing on EA from Credit Suisse, 5-star analyst Stephen Ju is optimistic about the stock’s mid-term horizon. After a series of investor meeting with the company’s Chief Studios Officer, Ju notes, “1) EA has implemented a more agile development process to its non-sports franchises to ensure quality and rapid adjustments throughout the development cycle; 2) this new development process is supported by a more centralized technology platform… with the aim of providing more user-friendly tool sets for developers; 3) mobile remains a key area of attention … given the potential for global audience expansion.”

Shedding the industry-specific shop talk, Ju sums up the bottom line for EA’s future: “These factors in the aggregate do present a different picture of self-directed efforts to improve product quality versus what investors may have seen/concluded as creative talent drain away from the company.”

Ju backs his belief in EA’s potential with a Buy rating and a $118 price target, suggesting a 15% upside to the stock. (To watch Ju’s track record, click here)

The analyst consensus on EA is a Strong Buy, based on no less than 20 ratings. These include 16 Buys against 4 Holds, indicating that there is a slight caution toward this stock in an otherwise strong picture. Shares sell for $101, and the $111 average price target suggests a 9% upside. (See Electronic Arts stock analysis on TipRanks)

Norwegian Cruise Line (NCLH)

Along with gaming, cruise lines are a leisure niche. The current rising economic tide in the US has given them a general boost recently. It’s a highly competitive industry, however, as evidenced by Norwegian’s position. The company is the world’s third largest cruise line – but controls only 9% of the market. That market share still translates to a lot of money, as the company saw over $6 billion in revenue in calendar year 2018.

In the recent third quarter, Norwegian beat the forecast with total revenues of $1.91 billion. EPS also beat the estimates, coming in a $2.23 against a forecast of $2.15. Year-over-year saw an EPS drop of 4 cents. That hasn’t phased investors -- like EA above, Norwegian has posted 29% share appreciation this year.

It's clear that Asness saw value in Norwegian as he purchased 2,585,517 shares in Q3. His firm spent over $132 million on the buy-up, and increased the holding by 111% to over 4.9 million shares.

A pair of 4-star analysts have given Norwegian positive reviews recently. Tim Conder of Wells Fargo stated, “We reiterate our Outperform rating as NCLH should benefit from ongoing rotation into value names. NCLH should continue to aggressively, but opportunistically, repurchase shares in Q419, but could also initiative a token quarterly dividend in early 2020 to broaden its investor base.” Along with his Buy stance, Conder gives NCLH a $70 price target, suggesting a 28% upside. (To watch Conder’s track record, click here)

Barclays analyst Felicia Hendrix is even more bullish on NCLH. Reviewing the stock last week, she wrote, “We believe shares of NCLH are undervalued and do not reflect the company's strong positioning for 2019 and beyond. Our upside case is based on a 100bps upside to our current net yield assumptions for each 2019 and 2020…” That upside case includes and Buy rating and a price target of $73, implying an upside of 33%. (To watch Hendrix’ track record, click here)

Norwegian’s Strong Buy consensus rating is unanimous – 12 analysts have given the stock positive reviews in the past few weeks. It’s a clear sign of confidence in the company and the stock. NCLH currently trades for $54, and the $65 average price target implies room for 18% growth on the upside. (See Norwegian Cruise Line stock analysis on TipRanks)

United Airlines (UAL)

Airlines frequently get a bad rap, with (admittedly, frequently justified) accusations of poor service, crowded flights, and price gouging clouding the industry’s reputation. That said, the airlines also operate in a difficult niche, with enormous overhead and thin margins. For the successful companies, however, the air travel industry can bring in great profits, too. United, the world’s largest airline company, demonstrated that in October, when it beat Q3 earnings estimates and revised full-year guidance upward.

By the numbers, UAL showed a 23% gain in net income for the quarter, to $1.02 billion, with revenues of $11.38 billion. EPS, at $4.07, was 10 cents higher than the $3.97 forecast. The gains came even as the airline continues to feel pressure from the long-term grounding of Boeing 737 MAX aircraft.

Shares in UAL have been volatile this year, ranging from $78 to $95, and the stock has recorded a year-to-date gain of only 3.3%, but that hasn’t stopped Asness from making it the largest purchase of the stocks in this list. AQR bought more than 3.53 million shares of the stock. On a percentage basis, it was a 249% gain in the firm’s holding of UAL. AQR’s total holding in UAL is 4,957,369 shares, worth $428.9 million.

Asness must have seen the same upside to UAL that Wall Street sees. 5-star analyst Myles Walton of UBS has recently initiated coverage of UAL, noting “We view improving op performance with load factor growth, on-time performance, and cancellation rates converging to and/or eclipsing industry averages as a positive…”

Looking ahead, Walton sees up to 20% upside over the next five years. Backing up his Buy rating, Walton gives UAL a $110 price target, implying a robust 26% upside potential in the next 12 months. (To watch Walton’s track record, click here.)

Overall, UAL has inspired faith from Wall Street analysts. The stock has a consensus rating of Strong Buy, based on 5 Buys and 1 Hold. The average price target of $111 implies a 29% premium from the current share price of $86. (See United Airlines stock analysis on TipRanks)