Merrill Lynch’s Top 8 Stock Picks for the First Quarter of 2017

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Now that 2016 has come to an end, it is important to look forward and backward for the new year. Many investment strategists have been issuing their top 2017 picks and favorites, and that was the same issue from Merrill Lynch to start the year. The firm has eight top picks with Buy ratings for the first quarter, and most have an implied upside of 15% or more. Just keep in mind that some analyst price objectives from Merrill Lynch’s top analysts are actually much higher than the consensus analyst target prices seen from Thomson Reuters.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average closed out the year 2016 at 19,762.60 on December 30. While it missed the elusive 20,000 level in 2016, the reality is that the Dow rose by some 13.4% from the 17,425.03 close on the last trading day of 2015.

Merrill Lynch feels that risk assets now have a greater opportunity going into what is likely the end of what has been the greatest bull market in bonds ever seen. The election with a Trump win and a Republican sweep was even before OPEC reached a historic deal to reduce crude production, and even non-OPEC producers agreed to deliver on production cuts.

Merrill Lynch’s top 10 trading ideas for the first quarter were based on eight buys and two sells, and the “buys” are more heavily geared toward companies that may benefit from increased fiscal stimulus and a pro-business agenda with tax reform. The firm admits that this list is a stark contrast to its defensive views of a year ago.

The year-end prices are actually Merrill Lynch reference prices here rather than actual formal year-end prints on the New York Stock Exchange or other exchanges. These are eight top picks with Buy ratings seen out of Merrill Lynch as a kick-off to 2016.

Texas Instruments Inc. (NASDAQ: TXN) closed out 2016 at $72.97, and Merrill Lynch has a price objective of $82. If you consider the 2.7% dividend yield, Merrill Lynch is calling for Texas Instruments to generate a return of 15%. What investors might want to consider is that the consensus analyst target price is $74.89, very close to the current price, but Merrill Lynch’s price objective is exactly $10 less than the most aggressive price target on Wall Street. Texas Instruments has a 52-week trading range of $46.73 to $75.25. RBC was positive also on Texas Instruments and other large caps.

Norfolk Southern Corp. (NYSE: NSC) is another top pick from Merrill Lynch, with the firm’s $122 price objective being higher than the $108.82 most recent price. Norfolk Southern’s consensus price target of $105.19 actually is lower than the current share price. That makes Merrill Lynch much more positive than the street, even if it is just calling for 13% upside. The stock has a 52-week range of $64.51 to $111.43.

Hess Corp. (NYSE: HES) was last seen at $62.90, and Merrill Lynch’s price objective was at $80. The 52-week range is $32.41 to $65.56, and the consensus price target is just $64.75. What matters here is that Merrill Lynch actually has the highest seen price target of major analysts.

General Dynamics Corp. (NYSE: GD) was last trading at $173.21, versus a Merrill Lynch price objective of $200 for the stock. That implies a gain of 15% if Merrill Lynch is right, and then there is the 1.8% dividend yield to consider for total return investors. The consensus target price is $186.06, and the 52-week range is $121.61 to $180.09.

Aetna Inc. (NYSE: AET) ended the year at $124.45, and the firm has a $149 price objective. The consensus analyst target is $138.93, and Aetna has a 52-week range of $92.42 to $136.50. That is still down 10% from a peak, and it remains unknown if the Trump administration will be more tolerant of insurance mergers than the Obama administration.

Dover Corp. (NYSE: DOV) was at $75.19 at the end of 2016, and the firm has a $85 price objective. This is 13% in implied upside for Dover, before considering its 2.3% dividend yield.

MGM Resorts International (NYSE: MGM) is also a top pick for the first quarter, and Merrill Lynch’s price objective of $33 compares with a recent price of $28.50. The consensus target price is a tad higher at $33.86.

SVB Financial Group (NASDAQ: SIVB) has a Buy rating at the firm, and this top pick among the bank stocks has a price objective of $190, versus a current $170.38 close. The parent of Silicon Valley Bank has a consensus price target of $176.19, and its 52-week range is $77.87 to $176.77.