Merrill Lynch Has 5 Stocks to Buy Going Into Earnings Season

April 14, 2016 by Jon C. Ogg

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Earnings season for the first quarter of 2016 is now underway. With so many analysts and research shops calling for the worst earnings trends being seen since 2009, some investors are thinking that perhaps the bar has been set very low for companies. Some investors even think the bar has been set so low on official analyst earnings estimates that there will be a very positive reporting season. The one caveat: just don’t compare these earnings beats to a year ago, in most cases.

Bank of America Merrill Lynch has a list of stocks that it thinks should be bought ahead of earnings for this earnings season. There are of course many risks to jumping in ahead of earnings, particularly if some of the turning trends just are not as rosy as Merrill Lynch expects.

The investment bank’s conversations with investors lead it to continue to be focused on stocks that are steadier in an uncertain macroeconomic environment.

Wednesday’s morning notes included five such companies that the firm recommends for customers to buy ahead of earnings season. On each, 24/7 Wall St. has included some brief notes from the Merrill Lynch report, as well as relative price targets to the consensus and recent trading history.

ADP

Automatic Data Processing Inc. (NASDAQ: ADP) is rated at Buy. The payrolls and financial services provider for human resources is said to be benefiting from labor trends remaining solid, and customer retention is a focus. The firm’s recent meetings with ADP management increased its confidence that customer retention trends are improving.

Merrill Lynch raised its price objective by $5 to $100, above the $86.46 consensus analyst price target and the 52-week trading range of $64.29 to $90.99.

ADP shares were last seen trading up 16 cents to $90.40 on Thursday. Its dividend yield is close to 2.4%, with a $41 billion market cap.


Cognizant Technology

Among the companies said to be likely to beat earnings and to raise guidance when it reports is Cognizant Technology Solutions Corp. (NASDAQ: CTSH). Merrill Lynch said that two factors likely drove conservative initial 2016 guidance. The first was concerns about delayed discretionary projects at global banks, which may have since eased off a bit. The second was pending mergers among health insurers, and while that remains in place the firm sees a relatively broad client diversification.

Merrill Lynch has a Buy rating on Cognizant and has a $70 price objective, marginally above the consensus analyst price target of $69.52. The firm sees upside risks to its earnings per share (EPS) estimate of $0.79, in line with consensus and $0.78 to $0.80 guidance.

Cognizant shares were trading $60.44, essentially flat on the day, and within a 52-week range of $51.22 to $69.80.

Ecolab

Merrill Lynch also has a Buy rating on Ecolab Inc. (NYSE: ECL), considering that energy concerns are receding with the oil price rebound. The firm noted that Ecolab’s Energy segment is 27% of revenue.

Merrill Lynch raised the price objective by $6 to $128, based on 24 times expected 2017 earnings of $5.25 per share. Its valuation also reflects Ecolab’s high mix of recurring revenue and somewhat defensive business model.

Ecolab shares traded at $115.05 Thursday morning, up 0.8% and above the consensus target price of $113.35. The 52-week range is $98.62 to $122.48.

First Data

First Data Corp. (NYSE: FDC) shares were said to be down 20% so far in 2016, even as its risk profile improves. Merrill Lynch noted that high leverage, a lack of guidance and negative pricing/mix trends in acquiring merchants made for a rough prior quarter.

The firm does not get the sense that First Data is changing its stance on guidance, but management has said at recent investor conferences that trends remain relatively stable. The company also refinanced $4.6 billion of $6.0 billion in debt maturing in 2018 during the first quarter. Merrill Lynch estimates that free cash flow could cover the remaining $1.3 billion in 2018 debt maturing.

Merrill Lynch has a Buy rating on First Data and a $17 price objective. The stock was trading down fractionally at $12.87 late Thursday morning, versus a consensus target price of $16.00 and a 52-week range of $8.37 to $17.99.

Nielsen

Also rated Buy at Merrill Lynch is Nielsen Holdings PLC (NYSE: NLSN), with the firm having increased its optimism around Watch execution. After two years of fairly flat performance, Nielsen shares were up about 14% so far this year. This call follows recent management meetings, a data factory tour, and a new deal with Dish Network for set-top box data.

Merrill Lynch likes Nielsen’s predictable constant currency revenue growth of 4% to 6% and a low double-digit growth in EPS. It also likes the company’s defensive nature, with 70% recurring revenue.

Nielsen’s price objective was raised by $2 to $60 to reflect increased optimism around execution. Nielsen shares were last seen down three cents at $53.14, with a consensus analyst price target of $56.06 and a 52-week range of $42.76 to $53.53.