Merrill Lynch's Preliminary Top Picks for 2020

With 2019 coming to an end and with 2020 approaching, analysts and strategists are making their projections for the year ahead. Even without a trade war resolution, and even as trade headlines remain heated, most strategists are looking for the bull market to continue and for the bull market to reach 11 years old (and then some). There are currently no strategists from the major firms who are willing to discount any 2020 election risk in their forecasts, and all of those August calls for an imminent recession are now no better than a distant memory.

Merrill Lynch, which currently has a 3,300 target for the S&P 500 in 2020, has been among firms issuing new “Top Pick” and sector leader calls at year-end. Effectively, these are the top picks for 2020. The one exception to these being the top picks is that the list will almost certainly be added to over the next two to four weeks as 2019 comes to a close.

As a reminder, investors should never rely solely on any brokerage research reports as a one-stop decision on whether to buy or sell a stock. There are many other data points worth considering, and many analysts and investors who have access to the same public information and who can get additional insight might have a polar opposite view.

These are five of the high-profile picks made heading into year-end that we would consider to be Merrill Lynch’s newer top pick candidates for 2020.

AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) is rated as Buy with a $43 price objective that was based on a P/E multiple of 12-times the firm’s fiscal year 2020 EPS estimate. This represents an upside call of just above 15% without taking the 5%-plus dividend yield into consideration. The valuation is deemed warranted as it faces challenging operating trends within AT&T’s TV business, along with higher leverage and integration risk. That said, the negatives are offset by higher earnings expectations and faster growth after taking the impact of stock buybacks and cost savings into consideration. Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE: VZ) is the backup call here and is rated as Buy with a $64 price objective, but the 0.8 multiple against the S&P gives a valuation of 13 times expected 2020 EPS.

Exxon Mobil Corp. (NYSE: XOM) is Merrill Lynch’s top large-cap pick in oil and gas with a Buy rating and a $100.00 price objective. The firm’s Doug Leggate sees multiple drivers helping out in 2020 that could finally make it Exxon Mobil’s year. Strong free cash flow and an inflection in Permian production and the first production from Guyana could eventually bring cash flow up 50% from 2019, and longer-term the firm sees Exxon Mobil having visibility for dividend growth and improving cash coverage that pays investors to wait. Merrill Lynch is calling for upside of 46% from the current $68.50 share price, and that’s before adding in its 5% dividend yield into the mix.

Fiserv Inc. (NASDAQ: FISV) has more than a $77 billion market cap and it keeps growing in the payments sector. Merrill Lynch started coverage with a Buy rating on December 4, and it assigned a $128 price objective. That is a target for just 12% upside in 2020 from the prior $114.28 price, but the report highlighted the First Data merger as bringing significant strategic and financial rationale at the same time that it will diversify the company and accelerate Fiserv’s organic revenue growth profile. The forecast also points all the way out to the company’s Analyst Day event as a positive catalyst in March which could include modest earnings upside based on synergy outperformance.

Intel Corp. (NASDAQ: INTC) was given five key reasons that it was going to be the top-performing major tech stock of 2020. One of those included having more upside than even AMD, but there were even more reasons cited for upside. Intel’s price objective was raised to $70 in the call, and that implies upside of over 24% (before the dividend) now that its shares have slid down to $56.25.

Synchrony Financial (NYSE: SYF) was reinstated with a Buy rating and was given a $42 target price. That target implies upside of almost 15% from the $36.60 share price last seen. The research team called Synchrony a long-term share gainer that is being driven by data analytics and digital investments in which its portfolio improvements also should limit its downside risk.

Again, more positive Buy recommendation and Top Picks names are likely to be added in the coming weeks. Here is a view of how each major firm on Wall Street is forecasting its views for the S&P 500 and other market expectations in 2020.

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