History Shows these 3 Stocks Could Shine in 2012

At the beginning of any new year, something feels intuitively right about stepping into the prior year’s high-momentum stocks. It’s a rarity, however, for sectors and industries to lead the market two years in a row. In fact, one year’s best performers tend be outright disappointments during the following 12 months. History has shown it’s the extreme laggards from one year that often end up becoming the next year’s leaders, as oversold conditions reverse.

Take 2011 for instance. The top-performing sector last year was the utilities group, with a 20% gain. It was a complete turnaround from 2010, when its 7.3% loss made it the second-worst performing sector. Meanwhile, 2010’s big winners were industrial stocks, with a 15% gain — but in 2011, this sector lagged the overall market, losing about one percentage point. The point is nothing lasts forever, good or bad.

With this example as the backdrop, here are 2011’s weakest performers , each of which is poised to be a big beneficiary of the role-reversing phenomenon.

2011 laggard industry No. 1:
The aluminum industry didn’t enjoy 2011, watching its stocks fall an average of 42.3%. The trend didn’t even hint at turnaround late in the year with the rest of the market either, meaning these names are still at fresh new lows. While it’s tough to catch a falling knife, if a recovery is in the cards, then this could be the ideal time to step in.

Pick of the litter: Against the backdrop of bad news on Thursday, Jan. 5, it seems nearly impossible to like Alcoa (NYSE: AA). After all, the company announced that its fourth-quarter income would fall from $0.24 per share in the same period last year, to $0.01 this year. Some analysts are still calling for a net loss for the year . Given the stock’s roughly 40% loss in the second half of 2011  though, the worst-case scenario may be more than baked into the share price.

Yes, aluminum prices have been in a downtrend, falling from $1.24 per pound in May of last year to December’s lows of $0.87 per pound. Davenport & Co.’s Analyst Lloyd O’Carroll says we’ve already seen the bottom made for aluminum prices, meaning the pendulum could swing back the other way at any time. a compelling contrarian idea

My colleague David Sterman agrees . He even bought 300 shares of Alcoa for his new $100,000 real-money portfolio. Despite the weak quarterly results, the company has a bullish outlook for aluminum supply, demand and pricing. [Go here to sign up and receive free updates every time he makes a trade.]

2011 laggard industry No. 2:
The typical investment-banking stock gave up 43.2% of its value last year.

Pick of the litter: This can be a tricky group to pin down, because “investment banks” can be a term used too broadly. In a strict sense, Goldman Sachs (NYSE: GS) is almost a pure investment bank, because it’s almost entirely focused on underwriting and fund-raising. Morgan Stanley (NYSE: MS), on the other hand, is generally grouped in the investment-bank category, though the bulk of its revenue stems from its retail and institutional-brokerage business.

The ideal stock from this industry is at neither end of the spectrum, but somewhere in the middle — J.P. Morgan (NYSE: JPM), which has strong banking, underwriting and brokerage operations.

J.P. Morgan is attractive based solely on a low trailing P/E ratio of 7.5, but as veteran investors know, this is usually not enough to prod a stock upward. What makes this stock even more attractive than its peers is how it has continued to beat earnings expectations (as well as increase its bottom line) during the past four quarters… all while performance fears kept beating the stock down.

2011 laggard industry No. 3:
Coal stocks lost an average value of 46.6% during 2011, making them the biggest collective losers of all.

Not unlike the aluminum industry’s woes in 2011, fear of falling coal prices and weakening coal demand last year translated into falling prices of coal-mining stocks. The key difference here is that coal prices never actually tumbled… not to a significant degree, anyway. They flattened, but they didn’t fall. For example, Central Appalachia coal — the gold standard in the coal business — cost $72.25 per short ton in December of 2010, compared with exactly $75.25 per short ton at the end of last year.

What gives? In simplest terms, it serves as proof the market doesn’t always get it right.

Pick of the litter: If disbelieving investors wanted some evidence that the coal industry wasn’t in anywhere near as much trouble as expected last year, then they’d have to look no further than industry icon Peabody Energy (NYSE: BTU). The company’s earnings for 2011 are projected to be about 30% stronger than 2010’s and is expected to grow another 30% this year.

Risks to Consider: With two industrial-materials arenas — aluminum and coal — on the list, this strategy relies a little heavily on the odds that manufacturing demand will at least maintain moderate demand for both. While the direst of economic outlooks are now being reigned in, there’s always a lingering chance the global economy could end up contracting and really crimp demand for energy and building materials. Investors should be sure to keep a watchful eye on aluminum and coal prices, since they tend to lead aluminum and coal stocks.

Action to take –> Of the three, J.P. Morgan is the most moderate “sleep well at night” holding, though Peabody may have the most upside potential. At 7.1 times projected 2012 earnings and beating estimates on a regular basis, it could be undervalued by as much as 40%, and may be able to regain that ground by this time next year.