Stock Quotes in this Article: AME, HD, JPM, PCLN, XEL

BALTIMORE (Stockpickr) -- After last week’s impressive 2.17% run in the S&P 500, it looks like the big index is going to take a hard-earned breather today. That price action last week brought the S&P to within 0.9% of all-time highs, and that means that pushing through to a new high water mark is within reach for the S&P this week.

No matter how you slice it, highs matter. In a nutshell, all-time highs in broad indexes mean that everyone who’s bought and held a diversified portfolio of stocks is sitting on gains this month, a phenomenon that does wonders for investor sentiment.

>>5 Huge Stocks to Trade for Gains in March

Year-to-date, the S&P 500 is up 8.76% this morning, giving us an auspicious start to the month of March. If headline fundamentals like payroll numbers and housing can keep up their pace of improvements, Mr. Market should have little trouble keeping up that pace.

That’s why we’re turning to a new set ofRocket Stock names.

>>5 Stocks Ready to Break Out

For the uninitiated, “Rocket Stocks” are our list of companies with short-term gain catalysts and longer-term growth potential. To find them, I run a weekly quantitative screen that seeks out stocks with a combination of analyst upgrades and positive earnings surprises to identify rising analyst expectations, a bullish signal for stocks in any market. After all, where analysts’ expectations are increasing, institutional cash often follows. In the last 190 weeks, our weekly list of five plays has outperformed the S&P 500 by 76.88%.

Without further ado, here’s a look at this week’s Rocket Stocks.

>>5 Favorite Stocks From the Pros

JPMorgan Chase

Big bank JPMorgan Chase (JPM) tops off our Rocket Stocks list this week. JPM is one of the biggest financial firms in the world, with well over $2 trillion in assets under the firm’s wide umbrella. JPMorgan is involved in all corners of the banking business, from conventional retail and commercial banking operations on through to investment banking, asset management, and treasury services.

JPMorgan Chase got shellacked during the financial crisis, but it’s how this stock has emerged from that crisis that’s earned it its stripes. JPM came out of the financial crisis with a less scary loan book than other peers, and it returned to high levels of profitability much faster as well. Like other big banks, JPM greatly increased its scale in the wake of the Great Recession, picking up assets from Washington Mutual and Bear Stearns at fire sale prices as each firm collapsed. Now that’s propelling JPMorgan’s profits to new record highs.

Last year’s CIO debacle at JPM served as a strong reminder that this firm’s huge, labyrinthine balance sheet can still hold some scary surprises. That said, under Jamie Dimon’s leadership JPM has prospered enough to shrug off the rare misstep. With shares looking cheap by many valuation metrics, we’re betting on shares this week.

Home Depot

Home Depot (HD) is having a great year. The home improvement retail giant has seen its shares rally more than 15% so far in 2013, besting the broad market’s run by a factor of two year-to-date. Home Depot’s scale makes it the largest home improvement retailer in the world, with more than 2,250 stores spread across the U.S., Canada, and Mexico.

Strong home improvement spending has provided HD with an attractive tailwind in the past few years, and as housing numbers continue to improve, so too should investors’ fortunes. While Home Depot entered the financial crisis as the number-two most attractive home improvement retailer (after rival Lowe’s (LOW)), an aggressive restructuring effort undid the growth-at-all-costs strategy that left HD overleveraged and underperforming. Today, this stock’s price performance speaks for itself.

Home Depot still has some attractive growth opportunities ahead of it. With solid exposure to Mexico already, tapping Latin American growth is a viable strategy for the firm in the years ahead. While HD decided last year to scrap its expansion plans in China, investors should applaud management’s willingness to change course in one of its most volatile markets. If HD can successfully carry over its svelte supply chain system to new markets, success should follow.

Xcel Energy

Regulated electricity and gas utility Xcel Energy (XEL) powers on 3.4 million electric and 1.9 million natural gas customers spread across eight Midwestern states. While that’s far from the most exciting business out there, it has been very lucrative for Xcel. Over the last five years, the firm has averaged annualized gains of nearly 10% on top of what’s now a 3.7% dividend payout.

Xcel spent the last decade adjusting to life as a regulated utility after unloading its generation assets and focusing on stable, predictable investment income. Investors should expect considerable investment from Xcel over the next few years, as the firm invests in infrastructure to justify the higher rates that regulators have approved. While those improvements with be costly, Xcel’s history of generating attractive returns on investment should be a good guideline to how those future investments perform.

The energy business is capital intense, and that shows through in Xcel’s balance sheet. The firm currently carries $11 billion in debt that’s offset by a relatively small $1.7 billion cash and investment balance. Even so, XEL’s cash flows are more than sufficient to cover both CapEx and dividend payouts in 2013. With rising analyst sentiment in this stock, we’re betting on shares this week.

Priceline.com

Online travel giant Priceline.com (PCLN) is another name that’s enjoying stellar relative strength in 2013. Shares of the firm have climbed more than 16% since the first trading day in January, and that trajectory doesn’t look like it’s set to slow down in March. Priceline is one of the world’s biggest online travel sites, offering bookings for hotels, airlines, rental cars and vacation packages such as cruises and tours.

The firm’s ongoing acquisition deal with Kayak (KYAK) stands to boost the eyes on PCLN’s network and give the company a more content-driven site. Kayak joins other properties like Booking.com and Agoda in filling out Priceline’s non-core web properties. That strategy of reaching beyond the firm’s eponymous website is critical for delivering growth among disparate market segments this year.

Here at home, there aren’t many big economic moats in travel anymore -- the U.S. travel market is largely commoditized at this point thanks to “lowest price” guarantees with hotels, a phenomenon that effectively means that it doesn’t matter where you buy your next trip. But there is a lot more flexibility abroad, particularly in emerging markets in Asia and Latin America. And that’s where Priceline has been focusing its attention.

A solid balance sheet with a hefty net cash position (even after the Kayak acquisition) round out the picture for this firm.

Ametek

2013 is panning out to be a good year for electronic instruments maker Ametek (AME). Shares of the $10 billion stock have rallied more than 12% since the start of the new year. Ametek is involved in manufacturing everything from temperature sensors to specialty motors used by original equipment manufacturers. That niche business affords AME a sticky customer base with a high switching cost, a formula for success in the manufacturing business.

Like a lot of other manufacturing conglomerates, Ametek has traditionally used a growth-though-acquisition approach to increasing its scale, a model that’s proven especially effective in increasing revenues without creating extra distractions for management. Because new units are able to operate (and be evaluated) independently, the firm has extra top line diversification.

That model generates double-digit net margins for Ametek, and a balance sheet that carries pretty reasonable levels of leverage. The electronic instruments business may not be the most exciting, but this stock is proving to investor that it can be lucrative nonetheless. Rising analyst sentiment in AME is spurring us to bet on shares of this Rocket Stock in March.

To see all of this week’s Rocket Stocks in action, check out the Rocket Stocks portfolio at Stockpickr.

-- Written by Jonas Elmerraji in Baltimore.


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At the time of publication, author had no positions in stocks mentioned.

Jonas Elmerraji, CMT, is a senior market analyst at Agora Financial in Baltimore and a contributor to

TheStreet. Before that, he managed a portfolio of stocks for an investment advisory returned 15% in 2008. He has been featured in Forbes , Investor's Business Daily, and on CNBC.com. Jonas holds a degree in financial economics from UMBC and the Chartered Market Technician designation.