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3 Top Growth Stocks to Buy in January

George Budwell, Reuben Gregg Brewer, and Rich Duprey, The Motley Fool

With nearly every U.S. major stock index at or near all-time highs, it's becoming increasingly difficult to find attractively priced growth vehicles. But not impossible: When we asked three Foolish investors to name some outstanding growth opportunities available in this frothy market, they delivered. Their picks -- clinical-stage biotech Novavax (NASDAQ: NVAX), food products giant Hormel Foods Corp. (NYSE: HRL), and fast-food franchise titan Carrols Restaurant Group (NASDAQ: TAST) -- all sport stellar long-term growth projections, arguably making them worthwhile buys to kick off 2018.  

A 3D arrow pointing northward.

Image Source: Getty Images.

On the mend

George Budwell (Novavax): Novavax has started to show signs of recovery after a painful 2017. The synthetic-vaccine maker's stock is already up by 57% less than two full weeks into the new year. Even so, I think the best is yet to come for this once-forgotten biotech stock. 

Why? Novavax now has two major clinical catalysts on the calendar this year that could light fires under its share price. First up, the company is expected to roll out new data for its experimental flu vaccine, known as NanoFlu, in February. In a nutshell, Novavax is attempting to bring a more consistent flu vaccine to market for older adults.

While the company hasn't made any specific claims in regard to potential peak sales, the global flu vaccine market is estimated to worth more than $3 billion in annual sales. Given that the biotech's market capitalization was only $627 million at the time of writing, if NanoFlu grabbed even 10% of that market, it would be a big winner for the company.

Novavax also provided an encouraging update for its ongoing phase 3 maternal immunization study against respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). Based on an informational analysis, the experimental vaccine appears to have a better-than-average shot at meeting its primary endpoint in this pivotal trial. The company said an interim analysis is slated to be released in the fourth quarter; that could be the first step toward a regulatory filing in perhaps late 2019. If it's successful, Novavax believes this vaccine could generate global peak sales of around $1.5 billion annually. 

In all, Novavax has multiple irons in the fire this year, potentially setting it up for a quick turnaround. 

Growth on the menu

Reuben Gregg Brewer (Hormel Foods): Hormel Foods' dividend yield is around 2.1% now, which is toward the high end of its historical range. That's one indication that investors have a rare opportunity to buy into this leading food manufacturer at what appears to be a fair price. The reason for the relatively high yield is an ongoing shift in consumer tastes that is putting pressure on the top and bottom lines of food makers.

For example, Hormel's sales and earnings were off by 4% each in fiscal 2017. However, if you strip out the impact of acquisitions and divestitures, organic sales were up 3%. Meanwhile, management says it expects fiscal 2018 earnings to advance by as much as 8%. That's impressive in the typically boring food industry.   

Driving those projections are the company's moves to adjust to its customers' changing desires. That's included selling slower-growth businesses like specialty meat brand Farmer Johns, buying the Ceratti brand to expand into South America, acquiring Columbus Craft Meats to grow its presence in the deli aisle, and adding Fontanini Italian Meats and Sausages to augment its food service business. Most of these moves took place in the past 12 months, making fiscal 2017 something of a transitional year.   

But such changes aren't out of the norm; Hormel regularly adjusts its portfolio to keep itself in line with the trends. As an industry-leading food maker (it has the No. 1 or No. 2 position in 35 categories), it offers a long history of growth at a reasonable price. But the best evidence of the company's success is probably its astounding 52 consecutive years of dividend hikes.

A juicy stock to bite into

Rich Duprey (Carrols Restaurant Group): Across all restaurant categories, foot traffic remains a concern -- and industry analysts at NPD Group predict it will remain pretty much flat in 2018, just as it did in 2017. However, the quick-service segment is expected to achieve 1% year-over-year growth compared to a 2% decline at full-service chains.

That bodes well for Carrols Restaurant Group, the country's largest Burger King franchisee, which continues to serve up  quarter after quarter of same-store sales growth. In its third-quarter earnings report, it said comps grew a phenomenal 7.5%, thanks to a 4.8% rise in average guest check and a 2.7% increase in traffic. Similarly, both Wendy's (NASDAQ: WEN) and McDonald's (NYSE: MCD) reported higher comps and traffic. It appears McDonald's may soon be able to end its string of four consecutive years of customer losses.

Yet Carrols is experiencing growth rates at least twice as strong as the others are achieving. It has been hindered by rising commodity costs, which caused it to slightly lower its adjusted EBITDA for the year, but that's a factor largely out of its control.

Carrols Restaurant Group remains an excellent growth stock. It trades at less than 24 times trailing earnings, meaning its P/E to growth rate ratio, is less than 1 -- an attractive attractive ratio indeed. It also trades at a fraction of its sales, and at only seven times its free cash flow, the Burger King franchisee is a bargain-basement stock to boot.

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George Budwell has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Reuben Gregg Brewer owns shares of Hormel Foods. Rich Duprey has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Carrols Restaurant Group. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.