The power Apple has that every other stock wants

For investors, every year has its themes. To a large extent, the past few years had been about riding the waves of quantitative easing (QE) and financial engineering—mergers and stock buybacks.

While M&A and buybacks are still going strong, QE was no doubt the dominant theme, and the recent spike in volatility we've experienced since last October is due greatly to the realization that QE is over. The real-world supply-and-demand forces are coming to the fore. It's a scary change for investors.

It's also made this year's major investing theme clear.

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So far, 2015 is a binary market, featuring two kinds of companies—those that have pricing power and those that don't. Companies with pricing power have favorable supply versus demand balances for their products, they can raise prices and, most of all, they have the growth characteristics that investors desire.

This theme may appear to oversimplify the stock market, but that is exactly what a theme is supposed to do: give a clear and concise description. And it's been apparent in returns: The stocks of companies with pricing power have performed well. This is why identifying the "haves and have-nots" in the pricing-power battle is the filter through which I am looking at stocks this year.

"In a consumerist world, if given the choice of betting on stocks of companies that sell burritos and coffee or those that sell toilet paper and hammers, I'll bet on the first two every time. As human nature dictates, our wants have a way of turning into a need."

The concept of "pricing power" is nothing new, of course. During economic rebounds, cyclical stocks such as materials and industrials see improved pricing power. And during economic downturns, consumer staples do relatively well because the prices for their products tend to hold up compared to the aforementioned materials and industrial sectors.

But five years into a rebound with little inflation, if not outright deflation, and after a large dose of warnings from companies reporting in the first quarter and lowered revenue guidance for the year, pricing power is the holy grail for stocks.

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Look at Apple—responsible for double its usual contribution to S&P 500 earnings in the fourth quarter—and you see the true meaning of pricing power and volume, a rare feat these days. Then look at the flip side: A company with little pricing power is Samsung. Both companies have products that are ubiquitous with consumers, both make high-quality products in the same industry, but their battle highlights a theme, and a strategy, that investors could potentially use to their advantage.

Pricing powerhouses

In my search for new stocks to buy and to justify holding on to current positions, I ask myself whether or not the company in question has pricing power—or is there an alternative name in the sector that has it or at least an advantage in that metric.

In my opinion, the sectors where pricing power—and the edge it can give investors—is most pronounced are health care and consumer discretionary. (A clear and current example of a sector that went in the opposite direction, from strong pricing power to weak, would be the energy sector.)

There's a simple reason why drug company stocks rise in value when they have new drugs on the market that cure nasty diseases. These drugs come with something that is incredibly valuable that protects them from competition—a patent-protected franchise that allows them to charge very high prices for a very long period of time.

The consumer discretionary sector, meanwhile, is in the business of making things that people want, as opposed to need. In a consumerist world, if given the choice of betting on stocks of companies that sell burritos and coffee or those that sell toilet paper and hammers, I'll bet on the first two every time. As human nature dictates, our wants have a way of turning into a need.

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When a company sells something that people want, the pricing power becomes intense, and at least some people are always willing to pay up. And with reduced spending at the pump, consumers have found the extra cash to splurge a little. Consumer discretionary stocks—some with pricing power and many that at least don't have to lower prices—are beginning to show this market dichotomy.

This year's drug and consumer winners

Consumer discretionary
Netflix: 37.5 percent
Harman International: 28.5 percent
Amazon: 20.9 percent
Hasbro: 13.6 percent
TripAdvisor: 12.8 percent

Pharmaceutical companies
Hospira: 42.8 percent
Mallinckrodt: 18.5 percent
Endo: 18.3 percent
Actavis: 11.5 percent
Pfizer: 11 percent

(Source: S&P Capital IQ, data through Feb. 17, based on S&P consumer discretionary sector and pharmaceuticals industry classification)

There is a downside to these pricing-power plays. A drug company's competitor could eventually come out with a competing drug. Patents eventually expire. And consumer discretionary companies, like designers of high-fashion apparel, face the challenge of changing consumer tastes. Look at Michael Kors and Deckers compared to pricing powerhouse Under Armor. But those risks can take a reasonably long time to surface, and investors have the potential to ride fat profit margins that come with newly found pricing power.

My experience has taught me that as long as these companies can keep exceeding rising analysts' earnings forecasts, these stocks are keepers. When analyst expectations become too high of a hurdle for the company to jump over, it is time to bail. And as they rise, I often sell some on the way, so if the stock does take a hit, I'll be glad I took some chips off the table. Pricing power, after all, doesn't last forever.

By Mitch Goldberg, president of ClientFirst Strategy, a Dix Hills, New York-based investment firm.