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The best and worst stocks of 2018's final quarter — a volatile few months that saw the major averages erase their gains for the year — offer key insight into how investors should position their portfolios in 2019, says CNBC's Jim Cramer.
The stock market turned treacherous in late 2018 as concerns about global growth, rising interest rates and U.S.-China trade took hold on Wall Street. The action, often characterized by dramatic, several-hundred-point swings, led the major indexes to log their worst annual performances since the financial crisis.
But after reviewing the S&P 500's biggest winners and losers for Q4, Cramer found some pockets of opportunity that investors can use to their advantage in the new year.
Starbucks, up over 13 percent for the fourth quarter, is a "classic comeback story," Cramer said. The company's turn began in May when it sold Nestle the rights to sell its products for an "exorbitant" $7.15 billion, he said. It continued with a share buyback, technological improvements and a key partnership in China.
"I like Starbucks here, right now, after that last quarter, " he said. "The stock sold off hard [Thursday] because people fear it may suffer the same consequences as Apple, with a product that's too expensive to thrive during a slowdown in China. But coffee's never been that economically sensitive — I think Starbucks is a buy into weakness right here. "
Dollar Tree, up more than 10 percent, has two tailwinds going for it, argued the "Mad Money" host: a turnaround in the Family Dollar franchise it acquired three years ago and a move away from China-based manufacturing.
"This could be the year for Dollar Tree, " Cramer said. "The stock's worth buying anywhere around the $90 area, where it represents tremendous value now that Family Dollar is fixed and the Chinese sourcing issues are moving into the rearview mirror."
Other top performers were the stocks of Red Hat, a cloud company being bought by technology giant IBM, gold producer Newmont Mining, real estate investment trust Realty Income and packaged goods player Church & Dwight, but few of them intrigued Cramer as investments.
"Red Hat's not even going to be existing in 2019," he said. "I think gold could have more upside because people fear chaos, [but] go with Barrick, not Newmont. [...] Church & Dwight seems expensive, but that's always been the case and now the stock has a nice raw-cost kicker. Realty Income feels played out to me, although if the Fed keeps tightening, it's a winner. "
Cramer also saw some promise among Q4's biggest losers. They included chipmaker Nvidia, beauty giant Coty, Invisalign maker Align Technologies, drugmaker Nektar Therapeutics, industrial United Rentals, packaged food player Conagra Brands and a number of oil stocks.
Nvidia's 52-percent downfall came on the heels of the company's most recent earnings report, in which management cited excess inventory in the cryptocurrency mining and gaming areas as cause for a lower-than-expected forecast.
"My take? If you buy Nvidia here after [Thursday]'s sell-off, you're going to have to suffer through one more bad quarter, but then, you're home free," said Cramer, who famously nicknamed one of his dogs Nvidia before the stock's collapse. "I say maybe put on a half-position down here and then wait for more weakness. Now, I'd be more bullish, but after Apple's shortfall, I think it pays to be more cautious in tech."
The "Mad Money" host also liked oil plays Newfield Exploration, Marathon Oil and Schlumberger, all of which could head higher if oil prices stabilize. He said Newfield, which is being acquired by Encana, was a buy, while the others were "worth holding."
United Rentals could see better days if the Federal Reserve reconsiders its upcoming interest rate hikes, Cramer argued.
"If you think [Fed Chair Jerome] Powell actually pays attention to the consequences of his actions as they impact, say, your net worth, I'd buy some United Rentals before the quarter," he said. "Let's just say URI could be a big winner if oil bottoms and the Fed comes to its senses."
On the other hand, Coty, Align and Nektar — all down more than 45 percent for Q4 — are far from recovery, Cramer said. He recommended Estee Lauder over Coty, noted Align's newfound competition from consumer giants like 3M, and took a "hard pass" on the struggling stock of Nektar.
Conagra's stock, down 36 percent for the final months of 2018, was crushed after the company acquired Pinnacle Foods. But in six months or so, the deal could finally start paying off, the "Mad Money" host said.
"I think [they] can turn things around," he said. "[The stock's] got a 4 percent yield. I'm betting patience will be rewarded in Conagra, at least if you wait until right before the next quarter's earnings report."
For investors worried about what the new year could bring, Cramer offered a piece of advice: "Do not let this hideous action throw you off the scent."
"Be constructive. When you look at the biggest losers of the fourth quarter, there are some real buying opportunities here, and these are exactly the kind of stocks that actually get cheaper as they go lower," he said. "Be constructive: that's my theme for 2019."
Disclosure: Cramer's charitable trust owns shares of Apple and Schlumberger.