These 3 software companies are good bets during a slowdown, says Morgan Stanley

Key Points
  • Own Microsoft, Palo Alto Networks, and Salesforce because these stocks can outperform during times of a broader economic slowdown, Morgan Stanley said in a note to clients Tuesday.
  • "Demand behind strategic digitalization efforts should prove durable even in a slowing macro environment, supporting growth for well-positioned software vendors," analyst Keith Weiss argued, noting that MSFT, PANW, and CRM are top picks.
  • The firm has an "outperform" rating on all three stocks. Weiss raised his target on Microsoft to $140, tying him for the most bullish analyst on the Street, according to estimates from FactSet.

Software giants Microsoft, Palo Alto Networks, and Salesforce have surged in the last year—all handily outperforming the broader market—and Morgan Stanley believes there's more upside ahead.

"Demand behind strategic digitalization efforts should prove durable even in a slowing macro environment, supporting growth for well positioned software vendors," analyst Keith Weiss wrote in a note to clients Tuesday, adding that Microsoft, Palo Alto Networks and Salesforce.com represent their "top picks into 2019."

He believes these names are good bets, especially in times of volatility, given their recurring revenue streams.

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Morgan Stanley: these are the best software names to own

The firm has an overweight rating on all three stocks. As part of the call, Weiss raised his target on Microsoft to $140, tying him for the most bullish target on the street, according to FactSet estimates.

Microsoft closed at $105 on Tuesday, so Weiss sees a more than 33 percent gain ahead for the stock.

Investitute co-founder Pete Najarian owns Microsoft and believes the company's hybrid cloud and diversification into other businesses will drive the stock higher.

"I've loved Microsoft for so long because Satya Nadella stepped in there and said you know the focus is on cloud and recurring revenue, those two things. That was the mandate that started in 2014 when he took over. Then they made that buy of LinkedIn. This is a company that is eating away at what AWS already has," he said Tuesday on CNBC's "Halftime Report."

Virtus Investment Partners' Joe Terranova echoed Najarian's point, arguing that because Microsoft doesn't specialize in one particular product, it is poised to outperform in the years to come.

"For large cap technology I think this is the most diversified company," he said. "You really don't even know what it is exactly that they stand out for. The other companies stand out for something. They [Microsoft] are completely diversified," he added.

Shares of Microsoft have climbed nearly 19 percent over the last year, compared to the S&P's almost 6 percent drop.

At certain points last year the tech giant was even the most valuable US company. It is currently number two, behind Amazon.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella smiles during the question and answer portion of the Microsoft Annual Shareholders Meeting in Bellevue, Wash., on Nov. 28, 2018.
Stephen Brashear | Getty Images

Nuveen managing director and head of global equities research Stephanie Link owns Microsoft, but given its sheer size she thinks gains may be muted going forward.

"I think the law of large numbers and tough compares makes it a little bit harder of a set-up for 2019, and it's very well owned. I still own it, but it's the one on the margin, the one I've actually been trimming," she said.

In the software space she prefers Salesforce, which she also owns.

"I don't think they've made any kind of runway … in terms of international growth, and I think that's your real upside," she argued.

Weiss has a $178 target on Salesforce, so he's anticipating a nearly 20 percent gain for 2019.

As the broader market, and tech in particular, sold off at the end of 2018, Palo Alto Networks slid more than its peers. It's currently trading in correction territory, after falling more than 16 percent from its 52-week high of $239.50 in September.

But "Mad Money" host Jim Cramer says he "loves" the stock and believes it will turn a corner as cyber security spending increases.

Weiss has a $266 target on shares of Palo Alto Networks, which is nearly 33 percent above where it was trading Tuesday.

Disclosure: Jim Cramer's Charitable Trust owns shares of Palo Alto Networks, Microsoft, and Salesforce. Stephanie Link owns shares of Microsoft and Salesforce. Pete Najarian owns shares of Microsoft. Joe Terranova owns shares of Microsoft.