Today's 3 Best Stocks


Another day, and yet another new multi-year high for the broad-based S&P 500 , which advanced on the heels of more positive political and economic news.

On the political front, the House of Representatives approved a bill to avert a government shutdown on March 27 because of the recently enacted $85 billion sequestration bill. The bill allows the Pentagon and Veterans Affairs Department added flexibility that few other agencies have with regard to how cuts are to be made.

Today's economic data also continued to favor an extended rally. The Mortgage Brokers Association's mortgage application index rose a robust 14.8% for the first week of March, signaling that buying activity picked up again as mortgage rates fell. The ADP employment report was an even bigger driving force today, with private-sector jobs showing a 198,000 increase over last month - well ahead of the 150,000 job increase economists had anticipated.

All told, the S&P 500 shrugged off the urge to take profits, and crept higher by 1.67 points (0.11%), to close at 1,541.46.

Today's big winner - and I should probably have warned you to be seated before writing this - is discount retailer Big Lots , which rose 6.1% after reporting better-than-expected fourth-quarter results! That is not a misprint; Big Lots finally beat Wall Street's estimates! For the quarter, Big Lots' revenue increased 5%, to $1.8 billion, as its Canadian operations reported their first profitable quarter in roughly two years, and EPS advanced to $2.09, compared to just $1.75 last year. Still, it was more of the same for the discount retailer, with same-store sales declining 3.5%, and first-quarter EPS forecast to be well below expectations. Although its full-year forecast met the mark, I'm still skeptical about this turnaround.

Following Big Lots, copper miner Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold found its way into the plus column for a change, tacking on 4.1%. The impetus was an overnight article from Bloomberg, which noted that the company may double its sales of copper to China over the next three years. Javier Targhetta, Freeport's senior vice president of marketing and sales, is targeting sales of 800,000 to 1 million metric tons of copper to China by 2016, up from 500,000 this year. This news really doesn't come as much of a surprise -- China passed a $156 billion stimulus bill in September, which primarily focuses on infrastructure improvements. This should bode well for Freeport over the long run.

Finally, shares of PC-maker Dell jumped 1.8% after CNBC disclosed that activist investor Carl Icahn had taken a 6%, or 100 million share, stake in the company. Icahn, who has a penchant for enacting swift change in companies perceived to be undervalued, provides a signal to current investors - of which I am one - that he may actively seek better options to unlock value from Dell if its board members aren't willing to seek a better deal for shareholders. I am rarely an Icahn supporter, but this is a rare case where I feel Dell is worth more than it's being advertised for. Either Dell will need to enrich its $13.65 deal with a special dividend, or it'll need to find a higher bid.

Will China be this company's savior?
After putting together a blockbuster deal to expand into the oil and natural gas industry, Freeport-McMoRan will have plenty on its plate as it tries to adapt to the new industry, because expanding into oil and gas carries plenty of inherent volatility. FCX had a profitable copper business and, on top of this foray into a new industry, it still has to contend with mining industry bellwether BHP Billiton. To help investors determine if Freeport-McMoRan is a buy or a sell, we've compiled a brand new premium report on the company! Click here now to gain instant access!

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Fool contributor Sean Williams owns shares of Dell, but has no material interest in any other companies mentioned in this article. You can follow him on CAPS under the screen name TMFUltraLong, track every pick he makes under the screen name TrackUltraLong, and check him out on Twitter, where he goes by the handle @TMFUltraLong.The Motley Fool owns shares of Big Lots and Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold. The Motley Fool recommends Automatic Data Processing. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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