5 Top Small-Cap Stock Picks You Can Buy in March

By Todd Campbell Markets Fool.com

Rowan Companies (NYSE: RDC), Northwest Bancshares (NASDAQ: NWBI) Builders FirstSource (NASDAQ: BLDR), KB Home (NYSE: KBH), and Ethan Allen Interiors (NYSE: ETH) offer intriguing reasons why they could be top performers. Read on to learn if these five stocks are right for your portfolio.

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1. An industry on the mend?

It's undeniably been a struggle for energy-services stocks like Rowan Companies. Falling spot prices for oil and natural gas have reduced drilling activity, and as a result, the company's year-over-year sales and profit have tumbled. Better times, however, could be ahead, because commodity prices are rebounding lately, and that's boosting active rig counts.

IMAGE SOURCE: GETTY IMAGES.

Rowan Companies' reported sales sank 34% year over year to $351.8 million, and the company lost $24.4 million in the fourth quarter of 2016. Those poor results were due to idled deepwater and jack-up rigs, and the lower day rates associated with idled capacity.

Although there's admittedly little to like in the company's quarterly financials, I do see some emerging evidence that more of Rowan's rigs could soon be landing contracts. If I'm right, then day rates could start inching up again. Per-barrel crude oil spot prices have been trending higher, and that's already led to a pickup in land-rig activity.

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WTI Crude Oil Spot Price data by YCharts.

According to Baker Hughes' weekly rig-count data, there are 754 land rigs active in North America, 252 more than a year ago. Rebounding oil prices haven't boosted offshore rig activity yet: The 17 offshore rigs now active in North America are down 10 rigs from a year ago, and far below the more than 60 rigs that were active as recently as 2014. But industry participants are getting more hopeful. For example, Core Labs, a major provider of oil and gas services, told investors in January that it thinks the deepwater market will bottom in the first half of this year.

Given that we're already seeing an uptick in land activity, and offshore activity could begin to improve soon, it might be a very good time to start adding offshore energy-services stocks like Rowan Companies to portfolios.

2. Banking on profit growth

Rising interest rates support expansion in net interest margin as loan rates climb more quickly than funding costs. That could further accelerate Northwest Bancshares' bottom line, and offer additional opportunities for this Pennsylvania-based bank to return more money to investors via dividends.

Pro-growth inflationary policies have already resulted in two Fed rate increases, and another increase could be coming this month. There's no telling where interest rates will be in a year, but if more rate hikes are on deck, then loan activity could pick up ahead of those increases.

Northwest Bancshares is already benefiting from a drop in delinquency rates that's allowing it to set aside less money for loan losses, and recent acquisitions have improved its funding costs, allowing it to boost returns on its loans. Last year, non-GAAP (generally accepted accounting principles) net operating income was $84.3 million, or $0.84 per diluted share, up 25.8% from 2015. Non-GAAP annualized returns on average shareholders' equity and average assets were 7.27% and 0.93%, respectively, in 2016, up from 6.08% and 0.80% in 2015.

Assuming the economy continues improving (which I think it will), and the spread between lending rates and funding costs widens, then buying Northwest Bancshares could be smart -- particularly since its shares are already paying a dividend yield of 3.5%.

3. Building up sales

As fellow Fool Travis Hoium recently pointed out, Builders FirstSource is enjoying a period of both rapid top-line growth and margin expansion. Fortunately, management thinks those shareholder-friendly trends will continue in 2017.

The company is the biggest supplier of building products to new residential construction and remodeling pros in the country. In the fourth quarter, its sales increased 6.3% to $1.55 billion, and its net income totaled $18.3 million, which was significantly better than its loss of $0.3 million a year ago. For the full year, sales increased 5.5% year over year, on an apples-to-apples basis that removes the impact of acquisitions and store closures. Earnings per share were $1.27 in 2016.

Because low unemployment rates are beginning to translate into faster wage growth, and rising interest rates could spark demand from renters who have held off on buying a first home, I think there's a good chance construction activity picks up. Since investors can buy Builders FirstSource for only 13.3 times trailing EPS and 10.5 times forward estimates, and product demand could climb, I think this stock is a bargain.

4. Rising real estate

Speaking of housing, we're quickly approaching the time of year when real estate purchases pick up, and that could make now a perfect time to stash away some KB Home shares in portfolios.

KB Home is one of the nation's largest homebuilders and historically, buying shares in homebuilders when their price-to-book ratios are low has paid off. As a refresher, the price-to-book ratio is calculated by dividing current share prices by a company's book value per share, and book value is simply the value of assets minus liabilities.

As you'll see in the following chart, the ratio of KB Home's price to book value is near decade lows. Obviously, no one knows when share prices will rise or fall, but given that we're going into the best time of the year for new-home sales, I think there's a good chance that shares climb from here.

KBH Price to Book Value data by YCharts.

KB Home's specialty is first-home purchases, and that adds conviction to my thinking. The percentage of first-time buyers hit a 30-year low of 32% in 2015, but it climbed to 35% in 2016, according to the National Association of Realtors. Rebounding demand from new buyers in key markets like Florida, Texas, and California has resulted in 19 consecutive quarters of increasing net order value at KB Home, and its home sales have climbed from $2.1 billion in 2013 to $3.6 billion last year.

5. Marketing at the right time

If you're interested in the housing market, but you don't want to own construction-related stocks, then buying Ethan Allen Interiors is another way to invest in the industry ahead of rising home sales.

Furniture revenue is correlated to home purchases, and historically, Ethan Allen Interiors sales are weakest in the first quarter, then build throughout the rest of the year. If that trend holds true again this year, then a recent sell-off in Ethan Allen Interiors' shares could make now the perfect time to buy. Despite a big run-up in the S&P 500, Ethan Allen Interiors shares have lost 20% of their value so far this year.

In January, Fool contributor Dan Sparks speculated that the decline was due to concern that a big marketing push could zap profitability. While management's plan to bump up advertising expense by 20% from last year starting in February is a headwind, I can't think of a better time of the year to double down on marketing. If the company's marketing strategy helps to reinforce its status as a go-to for home furniture, then it could perfectly position the company to boost sales as home purchases pick up. Even better, if spending focuses consumers on quality, then less discounting could improve furniture margins.

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Todd Campbell has no position in any stocks mentioned. His clients may have positions in the companies mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Core Laboratories. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.