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By David Sterman

Executives at chip-equipment maker Lam Research (Nasdaq: LRCX) pulled off a masterstroke this week. A decision to buy Novellus Systems (Nasdaq: NVLS) has the makings of a "home run," according to Citigroup.

Why? Because the acquisition may boost Lam's earnings per share (EPS) by 35% in 2012, and the $44 share purchase price is well below the $60 target Novellus had reportedly been seeking. The fact that the company settled for a 25% discount tells you it's a buyer's market right now. And that's good news for investors. Those who can find companies likely to be acquired could find themselves making quick gains as another company comes along and tries to make a deal.

Indeed, the logic behind acquisitions has rarely been so strong. Sales and EPS growth for many companies are finally set to cool in 2012 after robust gains in 2010 and 2011. So the only way to keep the top and bottom lines moving is to spend some of the massive amounts of cash that has been built up during the last few years on acquisitions. (Lam Research had $2 billion in the bank as of the end of September, for example.)

Why haven't we seen more mergers and acquisition (M&A) deals in 2011? Because many executives are loathe to deal when the economy is at risk of falling into recession. A slumping economy can turn a promising deal into an albatross when sales and profits goals become impossible to achieve. Yet it's increasingly clear that the U.S. economy is on the mend. Weekly jobless claims are falling, and other recent economic data points have been more solid than in prior quarters. In effect, the economy should be growing at a slow pace in 2012, but not shrinking, giving merger strategists a smooth environment in which to make deals.

Here are three sectors that may be the focus of M&A dealings in 2012. If you can get in on any of these stocks before these deals transpire, you're likely to reap some nice gains...

1. Chip-equipment stocks: ASM International (Nasdaq: ASMI)

It's no coincidence that Lam and Novellus decided to join forces. The entire sector has been consolidating in recent years. Applied Materials' (Nasdaq: AMAT) $4.9 billion purchase of Varian Semiconductor Equipment turned many heads in the industry, not just for the lofty purchase price, but AMAT's signal that key players need a broad arsenal of tools to develop the deepest relationship with chip makers like Intel (Nasdaq: INTC) and Texas Instruments (NYSE: TXN).

Might Netherlands-based ASM International be next? The euro has been falling steadily throughout the fourth quarter, making European businesses even more attractive to U.S. buyers. ASM sells a wide range of chip-making tools, and a recent slowdown in growth after robust top line gains in 2010 has pushed this stock down 40% from its 52-week high. Shares now trade for about 1.5 times trailing sales and less than seven times trailing profits. Any potential buyers can take comfort in the fact that free cash flow has always been strong, regardless of the economic climate, averaging nearly $100 million annually in the past five years.

2. Energy: Sandridge Energy (NYSE: SD)

Even as natural gas prices remain depressed, many companies are still aiming to add to the amount of acreage they control, looking ahead to the when gas prices rise and these energy fields yield really impressive returns. Indeed, the energy sector has been the focus of much of the deal-making in 2011, led by Kinder Morgan's (NYSE: KMC) $21 billion proposed purchase of El Paso (NYSE: EP) earlier this quarter. This M&A trend should last as long as sector shares remain in a funk.

Who might be in play? Look for companies that have sought to aggressively expand, but now find themselves short of capital to fully exploit their holdings. Sandridge Energy, which owns very attractive real estate, has made investors nervous by possibly biting off more than it can chew. "The firm's aggressive development plans point to continued balance sheet tightness over the next several years," note analysts at Morningstar.

Who might look to acquire assets at reasonable prices? Look to the energy firms that have the strongest balance sheets and greatest financial firepower. This means companies such as Apache Corp. (NYSE: APA), Devon Energy (NYSE: DVN) and Noble Energy (NYSE: NBL) could be potential acquirers in 2012.

3. Consumer Products: Clorox (NYSE: CLX), Avon Products (NYSE: AVP) and Spectrum Brands (NYSE: SPB)

When it comes to handicapping potential M&A plays, you can look for companies that have already seen buyout interest before. This past summer, corporate raider Carl Icahn set his sights on household goods giant Clorox. He offered $76.50 a share and hinted he'd be willing to go even higher. Clorox's board issued a resounding "no thanks," suggesting shares were worth far more.

Well, since then, shares have pulled back to about $65, so Icahn may look to make another run at Clorox. Might Procter & Gamble (NYSE: PG), with a market value of $178 billion, look to offer $11 billion or $12 billion for Clorox (or at least $83 per share)? This might be enough to get Clorox's board to play ball, which would help P&G expand its set of brands. From fiscal (June) 2008 to fiscal 2011, P&G's sales slightly rose from $79 billion to $82.5 billion. The top line is expected to expand quite modestly in fiscal 2012 and 2013 as well. Clorox would help jumpstart P&G's flagging top line.

If Clorox still doesn't want to talk about a deal, then P&G may want to check out Avon Products, which has seen its shares fall by half in 2011, erasing $7 billion in market value.

Also, Spectrum Brands, which owns brands such as Rayovac, Remington, Spectracide and George Foreman, has seen its shares move down nearly 30% from the 52-week high. Spectrum's high debt load (with more than $1.5 billion in long-term debt) has spooked some investors. But P&G's $3.5 billion cash hoard could pay off that debt and provide the capital to further extend Spectrum's presence in its various market niches.

Risks to Consider: If the economy slows anew in 2012, then deal-making would likely grind to a halt. You may find yourself stuck with one of these stocks as a result. Keeping that in mind, it's important to find a stock you think is either already fairly solid or has little downside from current levels.

Keep in mind these are simply buyout candidates, not companies that have been the subject of buyout rumors. But all of these candidates operate solid businesses and would make solid tuck-in acquisitions for bigger rivals in their sectors. Worst case scenario, you may find that scooping up shares of one or more of these companies might make a solid long-term holding. Best case scenario, an acquisition announcement turns into a quick gain.

Disclosure: Neither D. Sterman nor StreetAuthority, LLC hold positions in any securities mentioned in this article.

Source: 5 Buyout Targets For Quick Gains In 2012