What If It's Not as Bad as Everyone Thinks?

These are scary times. Unemployment is approaching double digits, house prices are plummeting, and the government appears incapable of reversing our economy's downward trajectory. Just this week, Vice President Joe Biden admitted that the Obama administration "misread how bad the economy was" when it designed the $787 billion stimulus package.

General Motors, Lear Corp. and Six Flags have failed. Highly-levered firms like MGM (NYSE: MGM  ) , Las Vegas Sands (NYSE: LVS  ) , and UAL (Nasdaq: UAUA  ) may not be far behind.

And I haven't even touched on the shaky status of Eastern European banks, the sinking Japanese economy, or the coming wave of option ARM mortgage interest rate resets.

I admit, with all of the negative news coming in, it's difficult to see any semblance of a silver lining. But as a natural contrarian, I have to wonder: What if it's not as bad as everyone thinks?

The power of positive thinking
Right now, we don't know whether our economy faces a return to depression-like conditions. But Markel Chief Investment Officer Tom Gayner recently pointed out that "the stock market isn't waiting to find out."

The market already assumes that we're headed for a worst-case scenario -- but if it's not as bad as everyone thinks, there's opportunity there.

And Gayner agrees. "The low expectations and low valuations of equity prices might make for a pleasant surprise over the next decade," he said.

What is the nature of this opportunity?
Let's dissect Gayner's prediction -- because there are a few interesting takeaways.

First of all, he thinks of investment returns in terms of decades, not days or weeks. This probably helps explain why he consistently outperforms the short-term-oriented market.

Second, this has little to do with a market bottom, which Gayner isn't calling. He even acknowledges that the U.S. might enter another depression. But -- for the first time in 18 months -- he recently began buying stocks because he believes that today's prices are excellent even considering that risk.

If the doomsday crowd is correct and the U.S. does enter a nasty, prolonged depression, Gayner may lose a little capital, but it's unlikely he'll suffer significant losses, precisely because of those prices. And if the economic outcome isn't as dire as those negative Nancies believe, Gayner will probably be richly rewarded.

The upshot? The key to successful investing isn't buying shares of the world's greatest companies, or the market's cheapest fare. It's buying shares of great companies when they trade at a significant discount to their intrinsic value.

That doesn't happen that often -- but Gayner thinks now is one of those times.

So, whatcha buying, Tom?
Gayner didn't mention exactly which stocks he was buying. But based on his history, I imagine he's snatching up shares of companies with simple business models, strong balance sheets, and shareholder-friendly management teams.

Those are some of the key characteristics that David and Tom Gardner search for at Motley Fool Stock Advisor. One of my favorite opportunities from their scorecard that happens to perfectly illustrate these qualities is Netflix (Nasdaq: NFLX  ) .

It's been a dismal year for most companies, but Netflix continues to fire on all cylinders. In the first quarter, the DVD-by-mail dynamo added more net subscribers than in any other quarter in its history. The company's member base now sits above 10 million -- and those members are among the happiest in the industry, according to Netflix's top ranking in Nielsen's online retail customer satisfaction survey.

The economic recession is actually playing out in Netflix's favor, as cash-strapped consumers are content to sit at home and enjoy a cheap movie. Netflix's lower-priced plans have been increasing in popularity -- another boon for the company, since these offerings carry a higher margin. And although competition from the likes of Apple and Amazon.com (Nasdaq: AMZN  ) is a concern, Netflix's investments in digital delivery and loyal member base should keep these tech titans at bay.

And no Netflix pitch is complete without a tip of the cap to Reed Hastings, the company's founder and CEO. Hastings is a passionate and visionary leader, whom Wired editor Chris Anderson referred to as "the smartest executive in [Silicon] Valley" in a speech at Fool HQ earlier this week. Hastings also owns a significant chunk of his company's shares, which David and Tom believe helps align his interests with those of Netflix shareholders.

A pleasant surprise
Even if the bears are correct and we're staring at a lengthy and severe economic downturn, Netflix should be relatively safe. The company boasts significant competitive advantages, a strong balance sheet, predictable, recurring revenue, and a shareholder-friendly management team.

And if the U.S. economy manages to recover faster than the market expects, buyers at today's prices will be likely to enjoy a pleasant surprise.

If you're looking for additional superior stock ideas, you can see what Fool co-founders David and Tom Gardner are recommending to members of their Motley Fool Stock Advisor service free for 30 days. Click here for more information.

Rich Greifner was pleasantly surprised by the Chicago Cubs' recent three-game winning streak. Rich does not own shares of any company mentioned in this article. Netflix, Apple, and Amazon.com are Stock Advisor selections. Markel is an Inside Value recommendation. The Motley Fool owns shares of Markel. The Fool has a disclosure policy.


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