Equities Look Good for 2014, but Be Careful

The tail end of December is a time to think of everything but the present. The past year's triumphs and failures are recounted, and the coming year's hopes and worries are endlessly put forth. In that spirit, it only makes sense to ponder the state of equities in 2014. By most counts, stocks should continue their impressive run from 2013 (and 2011-2012), but that doesn't mean you should buy with reckless abandon. While we should all have a nice year in the markets, keep in mind that stock picking is still a safer bet than riding market beta.

Alpha dogs
Including this week's solid gains, the S&P 500 (SNPINDEX: ^GSPC  ) is up more than 20% this year and is likely to close out 2013 in that neighborhood. The Fed's continual delays in stimu-trimming have kept cheap and easy money available to corporations while mitigating the effects of a still-cautious consumer.

Still, investors had plenty of chances to lose money in the past year. Apparel retailers like American Eagle, Abercrombie & Fitch, and Lululemon found no solace in the general market bullishness. Tech kingpin Apple is set to end the year flat. Sears Holdings saw its shares rise more than 50%, only to give up all of its gains in a couple of months. These are just cherry-picked losers from the year, but it goes to show that a general market upswing is far from a guaranteed win in your own portfolio.

Next year will look very similar. Conditions look ripe for broad market gains in 2014, especially considering the Fed has announced that interest rates will remain low, once again, beyond prior expectations. But remember, this is not a license to buy the stocks you see and hear mentioned on CNBC and elsewhere. Stock picking is just as important in a bull market -- if not more so -- than it is in a bearish one.

Keep an eye on the numbers
Netflix
(NASDAQ: NFLX  ) , 3D Systems, Tesla, and other cool-kid stocks made investors a fine mint this year, but don't assume 2014 is a guaranteed repeat. Netflix, for example, is a fantastic company with a brilliant future. But it's also back up to trading at almost 100 times earnings. If there were much more to be made without sacrificing downside protection, Carl Icahn wouldn't have cashed out the majority of his stake two months ago (at an $800 million profit, by the way).

Keep a level head and remember there is a big difference between price and value. Even though the market is ready to keep pushing its record highs, intrinsic valuation ultimately wins out over time -- every single time.

Look for stocks that have been left behind in 2013 or have done well but not quite achieved the same pace as the S&P 500. Better yet, buy stocks that have nothing to do with 2014's projected bull market. Instead, use the old Buffett trick -- treat your buys as if they are finite in number (say 25 picks for your lifetime). That'll make you think twice about buying into a rich (and getting richer) market.

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