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You Need a Crystal Ball

There's no crystal ball when it comes to the stock market. But the biggest investing rewards go to those who see business developments before others do.

Contrarian,or futurist?
I know that sounds like crazy talk. But let me assure you that it's as normal as baseball, Mom, and apple pie. Take legendary investor John Neff, for example. As manager of the Vanguard Windsor (VWNDX) fund in the late 1980s, he bet $500 million on a recovery at Citigroup (NYSE: C  ) .

It probably seemed insane at the time. The bank was subject to huge chunks of risky foreign debt and mired in a real estate meltdown. Times were hard. But Neff and his team read the financial statements and concluded that the company had prepared itself adequately if the crisis worsened.

Not quite a stock market soothsayer
It did. And, by 1990, most investors panicked. Neff, however, didn't. Instead, he bought more shares, figuring that a stock that was already a deep value had just gotten cheaper. His thesis, in part, was based on predicting the future. In his autobiography and investing tome, John Neff on Investing, he writes, "Citi struck us as being somewhat in the same position as Bank of America (NYSE: BAC  ) in 1987. A later turnaround increased Bank of America's price more than eightfold."

In other words, Neff peered into the past, and found a reference point that provided indicators for what was to come, invested, and earned generous returns for shareholders as a result. That's long-range forecasting.

A long-range forecaster, instead
Don't get me wrong; I haven't exchanged my library of books on security analysis for a dime-store crystal ball. Nor should you. But I find myself more convinced than ever that investors who fail to consider trends in their stock picking cheat themselves out of multibagger returns.

Blame Paul Saffo. A long-range forecaster with the Institute for the Future in Silicon Valley, he and I spoke last month about the decade ahead. A complete list of his insights can be found here if you're a Motley Fool Rule Breakers subscriber. (Or take a free trial to get access now.) More interesting to me, though, was the description of how he arrives at forecasts. In sum: He looks for things that, in his words, "don't fit."

For example, he found it interesting that people he knew were naming their vacuum cleaners. These weren't ordinary vacuums, however. They were Roombas, the automated floor cleaner designed and sold by iRobot (Nasdaq: IRBT  ) . Saffo says that indicates robotics will become an increasingly important part of our lives over the next decade. I think he's right.

Try it!
But, of course, Saffo is an expert. You can't do this, can you? Of course you can! Here's an example:

For years pundits have predicted a convergence of the Internet and TV. It may still be years away. But there's increasing evidence that the Internet will have a huge role in the delivery of video content. Take Apple's iTunes, for example, which now features more than 3,000 music videos. Or, better yet, Google's (Nasdaq: GOOG  ) investment in a technology called broadband over power lines (BPL).

An extraordinary cognitive leap, you say? Maybe. I just call it another example of something that doesn't "fit." Until, of course, you think about it. Remember: One of the key barriers to Internet-based TV is access. Getting broadband from a router to a TV isn't so easy. Power lines could circumvent that problem. And a Google-controlled box -- TiVo, anyone? -- could manage the data flow, serving targeted ads in the process.

It's a short trip from there to thinking about other stocks that could benefit. Those building or rolling out BPL technology or related devices would top the list. And that might lead you to IBM (NYSE: IBM  ) , Earthlink (Nasdaq: ELNK  ) , and Cisco (Nasdaq: CSCO  ) , among others.

Get in the game
Imagining the future isn't as difficult as you might think. And getting your portfolio in on the ground floor can be immensely profitable. That's why David Gardner, our chief Rule Breaker, has said that the best way to predict the future is to invest in it. So far, his approach has resulted in a portfolio of stocks that lead the market by more than 20 percentage points as of this writing. (If that sounds good to you, try it out for 30 days.)

Even if you're not a so-called Rule Breaker, thinking about the world around you can be both a wonderful intellectual exercise and a very profitable long-term investing strategy. With or without the crystal ball.

Fool contributorTim Beyerswants a babysitter robot for his three kids. Waddya say, iRobot? Tim didn't own shares in any of the companies mentioned in this story at the time of publication. You can find out what else is in his portfolio by checking Tim's Foolprofile. Bank of America is an Income Investor recommendation, iRobot is a Rule Breakers pick, and TiVo was selected in Stock Advisor. The Motley Fool has an ironcladdisclosure policy.

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