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If you're nervous about the stock market, you're not alone. But even amid all the uncertainty surrounding the economy right now, you can pick up some good values on attractive, high-quality stocks if you think something other than the worst-case scenario will end up happening.

A depressed market
You'll always find permabears who believe that the sky is falling. However, today's pessimism isn't confined just to the usual Chicken Littles. Even well-respected market experts like Peter Schiff believe we're in the early stages of a depression that could send commodities prices soaring, while leaving many investors in U.S. stocks and bonds suffering huge losses.

Because of those fears, many stocks are priced at extremely attractive valuations right now. With short-term interest rates near zero, price-to-earnings ratios of 10-12 imply a risk premium for stocks of 8% to 10%. You can find relatively cheap stocks across the economy, from traditionally defensive sectors to cyclical and even growth stocks. Let's look at some of these bargains, the short-term reasons why they're trading cheap, and why they might make good investments going forward.

Playing defense
When I talk about "defensive stocks," I'm referring to companies that traditionally hold up fairly well, even during periods of slow economic growth. After all, no matter how bad things get, there are certain things that people need to buy; the companies that provide those goods aren't completely immune from recessions, but they often see less dramatic downturns in their financials than producers of goods that people can live without.

Johnson & Johnson (NYSE: JNJ  ) makes everything from Band-Aids to prescription drugs, but it's faced several headwinds lately. A stronger dollar, health-care reform, and a host of product recalls have all conspired to force the company to lower its earnings guidance. But with a P/E ratio of 12 and a 3.7% dividend yield, you don't need much growth to make this stock a good value.

Other stalwarts are facing similar short-term problems. Wal-Mart (NYSE: WMT  ) , which weathered the 2008 bear market quite well, has seen recent earnings fall short of hopes, as investors question whether hurting consumers will stick with the discount retailer for the long term. ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM  ) has faced the double-whammy of the Gulf oil spill and low natural gas prices that have called into question its acquistion strategy. But both companies trade at earnings multiples of around 12 to 13, and both pay handsome dividends. More importantly, few investors foresee long-term troubles for either company.

Playing the cycle
You might expect defensive stocks to underperform at the end of an economic downturn. But cyclical stocks are also struggling. Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold (NYSE: FCX  ) trades at a P/E of just 9, even though analysts expect double-digit earnings growth both in 2011 and in the coming five years.

For European steel giant ArcelorMittal (NYSE: MT  ) , the gains could be even larger. An expected 50% jump in 2011 earnings could bring multiples down from 11 to below 9. Yet even if that growth doesn't pan out, it's hard to argue that these cyclical stocks are overvalued.

Tech bargains
The technology industry is known for ridiculously overpriced stocks that stay overpriced all through their lengthy growth periods. Right now, though, even tech is cheap.

No one can say that Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT  ) doesn't have its challenges, from defending its strong position in the web-browser and office-software markets to trying to compete in online search, smartphone, and tablet niches. But even if Microsoft stays clueless, its current earnings support both a 2% dividend and huge share repurchases that return capital to investors.

Even among faster-growing stocks, valuations have become reasonable. Even after tripling in price in a year and a half, Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL  ) still trades with a trailing P/E below 20. An estimated growth rate around 20% doesn't seem completely unrealistic for Apple, given the speed with which its new products have come to dominate their markets.

Don't wait
Many investors are ignoring this opportunity, piling instead into Treasury bonds that pay 2% to 3% or less. Don't make that mistake. Given how rare it is to have opportunities to buy stocks like these at bargain prices, you won't want to count on these deals lasting forever.

Do you think I'm crazy to like stocks? Let me have it in the comments section below.

You have to stay away from stock traps. Chuck Saletta shows you one stock that's completely worthless.

Fool contributor Dan Caplinger loves a great value. He doesn't own shares of the companies mentioned in this article, although he owns ETFs and funds that include some of them among their holdings. Microsoft and Wal-Mart Stores are Motley Fool Inside Value recommendations. Apple is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor pick. Johnson & Johnson is a Motley Fool Income Investor selection. Motley Fool Options has recommended a diagonal call position on Johnson & Johnson and a diagonal call position on Microsoft. The Fool owns shares of Exxon Mobil. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. The Fool's disclosure policy never ignores you.

Read/Post Comments (3) | Recommend This Article (30)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On August 16, 2010, at 7:32 PM, plange01 wrote:

    all of a sudden rimm and cvs are cheap again and rig is on sale at 50%off!

  • Report this Comment On August 17, 2010, at 9:11 AM, Aventador wrote:

    JNJ is providing a good dividend at current valuation and MT is currently valued below book with good growth prospects. Would recommend both as well.

  • Report this Comment On August 23, 2010, at 10:24 AM, RetiredSurgeon wrote:

    Since when is Peter Schiff(Dr.Doom) a respected expert on anything? He is "Chicken Little" personified and by the way , has lost alot of money for his clients in the past. He has been an advisor to Rand Paul. Does that tell you anything? Please research your "well-respected experts" before you tout them and realize that to be Conservative is not to be Extreme.Remember, your column reaches across the political spectrum.

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