All else being equal, the return you'll earn on any investment comes down to two main things: the length of time you hold it and the price you pay. Of course, every Fool knows that when it comes to investing, all else is never equal. Nonetheless, those two points are well worth bearing in mind as you go about the business of stock shopping for fun and profit.
They're particularly true, I'd argue, when it comes to the question of price.
Most of us, after all, at least intend to be buy-to-hold types when we stake out a position in a stock we like. Alas, our "like" sometimes kindles into a full-blown romance, and we fall in love with a stock's "story" and let emotion cloud our judgment when it comes to assessing valuations and growth prospects.
Google is a classic example. Don't get me wrong: I love it, too, and I use the search service a gazillion times a day. I also love the bells and whistles it rolls out on a constant basis.
Still, fan though I am, I can't bring myself to buy the stock at its current valuation (for starters, I don't think its declining growth justifies a P/E ratio over 40).
When it comes to investing in individual stocks, it just makes sense that companies trading well below their "intrinsic value" are extremely attractive. Beyond that, I like fellow Fool Philip Durell's philosophy of finding firms with lengthy track records at generating plenty of free cash flow (FCF). This methodology has generated market-beating returns for his Inside Value newsletter.
On that front, Google's FCF track record is too short -- particularly when the market boasts the likes of IBM (NYSE: IBM ) , Altria (NYSE: MO ) , and ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM ) -- all of which have cranked out gobs of FCF over the course of many years. That's also true of Merck (NYSE: MRK ) .
Perhaps those names don't have quite as much "sex appeal" as Google. But if that's the profile you're after, you could always consider tech-sector offerings such as Hewlett-Packard (NYSE: HPQ ) and SAP (NYSE: SAP ) -- two "cash kings" that sport price-to-earnings ratios that clock in below their typical industry rival.
To be sure, just because a company makes it through a set of quantitative screens doesn't mean it's a slam-dunk investment. There's more to ferreting out value than just number-crunching, after all. That's why I'm a big fan of Philip's newsletter service.
Each month, he whittles down the investment universe to just those companies that meet his stringent quantitative requirements and measure up when it comes to more qualitative factors (such as managerial acumen and a laser-like focus on creating value for shareholders) as well.
If that sounds like a compelling strategic two-step, I encourage you to take Inside Value for a 30-day test-drive. The free trial won't cost you a thing, and you'll have access to every one of his recommendations, as well as his top five stocks to buy now. Here's more information.
This is adapted from a Shannon Zimmerman article originally published on Aug. 5, 2006. It has been updated.
Rex Moore is an analyst for Stock Advisor, and at the time of publication he owned no stocks mentioned above. You can check out the Fool's strict disclosure policy by clicking right here.