Do You Want to Invest Like the Yankees?

If you had the choice between investing in the New York Yankees or the Pittsburgh Pirates, which would you choose?

Of course on name alone, you'd probably say the Yankees. Forbes magazine estimates that the New York Yankees organization boasts the highest net worth in baseball at $1.3 billion as it brings in top, pricy talent each year. And despite not winning the World Series since 2000, its top line has been steadily increasing over the past decade. In 2007, the $323 million it generated in revenue outpaced the nearest competition by 40%.

While you'd think those figures should lead to dominance on the field, the team's record this year is 20-24 so far. But that's not the only place where losses surpass wins. Management lost a whopping $47 million in operating income in 2007 and has a debt-to-value ratio of 77%.

Contrast those pathetic financial results with those of my hometown Pittsburgh Pirates. Despite its dismal streak of 15 straight losing seasons (no, I'm not bitter), my Pirates did make money. Earnings came in at $17.6 million in 2007, representing a 12.6% profit margin on revenue that was a measly 42% of what those Yankees brought in. Plus, the black and gold's debt-to-value ratio stands at a much more reasonable 34%.

Despite this performance, folks here in Pittsburgh are actually not too happy about these off-field results. Some have argued that the owners are too focused on making money and not focused enough on bring in the right talent to win games (Pittsburgher's are passionate about winning sports teams).

Chances are the records for Yankees and Pirates won't be anywhere close at the end of the year. The Yankees are going for it all, with big-name players and out-of-the-park salaries. Yep, if you're investing in companies like the Yankees, you're definitely looking for home-run potential. These are big-name companies spending a lot of money to win big.  

Think of Merrill Lynch (NYSE: MER  ) : A great reputation, but Merrill has at least two strikes right now after losing $2 billion in the first quarter and taking $7.9 billion in debt writedowns. Who knows how long it will take for financials to get back to a level of stability, let alone the growth and profits that are associated with their big-name players. Bear Stearns' (NYSE: BSC  ) investors learned the hard way that reputation will take a firm only so far when results and debt are questionable at best.

If you're investing like the Pittsburgh Pirates, though, you're not looking at the big names like Derek Jeter or A-Rod. Nope, you're looking at stocks like KLA-Tencor (KLAC). With double-digit margins, no debt, but revenues that have returned just 3.6% in the last year, KLA-Tencor may not have the high-profile or growth prospects of an Intel (Nasdaq: INTC  ) , but it's making money. It's like bunting in baseball: You can make it onto base, but it doesn't look pretty.

If you had invested in software maker ANSYS (Nasdaq: ANSS  ) last year, you would have almost doubled your money by now. ANSYS isn't a true-Pittsburgh Pirate play -- it has a pretty decent growth rate, but with low debt, a geeky product base, and headquarters in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania, it's not a glamorous tech stock. But who wants to invest in "no names" like ANSYS, when you can go for the big names like Google (Nasdaq: GOOG  ) ?

Balancing home-run potential with steady single hitting is similar to the challenge you face when creating your own investment portfolio. Investing like the Yankees, with big-name players and a glossy new stadium on the way, looks like the cool thing to do, at first. And if they can win the Series this year, they'll look smart enough. But the Yankees have to win it all soon to make these big name and pricey investments worthwhile.

On the other hand, if the Pirates hit .500 this year, it will be a successful season for them. I'm not saying that you should invest exactly like the Pirates -- a 15-year, on-field losing streak is unacceptable.

But it does makes sense to look at the big picture (ROI and debt for starters) and not just marquee names when putting together a balanced, winning portfolio.

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