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3 More Value Traps to Avoid Right Now

Last April, we talked about how history's greatest investor, Berkshire Hathaway's Warren Buffett, has two simple rules.

  • Rule No. 1: Never lose money.
  • Rule No. 2: Never forget rule No. 1.

Another big, sarcastic thank you, Warren! 
Sounds great on paper, and that mind-set certainly helped Buffett on his path to billions. Practically speaking, though, the only way for us to be absolutely sure we won't lose money is to stuff it under our mattresses.

Assuming we're investing, however, we can avoid losing money by steering clear of value traps. They're the stocks that look cheap -- and stay that way. Value traps are investing quicksand, and stepping in them is the surest way to leave your portfolio mired in the mud.

3 more value traps to avoid right now 
I told you back then about five value traps to avoid -- the eBay-  (Nasdaq: EBAY  ) style Quarter-Life Crisis, the Too-High Yielder, etc. But having spent a few more months digesting our recession, watching industries shake out, and debating with fellow Fools until they turn the lights on at our favorite local pub, I've defined three more value traps that we should all avoid.

1. The Middleman 
Middlemen are frequently price-takers on both ends, meaning they've got little clout with either their suppliers or their customers. The Middleman is just along for the ride, which is usually a bumpy one given their weak bargaining power.

Picture low margins, high capital needs, overcapacity, and profits that swing wildly, usually at the whim of outside forces. Picture oil refiners like Valero Energy and Sunoco (NYSE: SUN  ) , drillers like Noble (NYSE: NE  ) , chemical producers like Eastman Chemical (NYSE: EMN  ) , etc. Kind of like being the rope in a tug o' war.

I learned this lesson the hard way with Valero, when I recommended it to Fool readers in June of 2008. I predicted (correctly) that oil prices were due for a fall, but was wrong that lower gasoline prices would spur demand. Turns out that gasoline volumes fell in lockstep, dragging profits -- and Valero's shares -- down with them.

2. The IPO 
Companies usually go public for one overarching reason: Their investors want to cash in some chips, and they've found just the right time (and price) at which to do it. They think they've found a patsy -- you. Really, did you think the financial whizzes at Blackstone took the company public in the summer of 2007 so that you could join in their successes?

But what about, say, Visa or MasterCard? Sure, they're shining examples of semi-recent IPO success, but they're also cherry-picked exceptions of greatness. For each of those huge wins, there's a host of losers. Robust empirical research on five-year returns of IPOs from the years 1970 through 2000 found that they consistently underperformed the market after their first day of trading.

3. The Rule Taker 
This might be the most poisonous value trap of them all. They don't have the power to make or break rules -- just take them. The Rule Taker is a company whose business is standing on the tracks as a technological freight train is about to pull through. Save for a Hail Mary or two, Rule Takers are out of options.

Picture Gannett (NYSE: GCI  ) or McClatchy (NYSE: MNI  ) getting bowled over by the internet, or the poor souls who bought into Blockbuster as Netflix and the new age of digital content distribution took off.

Owning shares of these declining businesses is playing with investing fire. Sure, you might luck out with a turnaround or a dead-cat bounce, but failure is practically inevitable.

Better know a trap! 
Remember: In addition to avoiding the original five value traps, you can dramatically improve your long-term performance by:

  1. Avoiding middlemen businesses that are two-way price-takers.
  2. Staying away from the IPO hype.
  3. Shunning declining, rule-taking businesses, no matter what their price.

The Anti-Trap 
Now consider one of our recent recommendations at the Fool's value-focused premium service, Inside Value: Monsanto. Monsanto is the 800-pound gorilla of the world seed market, dominating competitors with its lineup of high-tech, high-yielding seeds that allow farmers to get a huge bang for their buck.

Monsanto is a darling compared with our traps. Unlike the Middleman, Monsanto has strong pricing power, consistent cash generation, and earns huge returns on invested capital.

Unlike most fresh IPO businesses, Monsanto is a proven business that has produced market-thumping returns over the past several years. And with Monsanto CEO and Chairman Hugh Grant owning more than 400,000 shares of Monsanto, you can be darn sure he's working on shareholders' behalf.

Oh, and Rule-Taking? Like another Inside Value recommendation, Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT  ) , Monsanto is a rare example of a platform monopoly. Not only is Monsanto the global leader in seed sales, but most of Monsanto's competitors actually license Monsanto's intellectual property for their products. Monsanto doesn't follow the rules -- it makes them.

Two for the price of one 
Monsanto isn't your run-of-the-mill value stock, but that's the way Philip Durell and I like it at Inside Value. Knowing that value comes in all shapes and sizes has been a secret to the product's success over the years, helping Inside Value to beat the market by more than 7 percentage points per recommendation since its inception in 2004.

New subscribers receive a new value report each month, access to all of our previous recommendations, and monthly updates on our top stocks for new money. If you'd like to see what we're recommending now, click here for a free, 30-day trial. There's no obligation to subscribe.

This article was first published Dec. 4, 2009. It has been updated.

Senior analyst Joe Magyer owns shares of Monsanto. You can lob hate mail at him here, or even follow him on Twitter. Berkshire Hathaway, Microsoft, and Monsanto are Inside Value selections. Berkshire Hathaway and Netflix are Stock Advisor selections. Motley Fool Options has recommended a bull call spread position on eBay and a diagonal call position on Microsoft. The Fool owns shares of Berkshire Hathaway. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

Read/Post Comments (4) | Recommend This Article (3)

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 March 31, 2010, at 1:49 PM, dab007 wrote:

    the community says ne is a screaming buy 5 star i agree with them

  • Report this Comment On March 31, 2010, at 1:50 PM, dab007 wrote:

    with obamas recent allowing of offshore drilling ne is a buy up over 2% today

  • Report this Comment On March 31, 2010, at 9:38 PM, pmlang37 wrote:

    Noble Corporation is NOT a middleman and neither are the other drillers; they don't belong in this discussion.

  • Report this Comment On April 14, 2010, at 10:08 PM, greenwave3 wrote:

    I'm going to have to agree with my distinguished fellow Fool commenters. Noble (NE) is not a middleman at all with their huge margins. It's still a buy for me, so I'll happily take your shares from you if you are unhappy with them.

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