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Now it's becoming obvious: This is a real crisis.
When this economic mess first started to pick up steam, its impact was clear to those who deal in real estate or banking or who watch the markets every day -- but out in the "real world," things didn't seem so bad. Until recently, it was easy for the average American on the street to believe that things weren't so awful.
That's changing. Every day brings new reports of layoffs, so many that I can't keep up -- Caterpillar (NYSE: CAT ) announced a cut of 20,000 jobs as I was writing this. The average car dealership is quieter than a research library. And many American households, worried about debt loads or employment uncertainties or both, have cut their spending and begun to hunker down.
There's some good news, though: Lots of good companies are going through rough patches. Why is that good? Because it means we can buy 'em cheap.
Discretionary swan dive
To take just one example, discretionary purchases have fallen off a cliff, and that's having some very visible effects. Aside from online maven Amazon.com (Nasdaq: AMZN ) , nearly every major retailer reported a dismal holiday shopping season. The cafe I'm sitting in as I write this seems to be doing OK, but the fitness center next door is offering memberships for $10 a month with a $20 annual fee.
Maybe things have changed since I last had a gym membership, but that seems to me like the kind of pricing you offer when you're desperate for enough cash flow to keep the lights on.
Given that gym memberships are relatively small purchases in the grand scheme of things, it's no surprise that pricier luxuries are getting hit hard as well. Was anyone really shocked when Harley-Davidson (NYSE: HOG ) reported lousy results last week? (C'mon -- unless you're a Hell's Angel, few purchases are more discretionary than a Harley.) Or that Williams-Sonoma would be cutting 18% of its full-time employees?
Likewise, will you be shocked if empty storefronts start to proliferate? MegaREITs like mall-monsters Simon Property Group (NYSE: SPG ) and General Growth Properties could see major declines in demand for space if more retail chains cut expansion plans, close unprofitable stores -- or follow Circuit City into bankruptcy court.
For us as investors, the trick is to separate the companies that will survive and thrive from those that are in real life-threatening trouble.
Value stocks vs. doomed stocks
I just used the Motley Fool CAPS stock screener to turn up some value stock ideas. One theme I've had great success with in the past is to buy strong stocks in beaten-up segments, and today's screen turned up a couple of interesting possibilities.
For instance, if you want to play the discretionary spending theme from an interesting angle, take a closer look at Genuine Parts Company (NYSE: GPC ) . Here's the elevator pitch: People are putting off new car purchases. With the average age of vehicles likely to increase, that means more attention -- and more money spent -- on maintenance, especially as these cars age. GPC supplies auto parts -- the NAPA Auto Parts chain is theirs -- as well as industrial parts, where the theme is the same.
Starting to catch on? Now add in a dividend yield near 5%, next to no long-term debt, and a strong return on equity, and the picture starts to get quite interesting. The P/E ratio could arguably stand to be a bit lower -- it's right around 10. But that dividend is worth a little extra, especially since the company apparently thinks it's sustainable -- it just hiked its payout by a penny. If your portfolio could use a big solid dividend payer that looks like a long-term value, check this one out.
Don't stop there, though -- head over to CAPS and run a value screen of your own. There were several other intriguing names on my list today, including AFLAC (NYSE: AFL ) , which got clobbered (unfairly?) after a downgrade last week, and Texas Instruments (NYSE: TXN ) , which despite some challenges looks attractive to me in a weak semiconductor space. Either of those would be worthy of further investigation.
Or if you're short on time and want some pre-vetted ideas to buy today, head over to the Fool's Inside Value newsletter service and grab a free 30-day trial. You'll get full access to their complete list of recommendations, including their best ideas for new money now, with absolutely no obligation.