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How to Be Greedy When Others Are Fearful

By Keith Speights - Mar 10, 2020 at 7:33AM

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Three steps you can take to follow Warren Buffett's advice and achieve extraordinary long-term results.

I recently wrote about Warren Buffett's advice on how investors should respond to a super-contagious disease. You might think the super-contagious disease the billionaire business legend referred to was the coronavirus disease COVID-19. Instead, Buffett's advice, written to Berkshire Hathaway (BRK.A 0.10%) (BRK.B -0.03%) shareholders back in 1987, related to two other epidemics that he said occur from time to time in the stock market -- fear and greed.

Buffett's observation about these two "super-contagious disease" spurred one of his most famous statements of all time: "We simply attempt to be fearful when others are greedy and to be greedy only when others are fearful." This quote from the Oracle of Omaha is repeated often, or at least part of it is. But saying something is a lot easier than doing it.

With the stock market crashing, fear is definitely running rampant. Here are three steps you can take to be greedy while nearly everyone else is being fearful.

A man holds a cutout of an umbrella behind a balance scale, with a sack of money on one side and wooden blocks spelling FEAR on the other side

Image source: Getty Images.

1. See the market crash for what it is -- an opportunity

Perhaps the most important thing you can do right now is to see things are they really are. Sure, the market is tanking. But it's really an opportunity for investors who have some cash to deploy.

Keep in mind what Buffett said during the darkest days of the financial crisis that began in 2008 and extended into 2009, "It's been an ideal period for investors: A climate of fear is their best friend." In retrospect, his words turned out to be 100% correct. Investors who bought in late 2008 and early 2009 and held on for a few years made fortunes.

You might be tempted to hoard any cash you have with all of the uncertainty related to the coronavirus outbreak. That's a fearful stance, though. Buffett has noted in the past that "the best chance to deploy capital is when things are going down." 

A good case in point is Vertex Pharmaceuticals (VRTX 1.23%). The biotech stock has fallen nearly 9% off its highs. Unsurprisingly, Vertex hasn't seen any effects from coronavirus disease COVID-19 on any part of its business. Its supply chain is robust and hasn't been disrupted in any way. Vertex is a better bargain now than it was just a week ago -- and its growth prospects haven't changed a bit. That's a buying opportunity.

2. Look for quality

Once you see the current stock market climate as an opportunity, start looking for quality stocks. As Buffett once said, "Whether we're talking about socks or stocks, I like buying quality merchandise when it is marked down."

It might be tempting to buy shares of only the most beaten-down stocks. Don't. Remember the following advice from the legendary investor: "The stock market is a no-called-strike game. You don't have to swing at everything -- you can wait for your pitch."

What are the kinds of pitches to swing at right now? Again, my recommendation is to follow Buffett's approach to "buy companies with strong histories of profitability and with a dominant business franchise."

One of the top stocks that comes to my mind is Intuitive Surgical (ISRG 0.43%). The robotic surgical systems maker is highly profitable and has been for a long time. Its revenue and earnings continue to grow by strong double-digit percentages. Intuitive is the clear leader in the robotic surgical systems market.

Shares of Intuitive Surgical have fallen more than 17% below their highs from early February. Perhaps a few patients might delay elective surgeries because of concerns about getting COVID-19, but the long-term aging trends continue to be a huge tailwind for Intuitive Surgical. It's a quality stock that has taken an unwarranted drubbing.

3. Think long term

No matter what you do, think long term. Buffett was exactly right when he said, "If you aren't willing to own a stock for 10 years, don't even think about owning it for 10 minutes."

In October 2008, Buffett wrote an editorial in The New York Times. If you've forgotten, that was the month the stock market began a steep decline that eventually led to the S&P 500 index falling by 20%. In his editorial, Buffett wrote, "In the 20th century, the United States endured two world wars and other traumatic and expensive military conflicts; the Depression; a dozen or so recessions and financial panics; oil shocks; a flu epidemic; and the resignation of a disgraced president. Yet the Dow rose from 66 to 11,497."

He echoed that sentiment in his 2017 letter to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders, stating, "For 240 years it's been a terrible mistake to bet against America, and now is no time to start." Buffett's view was right in 2008. It was right in 2017. And it's still right in 2020.

By the way, thinking long term can even mean looking at stocks that have benefited from the COVID-19 scare in a different way. Gilead Sciences (GILD 0.90%), for example, has moved higher thanks to its antiviral drug remdesivir, which has shown promise in treating COVID-19. But an even more important reason to buy Gilead stock is the opportunities for the company's pipeline candidates, especially immunology drug filgotinib and long-acting HIV drug GS-6207.

Extraordinary advice

Buffett has dished out so much incredible advice through the years that I've only touched the surface with the quotes I've mentioned. I'll leave you with one more profound piece of wisdom from the legendary investor: "It is not necessary to do extraordinary things to get extraordinary results."

Being greedy when others are fearful doesn't take an extraordinary effort. All you have to do is follow the three steps outlined above to achieve extraordinary results over the long run. 

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Stocks Mentioned

Gilead Sciences, Inc. Stock Quote
Gilead Sciences, Inc.
GILD
$63.84 (0.90%) $0.57
Berkshire Hathaway Inc. Stock Quote
Berkshire Hathaway Inc.
BRK.A
$456,500.00 (0.10%) $468.99
Berkshire Hathaway Inc. Stock Quote
Berkshire Hathaway Inc.
BRK.B
$304.05 (-0.03%) $0.10
Vertex Pharmaceuticals Incorporated Stock Quote
Vertex Pharmaceuticals Incorporated
VRTX
$258.59 (1.23%) $3.14
Intuitive Surgical, Inc. Stock Quote
Intuitive Surgical, Inc.
ISRG
$219.07 (0.43%) $0.93

*Average returns of all recommendations since inception. Cost basis and return based on previous market day close.

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