If you missed the best week to buy stocks, you might be kicking yourself. I know I am. The market is, after all, up more than 60% from its March 9 low.

But just as it was unwise to panic-sell when everyone around us was losing their heads, it's equally unwise to panic-buy now that the market is in rally mode.

The sudden switch in investor sentiment -- from stocking up on gold, potatoes, and ammunition in early March to "everything's going to be OK" just months later -- is reason enough to be skeptical of this rally.

The key to investing success, as always, is being patient and continuing to buy quality companies trading at good values. This rally, however, has largely been led by inferior companies that had been heavily shorted and left on death's doorstep.

Trying to hitch a ride on them now may be tempting, but proceed with caution.

Garbage-pail kids
Following a string of notable bankruptcies, from retailers like Circuit City to once-vaunted financial institutions like Lehman Brothers, investors rightly began to wonder who would be the next to fall.

International Paper (NYSE:IP) and MGM Mirage (NYSE:MGM), for example, were at one point trading at $4 and $2, respectively. Both companies have been under tremendous pressure to shore up capital and responded by selling assets, refinancing existing debt, and -- in the case of International Paper -- slicing the dividend by 90%.

Since March 9, International Paper's shares have gained 517% and MGM's 309%. These are just two examples of the "dash to trash" in this market rally. This doesn't take away from either company's stunning financial footwork to remain going concerns, but it also doesn't mean now's the time to buy their stocks, as their recoveries have already likely been priced in.

Consider the profile of the 951 U.S.-based companies with current market caps of more than $300 million whose shares have gained more than 100% since March 9:



Net Income (LTM)

Return on Capital



($0.6) million


Source: Capital IQ, as of Dec. 21; LTM = last 12 months.

Put simply, this rally has been largely led by weak hands. While it may be tempting to jump on this bandwagon now, these are the worst stocks to buy today, especially because we're not completely out of the economic woods just yet. If things take a turn for the worse again, chasing these stocks could be a very costly mistake.

Instead, investors (as opposed to speculators) should focus on profitable companies that generate free cash flow, that have a track record of rewarding shareholders with efficient use of capital, and that have strong balance sheets.

These are the types of companies that will emerge from macroeconomic turmoil even stronger than before.

Names, please
Despite the recent rally, there are still many quality companies trading at reasonable valuations that are worth further research, including the following.


Price to
Free Cash Flow

Return on Equity

Biogen Idec (NASDAQ:BIIB)



Home Depot (NYSE:HD)



Hewlett-Packard (NYSE:HPQ)






Charles Schwab (NASDAQ:SCHW)



Source: Capital IQ, as of Dec. 21.

Given their size, you shouldn't expect any of these companies to become an eight-bagger in a matter of months, but you can sleep a little better at night knowing that your management team isn't slashing dividends or selling assets just to pay the bills.

Foolish bottom line
After sustaining significant losses over the past year, it may be tempting to chase after struggling companies that have had huge run-ups in this rally, but do your best to not lead yourself into that temptation. If buying distressed stocks was a gamble in early March, it's an even bigger gamble now that many have soared in price. Another downturn in the market and they could be going from heroes back to zeroes.

The market's still a volatile place, so remember to stay patient and focused on buying the companies that actually turn a profit, have strong balance sheets, and are led by top-notch management. Begin by building a watch list of stocks that you'd love to own if they fall another 10% to 20%. This way, you're ready to strike when the market gives you the opportunity.

Want to get started? You could do worse than to start your research with Netflix, one of Fool co-founder Tom Gardner's recommended core holdings for Motley Fool Stock Advisor. It generates free cash flow consistently and is led by one of the country's top CEOs in Reed Hastings, who is also the founder of the company.

If you'd like to learn about the other stocks we're recommending at Stock Advisor, a free 30-day trial of the service is yours. Just click here to get started.

Already a member of Stock Advisor? Log in at the top of this page.

This article was first published on July 7, 2009. It has been updated.

Fool analyst Todd Wenning hopes you're having a pleasant day. He owns shares of Home Depot, a Motley Fool Inside Value recommendation. Schwab is a Stock Advisor selection. The Fool's disclosure policy takes out the trash.