Earlier this week, Warren Buffett raised some eyebrows by bluntly stating he's had a hard time finding good deals in the stock market of late.
Specifically, says the legendary investor:
[Stocks] have moved a long way. They were very cheap five years ago -- ridiculously cheap -- and that's been corrected. [...] We don't find bargains around, but we don't think things are way overvalued, either. We're having a hard time finding things to buy.
Of course, Buffett's right: Stocks were undeniably cheap five years ago as the financial crisis took hold, and ultimately pulled the broader market down by more than 50%. As I pointed out recently, however, Buffett in early 2009 even went so far as to say he enjoyed the decline, as it gave him the opportunity make new investments and increase his existing positions.
But after his seemingly disparaging remarks this week, I suppose it's hard to blame worried investors for wanting to run for the hills.
After all, Buffett's stock-picking prowess has helped him to grow Berkshire Hathaway's (NYSE:BRK-B)(NYSE:BRK-A) book value by an amazing 631,415% since he took over as CEO in 1964. So, as the thinking goes, when arguably the greatest investor of all time is having trouble finding bargains in this market, why should anyone else even try?
You have an ace up your sleeve ...
The thing is, just because Buffett can't find cheap stocks right now doesn't mean you should have the same problem.
You see, for all Buffett's knowledge, experience, and investing savvy, remember he explained in a July 5, 1999, Business Week report how small investors like you and I hold one significant advantage over deep-pocketed buyers like himself:
If I was running $1 million today, or $10 million for that matter, I'd be fully invested. Anyone who says that size does not hurt investment performance is selling. The highest rates of return I've ever achieved were in the 1950s. I killed the Dow. You ought to see the numbers. But I was investing peanuts then. It's a huge structural advantage not to have a lot of money.
Buffett went on to elaborate:
The universe I can't play in [i.e., small companies] has become more attractive than the universe I can play in [that of large companies]. I have to look for elephants. It may be that the elephants are not as attractive as the mosquitoes. But that is the universe I must live in.
Buffett was highlighting the fact his investment options are vastly more limited than our own, thanks to a combination of strict bylaws that govern what he can and can't invest in, along with the fact he needs to buy the stocks of much larger companies if he wants his investments to have a material affect on the now $288 billion behemoth that is Berkshire Hathaway.
The best part? At the time Buffett made those comments, here's what the S&P 500 had just done over the previous five years:
Look familiar? It should, because the S&P 500 as it stands has climbed nearly 180% in the nearly five years since hitting its lows in March 2009.
And while the folks at CNBC earlier this week didn't happen to ask Buffett what he'd be doing if he were a small retail investor today, something tells me he wouldn't hesitate to reiterate the aforementioned perks of not having to work with a capital base worth billions upon billions of dollars.
... so use it!
Now that we've established there's a silver lining to our comparatively tiny bank accounts, we'd be crazy not to take advantage of it!
That's why I try to spend some time each month exploring some of my favorite beaten down small-cap stocks -- you know, the ones Buffett wishes he could buy -- to see if their respective plunging share prices are really warranted.
Alternatively, you could take advantage of the minds of other great investors who, like an early Warren Buffett, don't have nearly as much money to work with just yet.
By purchasing shares of Markel (NYSE:MKL), for example, you're not only picking up a piece of another solid insurance and financial holding company, which is around 1/40 the size of Berkshire, but you're also effectively tapping into the long-term-oriented investing success of its president, CIO, and noted value investor, Tom Gayner.
What's more, shares of Markel currently look particularly attractive, trading at just 1.1 times book value, a discount it has maintained despite posting an impressive second-quarter earnings report in August, the first since finalizing its merger with fellow insurer Alterra Capital in May.
In the end, don't lose heart when the world's most prominent investors warn stocks aren't as cheap as they used to be -- even if that investor happens to be the awe-inspiring Warren Buffett.
The market as a whole might be fairly valued right now, but rest assured there are always deals to be found.
Fool contributor Steve Symington owns shares of Markel. The Motley Fool recommends and owns shares of Berkshire Hathaway and Markel. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.