Have you ever found a quarter just lying there on the ground at the shopping mall? How about a dollar bill trapped in the grate covering the storm sewer? Ever taken up the cushions on your couch and found a handful of change? We've all done it -- we've all found money, just sitting there, waiting to be grabbed. And if you've ever seen that money, picked it up, and said, "Cool, free cash!" then you have the makings of a value investor.

At its essence, that's all value investing really is: the act of finding free cash lying on the floor of the stock exchange. Hard to believe, isn't it? But it's true. Let's take a second to consider the quarter you found lying on the ground in the mall. Did you ever stop to think about how you ended up with that quarter? First of all, somebody else once had that money. And that person lost track of it. It may have slipped out of a pocket, fallen out of an open change purse, or was just plain dropped on the ground by someone who didn't think it was worthwhile to pick back up.

Once that quarter fell, it became fair game for anyone who bothered to look. Yet countless numbers of people passed by between the time the quarter fell and the time you bothered to retrieve it. Those folks either weren't looking for the free money or weren't interested in stopping to pick up such a small amount of cash. Whatever the reason, you were there, you seized the opportunity, and now you're better off for it. Their loss, your gain.

Value investing works in much the same way. Something triggers investors to sell their stakes in a company for far less than they're worth -- in essence dropping quarters left and right in an attempt to "rescue" as many dollar bills as they can. A value investor can take advantage of that needless panic, often finding a treasure trove of found money in the discard pile.

Who drops the cash?
Much of the time, the largest institutions are most guilty of throwing away good money. Money managers like Marsh & McLennan's (NYSE:MMC) Putnam Investments or banks such as Washington Mutual (NYSE:WM) and Bank of America (NYSE:BAC) are all likely to drop quarters while they worry about the folding currency. When you're dealing with hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars, a lot of pocket change tends to get lost.

Mutual funds and institutional investors are governed by guidelines and prospectus requirements that do not affect the individual investor. For example, when mortgage giant and Motley Fool Inside Value selection Fannie Mae (NYSE:FNM) recently cut its dividend to bolster its capital base, mutual funds that invest in companies with stable or rising dividends were forced to sell. Regardless of Fannie Mae's real value, some institutions that owned the stock had to sell to keep in line with their prospectus.

Index funds such as Fidelity's Spartan 500 Index (FUND:FSMKX) and the Spiders (AMEX:SPY) ETF are also hampered. As index funds, they are required to mirror the index they track as much as possible. It didn't matter that cigarette giant Altria (NYSE:MO) was a screaming buy in early 2000, back when the fear of lawsuits and the multi-state tobacco settlement had reached a fevered and irrational pitch. The index trackers simply could not back up the trucks, cram their funds with Altria stock, and wait for the recovery that has now hit full swing. That would have broken the prospectus that governs their behavior.

Why value wins
These institutions -- 401(k)s, pension plans, mutual funds, and university endowments -- make up a huge chunk of the market. Every cent they invest is governed by rules that simply do not apply to individual investors. And each of these rules, no matter how much they're meant to protect fund investors, can and do force those institutions to occasionally make bad decisions.

As a value investor, you're free to buy, sell, or hold based upon the company's intrinsic value contrasted with its market price. If a stock is on sale, you can buy it. If it looks likely to crash because it's dramatically overvalued, you can sell it. Your rational mind, not your emotions or some obligation to a prospectus, guides your decisions. This gives you, the little guy, a tremendous advantage over the big-money institutions that make up most of the market.

Since so much of the money in the market is put there by these institutions, a lot of money is dropped on the floor of the exchange. A few quarters dropped here and there by a single fund may not mean much, but multiply that by the thousands of funds that are forced to make bad decisions. The total can add up to a significant stash of found cash for willing individuals.

Want help finding the loose change lying on the floor of the stock exchange? Click here for a free 30-day trial to The Motley Fool's own coin collector, Inside Value.

This article was originally published on March 11, 2005. It has been updated.

Fool contributor and Inside Value team member Chuck Saletta owns shares of Bank of America. The Motley Fool is investors writing for investors .