The mission of Motley Fool Inside Value is simple: We want to find companies trading at prices less than their fair value. In some cases, companies are below fair value simply because the market has failed to appreciate the sustainability of a company's competitive advantage. At other times, companies fall below their fair value during a crisis, when panicked investors flee. The latter case has the potential for quick returns, but also comes with greater risk. When looking at companies in crisis, such as Symbol Technologies (NYSE:SBL) recently, it can be challenging to distinguish between a company just suffering a flesh wound and one on its deathbed.

The recent departures of the company's CEO and CFO amid falling profits and revenues are reminiscent of rats fleeing a sinking ship. But Symbol's radio frequency identification (RFID) technology has value, the company is still profitable, and if the RFID market actually delivers on its promise, Symbol could do well. The question for investors is whether the stock price is overdiscounting the risk of the restructuring. If so, investors will profit.

Consider NutriSystem (NASDAQ:NTRI), the provider of weight-management products and services. A few years ago, the company was fighting against Atkins and suffering amid bad publicity and lawsuits because of diet plans that included fen-phen, a diet drug now banned by the FDA. Now that the company has turned around and is on a growth path, the stock is up more than 600% this year, and 2,000% over the past two years. Not every turnaround is this successful, but multibaggers over the course of years are easily within reach. The difficulty, though, is determining who will survive and prosper. With that goal in mind, here are some of the issues I consider when trying to profit from panic.

In a crisis, cash gives a company the time and flexibility to survive a rough patch and reorganize its business. It's critical to get a good feeling for the degree to which cash on the balance sheet and future cash inflows are able to cover future cash outflows. Of course, the event causing the crisis often reduces operating cash flows, so using historical cash flow numbers can be deceptive. Instead, start with historical numbers and come up with a pessimistic approximation of the extent to which the negative event will impact cash flows, and how much cash outflows can be reduced over the short term through, say, delaying capital expenditures. If the company is close to the edge, there's a good chance it will topple over. In that case, avoid it.

Even if cash flow looks good, another liquidity issue to consider is debt. Even if it seems clear to shareholders that the company has enough cash flow to survive, banks and other lenders can be skittish. So it's a good idea to examine absolute levels of debt and future debt maturities. If the company is highly leveraged, or a substantial portion of its debt is coming due in the next few years, then the company may be unable to roll that debt over to future maturities. Often, it's not the slow draining of cash resources that leads to bankruptcy, but rather a large debt maturity that the company is unable to roll over or repay.

Asset strength
When it comes to turnarounds, the balance sheet can count more than the income statement. I've already talked about debt. Another factor to consider is the strength of the assets, because all assets are not equal. Cash is the best asset, since it gives maximum flexibility. Other good assets include securities and non-depreciating physical assets that can potentially be sold, such as real estate, which can be tricky to value since accounting rules tend to make it significantly undervalued on the balance sheet.

There are also bad assets that generally cannot easily be sold or generate cash. Such assets include goodwill and tax assets. Goodwill is useless because it's intangible, while tax assets can only be converted into cash when the company has operating profits -- something scarce during a crisis. So when considering a company's survival prospects, it's best to heavily discount the value of these assets.

Consider iPass (NASDAQ:IPAS), a stock that sells enterprise connectivity solutions for mobile workers. The company's stock price has fallen about 80% over the past few years -- iPass generates most of its revenue from dial-up, while the world is shifting to broadband. But the company is still significantly cash-flow positive and has cash on its balance sheet equivalent to almost half of its market capitalization. That's no guarantee that iPass will be able to turn the situation around, but its cash flows and strong balance sheet give it time and flexibility.

The competitive position
Preferably, we buy a beaten-down company not just for its assets but also for its future operating performance. Ideally, the company is suffering from temporary bad news, but its long-term competitive position is intact. Maybe the company will show poor results for a year or two but is likely to prosper after that time. Perhaps the company has suffered a permanent setback but is still strong enough to be a viable business.

For example, many stocks fell after the terrorist attack of Sept. 11, 2001. American Express (NYSE:AXP) was hit particularly hard. The company had operations in one of the World Trade Center buildings that collapsed, and fears of a travel slowdown drove the stock price down. But the American Express brand was still strong, the company still had strong earnings, and it seemed unlikely that these events would have a significant long-term effect on one of the strongest companies in America. Consequently, I was able to buy the stock in the high $20s, and within months, the stock was back above $40. Other travel industry companies like hotelier and car-rental agency Cendant (NYSE:CD), casino resort operator MGM Mirage (NYSE:MGM), and cruise operator Carnival (NYSE:CCL) provided similar opportunities.

Bringing it together
A good example of all these issues is National Health Investors, a REIT that primarily owns nursing homes. As you can see in this chart, National Health was flying along quite happily when it hit the perfect storm. The Balanced Budget Act of 1997 cut Medicare revenues to its nursing home operators, the companies that lease National Health's buildings. Consequently, many operators went bankrupt. Plus, it was affected by overbuilding and labor shortages. Finally, lawsuits in Florida were destroying the business there.

Confronted with these challenges, National Health collapsed like Mr. Bean sparring with Evander Holyfield. I became interested, and bought shares at $15. This was a wee bit early, since it cratered below $5 when the company discontinued its dividend only six months later. But this wasn't a technology company. It had solid real estate assets in a time of falling interest rates. Cash flow was still positive. The entire industry was unlikely to vanish: Somehow, someone would take care of the elderly. So I bought more at $5, and it started to look like the industry was recovering.

But National Health owed money to the banks. And the banks panicked, demanding repayment. So National Health was forced to sell convertible preferred shares at a time when the stock was low, diluting existing shareholders. I bought more in the $6 range. Cash flow was still good, nursing home operators were coming out of bankruptcy, and the balance sheet, never really overleveraged to begin with, now looked quite clean. It was difficult to see how National Health could fail.

Now, four years later, the stock is trading around $28. That's lower than it would be if it hadn't been forced to issue the convertible, but it's still a decent return. For months, value investors bought in the $6 range, and those investors have seen a 400% return. What's more, since National Heath has a $1.80 dividend, investors at $6 are now seeing an annual dividend of 30% on their original investment. I sold out at $22.

The key points in this case were that cash flow was positive, leverage was reasonable, the assets were strong, and there were signs that the industry would turn around. Even then, the debt maturity hurt shareholders significantly, because nobody wanted to lend to companies in the sector. This is why, when analyzing these turnaround situations, it is critical to consider debt maturities.

Evaluating these factors can help you find and identify turnaround plays that lead to extraordinary profits. For instance, in 2002, both Philip Durell, Inside Value's chief analyst, and I independently recognized that Providian Financial had a decent chance of rebounding. I bought at about $4, while Philip bought for $2 and change. It's now around $18. If you want to learn about what Philip sees as the great value plays right now and read all of his recommendations, a free 30-day trial is available.

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

Richard Gibbons , a member of the Inside Value team, still owns shares of Providian, but, now that people have stopped panicking, he's sold some of his position. He also owns shares of iPass, but none of the other stocks discussed in this article. Cendant is a Motley Fool Inside Value recommendation. The Motley Fool isinvestors writing for investors.