I don't know about you, but every time I hear one of the talking heads on CNBC say, "The market's overvalued" or "The market's oversold," I shake my head in disbelief. How anyone can get an accurate read on the valuation and growth prospects of all 10,000+ companies in the publicly traded universe and then sum them all up as being "expensive" or "cheap" in a 30-second sound bite is beyond me.

Maybe it's because they're the Wall Street Wise Men and I'm just a simple Fool, but I find it terribly difficult to put a value on more than one company at a time. With an individual company, I can calculate its enterprise value and its growth rate. I can count the cash in its bank account and match that up against the debt on its balance sheet. I can listen to its CEO on the company's earnings conference call and decide whether the guy sounds honest or like he's selling snake oil.

But the whole market? Why, the market doesn't even have a CEO.

Market shmarket
Honestly, though, it doesn't matter because I don't intend to invest in "the market," anyway. Why would anyone settle for the average 10.5% annual market returns when it's possible to make so much more?

Investing legend Peter Lynch, former manager of the Fidelity Magellan Fund, earned 29% annual returns for his clients during his tenure there from 1978 to 1990. More recently, Bill Miller, head of the Legg Mason Value Trust, has outrun the S&P's average returns by a full 7% over the past 10 years. And here at The Motley Fool, our own Philip Durell has been beating the S&P with a total return of better than 11.3% -- four points above the market's overall return since the Motley Fool Inside Value newsletter began last year.

What's the secret to achieving annual investment gains that rival the achievements of some of the greatest investing minds on the planet? Well, in grade school we used to refer to it as "wandering eyes." In business, though, we call it "studying the masters." It means imitating the successful strategies devised by those who've come before us and constantly tweaking and improving on them to suit our own style.

Consider a few examples.

Buy what you know
If there's one quote or investment maxim that's most commonly associated with Peter Lynch, it's to invest in companies that you're already intimately familiar with, whose stores you shop in, whose products you use every day. After all, why spend days and weeks researching an unfamiliar company when you have practical knowledge of another?

That's the kind of logic that Lynch followed when buying companies like Dunkin' Donuts (now part of Allied Domecq, which was acquired by Pernod Ricard), which ultimately made him a multimillionaire. And it's the kind of logic that led us at Inside Value to recommend TurboTax publisher Intuit (NASDAQ:INTU) to our subscribers. Considering that the stock has beaten the S&P average by 37 percentage points since we recommended it in March, the tip is helpful.

Seek out hidden value
Some companies are so large and so complex that they put off your ordinary investor. Even a seasoned Wall Street analyst, one would think, probably has a hard time making heads or tails of the SEC filings of a monstrous financial house the likes of Freddie Mac (NYSE:FRE). Complex companies, with multiple moving parts, are arguably the most difficult of all to pin a "real value" on. And where few are certain of what a company is truly worth, therein lies opportunity.

However, true value doesn't remain hidden forever. While legendary economist Eugene Fama may have been overstating the case when he developed his "efficient market" theory, the fact of the matter is that, given enough time, Wall Street will ultimately figure out what any company is really worth. The trick in value investing is to beat Wall Street to the punch, find the value before others do, buy ahead of the pack, and, ultimately, be the one holding the shares when the slowpokes from Wall Street come wanting to buy. It's this style of investment, one imagines, that led Bill Miller to buy up shares Aetna (NYSE:AET) before it rocketed up -- now one of his fund's top-10 holdings.

Profit from panic
Listen, I love quoting the investing masters as much as any financial writer does. But let me confide a pet peeve to you: I'm tired of abiding by the unwritten rule that the only things worth quoting are things said by men who are either old or dead. We young'uns come up with the occasional zinger too, you know. Take these two great quotes by the Fool's own senior investing editor, Bill Mann:

  • "The best time in the world to buy a great company is when everyone else is afraid of it or hates it."
  • "I'd suggest to you that the time to be investing is when everyone else is running away in terror."

Words to live by -- or at least invest by. And they match up with another of the investing philosophies we follow at Inside Value: There's profit to be made in panic. When the suits on Wall Street are running scared, afraid their bosses might catch them owning a stock that's garnering negative headlines in consecutive issues of The Wall Street Journal, they're not thinking too much about the company's fundamentals -- they just want out. Now.

As individual investors, however, we're our own bosses. No one's going to fire you for buying an unpopular stock. Sure, the spouse, kids, coworkers, and neighbors may chuckle a bit at your Foolishness, but if the company is sound, who will have the last laugh?

I suspect there was some bemusement among Wall Street's Wise Men when word got out that Bill Miller had made perpetually overvalued Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) one of his fund's top holdings. Although this is one of the most popular stocks on the market, it's not uncommon to hear strict value hounds guffaw at its mention. Philip Durell certainly received his own fair share of tsk-tsking and head-wagging when he recommended Advance America (NYSE:AEA), a taboo payday loan provider that was dealing with an investigation by North Carolina regulatory officials. But Philip believed the company to be nearly 30% undervalued.

Who will be next? Perhaps H&R Block (NYSE:HRB)? It's certainly a strong franchise and Wall Streeters have cut 10% off the company's market cap since July. But rest assured that if there's a hidden value and a large margin of safety in this stock, you'll be the first to know -- long before the pinstripe-and-wingtips crowd even begins looking.

Click this link and join us for a free one-month trial in our search for value. If you like the service, we'd be proud to have you stay with us as a charter member. If not, cancel and we'll gladly refund the entire unused portion of your subscription. No questions asked. No strings attached.

This article was originally published on Feb. 8, 2005. It has been updated.

Fool contributor Rich Smith has no position in any of the companies mentioned in this article. The value of The Motley Fool's disclosure policy is hard to overestimate.