The desire to follow the crowd is a simple truth of human nature. But when it comes to investing, the momentum that builds up around popular stocks breeds irrationality. Stocks on the rise rarely rise forever.

If that's true for stocks that have seen impressive run-ups, it's also true on the flip side. The history of the market has shown that investors tend to buy or sell when everyone else is doing likewise. Stocks are sold en masse just as irrationally as they're bought -- if not more so.

Is it that easy, then?
When a stock is being dumped indiscriminately, should you jump in with those finely honed contrarian instincts of yours?

Here's my wholly dissatisfying answer: sometimes, but not always. Let's explore a few recent and startling examples of stocks on the slide.


Price Change,
March 2005
to March 2006

Price Change,
March 2006
to March 2007

Empire Resorts (NASDAQ:NYNY)



DG FastChannel (NASDAQ:DGIT)



Inphonic (NASDAQ:INPC)



Data provided by Capital IQ, a division of Standard & Poor's.

Empire, DG FastChannel, and Inphonic did not enjoy a good 2005. But even with the recent surge for large-cap companies, investors have been bullish about these small caps over the past year -- enough to send those three stocks to one-year doubles!

In these cases, being a contrarian and scouring the discard piles would have yielded astounding rewards.

For an ultimate example, look at the early public life of Netflix. A few months after its IPO, the market started to fear the advent of similar rental services from Blockbuster, Wal-Mart, and Initially offered at $15 per share, Netflix stock plummeted to close to $3. This was a tough environment, but investors who bought at the low, confident in Netflix's long-term potential and community-based recommendation system, have been very happy with their contrarian play -- they are sitting on a seven-bagger for their pains.

Gravity ... what a phenomenon
But it's not as simple as being contrarian and looking for 52-week lows or steep price declines. We've probably all held or bought companies that we were sure would rebound, only to have the entire investment vanish to almost nothing. For every sliding stock that turns into a multibagger, several more fizzle. Here are some recent examples of the "down, downer, downest" phenomenon.


Price Change,
March 2005
to March 2006

Price Change,
March 2006
to March 2007

Martek Biosciences (NASDAQ:MATK)



Spectrum Brands (NASDAQ:SPC)



Comstock Homebuilding (NASDAQ:CHCI)



So how do you play this game?
The legendary investors espouse one simple rule: Buy great companies at a good price. Don't speculate on the hot stocks that are on everyone's lips. As Peter Lynch wrote in One Up on Wall Street, "If I could avoid a single stock, it would be the hottest stock in the hottest industry, the one that gets the most favorable publicity, the one that every investor hears about in the carpool or on the commuter train."

Instead, buy the stocks that have been beaten down unfairly -- because of a bad quarter, a change of CEO, a patent expiration in an otherwise deep pipeline. The market tends to overreact and sell these stocks just as irrationally as it buys the hot stocks everyone else is buying. Find companies with solid fundamentals, and make sure the market overreaction is not justified.

But just how do you do this? These three rules can help:

  1. Find companies that have high or improving returns on capital.
  2. Look for innovation in the company's product lines or business model.
  3. Determine that the company has a strong competitive advantage compared with others in the industry.

Protect your portfolio
Netflix had all three of these things going for it, even during the sell-off I discussed above. But you don't have to find newly public small caps to be a contrarian investor.

Colgate-Palmolive (NYSE:CL) has been around for 200 years, but it was a stock on the slide about a year and a half ago. After one bad quarter, marked by higher ad spending and raw-material costs, Colgate's bottom line plummeted. Short-term negativity made the stock price decline by more than 26%, but a savvy investor who saw Colgate's history and longstanding potential could have gotten in right at the bottom.

For companies with solid fundamentals and competitive advantages, dips are just a way for investors to buy more.

Motley Fool Inside Value analyst Philip Durell recommended Colgate-Palmolive to subscribers of the newsletter when it was trading in the mid-$40s in late 2004; it's now above $66. As a contrarian investor who always waits for the right price, Philip has been able to keep his entire Inside Value portfolio beating the market by more than 6 percentage points.

For free access to his current value-priced stock recommendations, several of which are still trading at a discount to what he believes are their intrinsic values, click here for a free one-month trial. There's no obligation to subscribe.

Stocks on the run can be dangerous to follow. But don't go chasing stocks on the slide, either. By finding great companies with solid fundamentals, you'll limit your risk in a volatile market.

This article was originally published on June 30, 2006. It has been updated.

Fool sector head Shruti Basavaraj has experienced sliding before, mostly on thin ice. Shruti does not own shares of any company mentioned in this article. Netflix and are Stock Advisor picks. Wal-Mart is an Inside Value pick. The Fool's disclosure policy has a non-skid coating.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.