As an investor, you probably know that stocks are priced based on the market's expectations for the future. But if you look at things in more depth, you'll realize that those expectations themselves can be broken up into three parts:

  • Proven performance
  • Natural growth
  • Strategic direction

The first two are rather straightforward. You can find a company's proven performance at nearly any financial website. Additionally, just by getting pulled along by inflation and real growth in the overall economy, most companies have some level of natural growth.

But that third item -- strategic direction -- is a tough nut to crack. A company's strategic direction lets a business grow faster than the economy by increasing either the overall size of its market or its share of the existing pie. It's what most investors think of when they think of growth. While the other two parts can usually be projected fairly easily, the true value of strategic direction can only be seen in hindsight. By that point, unfortunately, it's nearly always too late for investors to profit.

Cheat the system
Even though you can't figure out ahead of time what a company's growth strategy will really be worth, you can get a good handle on what the market thinks. Simply subtract the other two parts from a company's market price. The remainder is the market's current estimate of the growth strategy's worth.

With that information in hand, you can make better investing decisions. In essence, the less you pay for a company's growth strategy, the better your chances of winding up on top. After all, if the strategy comes cheaply, then even if that strategic growth doesn't materialize, the company you're holding is still worth something. And if the strategy does pay off, then you've likely got yourself a company worth more than you paid for it.

That, in a nutshell, is how we value investors gain our edge. We certainly don't ignore growth. After all, no less a value investing luminary than Warren Buffett admits that "value and growth are joined at the hip." Instead, we simply steadfastly refuse to overpay for the growth we expect to see from our companies. By doing that, we ensure that a larger chunk of that growth finds its way to our pockets.

Put it to practice
To make this work for you, you need to know:

  • A company's market price and its most recent earnings (adjusted, if necessary).
  • Long-run projections of inflation and economic growth.
  • What rate of return you expect from your investment.
  • How to perform a discounted earnings calculation (see this article for an example).

With that information, you can get a handle on how much of a company's total market value is made up of each of those three parts. This table shows my rough results for a handful of firms (assuming a 12% required rate of return and 4.8% annual "natural" growth):

Company

Recent
Price

Trailing
EPS

Proven
Perf.

Natural
Growth

Strategic
Direction

Perc.
From
Strategy

Pfizer (NYSE:PFE)

$26.08

$2.58

$21.50

$16.05

($11.47)

(43.99%)

Costco
(NASDAQ:COST)

$61.85

$2.30

$19.17

$14.31

$28.37

45.87%

Exelon
(NYSE:EXC)

$77.04

$2.78

$23.17

$17.30

$36.58

47.48%

Qualcomm
(NASDAQ:QCOM)

$45.03

$1.55

$12.92

$9.64

$22.47

49.90%

Comcast

$27.64

$0.92

$7.67

$5.72

$14.25

51.55%

Apple
(NASDAQ:AAPL)

$138.10

$3.16

$26.33

$19.66

$92.10

66.69%

Yahoo!
(NASDAQ:YHOO)

$26.70

$0.51

$4.25

$3.17

$19.28

72.20%

On one end sits Internet portal Yahoo!. While the company may very well have a bright future ahead of it, its growth strategy makes up more than 70% of its stock price. Because of that, it has to execute its strategies almost flawlessly just to justify its current price. On the other end, thanks to lingering questions about its recalled painkiller Bextra and concerns about its new product pipeline, pharmaceutical titan Pfizer trades extremely cheaply. As it stands, the market seems to expect it to more or less tread water, and actually lose ground to the overall economy over time. With that in mind, ask yourself these two questions:

  1. Which one would you rather own if its growth strategy stumbled?
  2. Which one looks like the market's expectations would be a lower hurdle to clear?

If you answered "Pfizer" to both those questions, congratulations! You've got the makings of a value investor. Any growth Pfizer may see is available far more cheaply than the growth available from Yahoo!. That gives you a better shot at protecting your money if the company continues to struggle and a better shot at reaping the rewards as an investor if it does manage to grow.

Get started now
At Motley Fool Inside Value, we know that the way to earn superior investing returns is to buy growth when it's cheap. That's why Pfizer is one of the selections in our market-beating service. In the future, either its strategic growth will materialize or it won't. If it does, we stand to benefit. If it doesn't, we've got one heck of a backstop protecting our money. If this is the way you'd like to invest, join us today. If you'd like a sneak peek before committing, that's OK, too. Your 30-day free trial starts here.

This article was originally published on Jan. 25, 2007. It has been updated.

At the time of publication, Fool contributor and Inside Value team member Chuck Saletta did not own shares of any company mentioned in this article. Pfizer is an Inside Value selection. Yahoo! and Costco are Motley Fool Stock Advisor picks. The Fool has a disclosure policy.