Some things we know in our heads, and other things we know in our bones. Great investors understand, deep in their bones, the importance of seeking value, while people like me often pay it lip service.

I write about money for a living. I know many principles of successful investing; I can proclaim them with great confidence; and I really and truly believe them. For example:

  • Invest for the long haul.
  • Over long periods, stocks outperform most other investment vehicles.
  • Look for companies with lasting competitive advantages.
  • Focus on value; invest in great companies when they're undervalued.

Still, every now and then, I've been sidetracked. For instance, after many years of wanting to own a company because I admire it so, I may just jump in and buy some shares of it, even though it may not be trading at a very attractive price.

If you're anything like me, it helps to remember what you should pursue when investing. Here's an explanation from Century Management's Arnold Van Den Berg from a recent issue of Outstanding Investor Digest:

It's kind of like if you went to the best part of town and could buy a house for less than you could in the worst part of town. ... In the stock market, most people don't understand value. And there are a lot of people who are buying stocks for reasons other than value. Therefore, you wind up with these valuation discrepancies.

That echoes the thinking of Philip Durell, advisor for Motley Fool Inside Value:

As value investors, we believe that the market can overreact to news, both good and bad. We take a long-term view of a company's business, so we dig into price disparities as we scan for punished companies that the market may have driven down for no good reason. ... A good working definition of a value stock is one that can be bought for a price that offers a big enough margin of safety that if you are wrong in your analysis or if there are fundamental shifts in a company's strategy, you are protected from losing much money.

Application time
If you're ever tempted to snap up shares of an impressive company at a less-than-impressive price, hoping to turn $1,000 into trillions of dollars, think again. Remember that a lot of terrific companies are out there, and most of us can only reasonably own a small subset of them. It's best to seek out the ones trading at low valuations, because they tend to offer the most upside potential. For example, in both 1992 and 1993, you and I might have agreed that IBM (NYSE:IBM) was a terrific company with great long-term prospects, despite some temporary hiccups.

If you don't want to click through to the link, here's the short version: IBM was down but not out. In July 1993, its stock dropped all the way to $10 per share. Today, it's north of $100. It was a great value play back then, but I, along with many others, didn't act on it.

So now that your dedication to value-oriented investing has been reaffirmed, what should you do? Seek out healthy, growing, and undervalued companies. That's easier said than done, though. You might do it by spending many hours on discounted cash flow calculations, projecting future earnings, and applying discount rates to them. But that would still be an estimate, wouldn't it?

You might also use stock screens to turn up candidates for future research. At Yahoo! Finance, for example, I recently screened for companies with net profit margins of at least 10%, trailing-five-year earnings growth rates of at least 10%, and price-to-earnings ratios (P/Es) of 20 or less. The first two factors help me zero in on attractive companies (growing briskly with robust profit margins), while a relatively low P/E can indicate a cheap-to-fair valuation. Here are some companies that popped up from that screen:



Profit Margin

Earnings Growth





Cisco Systems (NASDAQ:CSCO)








Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT)




Ensco International (NYSE:ESV)




Western Digital (NYSE:WDC)








Data from Yahoo! Finance.

This bunch looks promising, but it still requires a lot of further research, since the list is based solely on three quantitative factors. It's not a direct line to dirt cheap dream stocks. Remember, for example, that P/Es tend to vary by industry, so a P/E of 15 might be steep for an automaker but low for a software developer. Energy P/Es can be cyclical, too, so you should never rely on screens alone.

Seek guidance
If you don't have the time to devote to stock analysis, consider tapping the expertise of those who do, such as our Inside Value team. I invite you to take advantage of a free, no-obligation trial of Inside Value for 30 days, which gives you full access to all past issues and in-depth write-ups for every recommendation.

In the meantime, continue to seek out solid values whenever you spend your dollars.

This article was originally published on April 19, 2007. It has been updated.

Longtime contributor Selena Maranjian owns shares of Microsoft. Garmin is a Motley Fool Global Gains and Stock Advisor selection. Microsoft is a Motley Fool Inside Value pick. The Motley Fool is Fools writing for Fools.