Warren Buffett said back in October that he was buying U.S. stocks. In his widely publicized editorial in the New York Times, he didn't seem all that concerned about our ailing economy. And in times past, he's been right. But since October: 

  • The U.S. consumer confidence index hit three consecutive all-time lows.
  • Trade activity has collapsed, with shipping rates from Asia to Europe hitting zero for the first time ever.
  • Citigroup (NYSE:C) was brought to its knees -- its shares falling 75% since Buffett's article.
  • The weak economy pummeled energy prices along with bellwethers like ExxonMobil (NYSE:XOM).

That's scary news, but I'd imagine Mr. Buffett is aware of all of the above. Yet the world's smartest investor is probably still buying. What the heck is he thinking? Isn't he concerned about the ongoing banking crisis, trillion-dollar bailouts, and skyrocketing unemployment? How could he see opportunity in a time like this? 

Looking into the future
Buffett is buying because he can see the future. He can see the future not because he secretly spent a billion dollars to construct H. G. Wells' time machine in his basement. Nor did he hire Google to build an algorithm that can predict the future. His smarts are based on a simple way of viewing the markets and valuing businesses that anyone can grasp. 

Buffett realizes that you buy stocks for the future, not the present. When you buy a share, you should do so with thoughts of owning that business for decades, not just the next few years. He also knows that the driving impulse of a capitalist society is to grow. Armed with this knowledge, he bought stocks like PetroChina (NYSE:PTR), Coca Cola (NYSE:KO), and The Washington Post when no one wanted them, and made quite a killing at it -- with his Berkshire Hathaway-fueled personal fortune worth $62 billion dollars at last count.

Buffett really does see the future. And the future he sees now is drastically different from what the pundits would have you believe. Buffett sees a future in which banks function on their own, in which the U.S. innovates, in which the economy grows, and in which stocks are valued based on normal growth prospects.

Fear is your friend
When you take this sort of long-term view, the horrific market indicators above are actually your friends because they lower prices of the stocks you are interested in. Fear is your buddy. Doom and gloom are close pals. Economic devastation is your friend. In fact, you should want the market to freak out because there is no other easy way to get a fantastic price for a business. Of course, I'm speaking in an investing sense -- obviously a recession is no fun on a day-to-day basis. But fortunes are built in times like these.  

Why should you care about a few years of poor results if someone is willing to sell you that business for a song? In two or three years, you could be sitting pretty while the seller will be left with only remorse. 

But of course, we want to be choosy with our investments in these turbulent times, so we suggest you focus on:

  • Companies with good track records (earnings per share growth, return on equity)
  • Companies with strong balance sheets (low debt-to-equity ratios)
  • Companies highly rated by the Motley Fool CAPS community (four stars or better, out of five)

I fired up the handy CAPS screening tool and found 86 companies with at least a $5 billion market cap, long-term debt-to-equity under 50%, an EPS growth rate of 10%, and return on equity above 20%. Here are three results I find interesting:

Company Name

CAPS Rating (out of 5)

Market Capitalization ($B)

LT Debt-to-Equity Ratio

EPS Growth Rate (last 3 Yrs)

Return on Equity (TTM)

Becton, Dickinson & Company (NYSE:BDX)

*****

          16.3

16%

16%

25%

ITT (NYSE:ITT)

*****

            7.6

15%

31%

26%

Abbott Laboratories (NYSE:ABT)

****

          67.6

50%

20%

28%

At our Motley Fool Inside Value service, we spend every day ignoring the market panic and searching for the stocks that nobody wants, but that offer significant upside potential. We constantly evaluate businesses based on their future prospects in a normal world rather than in the scary present.

Try a free trial of our service today at no obligation. With it you'll get our five best ideas for new money now, as well as all the recommendations on our scorecard.

Andrew Sullivan has no financial interest in any of the stocks mentioned in this article. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy. Coca-Cola is a Motley Fool Inside Value and a Motley Fool Income Investor selection. ITT is a Motley Fool Inside Value pick.