Not my words. Those were Warren Buffett's. Back in 1974. He turned out to be right.

Earlier this decade, he warned about the insane valuations during the Internet bubble and the dangers of derivatives. Correct and correct again.

In October, he wrote an op-ed piece in The New York Times urging investors to start buying stocks, specifically American stocks. Aside from his recent shopping spree on behalf of his company, Berkshire Hathaway, he has started buying up American stocks for his personal account.

Certainly, we should follow his lead, right?

Not so fast.

The economic numbers are ugly. Unemployment is closing in on 10%, the annual deficit is adding more than a trillion dollars to our $11 trillion+ national debt, and our GDP is plummeting (down 5.5% in the first quarter). Yikes!

Who's right? Is now another time to invest and get rich? Or is the market a sucker's bet?

Buffett vs. the numbers
Before I answer those questions, let's be clear. This isn't a market-timing discussion. We Fools believe there's no proven way to consistently time the market. Even Buffett admits that he can't predict the short-term movements of the market. He thinks in years and decades, not days and months. After all, he's the guy whose favorite holding period is forever.

Back to the question at hand: Don't be surprised if both the numbers and Buffett are right. The economy and the stock market could get worse from here, but it could still be a great time to invest and get rich.


Remember, since we can't time the market, we're talking only about money you can keep in the market for the long term. Unlike Jim Cramer, we Fools have always said that money you need in the next three to five years should never be in the stock market. As the last year has shown, it's just too darn volatile for money you need in the short term. 

So, even if the gloomy numbers are right -- if the economy worsens, and the stock market drops even more over the next year or two -- we could be looking back three to five years from now, thinking that 2009 was a great time to invest and get rich.

OK, but how bad could it get?
Before you start putting some of your idle cash into stocks, know that it could get a whole lot worse. Fellow Fool Morgan Housel showed just how much worse in "How Low Can Stocks Go?"

Long story short, the S&P 500 has had long stretches in which it has seen average price-to-earnings ratios of around 8. Even after the freefall we've seen (but after this recent mini-rally), the S&P 500's average P/E (for companies with positive earnings) is 47. Wow.

Here's a place to start
Where, then, can we see some of this market cheapness that Buffett is seeing? Not so much in forward earnings -- Birinyi Associates forecasts the S&P 500's forward P/E ratio at 15. Of course, I don't trust analyst earnings estimates to begin with, and I certainly don't trust them in the current environment.

No, it's at the individual-stock level where my eyes pop. We have big-time companies trading at minuscule P/E ratios. When I start seeing P/E ratios in the neighborhood of single digits, I get very interested. Take a look at these companies (including some international plays):


P/E Ratio

BHP Billiton (NYSE:BHP)


Deere (NYSE:DE)


UnitedHealth Group (NYSE:UNH)


ExxonMobil (NYSE:XOM)


China Mobile (NYSE:CHL)


Safeway (NYSE:SWY)


Fluor (NYSE:FLR)


Source: Capital IQ, a division of Standard & Poor's.

Ah, but remember my warning earlier. P/E ratios are an imperfect measure of cheapness. They're just a place to start, because a company's future earnings can be very different from its trailing earnings. See the aforementioned losses in the financial sector. Investors looking at just the trailing earnings a year ago would have been tricked into a false bargain. Similarly, investors looking at retailers today should consider that their earnings just aren't going to be as strong in the next few quarters as they were in the past.

Should you buy?
Investors are clearly fearful of the future earnings of the stocks in the table above. That's why they're trading at such low P/Es. The market is throwing a sale, but it's up to you to determine what among its merchandise is worth buying.

A simple metric isn't going to cut it. That's a great place to start, but you have to do your research and determine what you believe a company's future earnings power will be. Only then can you judge whether a company is a value or a value trap.

Our Motley Fool Inside Value team spends its days (and sometimes nights) doing just such analysis. They break each potential stock recommendation down, determine its earnings power, and then figure out whether it's a good value. If you'd like to see the companies that have made our team's buy list, a 30-day trial is free. Just click here. There's no obligation to subscribe.

This article was originally published Dec. 4, 2008. It has been updated.

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Anand Chokkavelu has a P/E ratio of just 2.4 ... the market will wake up one day. He owns stock in Berkshire Hathaway. Berkshire Hathaway and UnitedHealth Group are Motley Fool Stock Advisor and Motley Fool Inside Value picks. The Fool owns shares of Berkshire Hathaway and UnitedHealth Group and has a disclosure policy.