In normal times, an unemployment figure hovering within spitting distance of 10% would be bad news indeed. These are far from normal times, of course, and the stock market has been defying the laws of economic gravity for a while now. It's shot up sharply, even though nearly a tenth of the available workforce has no work. Indeed, the S&P 500 has tacked on more than 50% since its March lows.

Cash for clunkers 
The rally has been especially kind to seemingly vulnerable stocks such as JPMorgan Chase (NYSE:JPM) and Bank of America (NYSE:BAC). Both have pole-vaulted past the broader market on a year-to-date basis, despite their dim profitability prospects and exposure to the slings and arrows of a still outrageous financial sector. Toxic assets haven't evaporated, after all, and the feds are now scrutinizing Bank of America's acquisition of Merrill Lynch for signs of criminality.

Meanwhile, even the stock prices of high-quality businesses Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) and Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) have enjoyed a similar, market-surpassing trajectory. They now sport multiples that, to my cheapskate's eye, look fat and unhappy: Both trade at more than 30 times current earnings.

If the recovery isn't as robust as the market seems to think it will be, stocks with aggressive valuation profiles such as these may take a hard hit. That's also true of Research In Motion (NASDAQ:RIMM), whose fortunes are tied to the economic cycle via exposure to business spending.

Value or value trap?
Meanwhile, at the other end of the valuation spectrum ....

Hewlett-Packard and Schlumberger (NYSE:SLB) may not appear as richly valued. Still, following substantial price pops on the year, are these companies values or value traps? In Hewlett's case, dim growth prospects -- and its commodity-like business landscape -- haven't prevented its stock from having a 30% gain.

Schlumberger, on the other hand, literally is in a commodity business. After an increase of 45% so far in 2009, this company, too, seems priced for something close to perfection. And things aren't perfect!

Indeed, there's ample reason to believe that this recession may not be done with us yet.

Dialing for dollars 
During these strange days, you may be surprised to learn that I have my eye on Sprint Nextel  (NYSE:S), which is up about 130% on a year-to-date basis.

Rocked hard amid the downturn, Sprint last paid a dividend in 2007, and it has posted negative net income during each of its past two fiscal years. At a glance, the company looks similar to the stocks I "trash-talked" above. Yet one Fool's trash is another's treasure -- and Sprint looks like a diamond in the rough to yours truly.

At some level, after all, even flailing companies can make attractive investment prospects. Sprint isn't exactly flailing: It raked in more than $35 billion in revenue during fiscal 2008, netting out a gross profit of nearly $19 billion, and the company has been free-cash-flow (FCF) positive during eight of the last nine years. The sole miss occurred way back in 2001, and the past 12 months have seen a sharp FCF increase compared with 2008.

On the risk side of the ledger, I'm troubled by the company's recent debt offering. Yet even after factoring this fresh development into the analysis, Sprint appears to be trading at a steep discount to fair value. Indeed, using a normalized free-cash-flow figure and conservative estimates of earnings growth that account for Sprint's third-place status in a race that also includes Verizon and AT&T, my back-of-the-envelope valuation for the company comes in at roughly $7.50 a share. As I type, Sprint trades near $4.40.

About that envelope 
I didn't actually use one. I used the discounted-cash-flow (DCF) calculator that comes gratis with the Fool's Inside Value service. With pointers to the data you need, this no-muss, no-fuss tool comes in handy indeed when winnowing a field of contenders down to just those that appear worthy of further research.

And if you'd rather leave that work to others, not to worry: In addition to resources like the DCF tool, members have complete access to all of Inside Values' recommendations. Each comes with "buy-below" guidance -- the price below which our advisors feel the stock is strong buy. That way, you'll know amid these strange and volatile days whether a recommended stock's price remains right. If you think you'd like to give our picks a try, click here to grab a completely free report that makes the case for two great companies that, at their current prices, are also great investments.

This article was originally published Aug. 19, 2009. It has been updated.

Shannon Zimmerman  runs point on the Fool's Duke Street and Ready-Made Millionaire services, and he runs off at the mouth each week on Motley Fool Money, the Fool's fast 'n' furious podcast. A fresh edition of MFM hits iTunes each Friday, and you can listen by clicking here. (Link opens iTunes.) Sprint Nextel is a Motley Fool Inside Value recommendation. Google is a Rule Breakers pick. Apple is a Stock Advisor choice. You can check out the Fool's strict disclosure policy right here.