People love a hot story, and the financial markets always oblige. But by the time you hear about it, you've usually already missed out on some of the most significant gains.

Much of the popular appeal of financial television results from the way it treats every day as a significant event. Whether the market finishes up 10 points or down 10 becomes a critical issue in each and every market session. And when certain types of investments heat up, the media promises that you'll be the first to hear about it.

The last to know
In reality, however, by the time most trends hit the financial pages, they're already old news in the investing world. Consider a market many have talked about lately: gold. The yellow metal has surged again recently. The bullion-tracking ETF SPDR Gold Trust (NYSE: GLD) has benefited directly from this move, and gold producers Newmont Mining (NYSE: NEM) and Barrick Gold (NYSE: ABX) are expected to post earnings this year that are between 20% and 40% higher than they were last year, largely because of the metal's rise.

But the fact is that gold's recent performance is just the most recent part of a much larger bull market that arguably started back in 2001, when gold was trading below $300 per ounce. Those who bought gold back then have almost quadrupled their money. Even if gold prices continue to rise, you still wouldn't do nearly as well as those first investors -- the price would have to move up to more than $4,000 an ounce to earn the same return, while the same rise would turn a 2001 investment into a 13-bagger.

Buy while it's warming up
That doesn't mean you have to get in on the ground floor of every investment you make. For instance, many believed last year that problems at hard-hit banks Citigroup (NYSE: C) and Bank of America (NYSE: BAC) would eventually bring down their businesses, forcing them into the same predicament that led to the demise of Lehman Brothers. Yet by the spring of 2009, things had perked up significantly -- and while the share price had risen, investing even a few months after their lows would still have given you nice gains.

Often, though, you'll end up catching the top of a trend that's about to reverse. When oil rose to nearly $150 in mid-2008, major oil producers Chevron (NYSE: CVX) and ConocoPhillips (NYSE: COP) seemed well positioned to put up monster numbers for the foreseeable future. But when the bottom fell out of the oil market, so did their corporate earnings, leading to major declines in their stock prices. Even with energy prices having moved higher over the past year, those stocks are still well below their 2008 highs.

Release your inner skeptic
When you see a hot news item, ask yourself why it's running now. If people tout gold at $1,150 per ounce, were they even more enthusiastic when it was trading below $300? When an analyst suggests Google stock at $600, were they just as excited back in November 2008, when it was trading for less than $250 -- or are they just jumping on the popular bandwagon now?

It's easy to let media hype convince you that you have to own an investment right now. But before you let emotion rule over your common sense, take a moment to consider whether there's any profit left. There are much bigger gains to be made from discovering the next big opportunity before it makes the front pages than by trying to eke out the last few percentage points from a bull market that's already happened.

For smart stock ideas without the hype, take a free trial of our Motley Fool Inside Value service and learn more about companies that offer great value for investors.

This article was originally published on Feb. 21, 2008. It has been updated by Dan Caplinger, who owns some gold coins but doesn't own shares of the companies mentioned in this article. Google is a Motley Fool Rule Breakers selection. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. The Fool's disclosure policy is hot!