Over the past 60 years, the United States has seen, and survived, 10 recessions (not counting the one we could be in at present). From the shortest one -- six months in 1980 -- to the two that spanned 1973-1975 and 1981-1982, we've muddled through and come out the other side. In between each, we've experienced, on average, almost five years of expansion.

So while we could be in another recession right now, and we're definitely in a bear market, I'm excited!

Pardon me while I wipe my chin
First, we have a whole bunch of people running around in panic mode crying, "The sky is falling!" They don't want to hold stocks during a recession, so they're willing to sell them -- cheap.

Second, the news media fans the flames of panic with constant stories about weakening consumer spending, failing banks, and the specter of recession.

Third, we've got a handful of really hated companies. Specifically, I'm talking about the banks, thrifts, and builders that caused and are feeling the fallout from the mess we're in.

What does that add up to? Bargains.

Like a kid in a candy store ... and the candy's on sale
One option is to search among the beaten-down banks. In that space, Wachovia Bank (NYSE: WB) might make an intriguing play. It's apparently in talks to merge with Morgan Stanley, which might allow it to move in and fill some of the gap that's bound to be left after the disappearance of Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers. That's a bit speculative, but potentially rewarding.

There's also BB&T (NYSE: BBT), with a trailing return on equity of 13.7% and return on assets of 1.3%. Add in non-performing loans of far less than 1%, and this one begins to look tasty.

And if you don't want to invest in a bank, but still want exposure to the financial sector, consider Visa (NYSE: V). It takes a fee from the millions of credit card transactions executed daily, without being on the hook for the amounts charged. So-called tollbooth companies can make excellent investments.

Then there are (still) the retailers, trying to survive declining same-store sales and decreased consumer spending. Any companies that can buck that trend should be the best of their breed. Like, say, Best Buy (NYSE: BBY), which just reported a 4.2% increase in same-store sales and a 12% jump in revenue. Slightly higher operating costs contributed to a decrease in net income, but the company is positioning itself to come out of any recession firing on all cylinders.

Even some big-name companies have been dragged down. ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM), the dealer for our gasoline habit, is one such example. The stock has been falling for the past four months, but it's now selling at its lowest P/E level in the past three years.

Finally, consumer products and tech have gotten interesting lately. Giant Colgate-Palmolive (NYSE: CL) has recovered well from its recent lows, while NVIDIA (Nasdaq: NVDA) is off significantly from its highs. Talk of lower consumer and company spending in 2008 may have helped drive their prices down. For my money, I'm more interested in companies I can buy today to own in 2013 -- so thanks for the bargains, Mr. Market!

"When Miller and Nygren speak, people listen"
Investing in the above industries might seem counterintuitive now, but legendary value investor Bill Miller of Legg Mason says au contraire.

[Several] years ago, everyone wanted tech and Internet and telecom stocks.... The time to buy them was in 1994 or 1995, when they were cheap. But in 1994 or 1995, people wanted banks and small and mid caps, which should have been bought in 1990, and well, you get the picture.

Bill Nygren, another great value investor, agrees. Looking at the current economic situation, he wrote: "What usually happens is that suffering industries begin to recover, the next crisis comes from somewhere least expected, and the cycle of creating new investment opportunities starts anew. We have no reason to believe it will be different this time."

These gentlemen know that investing today in areas that aren't well-liked will position your portfolio for the eventual end of this bear market. There will be another bull market. Right now, we have the chance to grab some good companies while they're cheap.

So what are you going to do? Stop investing in stocks altogether, worried that things will be different this time? Or listen to master investors (not me -- Miller and Nygren!) and look at some opportunities?

I know what I'm doing.

Finding value
If you'd like some help in figuring out whether a beaten-down company is worth investing in, take a look at our Motley Fool Inside Value service. Philip Durell and his team look in downtrodden areas of the market, just as Miller and Nygren advise.

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This article was first published on Feb. 12, 2008. It has been updated.

Jim Mueller owns shares of NVIDIA, but no other company mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of Best Buy and Legg Mason. Best Buy is a recommendation of both Motley Fool Stock Advisor and Inside Value. Legg Mason is a choice of the latter and NVIDIA is a choice of the former. BB&T was chosen at Income Investor. The Fool's disclosure policy believes, deep down, that the market will turn around.