Investing 101
Stock-Picking Strategies

When it comes to personal finance and the accumulation of wealth, few subjects are more talked about than stocks. It's easy to understand why: playing the stock market is thrilling. But on this financial roller-coaster ride, we all want to experience the ups without the downs.

In this tutorial, we examine some of the most popular strategies for finding good stocks (or at least avoiding bad ones). In other words, we'll explore the art of stock-picking - selecting stocks based on a certain set of criteria, with the aim of achieving a rate of return that is greater than the market's overall average.

Before exploring the vast world of stock-picking methodologies, we should address a few misconceptions. Many investors new to the stock-picking scene believe that there is some infallible strategy that, once followed, will guarantee success. There is no foolproof system for picking stocks! If you are reading this tutorial in search of a magic key to unlock instant wealth, we're sorry, but we know of no such key.

This doesn't mean you can't expand your wealth through the stock market. It's just better to think of stock-picking as an art rather than a science. There are a few reasons for this:
 
  1. So many factors affect a company's health that it is nearly impossible to construct a formula that will predict success. It is one thing to assemble data that you can work with, but quite another to determine which numbers are relevant.

  2. A lot of information is intangible and cannot be measured. The quantifiable aspects of a company, such as profits, are easy enough to find. But how do you measure the qualitative factors, such as the company's staff, its competitive advantages, its reputation and so on? This combination of tangible and intangible aspects makes picking stocks a highly subjective, even intuitive process.

  3. Because of the human (often irrational) element inherent in the forces that move the stock market, stocks do not always do what you anticipate they'll do. Emotions can change quickly and unpredictably. And unfortunately, when confidence turns into fear, the stock market can be a dangerous place.

The bottom line is that there is no one way to pick stocks. Better to think of every stock strategy as nothing more than an application of a theory - a "best guess" of how to invest. And sometimes two seemingly opposed theories can be successful at the same time. Perhaps just as important as considering theory, is determining how well an investment strategy fits your personal outlook, time frame, risk tolerance and the amount of time you want to devote to investing and picking stocks.  There are two basic risk balancing options:  value investing and growth investing.

The best way to define growth investing is to contrast it to value investing. Value investors are strictly concerned with the here and now; they look for stocks that, at this moment, are trading for less than their apparent worth. Growth investors, on the other hand, focus on the future potential of a company, with much less emphasis on its present price. Unlike value investors, growth investors buy companies that are trading higher than their current intrinsic worth - but this is done with the belief that the companies' intrinsic worth will grow and therefore exceed their current valuations.

As the name suggests, growth stocks are companies that grow substantially faster than others. Growth investors are therefore primarily concerned with young companies. The theory is that growth in earnings and/or revenues will directly translate into an increase in the stock price. Typically a growth investor looks for investments in rapidly expanding industries especially those related to new technology. Profits are realized through capital gains and not dividends as nearly all growth companies reinvest their earnings and do not pay a dividend.

At this point, you may be asking yourself why stock-picking is so important. Why worry so much about it? Why spend hours doing it? The answer is simple: wealth. If you become a good stock-picker, you can increase your personal wealth exponentially. Take Microsoft, for example. Had you invested in Bill Gates' brainchild at its IPO back in 1986 and simply held that investment, your return would have been somewhere in the neighborhood of 35,000% by spring of 2004. In other words, over an 18-year period, a $10,000 investment would have turned itself into a cool $3.5 million! (In fact, had you had this foresight in the bull market of the late '90s, your return could have been even greater.) With returns like this, it's no wonder that investors continue to hunt for "the next Microsoft".

Here is an outline of the basic theories of stock investment:

NOTES ON THE STOCK MARKET
FINANCIAL VOCABULARY
Investing and Fundamental Analysis Speculation and Technical Analysis Building a Portfolio Portfolio Diversification Lessons from Warren Buffett