As the market relentlessly calls into question virtually every portion of your stock portfolio, even the most independent-minded investor can start doubting himself. You wonder, did I make the right decisions when I bought these stocks? To answer yourself in any rational fashion, you need to be able to judge whether circumstances, not just psychology, have changed for your holdings.

In times like these, strong fundamental analysis becomes key to your conviction. With this in mind, welcome to our five-part series on the how-to of fundamental analysis: what it is, how to read a balance sheet, and how to read an income statement.

As the pundits rant about Russia, rate cuts, devaluation and deflation, you're probably looking at your now-droopy portfolio thinking, "This is the same bunch of stocks I owned happily a month ago. How did the world get so ugly so fast?"

It's a good question, because chances are your companies haven't changed much. It's investor psychology that has.

You could try to chase that psychology by day trading. Or you could opt out of the daily grind altogether, on the theory that you know your companies' prospects as well or better than anyone. In the long run you'll be vindicated. Psychology dissipates, fundamentals endure.

The Internet -- long hailed as a day-trader's dream -- actually provides the weapons investors need to do serious company analysis. Sure, the Net can give traders the unprecedented ability to skim teenies off the volatility

du jour

from the comfort of their living room. But it also provides investors with nearly unlimited access to the financial data needed for fundamental analysis of a company's future.

To understand the difference between pure fundamental analysis a la

Warren Buffett

and its day-trading cousin, technical analysis, think of the market as an open-air bazaar with stocks as items for sale. A technical analyst would wade into the shopping frenzy with eyes seeking the crowd. He would ignore the goods for sale altogether.

When the trader notices a group gathering in front of the booth peddling, say, cookware, he'd scramble over to buy as much inventory as possible, betting that the ensuing demand would push prices higher. The trader doesn't even care what a cast iron skillet is as long as some "greater fool" at the back of the line is willing to buy it for more than the trader paid.

The fundamentalist, on the other hand, takes a more sedate approach. The fundamentalist's eyes would be solely on the products before him. He would dismiss the other shoppers as an emotional herd of fools who couldn't tell a good deal if one slapped them in the face. Once the crowd dissipated from the cookware booth, he might casually wander over to examine the wares.

First the fundamentalist might try to assess the value of the metal contained in a particular skillet if melted down and sold as scrap in order to establish a base price for the object. In the stock market this might be something like figuring out the book value or liquidation price of a company.

Next, the fundamentalist would probably take a close look at the quality of the workmanship to see if it's going to hold up over time or crack on its first use, just like a stock analyst checks a company's balance sheet for financial soundness.

Then, he might try to get a handle of the productive capabilities of the skillet in terms of meals cooked or people fed in a manner akin to forecasting future earnings from a company's income statement.

Finally, the fundamentalist would combine all of the data on the asset to come up with an "intrinsic value," or a value contained in the object itself independent of the market price. If the market price were below the intrinsic value, the fundamentalist would buy it. If above, the fundamentalist would either sell the skillet he already owned or wait for a better deal.

Fundamental analysis is a lot more work, but therein lies its appeal. Crowd psychology can be a powerful yet fickle force in the markets. As a technician, you've got to stay constantly alert or risk getting trampled under feet when the herd reverses direction, as it has lately.

Diving in up to your elbows in the guts of some company to diagnose its prospects, on the other hand, takes the kind of surgical skill and diligence that many traders would just as soon bypass on their way to the rush of more instant chiropractic gratification. As a fundamentalist, however, when you finally do buy a stock that represents a good value, you largely insulate yourself from the day-to-day whimsy of human impulse in favor of longer-term results.

The intrinsic value approach to the markets is based on a couple of big assumptions. The first is that the intrinsic value of an asset can differ from its market price. Purists of the "efficient market hypothesis" find this concept ridiculous. They feel that market price is the

only

reflection of true value for an asset and reflects all information available about its future prospects at any point in time.

Detractors say the efficiency theory might hold in an ideal laboratory setting. But go out in the real world and things get a little sticky. Information flows get delayed, altered or incompletely disseminated. And more importantly, human beings act on their personal, often illogical, perceptions about the world around them. How else can you explain events like Holland's classic 17th century tulip fiasco where citizens delirious with speculative fever bid prices for single bulbs up to an equivalent of $40,000 today? Or, more recently, the

Netscape

(NSCP)

IPO where traders paid $70 per share or more for a company that has barely showed positive income to this day?

Assuming you accept the notion of intrinsic value, the second big assumption of fundamental analysis is that, even though things get out of whack from time to time, the market price of an asset will gravitate toward its true value eventually. Again, probably a safe bet considering the long upward march of quality stocks in general despite regular setbacks and periods of irrational exuberance. The key strategy for the fundamentalist is to buy when prices are at or below this intrinsic value and sell when they get overpriced.

Figuring out the fair value of a company is the tough part. There are no magic formulas, and a complete understanding of the entire process could take an entire career to develop (and for some analysts, it seems that two lifetimes wouldn't be enough). For the beginning investor not inclined to do fundamental research, it pays to rely heavily on professional sources like

Value Line

,

S&P

stock reports (www.personalwealth.com), and research reports from a broker to get a good fundamental picture of a given company. Why go it alone when there are drones out there who've already done much of the work for you?

That said, there's still a lot that the individual investor can learn about the fundamental process in terms of understanding an analyst's methodology, terminology, and key indicators, that can make you a more confident consumer of financial information and hopefully a better investor to boot. We're tackling some of these issues and presenting them to you in a form that should help increase your investing skills.

In part two, we take a look at reading balance sheets: where to find them, what they mean, and what key figures you should look at when analyzing a company. Then, in our third installment, we cover the basics of income statement analysis. In the fourth segment, we pull it all together, and review some good sources for extra reading.

Finally, we wrap the series up with an ongoing Q&A to address any specific reader questions. While we can't give you an MBA's worth of financial analysis, we can go a long way toward removing some of the mystery surrounding the process.