GS) and General Electric ( GE), I must admit that the contrarian in me was tempted to join Mr. Buffett and buy every ultra-two-times-leverage ETF I could find. Fortunately, I hesitated and gave some more thought to what Mr. Buffett was really saying about the market. He isn't predicting a short-term market bottom by buying these iconic brands at prices only he could get. Instead, he's more reasonably arguing that predicting the market's direction over the long term is possible. So he's buying, at a discount to intrinsic value, great companies that can survive a prolonged recession, and he's ignoring short-term market fluctuations. The trick, of course, is that you need to have both a long-term perspective and patience. You also need to have the opportunity to buy at a discount to intrinsic value. Thankfully, as Wall Street pitifully looks to Washington, of all places, for salvation, plenty of top-notch companies just got thrown into the bargain bin. For those of us with time on our side (at least five years), it may be a good time to do some shopping. I'm not trying to call a market bottom here. I'm not capable of identifying a bottom, but we all have a reasonable shot at identifying undervalued companies that can ride out this storm. Two companies are at the top of my buy-list: First Solar ( FSLR) and Apple ( AAPL).
First, I must confess both were overvalued earlier this year, but each has dropped well over 50% recently. First Solar, a producer of thin-film photo-voltaic solar modules, is within reaching distance of the holy grail of solar electricity -- grid parity, which requires it to produce cells at a cost of $1 per watt. The company has sold virtually all its current production capacity through 2012, and it continues to expand rapidly. Unlike 1990s Internet companies, First Solar is also quite profitable. Analysts project 2008 EPS of $3.71 to grow a whopping 88% next year to $6.98. Yes, Goldman Sachs just downgraded it to a sell, but these are the same people who had a buy on it all the way down from $300. There are a couple smaller direct competitors coming on line soon, including startup AVA Solar, but they appear happy to follow First Solar's pricing while they soak up unmet demand that First Solar cannot yet satisfy. Also, with a $11 billion market cap, First Solar has the currency to buy the competition. There's also the issue of oil prices, which are either going to $40 or $200 per barrel, depending on which expert you believe. However, I'm comfortable with the bet that the "green revolution" in general, and solar specifically, are here to stay, regardless of future oil prices. At $128 per share, the definitive market leader in a booming industry now trades for only 18 times 2009 EPS. First Solar's balance sheet is also pristine, with $500 million in net cash. Simply put, it is the 800-pound gorilla of thin-film solar, but it is selling for a PEG of under 0.5. By 2010, I predict First Solar will have a $10 forward EPS, and it should trade at a 25 times P/E -- a $250 price target.
Apple is so well known that there's no value in going into a description of its products here. Instead, I draw your attention to its balance sheet, where $25 per share in cold hard cash is happily sitting. Apple currently trades at $89 per share. Net of cash, that's $64 per share. Analysts project EPS of $5.94 in 2009 -- a P/E multiple of only 11 times after you net out the cash. A 11 times forward P/E for Apple? I can't help picking up my iPhone and calling everyone I know to tell them to buy Apple. Long live Steve Jobs -- literally. If he has to leave Apple for health reasons, or worse, Apple will find new lows. With Steve at the helm, however, I'll hold Apple until its price recovers to $150. Given recent volatility, that could be as early as next month, but I'm willing to be patient.