Selecting shares to recommend is fraught with challenges – one of the largest, as we've said before – is time frame.
As news cycles speed up, and with financial and share price data at our fingertips, the society-wide trend towards instant gratification is quickly encroaching on the sharemarket.
No one knows with any confidence where the S&P/ASX 200 will finish today, let alone this week, month or year. That doesn't stop a lot of pundits guessing. Humans – like nature – abhor a vacuum, so the tendency to grab onto a snippet of opinion makes us feel better. The same can be said of broker "target prices", by the way
I'm sure most brokers would much prefer to avoid those prognostications, but the clients ask for target prices because they make them feel somehow more secure.
Success … so far
Last January in this space, I wrote ''Top stock picks for 2012''. At the time, I made the point that “No one can foresee the future, and an arbitrary 365-day period holds no particular value. I have no way of knowing what events will impact these businesses in the coming year, nor what investors will make of those events and how share prices will move as a result.”
The point was that while we all like to think of a new year as a new start, and the end of a year as a good time to review our progress (both true, by the way), successful investing is about the long term – usually much longer than 12 months at a time.
The selections in that article, then, were businesses that looked to be good value at the beginning of 2012. It seems the market agreed with me. In ''Taking stock of the year'', readers may remember the quartet I'd selected at the beginning of 2012 had gained 22.1 per cent, compared with the market's advance of 17.1 per cent, both including dividends. While others may be tempted to do a victory lap, we're going to stick to our philosophy of investing for the long term, and not claim victory just yet.
With 2013 well under way, we thought we'd repeat the exercise, and nominate four large, well-known companies we think represent good value at the beginning of 2013.
QBE Insurance (ASX: QBE)
The sole underperformer from last year's list earns a place again this year. The company had a tough year, but the reasons we found it attractive in 2012 are still present. Specifically, the company is at the bottom of its earnings cycle, exacerbated by historically low US bond yields, and some earnings downgrades.
With the worst now hopefully behind it, investors are still pricing the shares as if profits won't improve. That's a mistake, in my view, and while we'd have liked the share price to have rebounded before now, patience can be a valuable investing skill to learn, and one we think will pay off for QBE shareholders.
Computershare (ASX: CPU)
Another company with cyclical earnings, Computershare has struggled in a lacklustre equity market and reduced mergers and acquisitions activity over the past couple of years, as well as taking an earnings hit from lower than average interest rates.
When activity recovers and rates move back to more normal levels, Computershare will benefit, and recent acquisitions should really start to pay off through increased profits.
CSL (ASX: CSL)
The global player in blood products continues to go from strength to strength, but its shares never look inexpensive. In that sense, it joins some of the strongest and best businesses here and overseas that always look cheap in hindsight, if not at the time.
With a growing market around the world, and significant opportunity in developing countries (most notably China) CSL's share price might be volatile if it misses investor expectations from time to time, but the underlying business is very strong.
News Corp (ASX: NWS)
While most Australians think of News Corp's print newspapers when the company's name comes up, the strength of News Corp is in its US and other international businesses, particularly its filmed entertainment division (20th Century Fox) and its cable television properties (including Fox in the US and BSkyB in Britain).
While the company will undergo changes as its print businesses are separated from the entertainment assets at some time in the not-too-distant future, that's likely to make the business more valuable as investors can more transparently understand and value each piece.
As was the case last year, our caveat remains. We're not market-timers at The Motley Fool, and have no predictive powers to foresee what the share prices of these businesses will do by some arbitrary future date – nor do we believe anyone else reliably can.
Instead, these are four large, well-known businesses that have bright futures and share prices that give investors a good chance of solid returns well into the future. That's Foolish investing at its best.
Attention: If you're looking for companies with a lifetime of success, dividend-paying businesses can be a great place to start. Foolish, dividend-loving investors and BusinessDay readers alike can click here to request a Motley Fool free report entitled Secure Your Future with 3 Rock-Solid Dividend Stocks.
Scott Phillips is a Motley Fool investment analyst. He owns shares in QBE. You can follow Scott on Twitter @TMFGilla. The Motley Fool's purpose is to educate, amuse and enrich investors. This article contains general investment advice only (under AFSL 400691).