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Investors are well aware that the past two years have been kind to the markets. All of the major U.S. indexes are pushing through new highs, corporate earnings have rebounded sharply from their Great Recession lows, and many of the go-to economic measures (unemployment, durable goods, GDP) have shown consistent signs of improvement.

But much of this has been due to "quantitative easing" from the Federal Reserve -- a policy that will likely soon reverse. That means you'd be wise to prepare for a change in how you invest.

A Lesson in Greek

Fund managers often cite two factors when evaluating their stock market performance: alpha and beta. Simply put, an investor achieves alpha when their stock pick performs well due to improvements in that specific business or some internal catalyst -- better earnings, management actions, activist intervention and the like.

The complement to alpha is beta, or stock performance dictated by movement of the overall market. For example, if the Dow Jones industrial average (^DJI) rises 3 percent in a month and your personal stock portfolio rises around that level, without any major company-specific developments, then that performance is due to beta.

The two aren't always mutually exclusive -- a healthy economy helps a well-run business increase its earnings -- but lately, investors have enjoyed more profits from beta than alpha.

In the coming months and years, that pattern may change quickly.

Be Prepared to Adapt

Last week, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said the Fed may ease up on quantitative easing, the bond-buying program it has employed since the Great Recession. What that means for many companies is a slowing of all of the cheap money that has helped fuel growth in the face of a tepid economy and a nervous consumer base.

In the program's most recent iteration, the Fed has been buying $85 billion in bonds every single month. Whether one agrees with the Fed's quantitative easing policy, it's hard to argue with the market performance. The S&P 500 (^GSPC) is up more than 140 percent since its March 2009 low. Since the beginning of this year, the Dow is up more than 14 percent.

What if the quantitative easing program ends? How can you structure your portfolio to earn alpha instead of beta?

Choose your stocks more carefully

We have been playing the most fun game in the market: Everyone's a winner. But what happens when the game skews toward rewarding skill? The diligent and cautious prevail. As Warren Buffett famously says, "Only when the tide goes out do you discover who has been swimming naked."

It's more important now than ever to buy great companies at reasonable (preferably cheap) prices. This might mean avoiding the high-profile, sexy investments -- such as Apple (AAPL) and Google (GOOG). There is an army of analysts following these stocks, and you may not find any bargains.

Instead, use your role as a retail investor to your advantage. Look at smaller, under-followed companies. Niche manufacturing companies, business leasing companies and franchise-heavy businesses are examples of less interesting and often rewarding investments.

Choose a company with a solid management team and stable earnings growth over the past couple of years. Avoid stocks that have taken on large amounts of debt without boosting performance. When rates rise, some of these companies might be in a pinch if cash flows aren't enough to pay creditors. Don't obsess over the big winners; protect your downside instead. This seems obvious, but the best thing you can do in the stock market is not lose money.

Without turning this into investing 101, take a look at what you are paying for a stock versus the value you receive. Take Netflix (NFLX), for example. Sure, it's a great company with a market-dominant position. We can safely say that streaming on-demand content over the Internet is the future of the industry. But at today's stock price, you're paying $75 for every $1 the company is set to earn in 2013, with the expectation that the company will pay you back (with interest) over the coming years. Regardless of the innovation and strengths of Netflix, that's a hefty premium with a lot of to-be-determined risk factors. The market may not continue to carry Netflix higher and higher. At some point the company's intrinsic value will dictate the stock price.

Overwhelmed?

It may sound a bit daunting, but there are infinite resources at your disposal via the Internet for finding great stock picks. You just need to do the homework. Investors can continue reaping the benefits of stocks, but it won't be like shooting fish in a barrel.

Work on your aim, and by the time the Fed shuts off the faucet completely (don't expect this for quite some time), you'll have a well-protected portfolio that is beta-irrelevant and (hopefully) earning that alpha.

Motley Fool contributor Michael Lewis has no position in any stocks mentioned. You can follow him on Twitter @MikeyLewy. The Motley Fool recommends Apple, Google and Netflix. The Motley Fool owns shares of Apple, Google and Netflix.


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19 Comments

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radareastbay

well you all wanted big goverment, obama is the guy. he has bernanke the head of the federal reserve bank print money 85 billion . one to buy our own debt treasury notes 40 billion, in the bond market, two to print money 45 billion that goes into the stock market. . goverment intervention world wide bond markets debt, and stock markets. so whats your 401 k worth. your on a goverment cocaine high. enjoy it while it last.

June 25 2013 at 1:09 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
Mingo

There is no simulas program ,what it is is more of the same as the last one .All we did was take the people money and give it to the fat cats to cover their loss .There was NO jobs created ,There were no Homes saved and by all means no thanks from those who robbed america . Id be willing to help some markets but only those creating jobs and I mean many jobs here in america ,after all its our money Gm still owes america at least 48 billion and they are having a hard time paying us back even though they have a profit. the thing that should make americans mad is GM built a factory in South America and moved more jobs to Asia wo

June 24 2013 at 5:05 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
cpo1514

Time to get out the Lib leeches that never had a job & get the Bush folks back at the controls. Perhaps barry can go home to Chicago and be the Organizer has was soooo successful at?

June 24 2013 at 4:56 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
toosmart4u

Hey the facts22 you must remember it did all start with Bursh Jr. Ben Bernanke is chairman of the federal reserve one who was APPOINTED by bush jr. and still in office.

June 24 2013 at 4:45 PM Report abuse -4 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to toosmart4u's comment
jdykbpl45

Barry re appointed him. He is barry's boy.

June 24 2013 at 5:46 PM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply
tpfen821

Then he'll die a martyr

June 24 2013 at 4:42 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
thefacts22

I advise HP to find new financial experts....The article is lopsided with some undertones of reality......There was never a good economic indicator,the Market was in the hands of gamblers....I know them and know the tricks.....and made some money.....Bernanke will get spook and perhaps will continue pumping the market.....but if that inflated market continues we will be in REAL big problems....Most Stocks will have to come down at real levels,and I doubt the Market will go over avg of 11000 to 12000.....

June 24 2013 at 1:32 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
hustonlaw

Of course, just as we betaed our way up in the helium balloon, we will probably beta our way down riding the tapered anchor. A better strategy may be holding cash until the debris stops falling; then buy 5% cd's.

June 24 2013 at 1:31 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
pdbliz

If I rob a bank,,,,or do anything illegal.....I GO TO JAIL............

Our own Federal goverment is breaking the law,,,by over looking the ILLEGAL PROBLEM,,,,,,,,,,,,IT IS TIME TO STOP THIS OUT OF CONTROL GOVERMENT,,,ONE WAY OR THE OTHER.......What if we all ,,,stop paying income tax,,,,,,,,,,Will the goverment put us all in jail.......Who will pay for the illegals then.????
PEOPLE,,,IF WE GET TOGETHER,,,STICK TOGETHER,,,,,,,WE CAME STOP THE GOVERMENT CORRUPTION.!!!!!!

June 24 2013 at 1:08 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
pdbliz

I have the best invester of all.....................A BEAN CAN,,,WITH MY MONEY IN IT...
OR A OLD GLASS FRUIT JAR,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,I use to listen to the old folks talk about this,,,,,,,I BELEIVE THEY KNEW MORE THAN WE DO ,,,,,,

June 24 2013 at 1:05 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Jetncat

Or don't invest at all. I see nothing good coming from years of Fed manipulation. If you aren't in it don't go near it. Buy silver instead

June 24 2013 at 12:51 PM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply