Many investors spend a lot of time looking for stocks that will be profitable investments. With the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to identify the companies investors wish they had bought when their stocks were relatively cheap.

When you're looking ahead, of course, it is a lot more difficult to pick those companies out of the crowd.

The next best thing to trying to analyze companies yourself is to obtain the research reports that are written on those companies by investment analysts. As their title suggests, their job is to study individual companies in great detail and to make judgments about the investment potential of those firms.

Major brokerage firms, such as Merrill Lynch and Prudential-Bache, have dozens of analysts, many specializing in a particular area, such as electronics, furniture or mining.

Analysts often are people with degrees in business and accounting who, over a period of time, become experts on a group of companies that comprise a particular industry.

For instance, Wallace W. Epperson Jr. of Wheat, First Securities in Richmond is highly regarded as an expert on the furniture industry. Robert A. Frank at Alex. Brown & Sons in Baltimore is an acknowledged expert on real estate. And Susan C. Schmierer of Prudential-Bache is widely known for her knowledge of retail trade.

In the Washington area, there are many analysts who specialize in local companies. They include Eliot H. Benson of Ferris & Co., Charles T. Akre Jr. at Johnston, Lemon & Co., Michael L. Mead at Scott & Stringfellow and May G. O'Leary at Baker, Watts & Co.

They and hundreds of other analysts write frequent reports on all kinds of companies. Frequently, a firm's research is directed to institutional clients, but retail customers can often get access to the reports.

An investor interested in a specific company can ask his broker if his firm has published a report on the company. If so, the broker usually can get a copy for the client. If not, most libraries will have copies of the Standard & Poors or the Value Line investment surveys, providing similar information on individual companies.

If an investor is interested in a specific industry, such as telecommunications or forest paper products or even the brokerage community, reports are often prepared by industry analysts and also may be available to the retail customer.

These days, in the era of global markets, several large New York brokerage houses also have offices overseas where analysts prepare reports on foreign companies. They, too, make interesting reading.

Finally, investor relations officers at many companies may be willing to send potential investors copies of reports that have been written on their firms. It is to be hoped the firms would send out all reports -- unfavorable as well as favorable.

In truth, most reports tend to be favorable, perhaps because analysts seem to spend more time looking for worthwhile investment opportunities than they do looking for losers.

But, in fairness, many analysts are quick to report bad news about a company and quick to downgrade a company's investment rating, even to put out a sell signal, if they think the stock is bombing.

All in all, investors trying to improve their research would find it useful to see what some of the analysts are thinking.

European investors in Ameribanc Investors Group of Annandale continue to voice their displeasure over the decision by Ameribanc trustees to issue $28.75 million worth of preferred stock to a Washington investment partnership headed by former U.S. ambassador J. William Middendorf II and Cyrus A. Ansary.

Ameribanc Investors is the parent of Ameribanc Savings Bank of Annandale, a thrift institution with 30 retail banking offices in Virginia.

Members of the Ameribanc board have received a flock of letters from individuals identifying themselves as European investors objecting to the issuance of the preferred stock and suggesting that unless the deal is canceled, the Europeans will take legal action.

One of the letters, a copy of which was sent to this writer, was signed by "Raymond P.R. Risler II, authorized representative for Rifrinvest Inc. in the Principality of Liechtenstein (incorporated in the Republic of Panama)."

Bill Savage, the head of Ameribanc Investors, said that a check of company records did not show Risler to be a shareholder, even though Risler said he was.

The dispute between the Europeans and Savage revolves around the desire of the Europeans to cash in their chips by persuading management to sell Ameribanc. Peter S. Zwart, a European investment adviser and former chairman of the Ameribanc board, had arranged a sale to NCNB Corp. in North Carolina but it was effectively sidetracked by Savage's opposition.

The Middendorf-Ansary investment will give the partnership a 29 percent stake in Ameribanc and will reduce from 35 percent to 24 percent the shares represented by Zwart. The reduction will make it much more difficult for the Europeans to promote a sale of Ameribanc.

In his letter, Risler says the preferred stock, issued at the equivalent of $11.50 a share, was given to the partnership at a "give-away price." He bases his argument on Savage's comments at the annual meeting that the stock was worth from $20 to $25 a share.

However, one Ameribanc observer noted that the preferred stock cannot be sold for two years and thus is worth less than stock that would give an investor control of the institution.

Savage said he and Middendorf were planning to invite European investors to a reception in The Hague, capital of the Netherlands, on Sept. 15 in hopes of cooling their ire.

While all this has been going on, Ameribanc stock has climbed nicely, rising from $8.25 at the beginning of the year to about $13.50.

Analyst John E. Keefe at Drexel Burnham Lambert visited recently with the management of Sallie Mae -- the Student Loan Marketing Association -- in Washington.

The visit, he reports, confirmed his optimism about the long-term earnings picture at Sallie Mae, a company with a projected five-year growth rate of 19 percent.

"Sallie Mae has taken a number of steps to get closer to its market and increase its involvement with banks and other Guaranteed Student Loan lenders. This 'service before sale' is generating current fee income, as well as establishing Sallie Mae as the preferred secondary market for many lenders," said Keefe.

On his trip to Sallie Mae, Keefe said, he was able to learn about the new products and services that were available. He said he found that because of the new services, "banks have more reasons than ever to conduct student loan business with Sallie Mae."

Sallie Mae, he noted, has begun to spread its offices around the country.

"While assets now exceed $20 billion, Sallie Mae has always been a rather small company, as measured by head count. For about the past year, Sallie Mae has had only about 600 employes. However, the marketing staff has been regionalized -- moved out of Washington, closer to the market. Soon, 30 marketing people are to occupy 10 branch offices around the country, with the goal of reaching banks, both large and small, in every community," he said.

Keefe predicted that Sallie Mae, which earned $3.08 a share in 1986, will earn $4.15 in 1987 and $5.50 a share in 1988.

During the past year, Sallie Mae has been trading at a range of $51 to $89. The stock was a big gainer in 1986, up 78 percent. So far this year, it has gained about 27 percent.

Heilig-Meyers of Richmond, which operates a chain of home furnishing stores, is expanding again. Heilig-Meyers has completed its acquisition of 22 stores from Reliable Stores of Columbia, Md., for about $22 million. Twelve of the Reliable stores are in North Carolina, eight are in South Carolina and two are in Georgia. Heilig-Meyers also continues to open additional stores of its own and is moving toward the 250 mark for total outlets.