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Danger! Horror! Get Out!

Veteran Motley Fool Hidden Gems members know what we love to find in a small company: Honest, competent management. Solid financials. High levels of insider ownership. Strong returns on equity and assets. Little or no Wall Street coverage. And a price that's right for long-term buyers.

What we don't often talk about, though, are the things that can go bump in the night ... the traits of bad small businesses that make us fear and loathe them.

There are more than 3,500 public companies capitalized at less than $500 million on our major U.S. exchanges. And sure, that bunch includes loads of great winners poised to rise many times in value. Look back, and you'll find businesses such as NVIDIA (Nasdaq: NVDA  ) and Southern Copper (NYSE: PCU  ) , up more than 600% and 1,000%, respectively, in the past 10 years.

But let's not kid ourselves. Among those 3,500 companies are also tons of mediocre ones, and worse. Like Tolkien's terrible dragon, Smaug, they can incinerate your savings in no time. (Hey, we said this was scary stuff!) Quite seriously, if you're not doing business research and you don't know what to avoid out there, you could lose your fortune. When even solid companies such as Cisco Systems (Nasdaq: CSCO  ) and eBay (Nasdaq: EBAY  ) can drop precipitously from their all-time highs -- more than 70% from peak to trough in 2000 and 2001 -- you have to keep your eyes wide open.

Let's start with an example of what to avoid.

Case study: Charter Communications
In our active online university community, a Hidden Gems member asked us a few years ago what we thought of Charter Communications, a broadband cable company whose chairman and largest individual shareholder was Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT  ) co-founder Paul Allen. The business was also substantially owned by Wally Weitz, a Nebraska-based investor whom Warren Buffett fans greatly admire.

Charter stock had fallen from $25 to $4.50, and our member wanted to know whether it was a good time to get in for a turnaround.

We'll start by saying that in Hidden Gems, we absolutely love the broken small cap that's poised for a turnaround. Show us a company whose stock has fallen 90% from its highs, whose chairman is a billionaire, and whose largest institutional owner is a close friend of Warren Buffett, and we'll sign up to do very careful research. That's exactly what we did with Charter Communications at $4.50.

But we did not like what we found. Here's why we warned back then against investing in this business:

  • Massive debt. Net debt (debt minus cash) was more than $18 billion.
  • Net debt was 28 times the company's market cap of $640 million.
  • Charter was unprofitable under generally accepted accounting principles, with $1.5 billion in yearly interest costs.
  • Debt covenants posed a serious threat to the company's survival.
  • The SEC had launched an investigation into Charter's accounting practices.
  • Heavy spending for a cable infrastructure hadn't yielded high enough returns.

Near the end of June 2003, I (Tom) wrote negatively about this stock when it was trading at more than $4. It's tough to go contrary to Paul Allen and Wally Weitz. But there was no turnaround in sight, and the company's balance sheet was cratering. We've written negatively about the company nearly every month for four years now.

The stock itself eventually cratered, and Charter Communications filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

What we do and don't fear
Oddly enough, our Hidden Gems team does not fear -- in and of itself -- high debt. Our recommendation Middleby carried more than $100 million in debt after buying a competitor and repurchasing founder shares. Yet, the stock has risen more than 450% since the original 2003 recommendation, and we remain very optimistic about its future. The company's operations are plenty strong to repay those obligations.

Nor do we fear companies that have fallen 90% from their all-time highs. Audible, which I (Rex) found and wrote about, had fallen nearly to zero before turning around and showering its owners in newfound wealth. Remember how the Tylenol scare in the 1980s created an artificially low price for Johnson & Johnson (NYSE: JNJ  ) ?

Heck, even hints of SEC investigations can create attractive bargains on occasion. Halliburton (NYSE: HAL  ) , for example, has rebounded from a 2002 SEC investigation into the company's revenue-booking policies.

Each of these scary factors individually could make for a compelling investment as the stock price drops into the real-value range.

So what was the problem with Charter Communications? The answer was the scale of its debt, running north of $18 billion, alongside harsh payment terms and emerging accounting problems.

To find out which stocks we do love, simply take a free trial to Hidden Gems. Read about all the recommendations, which have thus far beaten the S&P 500 by a wide margin since the service began in 2003. If you don't like it, you can cancel within 30 days without paying a dime. Click here for more information.

This article was originally published on Jan. 13, 2005. It has been updated.

Tom Gardner and Rex Moore anchor the gold-medal-winning Motley Fool 4x100 three-legged sack race relay team. Rex owns shares of Microsoft, Johnson & Johnson, and eBay. Tom owns shares of Microsoft, Johnson & Johnson, and Cisco. eBay and NVIDIA are Motley Fool Stock Advisor picks. Microsoft is an Inside Value recommendation. Johnson & Johnson is an Income Investor selection. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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