The Market's 10 Best Stocks ... Cheap!

The strategy went mainstream in 1989 at Fidelity. After nearly 20 years and 16% annualized returns, a $10,000 initial stake would be worth more than $175,000 today.

Respected investment shop Royce & Associates copied the strategy four years later -- and they've posted nearly 15% annual returns ever since. Both track records absolutely pummel that of the broader market.

A seemingly unstoppable market-crushing strategy
Before we get to the secret that both Fidelity and Royce have been using to enrich their shareholders for years, it's worth restating that the only way to make money investing in individual stocks is to see things in the market that the rest of the world's investors do not.

That's a tough act, and it takes years of practice to perfect. The best way to get started, however, is to simply start looking at stocks that no one else is willing to look at.

Meet your maker
Enter Fidelity Low-Priced Stock (FLPSX) and Royce Low-Priced Stock (RYLPX), the two market-crushing funds I alluded to above.

What's their secret? You've likely already guessed it, given their names, but both of these funds invest solely in low-priced stocks.

For Fidelity manager Joel Tillinghast, that universe is defined as stocks trading for less than $35 per share. For Royce manager Whitney George, it's less than $25. But don't let those parameters fool you. Because of the way mutual fund regulations work, it behooves firms to define their strategies broadly. I have it on good authority, however, that the key to this strategy is to concentrate on finding stocks trading for less than $10 per share.

Why does this work?
The low-priced stock universe is a rich stomping ground for investors willing to do close and careful research. Quoting the Royce fund's prospectus:

Institutional investors generally do not make very low-priced equities (those trading at $10 or less per share) an area of their focus, and they may receive only limited broker research coverage. These conditions create opportunities to find securities with what Royce believes are strong financial characteristics trading significantly below its estimate of their current worth.

This is not to say that every low-priced stock is an opportunity. The reason the universe is so ignored is because most of the stocks trading at these prices are garbage. But as Royce's managing director Jack Fockler told me recently, "If you apply rigorous quality standards to a universe people write off as junk, you can find some really interesting things."

"Interesting" being a euphemism for "incredibly profitable"
Armed with this information, I went back and took a look at my list of the 10 best stocks of the past 10 years. While I already knew that all of them started off as small companies, I hadn't looked to see where their stocks were trading a decade ago.

The results were eye-opening:

Company

Return, 1998-2007

Dec. 31, 1997, Stock Price

Hansen Natural (NASDAQ:HANS)

19,449%

$1.81

Asta Funding

7,856%

$0.69

Celgene (NASDAQ:CELG)

6,472%

$8.44

Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL)

5,937%

$13.13

Comtech Telecommunications

4,189%

$4.25

Green Mountain Coffee Roasters

3,389%

$7.00

Daktronics

3,294%

$5.37

Clean Harbors

3,208%

$1.56

Innodata Isogen

3,013%

$0.69

Immucor

2,893%

$8.62

Data from Capital IQ and Yahoo! Finance.

Does this mean I'm recommending everyone go out and buy wild penny stocks? Of course not. Low-priced stocks aren't cheap or promising simply because they're low-priced.

This, however, is clearly a universe of stocks with a lot of potential, as well as one ripe with inefficiencies ... as you can see from this comparison of the institutional ownership and analyst coverage for "ownable" large caps:

Company

Market Cap

Recent Price

Institutional Ownership

No. of Analysts Following

Adobe Systems (Nasdaq: ADBE  )

$19 billion

$32.86

88%

27

Gilead Sciences (Nasdaq: GILD  )

$45 billion

$48.84

92%

33

Target (NYSE: TGT  )

$43 billion

$52.80

90%

22

... versus "un-ownable" small caps:

Company

Market Cap

Recent Price

Institutional Ownership

No. of Analysts Following

Books-A-Million

$130 million

$8.20

44%

0

Mannatech (NASDAQ:MTEX)

$200 million

$7.65

32%

0

Wonder Auto Technology

$229 million

$8.95

28%

5

Data from Capital IQ and Thomson Financial.

Potential and inefficiency. Put those traits together in the stock market and -- as Fidelity and Royce have proved -- you can make a lot of money.

But buyer beware
All of this said, for every small, low-priced stock that becomes a multibagger, there are many more that don't make it. That's a key reason why both Tillinghast and George, two of the smartest investors in the space, are widely diversified in their funds. Fidelity Low-Priced owns 723 stocks and Royce Low-Priced owns 197 stocks.

So if you're ready to start learning more or even employing this low-priced strategy, make sure you do so within the context of a diversified portfolio.

You can also take a look at our Motley Fool Hidden Gems small-cap investing service, where we specialize in finding small, overlooked stocks with sound fundamentals, solid business plans, and big potential.

Our picks at Hidden Gems are beating the market by 21 percentage points on average. See all of our research, recommendations, and top picks for new money now by joining free for 30 days. There is no obligation to subscribe.

Tim Hanson does not own shares of any company mentioned. Apple is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendation. Contrary to rumor, the Fool's disclosure policy was not born in the Panama Canal Zone.


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Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On March 07, 2008, at 10:43 AM, FutureMonkey wrote:

    Hi Tim,

    Be sure to clearly differentiate between low price per share (below $10) stocks and small cap stocks. Two exceptionally different concepts.

    I know you and many fool readers know this, but novices wandering through might be confused by your examples.

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