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 it's posted better than 14% 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 to which I alluded above.

What's their secret? You've probably 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 that 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. I already knew that all of them started off as small companies, but 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

19,449%

$1.81

Asta Funding

7,856%

$0.69

Celgene

6,472%

$8.44

Apple

5,937%

$13.13

Comtech Telecommunications

4,189%

$4.25

GreenMountainCoffee 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 (a division of Standard & Poor's) and Yahoo! Finance.

Does this mean I'm recommending that 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

Gilead Sciences (Nasdaq: GILD  )

$51 billion

$54.66

89%

29

Marathon Oil (NYSE: MRO  )

$38 billion

$52.95

78%

17

Travelers (NYSE: TRV  )

$27 billion

$45.34

86%

19

... versus "unownable" small caps:

Company

Market Cap

Recent Price

Institutional Ownership

No. of Analysts Following

Sally Beauty (NYSE: SBH  )

$1.1 billion

$6.07

51%

4

Infinera (Nasdaq: INFN  )

$873 million

$9.44

45%

6

LeapFrog (NYSE: LF  )

$587 million

$9.21

50%

5

Data from Capital IQ.

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
That said, for every small, low-priced stock that becomes a multibagger, many more don't make it. That's a key reason that both Tillinghast and George, two of the smartest investors in the space, are widely diversified in their funds. Fidelity Low-Priced owns 695 stocks, and Royce Low-Priced owns 190.

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 22 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.

This article was originally published on March 6, 2008. It has been updated.

Tim Hanson does not own shares of any company mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of Infinera, which is a Rule Breakers pick. 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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