70 Times Better Than the Next Microsoft

Here's a revealing chart from the ever-helpful moneychimp.com:

Category

Value

Growth

Large Cap

12.4%

9.5%

Small Cap

15.4%

9.2%

These historical returns are from 1927 to 2005, and aren't adjusted for inflation. The terms "value" and "growth" are from data from the highly-respected investing researchers Fama and French.

It presents a persuasive case for putting small-cap value stocks to work in your portfolio. (You'll see just how persuasive later.) And you've probably seen plenty of other data showing that small caps outperform large caps and value outperforms growth. Why, then, doesn't small growth outperform large growth? And why does small growth, on average, end up being the worst choice for your money?

Moneychimp.com offers a theory, and I think it's worth seriously entertaining, at least when it comes to how you invest in small caps. Think about how investors would mentally categorize large- and small-cap value and growth companies. It might look like this:

Category

Value

Growth

Large Cap

Well-known, boring businesses

Well-known, exciting businesses

Small Cap

Unknown, boring businesses

The next Microsoft is in here somewhere!

Thanks, moneychimp. You're on to something.

What do value and growth look like?
What's the price difference between what might be "the next Microsoft" and the unknown and boring? Let's look at the data.

There's never been an official ruling on what separates "value" from "growth." There are dozens of ways to make those distinctions, and the data that Fama and French produce comes from their own method of sorting out what makes a value stock and what makes a growth stock.

Here's a more accessible listing of stocks, to give you an idea of what value and growth look like according to recent data. We'll take two holdings from each of the Vanguard small- and large-cap value and growth index funds:

Stock

Price-to-Book

Price-to-Earnings

Large-Cap Value (average)*

1.8

14.5

AT & T (NYSE: T  )

1.3

12.0

ConocoPhillips (NYSE: COP  )

0.9

 5.2

     

Large-Cap Growth (average) *

3.6

18.4

Intel (Nasdaq: INTC  )

2.4

13.5

United Technologies (NYSE: UTX  )

2.4

11.8

     

Small-Cap Value (average)*

1.5

18.4

Lubrizol

 1.2

9.4

OGE Energy (NYSE: OGE  )

 1.3

10.1

     

Small-Cap Growth (average) *

3.0

27.1

F5 Networks (Nasdaq: FFIV  )

2.4

26.0

Stericycle (Nasdaq: SRCL  )

6.9

38.4

*As of August 31, 2008.

These companies aren't selected to imply that any one or two is likely to do better than another over time. Instead, they're intended to show you what some of the large players look like when you compare their price to both their book value and their earnings. Obviously, to justify their prices, those companies categorized as "growth" need to grow their earnings much faster than the companies in the value quadrants.

The numbers attached to these small-cap growth companies are particularly startling. That's not to say that F5 Networks and Stericycle are overpriced, or that they won't grow their earnings sufficiently to be good investments from here. But to the extent that they represent the expectations built into their other brethren in the small-cap growth field, we can see why the returns for the quadrant as a whole end up disappointing investors.

Taken as a whole -- measured by thousands of companies, not just two -- small-cap stocks will be priced more inaccurately than large caps in the market, but not necessarily better. The inaccuracies work both ways. Those that are historically overpriced (small-cap growth) tend to be more overpriced than their large-cap brethren, and those that are underpriced (small-cap value) can be more so than their large-cap cousins -- although as a group, they're not at the moment, at least as measured by the price-to-earnings ratio. They still look cheaper on a price-to-book metric.

What's the cost?
The rewards of being aligned with the right quadrant instead of the wrong one over 78 years are absolutely staggering. Compounded over those 78 years, $100 would translate to:

Category

Value

Growth

Large Cap

$898,967

$130,165

Small Cap

$7,307,903

$103,626

Is 78 years a relevant investment period? Well ... kind of. It's just slightly longer than an average American life span. So the difference between small-cap value and small-cap growth over a lifetime has been a multiple of more than 70 times the end result. That's right: 70 times. (So get started investing early, and start your kids' accounts now!)

There are literally thousands of companies in that small-cap value quadrant that you should be concentrating on, none of which can possibly be described as "the next Microsoft." They might not carry the wallop of a potential Microsoft over the short term, but over many decades, and taken as a group ... wow.

We spend every day looking for the next not-exactly Microsoft at Motley Fool Hidden Gems. We closely follow a manufacturer of clothing labels and a producer of components for manufactured homes. But you don't have to be an expert at finding the best ones in that quadrant, because the average returns have been so monumental.

Remember that the next time you hear about how somebody has found the next Microsoft.

This article was originally published on Jan. 12, 2006. It has been updated.

Hidden Gems actually does have a terrific record of finding the better-performing companies in the small-cap arena. Take a free one-month guest pass of our newsletter to help you find small-cap winners. There's absolutely no obligation.

Bill Barker owns none of the companies mentioned in this article. Intel and Microsoft are Inside Value recommendations. The Fool has a disclosure policy.


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  • Report this Comment On December 05, 2008, at 2:25 AM, WhiteMamba wrote:

    Past performance is not indicative of future results.

  • Report this Comment On June 16, 2009, at 4:18 AM, thisislabor wrote:

    Leave it to the French to leave me confused as to what "value" means? I get growth stock....

    small cap value = unknown boring businesses? wth?

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