Don't Touch These 3 Huge Value Traps

"Valuations are starting to get silly."

The chief investment officer at a major commercial bank spoke these words during a recent call on the state of the economy.

With the S&P 500 down nearly 15% year to date, shares of even stable blue chips cratering, and investors scared witless, others are wondering whether it's time to take advantage of some great bargains.

So the urgent question is: Does buying beaten-down stocks automatically lead to riches?

The shocking truth
To evaluate the merits of a contrarian approach to the market today, I recently ran a screen to discover how well a similar tactic would have worked during the last recession. I divided all 278 large-cap stocks into quintiles by performance over that period, and looked at how well they did over the following five years.

Here's what I found:

Quintile

Performance March 2001-Nov. 2001

Annualized Performance Nov. 2001-Nov. 2006

1

 (51.3%)

6.1%

2

 (25.1%)

6.5%

3

 (13.4%)

9.1%

4

 (3.6%)

3.9%

5

 9.6%

9.2%

Total

 (16.9%)

7.1%

Stocks trading on major U.S. exchanges capitalized at more than $10 billion on March 1, 2001. Data courtesy of Capital IQ, a division of Standard & Poor's.

As you can see, stocks that had been scorched the most over that blistering eight-month period actually underperformed those that had done just fine -- by 3.1 percentage points annually!

How'd that happen?
Over those painful eight months, the market had correctly anticipated the value of many of these large companies, and discounted them accordingly. A 50% haircut is certainly a markdown -- but not necessarily a sale, if the value of the company has been cut in half or was overvalued to begin with.

The savviest investors know that willy-nilly contrarianism isn't a sure path to riches. As financial disasters at First Horizon (NYSE: FHN  ) , Corus Bancshares (NYSE: CORS  ) , and JPMorgan Chase's prey Bear Stearns illustrate, companies often get punished for all the right reasons. And in those cases, their plight can be as bad as you think -- and worse.

The envelope, please
Here are the names of three huge companies that I believe are value traps. All three have had massive declines in the past year, which make shares appear tempting to investors. However, they are also:

  • Heavily scrutinized large caps.
  • Returning among quintiles whose performance was anemic the last recessionary go-around.
  • Rated one or two stars by our CAPS community.

Since we began tracking the collective intelligence of our CAPS investment community in November 2006, one- and two-star companies have fared poorly, with an average annualized loss of 11.4% and 5%, respectively.

Company

Market Capitalization

Analyst Coverage

52-week Return

Citigroup

$110.7

16

(56%)

Lehman Brothers

$5.6

19

(85%)

Wachovia Bank (NYSE: WB  )

$32.3

21

(65%)

Data from Motley Fool CAPS and Yahoo! Finance.

Yes, shares of these companies have fallen dramatically, but that's because they've dealt with massive writedowns, deteriorating business units, managerial missteps, and CEO firings in the face of an already ugly economic period.

Given the amount of attention these massive companies generate on Wall Street (as seen in that third column, "Analyst Coverage"), there's a strong chance that the sell-off was justified. If history repeats itself, thrashed large caps won't be the best stocks to buy now. If you want to profit from the recent marketwide sell-off, you need to look where others aren't.

A contrarian approach to contrarian investing
I ran another screen to compare the post-recession returns of the aforementioned 278 large caps to the performance of 1,740 smaller companies. I had expected some disparity in their five-year returns, but its sheer magnitude was astounding:

Quintile

Small-Cap Performance, March 2001-Nov. 2001

Small-Cap Annualized Performance, Nov. 2001-Nov. 2006

Large-Cap Performance, March 2001-Nov. 2001

Large-Cap Annualized Performance, Nov. 2001-Nov. 2006

1

(53.8%)

23.7%

 (51.3%)

6.1%

2

(19.8%)

16%

 (25.1%)

6.5%

3

(1.4%)

14.5%

 (13.4%)

9.1%

4

14.7%

14.3%

 (3.6%)

3.9%

5

57.3%

13.7%

 9.6%

9.2%

Total

(0.7%)

16.7%

 (16.9%)

7.1%

Companies capitalized between $100 million and $2 billion versus those capitalized at more than $10 billion on March 1, 2001. Data courtesy of Capital IQ, a division of Standard & Poor's.

A small-cap contrarian approach following the last recession would have paid off handsomely, turning a $10,000 investment into nearly $30,000 in just five years. But not only did the most beaten-down small caps outperform their spared peers, every quintile of small caps outperformed every quintile of large caps over the following five years.

And that last recession was no anomaly; according to T. Rowe Price, small caps have beaten large caps by nine percentage points on average over each of the past 10 recessions.

Among the most disappointing contrarian plays would have been buying $65 billion Sun Microsystems (Nasdaq: JAVA  ) in November 2001, when it was "on sale" for 46% off -- because the stock still had another 51% to fall over the next five years. On the other hand, $1.5 billion SanDisk (Nasdaq: SNDK  ) fell by a similar amount during the recession, yet contrarians who bought this underfollowed company made back their money more than eight times over.

In fact, every single one of the top 10 stocks since the last recession was a small- or mid-cap. Among the very largest of those companies destined for greatness were then-$2.9 billion BlackBerry maker Research In Motion (Nasdaq: RIMM  ) and $3 billion fertilizer producer PotashCorp (NYSE: POT  ) .

Periods in which the market emerges from recessions are great times to own small caps. But a number of studies have also shown that over the long haul, small caps keep outperforming larger companies. According to research from professors Fama and French, small-cap value stocks beat their larger counterparts 17.3% to 13.3% on average from 1956 to 2005.

That's because small caps tend to be less closely watched by big brokerage houses and the financial media, so their stock prices are more likely to behave irrationally -- and provide huge opportunities during times of turmoil.

In other words, if you want to take full advantage of all the wonderful values in the market today, you need to look into small-cap stocks.

Small is good
At Motley Fool Hidden Gems, we look exclusively at companies capitalized at less than $2 billion, with little or no analyst coverage, that are led by dedicated managers/founders, and that have a wide market opportunity. Among businesses like these, you'll find companies that truly are undervalued.

So far, that strategy has paid off. Since inception in 2003, Hidden Gems is outperforming the S&P 500 by 21 percentage points.

To see our newest recommendations and top picks for new money now, click here to join Hidden Gems free for 30 days. There is no obligation to subscribe.

This article was originally published on Aug. 7, 2008. It has been updated.

Ilan Moscovitz owns shares of no companies mentioned in this article. JPMorgan is an Income Investor selection. The Fool has a disclosure policy.


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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 September 12, 2008, at 12:06 PM, zaqwert wrote:

    The author does not understand "survivor bias"; they only counted the smallcap stocks that dropped hard during the last recession and survived until today. To captialize on this result you would have needed a magic crystal ball in 2001 that told you whether or not each stock would still exist in 2008.

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