The Best Small Companies … Exposed

It's hardly breaking news at this point, but it bears repeating: Small-cap stocks are your best bet for superior returns. After all, small-cap stocks have trounced their larger brethren over the past 80 years -- and over the past three decades, the competition hasn't even been close:

Annualized Return

Small Caps

Large Caps

1926 to 2006

12.7%

10.4%

1976 to 2006

17.5%

12.8%

Data from Ibbotson Associates.

Meanwhile, a recent study by Jeff Anderson and Gary Smith from Pomona College shows that America's most admired companies also have a tendency to beat the market. Anderson and Smith analyzed the returns of Fortune's list of the 10 most admired companies from 1983 to 2004. They found that a portfolio of these stocks outperformed the S&P 500 by "a substantial and statistically significant margin."

By the power of the transitive property
So it stands to reason:

A. If investing in small-cap stocks generates market-beating returns, and ...
B. If investing in the market's best companies generates market-beating returns ...
C. Then investing in the market's best small-cap companies should generate market-annihilating returns.

If only there were a list of the best small-cap companies ...
Fortunately, the folks over at Forbes magazine compile an annual list of the 200 best small companies in America. According to Forbes, companies "must pass through a gauntlet to qualify for the list," so you know you're getting the cream of the crop.

To make Forbes' list, a company must have revenue between $5 million and $750 million and a share price higher than $5, and must also clear certain thresholds for returns on equity, sales, and income.

That's some list
As you might expect, Forbes' list boasts some impressive names and more than a few familiar faces. The list successfully identified small-cap stalwarts such as Chico's FAS (NYSE: CHS  ) , Hansen Natural (Nasdaq: HANS  ) , and Deckers Outdoor (Nasdaq: DECK  ) long before they emerged from the pack.

Forbes was also early to the party on success stories such as Cognizant Technology Solutions (Nasdaq: CTSH  ) , O'Reilly Automotive (Nasdaq: ORLY  ) , and Pharmaceutical Product Development (Nasdaq: PPDI  ) . Look at the returns:

Company

First Appeared on the Forbes List

Return Since First Appearance*

Cognizant Technology Solutions

Oct. 1, 1999

1,670%

Chico's FAS

Oct. 1, 1999

304%

Deckers Outdoor

Oct. 1, 2004

79%

Hansen Natural

Oct. 1, 2000

5,204%

O'Reilly Automotive

Oct. 3, 1996

748%

Pharmaceutical Product Development

Oct. 2, 1998

277%

*Returns through April 8, 2009.

But you can only look backward through a screen
Forbes' list does an excellent job of identifying the hottest small-cap companies -- at the moment the list is released. After all, the data Forbes is taking into account is primarily backward-looking.

Clearly, some of these companies continue to excel long after they're featured in the magazine. But for every Hansen Natural, there's a company like JAKKS Pacific (Nasdaq: JAKK  ) , which was listed at No. 8 on Forbes' 1999 list.

On the strength of licensing revenue from the Pokemon craze, JAKKS Pacific was one of the hottest stocks of that era that didn't end with a dot-com suffix. However, when the pace of Pokemon-related revenue slowed (and while it's easy to call it a fad in hindsight, who truly saw that coming?), JAKKS' share price took a nosedive. The stock has rebounded nicely from its 2000 lows, but it's still underwater for anyone who bought in when it first appeared on Forbes' list.

I won't bore you with Forbes' other big misses, but suffice it to say, there have been more than a few. In fact, eight of Forbes' top 10 stocks from 2008 are in the red, and five of those stocks are down more than 30%!

Don't send a screen to do an investor's job
A stock screen is a great tool for identifying prospective opportunities, but it's no substitute for good old-fashioned due diligence. At Motley Fool Hidden Gems, we advise investors against searching for winning small-cap investment ideas by seeking out the hottest companies of the past 12 months. Instead, we focus on companies with:

  • Solid free cash flow
  • Strong balance sheets
  • High insider ownership
  • Market-beating potential over the next three to five years

Furthermore, we prefer small companies that are obscured from Wall Street and ignored by the financial media. It's far more profitable to unearth quality companies before they become household names than after they grace the cover of a magazine.

You can look at all of our recommendations by clicking here to try Hidden Gems free for 30 days. We may not have 200 companies on our roster, but we are beating the market over the past six years.

This article was first published Dec. 14, 2007. It has been updated.

Rich Greifner is happy he made Hidden Gems advisor Andy Cross' list of 200 favorite Fools. Rich does not own any of the companies mentioned in this article. Hansen Natural is a Motley Fool Rule Breakers pick. The Fool has a disclosure policy.


Read/Post Comments (4) | Recommend This Article (7)

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  • Report this Comment On October 13, 2009, at 12:32 PM, highwayw wrote:

    About time time I gain a little confidence

    in your ideas, I read nonsense like the Wal-Mart article above. Doomed? Please!!!!! No Mas

  • Report this Comment On October 13, 2009, at 1:11 PM, ozzfan1317 wrote:

    Walmart isnt doomed but its not the growth monster that Costco could become is what I believe they are trying to explain.

  • Report this Comment On October 13, 2009, at 1:12 PM, ozzfan1317 wrote:

    Walmart isnt doomed but its not the growth monster that Costco could become is what I believe they are trying to explain.

  • Report this Comment On October 13, 2009, at 1:13 PM, ozzfan1317 wrote:

    Also if you look at the business model and how passionate their CEO is and the fact hes their largest shareholder I believe EBIX is one this years winners from that list.

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