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 that if:

A. Investing in small-cap stocks generates market-beating returns; and
B. Investing in the market's best companies generates market-beating returns; then
C. 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 like Chico's (NYSE: CHS  ) , Cognizant Technology Solutions (Nasdaq: CTSH  ) , and Hansen Natural (Nasdaq: HANS  ) long before they emerged from the pack.

Forbes was also early to the party on success stories like Deckers Outdoor (Nasdaq: DECK  ) , Quicksilver Resources (NYSE: KWK  ) , and Synaptics (Nasdaq: SYNA  ) . Take a look at the returns:

Company

First Appeared on the Forbes List

Return Since First Appearance*

Chico's

Oct. 1, 1999

166%

Cognizant Tech.

Oct. 1, 1999

1,198%

Deckers Outdoor

Oct. 1, 2004

135%

Hansen Natural

Oct. 1, 2000

3,878%

Quicksilver Resources

Sept. 28, 2001

441%

Synaptics

Oct. 1, 2004

65%

*Returns through Oct. 8, 2008.

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, all but one of Forbes' top 10 stocks last year are in the red, and six are down more than 45%!

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; and
  • 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 by 15 percentage points over the past five years.

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

Rich Greifner is happy he made Bill Mann's list of 200 favorite Fools. Rich does not own any of the companies mentioned in this article. The Fool has a disclosure policy.


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