Some companies are obviously great investments -- in hindsight. Yet for every stock out there screaming "buy me," others simply give us a nudge and a nod. How can we tell tomorrow's obviously great investments from the thousands of pretenders?

The stars' walk of fame
The research shows that stocks achieving five-star ratings on Motley Fool CAPS have outperformed the market by 12 percentage points, and newly minted five-star stocks represent your best opportunity to capture those returns. So let's sift through the proprietary ratings system and find those stocks heading toward superstardom. Here are a handful of four-star firms approaching greatness.

  • Eli Lilly & Co. (NYSE:LLY)
  • Coach (NYSE:COH)
  • Spreadtrum Communications (NASDAQ:SPRD)
  • Allied Waste (NYSE:AW)
  • Qualcomm (NASDAQ:QCOM)

Some of these names might surprise you. Qualcomm, for example, has been associated with quality telecommunications for years. Almost great? Even familiar names can still offer some of the best opportunities. Perhaps we've just forgotten the potential they still hold. However, the 110,000-plus CAPS investors chose these companies as less obvious sources for tomorrow's great buys, so let's see why they might merit your attention.

Put me in, Coach!
My wife's closet might suggest that premium handbag maker Coach is already great, but even luxury languishes in a difficult economy, and the company has provided guidance stating its belief that the "current consumer malaise" will last well into 2009. For aspirational brands such as Stock Advisor pick Coach or silver-trinket seller Tiffany (NYSE:TIF), the troubled economy has meant stock prices lower than they were last year, which gives investors time to pick up some of the best investment values in decades.

Certainly, investors are noting the quality of the goods being found in the bargain basement. CAPS member tiredofbeinbroke finds Coach's financial situation to be as solid as its brand:

Coach has little debt, a nice market cap, strong management effectiveness, and strong margins. Their business model is something I see as differentiated from the normal Apparel/Accessory company. Coach provides a high quality lower cost product. With costs being lower, it opens their products to a larger target market while still upholding the image of quality and prestige.

Faster to market
Almost as important to a drugmaker as its pipeline is the ability to get its drugs to market fast, to take full advantage of the opportunity available. The $1.6 billion deal Eli Lilly just made with Covance ought to make the pharmaceutical's chances of expeditiously marketing its drugs seem like someone hit the fast-forward button.

Generic drugs continue to put pressure on the pharmaceutical industry, and with current blockbusters going off-patent and fewer potential blockbusters in the pipeline, the need to cut costs grows ever greater. Lilly's deal with Covance has the drug-development services company paying Lilly $50 million for its development facility; in turn, it will provide early-stage clinical trials. It expands the contract the two already have in place, worth about $70 million annually for Covance, and adds another $90 million to it.

CAPS member JoyofMoney realized last month that Lilly had the aptitude to "stay current," and this deal underscores that commitment:

One of the more aggressive Pharmaceuticals out there, [Lilly] has a great reputation. It is smart enough to try and stay current-in particular I think the buy of the biotech company will only enhance. Fundamentals again are reasonable-long term is what I aim in for with this one. Price is coming from its low. Should perform despite bear volatility right now.

Trash talkin'
Who knew that garbage could be exciting? But these days it is, with some of the waste-hauling industry's top leaders trying to outbid each other in a consolidation attempt. Allied Waste was initially a target of Republic Services in an attempt to compact the No. 2 and No. 3 garbage haulers together, but the hunter became the hunted when the top of the trash heap, Waste Management (NYSE:WMI), tried to haul off Republic.

Bill Gates, through the Gates Foundation and his BGI investment arm, is a large shareholder in Waste Management, and he thinks his garbage hauler's bid is merely an attempt to keep a competitor at bay. "We can only assume your ill-timed and poorly conceived pursuit of Republic is designed to disrupt what you perceive as a competitive threat to your position in the market," BGI wrote, and asked it to withdraw its bid. Were that to happen, Allied Waste could find itself to be a jewel of a takeover target again.

A great opportunity for you
These four-star investments are on their way to five-star greatness, and it pays to start your own research on these stocks on Motley Fool CAPS. Read a company's financial reports, scrutinize key data and charts, and examine the comments your fellow investors have made, all from a stock's CAPS page.

Sign up today for the completely free service and let us hear what you have to say about the great -- and almost-great -- companies that interest you.

Waste Management is a Motley Fool Inside Value pick. Coach is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendation. Public Services and Eli Lilly are Income Investor picks. Try any of our Foolish newsletters today, free for 30 days.

Fool contributor Rich Duprey does not have a financial position in any of the stocks mentioned in this article. You can see his holdings here. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.