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
On Motley Fool CAPS, these opportunities can be found among our four-star stocks. In CAPS' proprietary ratings system, they rank higher than most of the other 5,300 starred companies, but they're just shy of superstardom. While all the attention might be focused on their five-star peers, we can sift through CAPS to find four-star firms approaching greatness, such as these companies:

  • Federal Express (NYSE:FDX)
  • Hewlett-Packard (NYSE:HPQ)
  • Kroger (NYSE:KR)
  • Staples (NASDAQ:SPLS)
  • Under Armour (NYSE:UA)

Some of these names might surprise you. Staples, for example, is the undisputed office supply chain leader with almost double the number of stores of its nearest rival Office Depot (NYSE:ODP). 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 125,000-plus CAPS members chose these companies as less obvious sources for tomorrow's great buys so let's see why they might merit your attention.

In the sight of greatness
With the markets hitting lows not seen in more than a decade, it's hard to play the role of optimist and declare this the year the recovery will begin. After all, we've heard that siren song almost since the fall began, and if you say it enough times, you're eventually bound to be right. Yet Federal Express Chairman Fred Smith offers some very compelling reasons why the second half of 2009 may finally be the time we see a sustained rebound in business operations and the markets.

In December, inventories at retailers fell the most since 2001, a level Smith calls unsustainable. While the move responded to consumer spending that has seemingly dissipated, business spending will have to begin anew -- perhaps as early as the summer -- to replenish their stock of supplies. Others, though, aren't so sure.

Some analysts believe that higher unemployment, tight credit markets, and declining home values make hopes for a recovery this year tough to reconcile. They agree that retailers have been very conservative with their inventories, which they maintain is prudent, considering how unpredictable consumer spending has been. By continuing to maintain such close scrutiny over their inventory, retailers should be able to prevent the need for last-minute sales, which tend to wreak havoc on profit margins.

Smith's FedEx and its rival United Parcel Service (NYSE:UPS) no doubt hope that the power of positive thinking will prove truer. Smith had to rein in FedEx's 2009 guidance by roughly 18% as demand for its services weakened. UPS wasn't doing much better last month, when it reported on the "tough decisions" it was having to make in its business.

Optimism remains the watchword here, and CAPS member TSIF thinks FedEx's own cost-containment measures will serve it well during this period. Its valuation suggests that it should hold its own compared to the index:

Costs are down. New Five Year Low. Less competition (DHL). Good at managing workforce with temp/contract workers they can fluctuate. Lots of people on the unemployement line will continue to work these jobs with low bennies as work fluctuates. May not be a rocket stock, but should hold against the S&P at these levels. P/B less than one and decent cash flow and very manageable debt.

A great opportunity for you
These four-star investments seem to be 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.

Under Armour is a Motley Fool Hidden Gems selection. United Parcel Service is a Motley Fool Income Investor pick. Under Armour is a Motley Fool Rule Breakers recommendation. Staples and FedEx are Motley Fool Stock Advisor picks. The Fool owns shares of Under Armour. 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.