Study after study has shown that stocks with low price-to-earnings multiples significantly outperform high P/E stocks. Research from my favorite investing guru, NYU professor Aswath Damodaran, pegged the outperformance at anywhere from 9% to 12% per year, depending on the study period. That's big money we're talking about.

But you already know that you can't just go out and buy the stocks with the lowest multiples. Companies can trade at dirt cheap prices for a number of dire reasons, including low growth prospects, skepticism about earnings, or high risk of bankruptcy.

These dangerous stocks can quickly crater. Buy too many of them, and you'll increase your own risk of bankruptcy!

Thus, for a company to be truly undervalued, Damodaran says in his book Investment Fables: "You need to get a mismatch: a low price-to-earnings ratio without the stigma of high risk or poor growth."

Of course, you're unlikely to find any high-growth, low-P/E companies out there. But Damodaran suggests setting a reasonable minimum threshold for earnings growth, such as 5%. There are also various ways to minimize risk, including staying away from volatile stocks or companies with dangerous balance sheets.

The screen's the thing
We're looking for companies with low price-to-earnings multiples, but also a relatively low amount of risk, and the potential for reasonable growth. Our screen today will cover the best value plays in the commercial and professional services industry, as defined by my nifty Capital IQ screening software.

There are 59 such companies with market caps topping $500 million on major U.S. exchanges. They have an average forward P/E of 20.6. Here are my parameters:

  1. To stay away from bankruptcy risk, I used Damodaran's suggestion and only considered companies with total debt less than 60% of capital.
  2. In hopes of capturing a reasonable amount of growth, I looked at Capital IQ's long-term estimates, and kept only companies expected to grow EPS at 5% annually or better over the next five years. Furthermore, I required at least 5% annualized growth over the past five years.

Of the 17 companies passing the screen, here are the 10 with the lowest forward price-to-earnings multiples:

Company

Market Cap
(in millions)

Forward P/E

Debt to Capital

Estimated EPS
Growth

United Stationers (Nasdaq: USTR)

$1,305

12.0

40%

14%

Towers Watson & Co. (NYSE: TW)

$3,704

12.3

13%

12%

FTI Consulting (NYSE: FCN)

$1,603

12.7

33%

16%

UniFirst (NYSE: UNF)

$876

13.1

21%

11%

ABM Industries (NYSE: ABM)

$1,150

15.0

17%

15%

Brink's (NYSE: BCO)

$1,083

15.3

32%

14%

The GEO Group (NYSE: GEO)

$1,582

16.0

51%

15%

Iron Mountain (NYSE: IRM)

$4,097

17.4

60%

17%

Corrections Corporation of America (NYSE: CXW)

$2,795

18.4

45%

12%

Waste Connections (NYSE: WCN)

$3,093

20.2

39%

15%

Data provided by Capital IQ, a division of Standard & Poor's.

There are lots of good research candidates here. To further stack the odds on your side, Damodaran says you can eliminate any companies that have restated earnings, or had more than two large restructuring charges over the past five years. And if volatile swings in price cause you to lose sleep, consider only companies with betas less than one.

What about companies in other industries? Check my archive for my past screening results, and watch this space for more over the coming days.

Fool analyst Rex Moore noticed Mr. Bluebird left a little something on his shoulder. Brink's is a Motley Fool Inside Value selection. Corrections Corporation of America is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendation. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. True to its name, The Motley Fool is made up of a motley assortment of writers and analysts, each with a unique perspective; sometimes we agree, sometimes we disagree, but we all believe in the power of learning from each other through our Foolish community. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.