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, New York University 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 a 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 industrials sector, as defined by my Capital IQ screening software.

There are 330 such companies with market caps topping $500 million on major U.S. exchanges. They have an average forward P/E of 16.7. Here are my parameters:

  1. To stay away from bankruptcy risk, I used Damodaran's suggestion and considered only 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 115 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

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Nacco Industries (NYSE: NC)

$759

5.3

44%

59%

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Tutor Perini (NYSE: TPC)

$913

8.1

24%

12%

Add

 

Alliant Techsystems

$2,299

8.3

58%

5%

Add

 

L-3 Communications (NYSE: LLL)

$8,504

9.1

37%

8%

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Northrop Grumman (NYSE: NOC)

$18,632

9.3

24%

8%

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Raytheon (NYSE: RTN)

$17,314

9.5

26%

9%

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General Dynamics (NYSE: GD)

$26,222

9.8

19%

10%

Add

 

AMERCO

$1,828

9.9

59%

10%

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Lockheed Martin (NYSE: LMT)

$27,224

10.1

57%

9%

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Atlas Air Worldwide Holdings

$1,518

10.1

31%

15%

Add

 

Source: 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 price swings cause you to lose sleep, consider only companies with betas less than 1.

If you're interested in keeping up with any of these companies, add them to your free watchlist by following the appropriate "add" button in the table. For more on this industry, you may be interested in our research report detailing two small-cap stocks that have solid deals with the government and the potential to deliver multi-bagger returns. Claim your free copy.

Fool analyst Rex Moore tweets but is not a twerp. He runs a real-money Rising Star Portfolio based on his screens, and he owns no companies mentioned here. The Motley Fool owns shares of Raytheon, L-3 Communications Holdings, Northrop Grumman, General Dynamics, and Lockheed Martin. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of L-3 Communications Holdings. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.