The 10 best-performing stocks of the past decade were obscure, ignored, and small. But what about the top 25? The top 50? The top 100?
It turns out that most of the stock market's greatest performers of the past 10 years were also obscure, ignored, and small.
Small stocks for big returns
From June 1996 through June 2006, there were 308 stocks that could have earned you greater than 20% annualized returns over the past 10 years -- turning a $10,000 initial investment into more than $60,000. Of those 308 stocks, 285 of them were small caps 10 years ago. That's more than 90%. While the companies run the gamut from high-tech players like flash card maker SanDisk
Ten years ago, SanDisk was a teeny-tiny $320 million company. Today, it's a more than $9 billion company that counts giants such as Sony
And Drew Industries, for one, is still growing. The company dominates its niche and has almost every trait investors should look for in a small cap: superior leadership, clear competitive advantages, a strong corporate culture, and superior returns on equity (approaching 25% over the trailing 12 months). Since we recommended it in our Motley Fool Hidden Gems newsletter, it has also returned more than 50% for our members -- but we're confident it will keep on performing over the long term.
Big stocks for smaller returns
There were only 23 mid- or large-cap companies that would have given you the same growth, and they're the cream of the crop: Apple Computer
That's because it's difficult for larger companies to generate the same kind of growth as small caps. While Drew Industries grew from $100 million to $650 million, Aflac grew from a $4.2 billion valuation to be worth nearly $23 billion. While Aflac added substantially more value in absolute terms, the story changes when it comes to percentages. Drew increased 650%; Aflac increased 520%. Now compare that with a much larger company such as Microsoft
The Foolish conclusion
Small caps are one area of the market where the individual investor has the opportunity to earn phenomenal returns, but there are also pitfalls. For every one of the 285 small caps that could have earned you greater than 20% annualized returns over the past 10 years, there were quite a few more that didn't make it. Small-cap stocks tend to carry considerably more risk than large caps, so investors must consider their investments very carefully.
That's why we advocate a diversified portfolio of select small caps for Hidden Gems subscribers. By focusing on factors like superior management and a strong balance sheet and enjoying the benefits of diversification, our small-cap recommendations have outperformed the market by more than 22 percentage points since we started.
Every investor should have at least some smart exposure to small caps, because the historical profits are just too good to pass up. If you'd like some help getting started in this incredible area of the market, click here to join our community free for 30 days.
This article was originally published on Feb. 6, 2006, as "325 Incredible Returns." It has been updated.