Since the beginning of 2006, I've been mildly obsessed with studying the top stocks of the past 10 years. I've reached two conclusions:

  1. It pays to look at small caps.
  2. Management matters.

Small companies with superior CEOs will give you a head start on market-beating returns, but I thought there would be more indicators. So far, I've been wrong.

The quandary of cash
Before starting my analysis, I hypothesized that profits 10 years ago would correlate with returns. They don't. I also thought that strong balance sheets 10 years ago would correlate with returns. Nope.

That came as a shock to me. I was taught to look for small caps with substantially more cash than debt. Yet on my list of the 100 top small caps of the past decade, there's no evidence that a company's cash/debt position matters. Here's a sampling:

Company

10-Year Return*

Cash/Debt in 1996

Panera Bread (NASDAQ:PNRA)

1,415%

$6/$73

Expeditors International (NASDAQ:EXPD)

2,791%

$36/$0

Hovnanian Enterprises (NYSE:HOV)

759%

$10/$253

Jabil Circuit (NYSE:JBL)

1,475%

$6/$26

QLogic (NASDAQ:QLGC)

2,527%

$8/$0

MedImmune (NASDAQ:MEDI)

791%

$38/$2

Symantec (NASDAQ:SYMC)

715%

$131/$15

*June 1996 through June 2006.
Cash/debt numbers in millions. Data courtesy of Capital IQ, a division of Standard & Poor's.

A few have lots of cash and no debt, while others have substantially more debt than cash.

Debt diligence
Many individual investors out there are -- like me -- wary of debt. Sure, it's nice for a company to have more cash than debt, but debt is not evil. A lot of times, companies take on debt for less than the cost of equity -- and when a company can earn more than the cost of servicing its debt, that's a moneymaker right there.

The key is to look at a company's cash/debt position in context. Why does a company have so much cash or debt? What is it planning to do with it? What are the costs? What are the potential returns?

Homebuilder Hovnanian Enterprises used its debt to add inventory and fund financing operations. Both endeavors have worked out quite well. Moreover, today much of the company's debt is financed at reasonable terms and due years from now.

Logistics expert Expeditors International, on the other hand, has never carried much debt. It has been able to fund its incredible growth predominantly through cash from operations.

The Foolish bottom line
Different companies benefit from different capital structures. By limiting your investments to companies with more cash than debt, you may miss many of tomorrow's great returns.

Our goal at Motley Fool Hidden Gems is to help investors put more great small caps in their portfolios. A while back, senior analyst Bill Mann dug up Fairmont Hotels & Resorts for subscribers. While the company's $500 million debt position looked ominous, Bill correctly noted that it didn't pose a problem.

Fairmont has since been bought out by Saudi Arabia's Kingdom Holding at a nice 30% premium for Hidden Gems subscribers. If you'd like to join us as we try to uncover the next Panera Bread, the next Expeditors International, and the next Fairmont -- companies that are well-managed and operate in the best interests of shareholders -- click here. Be our guest free for 30 days, with no obligation to subscribe.

This article was originally published as "The Market's Capital Opportunities" on Feb. 24, 2006. It has been updated.

Tim Hanson does not own shares of any company mentioned in this article. Symantec is an Inside Value recommendation. No Fool is too cool fordisclosure.