Small-cap stocks sure have bounced around this year. The Russell 2000, the leading index for small-cap stocks, started the year on fire, fell nearly 15% during the summer, and has now rebounded all the way back, setting new record highs again this month. Should you book profits from its multiyear run-up now, afraid of the next downturn? Let's be contrary: Abandon emotion. Study history instead.

Master investors who've used market declines to build out their positions in great companies have accumulated enormous wealth. When valuations collapse, they don't run for the hills; they run in from them to buy more. And instead of trying to time the market with a quick sale, they've proved that the best way to build wealth is to hold on for years after the first new highs have been hit.

Take a look at a company like Adobe Systems. The software publishing firm went public in 1986. The market collapsed a year later, and Adobe's market cap was cut in half. Yet the small cap had a super-strong balance sheet, dedicated leadership, and a widening market opportunity.

Here we are, 20 years later. Adobe is still supervised by its two founders, John Warnock and Charles Geschke. Over these intervening years, the stock has fallen 50% or more on six separate occasions. There have been numerous short-term periods when owning Adobe felt like a magnificent mistake. Heck, from September 2000 to September 2002, Adobe dropped 75% as technology stocks were sold indiscriminately.

Yet over these 20 years, Adobe Systems has risen 60 times in value, turning a $10,000 investment into $600,000. That amounts to 22% yearly growth with taxes deferred. It's a market-crushing return, a thing of beauty that doesn't even include the dividends Adobe began paying out back in 1990.

This is exactly the sort of business we stalk in Motley Fool Hidden Gems, because it features the following traits:

  • Devoted leadership.
  • A sound balance sheet.
  • Early dividend payments.
  • A wide market opportunity.
  • A broken stock price.

Lest you imagine that Adobe Systems is an isolated example, look at the commercial characteristics and investment returns of AFLAC (NYSE:AFL), MedicisPharmaceutical (NYSE:MRX), Christopher & Banks (NYSE:CBK), Becton Dickinson (NYSE:BDX), Wal-Mart (NYSE:WMT), and Gap (NYSE:GPS). Each suffered 30% to 50% declines in the journey from smaller to larger cap, yet each has absolutely crushed the market's return over the long term.

We've found a number of these types of companies, so it only makes sense that we're pleased as pudding by the opportunity to add to them when the market declines, and we're more than willing to hold them when the market is up. You can view my favorite small-cap companies now by taking a free trial to Hidden Gems, with no obligation to subscribe.

This article was originally published on May 9, 2005. It has been updated.

Tom Gardner is co-founder of The Motley Fool and lead analyst of Motley Fool Hidden Gems. Tom does not own shares of any company mentioned in this article. Gap and AFLAC are Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendations. Wal-Mart and Gap are Motley Fool Inside Value recommendations. The Fool has a disclosure policy.