Legg Mason chief investment strategist Michael Mauboussin talks a lot about expectations. His ideas show me that there aren't "cheap" or "expensive" stocks. Instead, there are three types of stocks:

  1. Stocks that meet the market's expectations.
  2. Stocks that fall short of the market's expectations.
  3. Stocks that exceed the market's expectations.

Suffice to say that we'd all like to fill our portfolios with stocks that exceed the expectations the market has priced into them.

This one goes to 11
Thus, it can be much more advantageous to hold Company A, which grows earnings 5%, instead of Company B, which grows earnings 25%, if the market expected 3% growth from Company A and 30% growth from Company B. Heck, the biggest stock price bumps occur when results are better than the market expected -- just take a look at what happened to Dawson Geophysical (NASDAQ:DWSN) this week when its earnings demonstrated that volatile energy prices hadn't halted exploration efforts.

Or consider these examples:


Three-Year Revenue Growth*

Three-Year Return

Micron Technology (NYSE:MU)



Amazon.com (NASDAQ:AMZN)



Novellus Systems (NASDAQ:NVLS)






Carolina Group (NYSE:CG)



*Annualized. Data courtesy of Capital IQ, a division of Standard & Poor's.

Why did impressive earnings growth translate into mediocre stock-price growth for Micron, Amazon, and Novellus? One answer, of course, is expectations. The market expected more from these companies than they could achieve. It clearly didn't expect quite as much from Denny's or Carolina Group -- and these stocks have simply blown away the market's expectations.

The merits of stock price
So how does an investor determine what the market expects of a company? Easy. The market has priced its expectations into the company's stock. There are a lot of columns on Fool.com telling investors that price doesn't matter. And while that's true in some ways, it's also true that all of the information you need to know about expected growth rates, risks, and even share dilution is evident in a stock's price. By working backwards in a discounted cash flow model, you can read the market's mind.

Now, you just need to figure out whether the market is wrong.

Landed returns
Sometimes, this is easy. Analyst Bill Mann recommended First Marblehead as a Motley Fool Hidden Gems pick because the company's stock price at the time ($35.50) didn't account for the rapid growth at First Marblehead and in the student-loan industry -- a result of some management missteps. The company has since recovered to earn subscribers a better than 130% return.

That was an easy example. It can be far more difficult.

Even better than the real thing
By some measures, Ctrip.com was an expensive stock when Fool co-founder Tom Gardner recommended it in Hidden Gems. With its robust P/E north of 40 and a price-to-book ratio in the double digits, Ctrip looked pricey. But Tom thought different. He determined that just 30% earnings growth would earn investors massive, market-beating 25% annualized returns. To date, the stock has already risen nearly 140%.

Why was Ctrip seemingly priced below what Tom expected of it? In one word: risk. Many investors still don't feel confident investing in China, for reasons both political and economic.

You can't value what you can't see
While the market misprices all kinds of companies, we focus exclusively on small caps at Hidden Gems, partly because we believe that we can find many more small companies that will exceed the market's expectations. Small caps trade fewer shares, are followed by fewer analysts, and receive less media coverage. Without information, the market simply can't assess small companies as efficiently as large ones.

That's where we step in, and where we profit. If you'd like to join us at Hidden Gems as we uncover the very best small-cap opportunities, click here. Since inception in 2003, our picks are beating the market by 30 percentage points on average, and we expect to do even better over time.

This article was originally published on March 15, 2006. It has been updated.

Tim Hanson owns shares of Dawson Geophysical. Dawson, First Marblehead, and Ctrip.com are Hidden Gems recommendations. Amazon.com is a Stock Advisor pick. Legg Mason is an Inside Value recommendation. No Fool is too cool for disclosure.