Even though the private equity craze has settled down recently, there's been more than $3.5 trillion worth of merger activity this year. And there are still two weeks left!

Despite the drying up of the cheap credit that private equity firms largely used to purchase companies over the past few years, the market continues to see industry consolidation activity. Witness Nokia (NYSE:NOK) acquiring Navteq (NYSE:NVT) and Vivendi's recent offer for Activision (NASDAQ:ATVI).

In addition, other mega-cap companies, such as Coca-Cola (NYSE:KO) and Qualcomm (NASDAQ:QCOM), are sitting on piles of cash that they could use to purchase attractively priced smaller companies.

Shareholders of an acquired company typically receive some nice premiums, and this has indeed been the case for many of this year's buyouts. For instance, Wild Oats shareholders enjoyed a 20% premium on their shares from the Whole Foods acquisition. When the Blackstone offer for Hilton hit the newswires after-hours on July 3, Hilton shareholders saw a 26% jump on the following trading day.

Sounds great, right?
Hey, no one's going to complain about a quick 26% gain, but for small-cap investors there may be a dark cloud over many of these deals.

Because small caps have huge growth potential, a public or private buyout may cut off what could have been a portfolio- (and perhaps life-) changing stock.

Consider: What if Ultra Petroleum (AMEX:UPL) or Tesoro (NYSE:TSO) -- both of which were small caps in 2002 -- were plucked by private equity back in December 2002 for a small premium? What may have been a good deal at the time would have stripped investors of the subsequent 1,310% and 2,057% returns, respectively, that these companies have since posted.

Chuck Royce, manager of the Royce Premier Fund (RYPRX), summed up this sentiment nicely in a June interview:

If a company is taken private at a 15% to 20% premium, it looks like a great short-term benefit. But it gives pause to small-cap investors like us, who employ a fundamentally driven, business-buyer's approach and often own companies for five to 10 years, if not longer.

Wise words from the man who has steered the Royce Premier Fund to 13% annualized returns over the past decade.

Between a rock and a hard place
Private equity buyouts and mergers are an integral part of small-cap investing, and let's face it, the next small-cap buyout is coming soon -- big money is finding a ton of value in small companies. But that doesn't mean you should go out and try to pick the next buyout. 

As a small-cap investor, all you can do is continue to look for financially stable, well-run companies. If you can find value in promising small caps, a buyout would just prove your thesis right. As for where to look, follow Chuck Royce's three precepts:

  1. Focus on small companies.
  2. Employ a fundamentally driven, business-buyer's approach to small-cap investing.
  3. Plan on holding for five to 10 years, if not longer.

And mix those with three learnings from Motley Fool Hidden Gems, where Tom Gardner and Bill Mann have had eight companies from their scorecard acquired:

  1. Hunt for cash-rich balance sheets.
  2. Look for top-flight managers (who preferably have an ownership stake in the company).
  3. Buy businesses with a wide market opportunity or a valuable product roster.

We employ these principles at Hidden Gems with good results thus far: Our picks are beating the market by 27 percentage points since our July 2003 inception. If you'd like to see the companies we've selected for subscribers, a trial is free for 30 days. Simply follow this link for more information.

This article was originally published on June 12, 2007. It has been updated.  

Fool contributor Todd Wenning is firmly convinced that Guitar Hero is the greatest video game ever made. He does not own shares of any company mentioned. Coca-Cola is a Motley Fool Inside Value pick. Activision and Whole Foods are Stock Advisor choices. Royce Premier is a Champion Funds selection. The Fool's disclosure policy is never for sale.