It's hardly breaking news at this point, but it bears repeating: Small-cap stocks are your best bet for superior returns. After all, small-cap stocks have trounced their larger brethren over the past 80 years -- and over the past three decades, the competition hasn't even been close:

Annualized Return

Small Caps

Large Caps

1926 to 2006



1976 to 2006



Data from Ibbotson Associates.

Meanwhile, a recent study by Jeff Anderson and Gary Smith from Pomona College shows that America's most admired companies also have a tendency to beat the market. Anderson and Smith analyzed the returns of Fortune's list of the 10 most admired companies from 1983 to 2004. They found that a portfolio of these stocks outperformed the S&P 500 by "a substantial and statistically significant margin."

By the power of the transitive property
So it stands to reason that if:

A. Investing in small-cap stocks generates market-beating returns; and
B. Investing in the market's best companies generates market-beating returns; then
C. Investing in the market's best small-cap companies should generate market-annihilating returns.

If only there was a list of the best small-cap companies ...
Fortunately, the folks over at Forbes magazine compile an annual list of the best 200 small companies in America. According to Forbes, companies "must pass through a gauntlet to qualify for the list," so you know you're getting the cream of the crop.

To make Forbes' list, a company must have revenue between $5 million and $750 million and a share price higher than $5, and must also clear certain thresholds for returns on equity, sales, and income.

That's some list
As you might expect, Forbes' list boasts some impressive names and more than a few familiar faces. The list successfully identified small-cap stalwarts like Citrix Systems (Nasdaq: CTXS), Copart (Nasdaq: CPRT), and ITT Educational Services (NYSE: ESI) long before these companies were household names.

Forbes was also early to the party on success stories like CH Robinson Worldwide (Nasdaq: CHRW), Quicksilver Resources (NYSE: KWK), and Trimble Navigation (Nasdaq: TRMB). Take a look at the returns:


First Appeared on the Forbes List

Return Since First Appearance*

CH Robinson Worldwide

Oct. 2, 1998


Citrix Systems

Sept. 26, 2002



Oct. 1, 2000


ITT Educational Services

Oct. 2, 1998


Quicksilver Resources

Sept. 28, 2001


Trimble Navigation

Oct. 1, 2004


*Returns through Feb. 4.

But you can only look backward through a screen
Forbes' list does an excellent job of identifying the hottest small-cap companies -- at the moment the list is released. After all, the data Forbes is taking into account is primarily backward-looking.

Clearly, some of these companies continue to excel long after they're featured in the magazine. But for every Quicksilver Resources, there's a company like McAfee (NYSE: MFE), which debuted at No. 19 on Forbes' 1996 list.

On the strength of its popular antivirus software, McAfee was one of the hottest stocks of the burgeoning Internet era. But with a trailing price-to-earnings ratio of 130 at the time it was added to the list, it's clear that great expectations were already baked into McAfee's share price. Although the company's products remain popular and it has generated ample free cash flow for the better part of a decade, the stock is up only about 8% from when it first appeared on Forbes' list.

I won't bore you with Forbes' other big misses, but suffice it to say, there have been more than a few. In fact, five of Forbes' top 10 stocks last year are already down more than 30%!

Don't send a screen to do an investor's job
A stock screen is a great tool for identifying prospective opportunities, but it's no substitute for good old-fashioned due diligence. In their Motley Fool Hidden Gems service, Tom Gardner and Bill Mann advise investors against searching for winning small-cap investment ideas by seeking out the hottest companies of the past 12 months. Instead, Tom and Bill focus on companies with:

  • Solid free cash flow;
  • Strong balance sheets;
  • High insider ownership; and
  • Market-beating potential over the next three to five years.

Furthermore, Tom and Bill prefer small companies that are obscured from Wall Street and ignored by the financial media. It's far more profitable to unearth quality companies before they become household names than after they grace the cover of a magazine.

You can look at all of Tom and Bill's recommendations by clicking here to try Hidden Gems free for 30 days. They may not have 200 companies on their roster, but they are beating the market by 21 percentage points over the last four and a half years.

This article was first published Dec. 14, 2007. It has been updated.

Rich Greifner is happy he made Bill Mann's list of 200 favorite Fools. Copart is a Stock Advisor recommendation. Rich does not own any of the companies mentioned in this article. The Fool has a disclosure policy.