Midday yesterday, the Dow Jones Industrial Average dipped below 12,000 for the first time since March. The headlines this morning are grim. For a while now, actually, financial headlines have been full of scary words like "recession" and "bear market."

Not without justification, of course. With the fallout of the tech bubble still fresh in our minds -- or the easy-money subprime bubble fresher still -- talk of recessions and bear markets is enough to make even the steadiest investor rethink the contents of his or her portfolio.

So, which stocks are the best to own right now?
Traditional wisdom posits that when times are gloomy, investors should flock to so-called defensive stocks. Defensive plays are generally large dividend payers operating in the health-care, consumer staples, utilities, and financial industries. So hunkering your portfolio down in H.J. Heinz (NYSE:HNZ) and Johnson & Johnson (NYSE:JNJ) -- good companies, both -- the logic goes, will protect you from losing your shirt in a bad market -- not only will you get a steady stream of cash payments, but the stock price will be less volatile because people never stop buying things like ketchup and shampoo.

Hey, you can never have enough ketchup.

There's a reason conventional wisdom is conventional. While I wouldn't contradict that advice (I own shares of Procter & Gamble, after all), I'm going to supplement it with some unconventional wisdom.

Without further ado
You should be flocking to small caps.

If you have a long-term mindset, small caps make sense, even in tough times. A recent study done by Ned Davis Research (as reported in The Wall Street Journal) showed that since 1979, "the small-stock Russell 2000 returned a median 19.6% in the first three months after a market bottom, versus 13.6% for the large-cap Russell 1000."

That outsized figure makes all the more sense once you view the performance of these former small caps since the S&P 500's low point in early October 2002:


Market Cap in October 2002*

Total Return (10/9/2002 - Present)

MEMC Electronic Materials (NYSE:WFR)



Research In Motion (NASDAQ:RIMM)






Corning (NYSE:GLW)



Peabody Energy (NYSE:BTU)



Source: Capital IQ, a division of Standard & Poor's. *In millions.

By comparison, the best-performing U.S.-based large cap during this period was Occidental Petroleum (NYSE:OXY), which gained a still-respectable 617%.

It works both ways
Small caps aren't just potent coming out of a bad market -- they actually hold up pretty well during bear markets, too. In the last bear market, in fact, small-cap value stocks as a whole greatly outperformed the S&P 500 and other major indexes.


Total Return (8/15/2000 - 3/15/2003)

S&P 500


Russell 2000 Value


So, far from being speculative plays, small caps can stay afloat in a down market and juice your returns coming out of that down market.

But the sky hasn't finished falling!
Look, all this isn't to say that you should abandon your large caps and switch everything to small caps. For one, smaller companies can be more volatile than larger companies.

Diversification is important. But keep in mind that small caps should be a part of any balanced portfolio, regardless of the current economic picture. The growth potential of small caps is simply too great to ignore.

So when you're searching the vast universe for good small-cap ideas, look for stocks with high insider ownership, a strong balance sheet, a solid business model, and compelling valuation.

If you'd like to see the small caps we're recommending in today's market, consider sampling Motley Fool Hidden Gems; since its inception in 2003, the team's picks are ahead of the S&P 500 by 22 percentage points. You can view our top five ideas for new money with a 30-day free trial.

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Todd Wenning can't give you a tab unless you order something. He does not own shares of any company mentioned, except for Procter & Gamble. Johnson & Johnson and H.J. Heinz are Motley Fool Income Investor recommendations. The Fool's disclosure policy is your destiny.