The worst is past.

That's been the gist of many a news story this summer. Around the world, pundits who had been telling us the sky was falling now declare that all is well. The markets are back. Full speed ahead! The Dow, Nasdaq, and S&P have bounced back from recent drops, and Wall Street looks set to rally again.

The reasons for the sudden optimism are legion: Oil is down! Housing sales are coming back! Another popular theory holds that investors believe the risk to the banking system is gone, now that JPMorgan Chase rescued Bear Stearns and we haven't had another near-death banking experience.

Too good to be true?
Let's not get too excited about these alleged rallying points until we review a few facts.

Oil is still so expensive that it's killing the automakers. Housing sales, the crutch on which our bubble economy was based, are nowhere near normalizing. Year over year, home sales continue to show enormous drops, and prices are falling quickly in response to tighter lender standards. (You now need more than a pulse to qualify for a million-dollar mortgage.) The only real selling is fire-sale foreclosure clearing, and even this hasn't been enough to return home inventory to normal levels.

And then there are the big financials. Sure, no banks have failed in the past five minutes, but the writedowns continue, managers are being sacked at places like Wachovia and AIG, and many of these supposed powerhouses are still scrambling for capital, and paying a lot of money to get it. Just ask Lehman Brothers.

So we've got somewhat less insanely expensive oil, a fake home-sales rally, and a financial sector vote of confidence that isn't. Consumer confidence is plunging to multidecade lows, with cash-strapped consumers so down on the economy and buried in debt that they aren't even planning to spend their "economic stimulus" checks, according to a recent poll. That's why I believe it's highly likely that things are very likely to get worse again -- perhaps much worse. The question for us is: How should we invest accordingly?

What's a Fool to do?
Well, I'm buying, and I have been throughout the doldrums. Yes, the same guy who thinks things will get worse again has been buying. My reasons are simple:

  • Stocks don't move in lockstep with the economy.
  • Many stocks have been beaten down as if the economy will be this way forever.
  • The real comeback (if this isn't it) won't be any more predictable.

And as this week has also shown, when a rally comes, there's no warning bell to let you know it's on the way. It will be unexpected, and it might be amazing. If you think the returns from the major indexes have been good, look at what happened to small caps over the past few weeks. More than 75 small caps trading on U.S. exchanges returned between 25% and 200% over the trailing month. Here are a few of the top performers.


% 1-month return



Bluegreen (NYSE:BXG)


Midway Games (NYSE:MWY)


US Airways Group (NYSE:LCC)


Provident Bankshares (NASDAQ:PBKS)


Halozyme Therapeutics (NASDAQ:HALO)


Data from Capital IQ, a division of Standard & Poor's.

Foolish final thought
In tough times, when money is flocking to "safe" large caps or Treasuries, small caps often get brutalized. That's been the case over the past few months.

That's why investors ought to be looking to increase their small-cap allocations while those stocks are out of favor. Of course, you need to be choosy. Rolling the dice on solar, for example, is a game many will play, but few will win. You also need to make sure that the companies you buy have a capital structure (read: cash) that can survive a prolonged downturn ... because we may still get one.

In other words, you can't just plow in and buy. You need to look carefully, balancing risks and potential rewards, and invest for the long term. Those are core values of the investing style we practice at our Motley Fool Hidden Gems small-cap investing service. If you'd like a free look at all of our small-cap research and recommendations, including part one of our annual review issue (to be released this Thursday), click here to join Hidden Gems free for 30 days. There is no obligation to subscribe.

This article was first published March 25, 2008. It has been updated.

Seth Jayson , a top-20 CAPS player, is co-advisor at Motley Fool Hidden Gems. At the time of publication he had no positions in any company mentioned here. JPMorgan Chase is a Motley Fool Income Investor recommendation. The Fool has a disclosure policy.