Investors have a natural and understandable attraction to large-cap stocks. Everyone's heard of Cisco Systems and Coca-Cola, after all, and most know what they do to generate revenue. There's also a lot of analyst and news coverage for large caps, so we all have a good way of knowing what these firms are up to. Sounds like a great deal, right?

Well, it is -- if you want to settle for lower returns.

Why you need small caps
According to research from NYU professor Aswath Damodaran, studies have consistently found that smaller companies "earn higher returns than larger firms of equivalent risk." During Damodaran's study period of 1927 to 2001, the smallest companies outperformed the largest ones with a 20% annual return, versus 12% on a value-weighted basis. The outperformance was even greater on an equally weighted basis.

One reason is that small caps, being, um ... small, simply have more "room to run" than the big boys. You can get a better sense of this by looking at some of the top-performing large- and small-cap stocks over the past five years. First, some of the top companies with market caps of more than $50 billion five years ago:


Feb. 2003
Market Cap

Total Return,
Feb. 2003 to Feb. 2008

Chevron (NYSE:CVX)

$77 billion


Exxon Mobil

$236 billion


Hewlett-Packard (NYSE:HPQ)

$64 billion



$62 billion


PepsiCo (NYSE:PEP)

$80 billion


Now, here were some of the best performers for companies with market caps between $200 million and $2 billion (the universe from which we select recommendations for our Motley Fool Hidden Gems small-cap investing service):


July 2003
Market Cap

Total Return,
July 2003 to July 2008

Research In Motion

$1.671 billion


McDermott International  

$370 million


Walter Industries (NYSE:WLT)

$574 million


Chemical & Mining Co. of Chile (NYSE:SQM)

$798 million



$1.672 billion


*Data provided by Capital IQ, a division of Standard & Poor's.

Simply put, the smallest companies have much more upside than the largest. But be aware: Higher potential reward comes with higher risk. Buy one of the worst-performing small caps, and you'll likely earn a total loss of capital -- which is a fancy Wall Street phrase for "losing all your money." That's why at Hidden Gems, we seek out only the highest-quality small caps: those with high insider ownership, a strong balance sheet, a solid business model, and a compelling valuation.

It's time to think small
Using these principles, Tom Gardner and his team's stock recommendations have outperformed the S&P 500 by an average of 22% to 2% since the service began nearly five years ago. Their results show that small caps can indeed improve returns, and should be a part of any balanced portfolio.

If you're interested in a look at all of the Hidden Gems recommendations, Tom is offering a full-access, 30-day free trial to the service. Here's more information.

This article was originally published on Sept. 14, 2006. It has been updated.

Rex Moore has nearly mastered quantum mechanics, but is stuck on that "wave-particle duality" thingie. He owns no shares mentioned in this story. Coca-Cola is an Inside Valueselection. The Fool's disclosure policy shines year-round.