On the heels of some seriously ugly macroeconomic news and last year's market plunge, investors withdrew more than $55 billion from their mutual funds in just the first three months of this year. Things are scary out there, and investors are (understandably) freaking out.

All that pressure got you down ...
When Wall Street's all sunshine and roses, everyone is a stock market genius. Only during the uncertain times do most investors seek "expert" advice. That often means pulling up Yahoo! Finance to see what analysts think of their stocks.

Despite my long-standing misgivings about the worthiness of Wall Street's advice -- especially now, after a year of watching their business sense nearly destroy our entire economy -- I wanted to find Wall Street's 10 favorite stocks.

So I built a screen using Capital IQ, a great institutional software package. I sought out the stocks with the most analyst "net buy" recommendations, with net buys defined as buys minus sells.

Here they are:

Company

Analyst Net Buy Recommendations

% Owned by Institutions*

Market Cap

Activision Blizzard

18

45%

$14.6 billion

Enterprise Products

14

23%

$11.9 billion

American Eagle

13

65%

$2.7 billion

Aqua America (NYSE:WTR)

13

53%

$2.4 billion

Applied Materials

12

94%

$15.1 billion

Humana

12

85%

$5.2 billion

BioMarin Pharmaceuticals

11

129%

$1.4 billion

Juniper Networks (NASDAQ:JNPR)

11

114%

$12.1 billion

St. Jude (NYSE:STJ)

11

89%

$13.7 billion

Comcast (NASDAQ:CMCSA)

11

86%

$38.8 billion

Source: Capital IQ, a division of Standard & Poor's.
Includes domestic stocks trading on major exchanges. Analyst recommendations as of June 30, 2009; institutional ownership as of March 31, 2009.
*Approximate. Institutional ownership may exceed 100% because of short sales or a lag time in the reporting of institutional holdings.

So what general themes can we gather from this list?

  1. For all the flak that we at The Motley Fool dish out to Wall Street for its susceptibility to deadly value traps, chronically unhinged earnings estimates, and proclivity to overvalue stocks, I was pleasantly surprised to see so many strong names on the list. Activision, St. Jude, and Comcast have competitive advantages from their brand, patents, and monopolies, respectively. NYSE Euronext (NYSE:NYX) recently announced it will be using Juniper's hardware to help it build the world's fastest trading network. Aqua America, Enterprise Products, and Applied Materials enjoy strong support from our 135,000-member CAPS investment community.

  2. Six of Wall Street's 10 favorite stocks hail from the health-care and IT industries. Qualcomm and Amgen (NASDAQ:AMGN) also ranked very highly. We could read this as an informed endorsement that these industries will lead the recovery. Analysts could also be betting that these businesses will benefit from stimulus spending on broadband access, National Institutes of Health research, and subsidized health insurance. Alternatively, it could just mean that even during recessions, Wall Street can't help but get wrapped up in its enthusiasm for exciting growth industries.

  3. Almost by definition, most of Wall Street's favorite stocks are widely followed, widely owned, large, prominent companies. Twenty-six analysts cover these stocks on average. All have heavy institutional ownership, and the majority are large caps valued at more than $10 billion.

While many of them could turn out to be great investments, do any of Wall Street's 10 favorite stocks have what it takes to be among the market's 10 best-performing stocks?

Let's find out
To answer that question, let's compare Wall Street's best buy list to the past decade's 10 best-performing stocks.

For each of the past four years, Tim Hanson, former microcap analyst at Motley Fool Hidden Gems, has published his findings on the market's best-performing stocks. Here is his most recent data:

Company

Return, 1999-2008

Jan. 1, 1999 Market Cap

Hansen Natural

4,801%

$53 million

Celgene

4,167%

$252 million

Quality Systems (NASDAQ:QSII)

4,002%

$26 million

Clean Harbors

3,953%

$16 million

Green Mountain Coffee Roasters

3,786%

$19 million

Deckers Outdoor

3,374%

$19 million

Almost Family

3,122%

$9 million

XTO Energy

2,992%

$343 million

Southwestern Energy

2,911%

$187 million

FTI Consulting

2,907%

$16 million

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

What characteristics do the market's top 10 stocks have in common?

They certainly don't belong to a common industry -- Hansen makes natural fruit juices and energy drinks, Deckers sells Ugg boots and other footwear, Almost Family does home nursing, and Southwestern searches for natural gas. These are about as varied and as seemingly random a collection of companies as you could hope to find.

But the 10 best-performing stocks did share three special things in common before they made their incredible runs. They were:

  1. Ignored
  2. Obscure
  3. Small

While many of the stocks on Wall Street's top 10 list may be excellent choices, none of them shares the three qualities that seem so crucial to stellar performance.

Stocks possessing these traits not only have more opportunities for growth, but they also attract less coverage from Wall Street -- meaning they're more likely to be mispriced. Ironically, these very qualities make it nearly impossible for any of the best-performing stocks to rank among Wall Street's favorites!

And as I've shown in a previous column, those attributes are especially attractive today, when so many stocks are cheap. According to data I compiled from Ibbotson Associates, a leading authority on investing research, small stocks outperformed large stocks over the past 13 recessions by an average of four percentage points annually!

Small is good
Wall Street's 10 favorite stocks may turn out to be great investments, but it's highly unlikely that any company that attracts so much attention will be one of the top 10 stocks of the next decade. If you want to buy the best returns the market has to offer, you have to be willing to look where others aren't.

Our team at Hidden Gems looks exclusively for promising stocks that are too small to find their way onto Wall Street's radar. They may not be the most recommended stocks, but that's exactly the point. If you're looking for some more ideas, click here to read all about our favorite small-cap bargains, free for the next 30 days.

Already subscribed to Hidden Gems? Log in at the top of this page.

This article was first published April 3, 2009. It has been updated.

Ilan Moscovitz owns shares of Hansen Natural. Activision Blizzard and Quality Systems are Stock Advisor recommendations. Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, NYSE Euronext, and Hansen Natural are Rule Breakers selections. Enterprise Products is an Income Investor selection. The Fool has a disclosure policy.