In "70 Times Better Than the Next Microsoft," my colleague Bill Barker revealed which category of stocks outperformed from 1927 to 2005. Given the insane market volatility we've experienced recently, I've updated Bill's numbers through the end of 2008 ,to see what critical lessons we can draw. Here, then, are the returns for four categories of stocks from 1927-2008:

Category

Value

Growth

Large Cap

10.9%

8.9%

Small Cap

13.6%

9%

Source: Kenneth French. Categories are based on market capitalizations and price-to-book multiples.

This data comes from highly respected scholars Fama and French, and it has powerful implications for investors.

It shows that over an 81-year period -- hardly a small sample size -- value stocks outperform growth stocks, and small stocks outperform large stocks. The best-performing category was small-cap value stocks, by a wide margin.

How wide?
They may look like small percentage differences, but with compounding, those small percentages add up to mind-boggling amounts of money. Here's how much $100 invested in 1927 in each of these categories, and rebalanced annually, would be worth today:

Category

Value

Growth

Large Cap

$437,860

$97,682

Small Cap

$3,086,003

$103,798

In other words, after 81 years, investing in small-cap value stocks would have yielded anywhere from seven to 31 times as much money as any of the other categories!

A big reason for small-cap value's dramatic outperformance is Wall Street's constant obsession with large, prominent firms -- like Pfizer (NYSE: PFE) and Cisco (Nasdaq: CSCO). When hunting for bargains, investors should keep in mind that more prominent stocks such as these are far less likely to be mispriced than more obscure small caps.

It's no accident, after all, that every one of the market's 10 best-performing stocks of the past decade was a small cap.

And when you combine a group of stocks that tends to be mispriced (small caps) with a group of stocks trading at low valuations (value), you're likely to find some great bargains.

Here's why
When a closely watched company appears cheap, there's often a good reason for it. That's why in a column last September, "Don't Touch These 3 Huge Value Traps," I warned investors to stay away from Citigroup, Lehman Brothers, and Wachovia.

Even though they were trading at or well below book value, these were closely followed institutions, dealing with continuing writedowns, managerial missteps, and deteriorating businesses. With so much interest in their condition from Wall Street hotshots -- each had more than 16 analysts following them -- it seemed likely their share price declines were justified.

That may not be the case for small caps. In fact, research cited in The Wall Street Journal, along with my own findings, shows that small caps tend to outperform when the market rebounds. In fact, the top performers since the market's March lows were largely small caps.

Why? Because small value stocks are less closely followed by professionals, they are more likely to be mispriced. So, when times are tough -- and times have been tough since late 2007 -- that mispricing means that small caps are punished beyond justification.

What to look for today
This isn't to say that small stocks are low-risk. Indeed, if this market has taught us anything, it's that every stock has risk. But the data does indicate that size itself isn't a great measure of safety.

From the start of this recession until the March market bottom, the small-cap tracking Russell 2000 index was basically in line with the S&P 500, and it has rebounded more rapidly.

And when we examine names such as Morgan Stanley (NYSE: MS), Citigroup, Wells Fargo (NYSE: WFC) prey Wachovia, and the assets formerly known as Lehman Brothers, we see that risk has less to do with whether a company is large or small, and a whole lot more to do with heavy debt levels, shoddy executive compensation structures, unwieldy and arcane business units, and/or unprofitability.

In light of these facts, investors should consider buying companies with:

  • Little or no debt
  • Heavy insider ownership
  • High profitability

In fact, these are all qualities that Warren Buffett says he seeks. So, taking the lessons from the Fama and French data, and with a debt of gratitude to Buffett, I've selected three small-cap value stocks (each has below-market-average price-to-book value multiples -- Fama and French's value metric) that share those qualities:

Company

Market Capitalization

Price-to-Book Ratio

Debt/Equity

Insider Ownership

Return on Equity

Diana Shipping (NYSE: DSX)

$1.1 billion

1.1

23%

18%

20%

Zhongpin (Nasdaq: HOGS)

$359 million

1.6

67%

28%

19%

Universal Insurance (AMEX: UVE)

$188 million

1.6

39%

61%

32%

Data from Capital IQ, a division of Standard & Poor's. Data through June 3, 2009.

Of course, these three bargain stocks aren't official recommendations, but they share many qualities that make for great investments, and they're excellent starting points for further research. Moreover, they hail from the small-cap value quadrant, the category that has outperformed them all.

Some more ideas
More than eight decades of historical data confirms that small-cap value stocks tend to outperform over the long haul. Research also shows that if you're going to be looking for great small-cap stocks, now is a particularly great time to begin bargain-hunting.

Our Motley Fool Hidden Gems team looks exclusively at small caps with limited analyst coverage, little or no debt, and dedicated leadership. With stocks so cheap, they're seeing some incredible bargains today. If you're looking for more ideas, click here to read all about our favorite small cap stocks, free for the next 30 days.

Already a Hidden Gems subscriber? Log in here.

This article was first published May 5, 2009. It has been updated.

Ilan Moscovitz doesn't own shares of any company mentioned, nor does he have any small kittens L. Pfizer is a Motley Fool Inside Value recommendation. The Fool's disclosure policy is crazy for Pounce!