"Now is an absolutely ridiculous time to buy small-cap stocks."
"You'd be a dope to snap up shares of companies like PMI Group
That's what you might be hearing, now that the small-cap Russell 2000 Index is outpacing the S&P 500 by more than 17 percentage points. Even The Wall Street Journal predicts that the small-cap rally is set to come to a screeching halt.
But don't be duped ...
Just because many small-cap stocks have experienced a huge increase in the past few months doesn't mean you should avoid all of them (though you should be careful of the risky stocks I just mentioned).
First, no one accurately called the market's bottom in March, so it's dubious whether anyone has the ability to call a top just a few months later.
Second, the Russell 2000's sharp rise has largely been driven by the speculative bidding-up of penny stocks (stocks with share prices below $5). Many companies whose share prices exceeded $5 in March have not shared in the astronomically high returns -- including companies whose fundamentals have actually improved.
This trend isn't unique to small caps. In fact, S&P 500 stocks whose prices fell below $5 during this bear market -- including JDS Uniphase
But this still raises the question: Why have penny stocks risen quicker than non-penny stocks?
Pain, baby, pain
For one thing, many of these companies faced the possibility of bankruptcy in the credit crisis, and now that that's less of a concern, their share prices reflect the fact that they probably won't be zero any time soon.
There's also what behavioral psychologists refer to as the "pain of paying" -- the mental barrier we face when parting with our cash. The higher the cost, the higher the barrier.
For investors focusing on share price (instead of, say, underlying company quality), it's less painful to toss an extra dime per share into purchasing a penny stock -- even if that dime represents twice what the stock was trading for the day before -- than it is to toss in an extra $5 per share for a stock that was trading for more than $100 a share the day before.
Rational? Certainly not.
However, this speculative irrationality presents the savvy small-cap investor with a great opportunity.
How to cash in on small-cap movement
There are two ways you can profit from the rush to penny stocks:
1. Join the rush, and wager your hard-earned money by guessing which penny stock might rise next.
2. Invest in small-cap companies whose fundamentals have been improving, but which are still undervalued by the market.
As much as we'd all love to have a stock shoot up nearly 7,300% in just a few months -- as penny-stock micro-cap Diedrich Coffee recently did -- at the end of the day, the first tactic is nothing but a risky crapshoot.
So though your inclination might be to go for the gusto to make up for losses, the second option is really the only way to set yourself up with a portfolio that will grow your wealth at above-average rates over long periods of time.
Time to be smart
One company I think you'd be smart to buy right now -- one that I have my eye on, and which the team at Motley Fool Hidden Gems recently purchased shares of -- is Brink's Home Security.
Brink's has a market cap of just $1.5 billion, and it boasts a clean balance sheet, with $109 million in cash and zero debt. Best of all, it's trading for around eight times the Hidden Gems team's calculation of steady-state cash flow.
The stock has risen significantly since the end of 2008 -- but the team still expects market-beating returns over the next two to three years, with minimal risk.
You can browse through the team's whole investment thesis, and examine the in-depth valuation of this company and many others, completely free with a trial membership to Hidden Gems. Click here for more information.
Already a member of Hidden Gems? Log in at the top of this page.
This article was originally published Aug. 24, 2009. It has been updated.