It seemed as though the bloodletting would never end, but the market finally turned on March 9 of last year. There have been a few blips and bumps on the ride back, but the S&P 500 is up over 60% since the rally began. One of the most common questions I'm receiving now is, "What stocks should I be in now?"

Aston River/Road Asset Management senior portfolio manager Andrew Beck recently told The Wall Street Journal, "Small caps tend to lead coming out of a recession, and we're now transitioning to that period where the market tends to be led by larger stocks of quality."

That pretty much sums up the common wisdom, and we agree with most of it. Most of it. The brisk, post-March 9 rally was in large part boosted by lower quality small caps that had been brutally hammered during the credit crisis. What's more, they were hammered fairly; they were, after all, mostly over-leveraged and poorly managed companies that investors knew had a real chance of going to zero -- bankrupt. When the crisis eased and it became apparent many would survive, it was natural to see them skyrocket from their lows.

One way to illustrate this is with the well-known and very predictive Altman-Z metric. An Alt-Z score below 1.8 indicates a strong possibility of bankruptcy for a company. I did some research and found there were 1,067 publicly traded small caps with scores below 1.8 in the first quarter of 2009. Yet when the market turned, those distressed companies returned an average of 230% during the rally. Here are a few of those winners:


March 9, 2009
Market Cap

March 9, 2009-Jan. 1, 2010 Return

Las Vegas Sands (NYSE: LVS)



MannKind (Nasdaq: MNKD)



Hecla Mining (NYSE: HL)



ATP Oil & Gas (Nasdaq: ATPG)



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

In the meantime, there were 1,822 small caps on March 9 with Altman-Z scores above the danger zone. But this group averaged only 137% gains in the ensuing rally -- almost half of what the distressed group returned. Still, investors in companies like these could only watch as the troubled firms left them behind:


March 9, 2009 Market Cap

March 9, 2009-Jan. 1, 2010 Return

Hemispherx Biopharma (AMEX: HEB)



Geron (Nasdaq: GERN)






Taser (Nasdaq: TASR)



Data provided by Capital IQ.

Not all 1,822 companies in the latter group could be considered high quality, of course; probably not even half of them. But the point is distressed and deeply troubled small-caps averaged better than a triple during this brief time frame.

That particular small-cap rally is over and done with, however, and while those 1,067 low quality companies are breathing easier, many are still saddled with debt and the same management that got them in hot water in the first place. That's why many investors are now looking to larger, slower-growing companies for the next leg of the rally.

Not so fast ...
But -- we don't think you need to give up the awesome potential of small caps in order to participate in any wider rally that may be coming up. After all, there are smallies out there that are extremely well managed, have little or no debt, and that operate with competitive advantages that even the big boys admire.

Even better, the companies I'm talking about were left behind when their fellow small caps were rallying. Yes, that's right: Many high-quality, built-for-dominance small caps were left treading water while fragile, troubled firms were doubling and tripling off their lows.

What that leaves us with today is something beautiful indeed: Underpriced, quality small caps that should soon catch the attention of institutions and individual investors alike.

For instance
Now, how about that stock I promised in the headline? Our team of small cap experts at Motley Fool Hidden Gems has tabbed Form Factor for exactly the reasons mentioned above. This maker of semiconductor testing equipment is well positioned for the long term boom in the chip sector. It has a competitive advantage in the form of patents and sports a nearly debt-free balance sheet. What's more, the stock has lagged far behind the general market rally, and the Gems team thinks it's trading well under fair value -- thus making it a Buy First recommendation.

You can read more about Form Factor and see the 11 other Buy First stocks free for the next 30 days. Here's more information.

Fool analyst Rex Moore fought beside Davy Crockett at the Alamo. Rex owns no companies mentioned in this article. FormFactor is a Motley Fool Hidden Gems recommendation. Motley Fool Options has recommended a bull call spread position on FormFactor. The Fool owns shares of FormFactor. The Fool has a disclosure policy.