Whenever there's a lot of uncertainty in the economy, there's a great temptation to retreat to the safest names you can think of for your portfolio. Over the long run, however, it's likely that you're going to need more than just solid, steady large-cap stocks to reach your financial goals.

Safety, of a sort
No one really knows which direction the stock market is headed right now. After a huge rally that has gone well beyond even most investors' wildest dreams of avarice, plenty of skeptics are poised for some event to break the euphoria and send stocks plummeting once more. You can see how skittish investors are by looking at the reaction to Friday's fraud charges against Goldman Sachs; a piece of news that was directed at a single stock threw the entire market for a loop.

Yet it's telling where investors sought refuge from falling stock prices. Among the few gainers were some extremely well-known stocks in other sectors. Coca-Cola (NYSE: KO), for instance, rose more than 1%, and Verizon (NYSE: VZ) eked out a small gain. Why did these stocks buck the market? It's simple: A Wall Street lawsuit has nothing to do with how Coke is turning its huge brand recognition into sales, even in poor areas of China. Goldman's fate won't have any impact on Verizon's rapidly evolving smartphone strategy. Rather than falling prey to prevailing market opinion, those stalwarts stood on their own merits and did what you'd expect them to do in a crisis: They stood their ground.

That kind of security is incredibly comforting during tough times. But it comes at a price.

Giving up growth
The problem with many large-cap companies is that they've already seen the vast majority of their growth. They may well still be reasonable investments for certain types of investors. Especially when a particular business generates a good deal of free cash flow, income-seeking investors can be extremely happy owning shares of mature companies that pay out their profits to shareholders via dividends.

But many investors don't have enough money to be able to afford to rest on their laurels and live off dividend payments. Instead, they need companies that will grow aggressively over time, delivering capital appreciation to help you build a big enough nest egg that you can retire on your own terms.

Unfortunately, many big companies aren't going to deliver much in the growth department. Here are some prime examples:

Stock

Dividend Yield

Estimated 5-Year Future Earnings Growth

Merck (NYSE: MRK)

4.2%

3.8%

Pfizer (NYSE: PFE)

4.3%

2.4%

Consolidated Edison (NYSE: ED)

5.3%

3.3%

Verizon

6.4%

4.9%

CenturyTel (NYSE: CTL)

8%

0.3%

Source: Yahoo Finance.

You can't deny that the dividends that these stocks throw off are impressive. But stagnant earnings growth -- even among analyst estimates that are usually biased upward -- raises concerns. Merck and Pfizer both rely on pipelines of drugs to replace sales of blockbuster sellers after their patents expire, and it's uncertain where they'll find new drugs to replace lost revenue. Verizon and CenturyTel have turned decades of infrastructure investment into big dividend payments, but they face increasing competition in broadband services, and bread-and-butter revenue generators like landlines may soon end up looking like the 21st century's equivalent of the buggy-whip maker. And ConEd, like many utilities, is subject to the whim of regulators -- which doesn't exactly put a business in the driver's seat to determine its own destiny.

Think small
In contrast, small-cap stocks have a three-part recipe for success. They have a lot more room to run with strong ideas. They're small enough to go unnoticed by many professional analysts on Wall Street, giving you a bigger reward for your work. And historically, they've outperformed large-cap stocks as a class -- and the best performers among them have the capacity for truly amazing gains.

Take JA Solar (Nasdaq: JASO), for instance. The maker of solar cells has suffered along with the rest of the solar industry in recent years as prices fell to unsustainably low levels. Recently, though, the company guided estimates higher for shipments during the quarter -- and if alternative energy continues to grow in popularity, JA Solar could be among the beneficiaries. In addition, its relatively small market cap of $900 million means it still has room to run -- in fact, most analysts expect 16% growth per year over the next half decade.

When markets are crashing, big-cap stocks look like the place to be. But over the long run, you probably can't afford to rely solely on blue-chip names. Expand your horizon to consider small-cap stocks, and you'll put yourself in a much better position to get where you want to go.

Find the most promising stocks with less effort. Fool contributor Rex Moore can show you seven more signs of a winner.

Fool contributor Dan Caplinger often goes for the smaller choice. He doesn't own shares of the companies mentioned in this article. Coca-Cola and Pfizer are Motley Fool Inside Value picks. Coca-Cola is a Motley Fool Income Investor recommendation. Try any of our Foolish newsletters today, free for 30 days. For the answers you need, rely on the Fool's disclosure policy.