They call stocks "investment vehicles." Rolling with that analogy, cash-rich companies are vehicles equipped with airbags. I'm not talking about the usual cash-rich suspects like Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT). The software giant is packing $49 billion in cash and investments. Nice. But that's just a fifth of the company's market cap. As a cash cushion, it's more bubble wrap than thick and puffy airbag.

Last summer, I looked at four companies whose liquid assets actually made up the lion's share of their total capitalization. That is, I wrote about companies that were so ripe with cash and so free of debt that the enterprise value (what's left of a company's total market value after you take away cash and investments and add in long-term debt) was closing in on nil.

When the net cost of acquiring a company -- the price you actually pay for the business -- is essentially pocket change, it's often safe to assume you've got damaged goods. Garage sale Picassos need not apply. And yet, while stocks that pack light in enterprise value do come with baggage, distressed pricing is not so worrisome when you see a catalyst for improvement on the horizon and don't see a cash incinerator installed in the CFO's office.

Let's look at the performance of my picks from last year:

    7/29/02   7/30/03    Change
    Paulson Capital  (NASDAQ:PLCC)     $5.10     $5.50       +8%Vulcan International  (NYSE:VUL)   $38.50    $36.75  (NASDAQ:RCOM)        $7.25     $6.11      -16%Equity Marketing  (NASDAQ:EMAK)    $12.05    $14.61     +21%

No implosions, but no real standouts, either. The stocks gained on average a paltry 2%. That's rather pathetic given a relatively buoyant market, but in all honesty, these four are marching to the beat of a different drummer. Even if the market had gone the other way, these likely would have behaved as they did.

With one eye banking on fiscal stability and the other looking ahead to a potential catalyst, here's my cross-eyed view of four more stocks with fat bottoms.

National Presto Industries (NYSE:NPK) -- At least some of the pressure on Presto is undoubtedly coming from one of its own pressure cookers. If you look around your kitchen you may find one of the company's salad shooters, deep fryers, popcorn makers, or, yes, pressure cookers.

Profitable yet sleepy, it would be easy to dismiss Presto as a run-of-the-mill manufacturer of kitchen gadgets. That is, of course, only until you get to the balance sheet. With $208 million in cash and short-term investments, Presto's packing a little more than $30 in cash for each of the company's 6.8 million outstanding shares. The stock? It closed at $34.01 on Wednesday.

Presto has suffered a drought of new blockbuster products and has had to pay the price of relying too heavily on Wal-Mart (NYSE:WMT) and Target (NYSE:TGT) for distribution. But will the stock fall much further if the company continues to post profits? Presto is an innovator. One hit in the pipeline and the stock can pick up sizable gains. Presto is a lot of things but a disappearing act it's not.

Gateway (NYSE:GTW) -- Talk about your cash cows. For most of the past year, Gateway's been worth less than worthless to the market. With $1.17 billion in cash -- roughly $3.60 a share -- it wasn't until this past week's rally toward $5 that the company managed a consistently positive enterprise value.

Why was Gateway trading at -- and on choice days even below -- the value of its liquid assets? Well, the company has been a laggard in a dud sector. Selling personal computers has made for a crappy business if your name isn't Dell (NASDAQ:DELL), and the company will close out 2003 having produced just one profitable quarter this side of the millennium.

But this isn't the old Gateway. This is a company that has moved away from the cutthroat, commoditized box-maker world by thinking outside of it. The company is now a leader in high-end plasma television sets, and its gross margins continue to improve as it rolls out new products like digital cameras and handhelds. While non-computer business accounted for just 28% of total revenue this past quarter, that figure will continue to grow. Realistically, the stock should follow suit.

Fab Industries (AMEX:FIT) -- When you hear the name Fab what comes to mind: laundry detergent or the surviving perpetrator of the Milli Vanilli fraud? You probably weren't thinking textiles, which is how this Fab found its way to this list. With its domestic production of fabrics and home furnishings facing steep competition from imports despite the soft dollar, you might wonder why the company is even profitable. Well, it's mostly the returns on its huge cash investments.

With $49.5 million -- or $9.45 a share -- in cash and short-term investments, what was the stock doing at $9.20 on Wednesday? I hate to drag a perfectly good ticker symbol into this, but it just doesn't FIT.

The catalyst here isn't as apparent as the potential for new products from Presto and Gateway. We're talking textiles here. Sleepy, yawn-inducing textiles. But the company has already made some overtures on the payout front. It's 83-year-old CEO at the helm, Fab distributed roughly half of its greenbacks to investors in a special dividend last summer.

Now I'm not necessarily a fan of these one-shot yield gestures, but if liquidation is Fab's endgame, play on. The cash kitty covers the stock price, and whatever the company can get for its textiles business ($56.5 million in sales over the past year) is gravy.

Keynote Systems (NASDAQ:KEYN) -- Anyone who believes that the bubbling Internet sector is spouting the Kool-Aid again hasn't stumbled across Keynote. As a provider of web performance management and testing services, Keynote may miss the days of free-spending dot-coms -- but that's what makes the company's situation even more alluring.

With a 99% retention rate from a client list that runs 2,300 companies deep, the company's doing well. Yes, Keynote has posted losses throughout its four-year publicly traded life but the company has also produced six consecutive quarters of operating cash flow. Last week the company announced that free cash flow increased to $1.5 million in the June quarter.

What's the cash catch? After a tender offer in May resulted in the repurchase of a fifth of the outstanding shares, the company now finds itself with $159.4 million in cash and short-term investments. That's $8.50 a share. But you won't get that sum off the June financial statements. The tender offer took place during the fiscal third quarter, so the average weighted number of shares is still listed at 20.8 million. It will be 18.7 million in the current quarter. As of Wednesday's close, Keynote's enterprise value was a paltry $34 million.

Keynote's potential lies in an economic recovery -- specifically one that will see more companies adopting an aggressive e-business attitude. With its solid reputation, guess who will be the Keynote speaker?

You want more? You got it. Our Green Gene Stocks discussion board finds Fool Community members sharing their cash-rich stock ideas. And don't worry. Just because these stocks come with airbags doesn't mean that the vehicles can't motor along at a brisk speed if the fundamentals are right.

Rick enjoys the Cracker Jack Surprise of finding cash-rich companies where the underlying businesses can be had for practically nothing. He's tempted by some of the stocks that he has uncovered but he hasn't bought any of them yet. Rick's stock holdings can be viewed online, as can the Fool's disclosure policy.