Addus Homecare Corporation (ADUS), Virtus Investment Partners Inc (VRTS), GP Strategies Corporation (GPX): The Hidden Bargains in Micro Caps

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There are a lot of good reasons to invest in small-cap stocks, especially when it comes time to count your money. An investor who stashed $10,000 in the small-cap Russell 2000 Index 15 years ago would have seen his investment grow to $30,349 while someone who bought the S&P 500 Index would only have $19,805, according to Morningstar data. That relationship of outperformance holds true even over longer time periods. But how abundant are small-cap opportunities in today’s somewhat pricey market environment?

A bargain’s a bargain, no matter how small

While small-cap investors are probably grateful for the beefy returns this sector has generated in recent years, significant price appreciation brings its own downside — elevated valuations. And since current valuations have a meaningful inverse relationship to future returns, today’s higher prices may be signaling subdued returns in the days ahead. Given that the most recent trailing 12-month price-to-earnings ratio for the Russell 2000 Index is 19.3 versus 17.2 for the S&P 500, it would appear small caps have a higher return hurdle to clear. But not all small caps are created equal. In fact, micro-cap stocks are trading at significantly cheaper multiples than larger small caps. At last glance, the MSCI US Micro Cap Index was sporting a mere 12.6 P/E.

Micro-cap stocks are the smallest of the small-cap universe — generally, companies with a market capitalization between $50 million and $300 million. And while these pint-sized businesses frequently offer outsized growth prospects, they also come with a hefty helping of risk and volatility. As such, investors need to approach this market with their eyes wide open.

And while there are a few worthwhile exchange-traded funds that focus on the micro-cap market, such as iShares Russell Microcap Index and Wilshire Micro-Cap ETF , investors may want to consider getting their exposure elsewhere. That’s because micro-cap investing may be another area where active management has an advantage over indexing. According to Barron’s, two-thirds of active micro-cap funds have beaten comparable ETFs over the past three years. That’s because the most illiquid stocks, which exchange-traded funds routinely avoid, tend to have the highest performance in this peer group. For example, a recent study from Yale University found that the most liquid quartile of micro-cap stocks returned an annualized 1.3% from 1972 through 2011 while the least liquid group earned a 15.4% return in that same time period. So if you want to make the most of the micro-cap market, consider some of the following first-rate actively managed funds.

Addus Homecare Corporation (NASDAQ:ADUS)

Small stocks, big bite

Over at Perritt MicroCap Opportunities (PRCGX), manager Michael Corbett isn’t afraid to delve into less liquid small-fry companies, since he believes those stocks tend to be the primary driver of the fund’s returns. The focus here is on finding attractive emerging businesses that the broader market is ignoring. The current portfolio is heavily concentrated in tech and industrial and currently includes roughly 120 names.

Corbett has made several timely investments recently, including nursing service provider Addus Homecare Corporation (NASDAQ:ADUS), which had been racked by operating inefficiencies and was swiftly punished by the market. However, Corbett believed management would turn things around and increase profitability, and they did. Likewise, asset-management firm Virtus Investment Partners Inc (NASDAQ:VRTS) was severely undervalued and misunderstood in the market since its beginnings as a product of a reverse merger. Corbett believed the company was vastly undervalued based on its assets under management compared to industry norms, and the market eventually rewarded his patience. The portfolio’s investment in both Addus Homecare Corporation (NASDAQ:ADUS) and Virtus Investment Partners Inc (NASDAQ:VRTS) has increased more than 500% since the time of purchase, helping to fuel the fund’s 11.6% annualized 15-year gain, which lands it ahead of 89% of its peers in that time frame.

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