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— Norbert Lou

Multibaggers of the Fortune 500: The Best Performing Stocks

Having devoted much of my working life to finding hedge funds that could grow wealth at high rates over the long term for their limited partners, I find it interesting from time to time to compare these funds to what I consider their closest competition: direct investment in large companies, held for the long term.

On that note, Fortune recently published its annual Fortune 500 issue. The issue tracks the stock price performance of the 500 largest American companies over the last decade, from 2002 through 2012. This year I counted 46 companies that managed to compound at over 20 percent per year annualized—a rate that would produce a six-fold gain after ten years.

That is to say, a little over 9 percent of corporate America would have qualified as outstanding hedge funds had they simply added a “Capital Management” after their names and carried on with their business. Now, many of these companies were in the shale business, which experienced something of a one-off boom in the past decade. But it is still sobering to consider how difficult it really is to outperform your money manager. Perhaps not so difficult as we think.

You may object, “But it is not so easy to pick a stock that will compound at 20 percent for a decade.” And you are right. You may also object, “Many of today’s Fortune 500 makes that list because of their outstanding growth in the last ten years. Ten years ago they would have been anonymous faces in the crowd, very difficult to find.” And you would also be right.

But consider also two points in my favor:

1) “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth,” said Sherlock Holmes. If you are setting out to find the one stock out of 11 that will become a six-bagger, you can make great progress simply by eliminating those stocks that have the smallest chance of doing so. You’d eliminate the richly valued, the largest of the large, and those companies that do not earn high returns on capital. If you know enough to pick a money manager who can outperform, I would venture to say, then you know enough to do this.

2) You don’t need to find all of the six-baggers in order to produce a satisfactory return over ten years. Suppose you had set out in 2002 to choose a $1 million portfolio that consisted only of those stocks you believed had the best change of becoming six-baggers over ten years. Suppose you were right about some, and that their average return was 20.0 percent annualized on the nose. And suppose you were wrong about the others, and that their average return was a mere 7 percent annualized—which roughly corresponds to the return of the S&P 500 over the period in question.

Now then, how much of your $1,000,000 would you have to be right about in order to achieve an overall return of 12 percent annualized, which most would consider more than satisfactory relative to the S&P? The answer is: just $270,000, or 27 percent.

Here is the list of 46 (listed in order of their 2012 revenues):

1)     Apple                                               54.0% annualized return

2)     ExpressScripts                              24.6

3)     Intl FCStone                                  25.8

4)     Amazon                                           29.5

5)     Humana                                          21.5

6)     World Fuel Services                     23.9

7)     Plains All-American                   21.9

8)     Tesoro                                             35.6

9)     McDonalds                                    21.6

10)   Occidental Petroleum                20.8

11)    HollyFrontier                               36.2

12)    National Oilwell Varco            20.7

13)    Cummins                                      33.7

14)    Yum Brands                                20.2

15)    Monsanto                                    27.4

16)    Oneok                                          20.4

17)    Western Digital                        21.0

18)    Nordstrom                                 21.0

19)    EOG Resources                         20.3

20)    Gilead                                          24.1

21)    Sherwin-Williams                   20.8

22)    Rock-Tenn                                 20.0

23)    Davita Healthcare                   21.0

24)    Reliance Steel                           20.7

25)    Reynolds American                22.1

26)    Williams                                     33.4

27)    Tenneco                                      24.1

28)    Cognizant                                   28.5

29)    Precision Castparts                 31.9

30)    Ralph Lauren                            21.9

31)    Wesco International              28.5

32)    Quanta Services                      22.8

33)    Seaboard                                   27.0

34)    O’Reilly Automotive               21.6

35)    FMC Technologies                 24.3

36)    PVH                                            26.0

37)    Cliffs Natural Resources       33.2

38)    General Cable                          23.1

39)    Dick’s Sporting Goods           26.1

40)    Joy Global                                30.4

41)    Celgene                                     30.8

42)    Andersons                               22.5

43)    Priceline                                   51.7

44)    Wynn Resorts                        29.0

45)    JB Hunt                                   24.7

46)    Simon Property                      21.3