Investing in Large-Cap Stocks

Updated: April 28, 2020, 12:59 p.m.

Large-cap stocks are often thought of as the stalwarts of the stock market. Think of companies like Walt Disney (NYSE:DIS), Coca-Cola (NYSE:KO), and General Motors (NYSE:GM): All are large-cap companies, long-established giants with dominant positions in their industries.

While many investors find smaller, fast-growing companies particularly exciting, large-cap stocks can be very profitable opportunities for investors who take the time to understand them. And because these mammoth companies tend to be less volatile than their smaller siblings, they can also help diversify a portfolio of smaller stocks while still providing good growth over time.

Here’s a closer look at what large-cap stocks are, how to choose the best ones, and how to decide whether they’re right for your portfolio.

What are large-cap stocks?

Large-cap stocks are stocks of companies with a large market capitalization (the cap in large cap.) They’re so named because they’re larger than small-cap and mid-cap stocks.

We say that a stock is a large-cap stock when the total value of all of the company’s shares outstanding, meaning the shares held by all shareholders, including company insiders, is greater than $10 billion. (The very largest large-cap companies, with market caps over $200 billion, are sometimes called mega caps. Companies like Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN) and ExxonMobil (NYSE:XOM) fall into this bracket. Some investors think of them as a separate category of stocks, but for most purposes, they’re just jumbo large caps.)

Category Market Capitalization
Micro-cap companies Less than $300 million
Small-cap companies $300 million to $2 billion
Mid-cap companies $2 billion to $10 billion
Large-cap companies $10 billion to $200 billion
Mega-cap companies More than $200 billion

Source: The Motley Fool

Large-cap companies are typically older and well established. Not all are household names, but many are. Many pay dividends. Some large-cap companies are blue chips, meaning they’re very stable businesses with respected management teams, strong credit ratings, and a long history of growth. Others, generally industrial giants, are cyclical, meaning that their profits and stock prices tend to move up and down with the overall economy’s cycles. And some are fast-growing companies that may have been small-cap or mid-cap companies just a few years ago.

The chart below shows the performance of the benchmark large-cap index, the S&P 500, together with the S&P Mid Cap 400 and the small-cap Russell 2000, over the last 15 years through the end of 2019.

A chart comparing the performance of the Russell 2000, S&P500, and S&P400 from 2005 to 2020.

Image Source: Ycharts

As you can see, while large caps might not have been the best performers over shorter periods, they’ve delivered very good, relatively steady performance over the long run.

Five great large-cap stocks and funds to consider

Here are some excellent large-cap stocks to consider:

  • Ford Motor Company (NYSE: F) is a great example of a cyclical large-cap company. For investors, Ford’s strengths are its pickup trucks and commercial vehicles (which generate strong profit margins in good times), its tradition of paying a steady dividend, and the fact that it’s still controlled by the Ford family, which gives management the freedom to take a long-term view. As with all automakers, Ford’s is a cyclical business -- so investors should keep in mind that those profits (and that dividend) will tend to shrink or even disappear for a while when the economy turns sour and sales of new cars fall.
  • MercadoLibre (NASDAQ: MELI) is Latin America’s largest e-commerce site, and a great example of a large-cap company that is still growing quickly. Think of it as a combination of eBay (NASDAQ:EBAY) (because it features listings from third-party merchants) and Amazon (because it’s building its own shipping network) -- with a twist. The twist is the company’s payment tool, MercadoPago. Originally a PayPal-like service for MercadoLibre shoppers, it has grown to become something like a multinational bank for Latin Americans, who use it to make payments at places like grocery stores and gas stations.
  • Procter & Gamble (NYSE: PG) is an excellent example of a blue chip large-cap company. This dominant maker of soap, detergent, toothpaste, and other consumer staples is also a Dividend Aristocrat, meaning that it has raised its dividend annually for at least 25 years in a row. (Procter & Gamble has raised its dividend annually for 56 years in a row through 2019.) In true blue chip fashion, it’s very well managed, too: Despite its huge size, P&G has managed to post good earnings growth in recent years, thanks to constant work to improve its efficiency.

You can also choose to add the benefits of large-cap stocks to your portfolio by investing in a fund that focuses mostly or exclusively on large-cap companies.

  • Vanguard S&P 500 ETF (NYSEMKT: VOO) is an exchange-traded fund that tracks the performance of the S&P 500 Index, a leading index of large-cap stocks.
  • Fidelity Contrafund (NASDAQMUTFUND:FCNTX) is a mutual fund that invests in large-cap and mega-cap stocks, typically focusing on large-cap stocks with the potential for earnings growth over time. It’s actively managed, meaning that the fund’s manager is aiming to beat the performance of the S&P 500 Index, not just match it. Actively managed funds like Contrafund tend to have higher fees than index ETFs, intended to pay the fund’s human managers and analysts. The idea is that in exchange for higher fees, the manager will work to deliver performance that beats the index by more than enough to cover the difference.

How to evaluate top large-cap stocks

Great large-cap stocks come in different flavors. Some are former small-cap growth stocks that just kept growing, like MercadoLibre; some are longtime major players in industries that are difficult to enter, like Ford; and some are dominant giants with long traditions of strong management and steady growth, like Procter & Gamble.

Just about any top large-cap stock will have easy-to-see competitive strengths, strong brands, proven leadership teams, and a track record of taking care of investors -- whether through dividends or share-repurchase programs or simply delivering growth over a long period.

They’ll also tend to have a recent history of earnings growth, a strong dividend, or both.

Earnings growth

A stock’s price tends to follow the company’s earnings over time. If earnings are growing steadily, the stock’s price will tend to rise steadily as well. Although past earnings growth doesn’t guarantee more growth in the future, a strong company with a track record of earnings growth will generally be a good bet for investors.

While earnings growth typically means that a company’s sales have been growing, that isn’t always true. Some large-cap companies have been able to generate growth in earnings by becoming more efficient over time. Those companies can be good investments, too.

Note that cyclical companies won’t always have recent records of earnings growth, because their earnings tend to drop as the economy slows. That doesn’t mean they’re bad investments. For those companies we take a longer-term view: We want to see that their earnings and profit margins during economic expansions have been improving over the long haul, and that they’re prepared to weather downturns without drama.

Dividends

Dividends, the periodic payments that many companies make to distribute profits to their shareholders, can be a large-cap investor’s secret to growth. The key here is to reinvest the dividend: Instead of taking the dividend in cash, use it to buy more of the stock, effectively adding growth over time. (Most brokerages can do this for you automatically, at no charge.)

Just remember that companies tend to cut their dividends when they hit rough patches. If you’re going to rely on the company’s dividend for growth, make sure you’ve done enough research to understand the company well before buying.

Are large-cap stocks for you?

If you can hold an investment for five years or more and you’re comfortable with the ups and downs of the stock market, but you want investments that can give you smoother performance over time than smaller stocks, then large-cap stocks might have a place in your portfolio. Conversely, if your portfolio is dominated by volatile growth stocks, large caps might be just what you need to diversify while still getting good growth.

Remember that while large-cap stocks are often companies that “everybody knows,” it’s still important to do your homework before you buy.

If you’re not sure that you want to do the research required to evaluate individual large-cap stocks, you can still get the benefits of large-cap stock investing by adding a large-cap ETF or mutual fund to your diversified portfolio.