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Winning isn't everything for stocks

April 29, 2014: 12:59 PM ET
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Dr Pepper trails Coke and Pepsi in market share. But the stock is beating its rivals. Third place isn't always a bad thing.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Paul R. La Monica. Other than Time Warner, the parent of CNNMoney, Abbott Laboratories and AbbVie, La Monica does not own positions in any individual stocks.

At risk of ticking off fans of the Green Bay Packers ...Vince Lombardi didn't get it entirely right when he famously said that winning isn't everything, it's the only thing.

Sure, that may be the case on the gridiron. I've been fortunate enough to see the New York Giants win the trophy named after Lombardi four times during my lifetime, and I'm still annoyed about last year's losing season. But when it comes to stocks, it's often better to be an underdog than the champion of your respective market.

Investors often make the mistake of paying way too much attention to market share and gravitating towards companies that are industry leaders. There is this somewhat misguided notion that if a company isn't the largest in its industry, it must be a lousy investment.

Related: 7 lucky tech stock bargains

Nothing could be further from the truth.

If you take a quick look at how shares of some smaller companies (particularly in the consumer goods world) are doing compared to their larger rivals lately, you'll see that bigger isn't always better.

Dr Pepper Snapple (DPS) is not nearly as big as Coca-Cola (KO) and Pepsi (PEP). But shares of Dr Pepper are up 14% this year while Coke is flat and Pepsi has gained less than 5%. In fact, Dr Pepper's stock hit an all-time high on Monday.

When it comes to burgers, Big Macs may be more popular than Whoppers, but don't tell that to Wall Street. This year, it's good to be the King. Burger King (BKW) that is. Shares of the fast food chain are up 15% compared to a 3% rise for McDonald's (MCD).

Related: McDonald's franchisees not 'lovin it'

Shares of another burger slinger, Jack in the Box (JACK), have done better than Mickey D's as well. The stock is up 6%. That's even more impressive when you consider that Jack, which also owns casual Mexican dining chain Qdoba, competes with burrito behemoth Chipotle (CMG) as well. And shares of Chipotle are not muy caliente this year.

The same trend has played out in the world of beer ... and telecom.

Over the past 12 months, shares of Sam Adams brewer Boston Beer (SAM) have done better than both Anheuser-Busch InBev (BUD) and Molson Coors (TAP).

And despite being just the fourth-largest wireless carrier in the U.S., T-Mobile (TMUS) shares have done much better than bigger rivals Verizon (VZ), AT&T (T) and Sprint (S) during the past year. I'm sure that colorful T-Mobile CEO, Twitter phenom and Macklemore fan John Legere is tickled pink (see what I did there?) by that.

Now why are the smaller companies doing better than the industry titans? There are a couple of factors at play.

In several cases, it's a simple matter of math. It's harder for a big company to keep expanding at a rate that's fast enough to satisfy investors' insatiable appetite for growth.

Burger King, for example, is expected to report annual earnings increases of about 16% a year for the next few years. That's double the growth rate of McDonald's.

Boston Beer is also growing more rapidly than the parent companies of the King of Beers and Banquet Beer.

Smaller companies often trade at a discount to the proverbial Goliaths as well. That's what is going on with Dr Pepper Snapple. While Coke and Pepsi each trade for more than 19 times 2014 earnings estimates, Dr Pepper is valued at just 16 times this year's profit projections despite the company having a slightly higher growth rate than Coke and Pepsi.

Finally, you can't ignore the possibility of a juicy takeover of smaller companies. One way for a mature firm to increase its market share is to buy it. T-Mobile had agreed to sell to AT&T a few years ago. That deal didn't pass muster. Now there's talk that T-Mobile could be a good fit for Sprint. That also might not get regulatory approval.

But T-Mobile, on paper at least, is still small enough to get bought out. In the immortal words of Lloyd Christmas ... so you're telling me there's a chance.

Don't get duped into thinking that every business is a zero sum game. Sometimes it is far more lucrative to own the hungrier companies that are in third or fourth place instead of the complacent market share leaders. Once you're on top, it's usually harder to keep growing.

Little Cream Soda: I have two shout-outs today due to some Name that Tune challenges from last week.

The first goes to a fellow financial journo for knowing that the line "Anyone for tennis? Wouldn't that be nice" comes from a song by rock's best power trio in history. Not Rush. Sorry. But I am a huge fan of Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson and Neil Peart as well!

Well played. I hope they don't keep you in the white room with black curtains over at Forbes. And thanks for the compliment on the Apple (AAPL) stock split illustration. Kudos to our photo editor John R. Coughlin for designing that!

Apple investors will soon get 7 shares for each one they currently own. Will the split get the stock out of its long funk?

The second shout-out is awarded to the first Twitter follower who correctly identified the band (not solo artist) that recorded a song with the name of a certain ferocious fish found in the Amazon in the title. I tweeted that lyric Thursday as Amazon's (AMZN) stock was tanking following its earnings report.

Nice work. And extra points for not saying it was just Jack White. Meg may not have been the most technically skilled drummer (or vocalist). But what she lacked in nuance she more than made up for with brute force!

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Paul Lamonica
Paul R. La Monica
Assistant Managing Editor, CNNMoney

Paul R. La Monica is an assistant managing editor at CNNMoney. He is the author of the site's daily column, The Buzz, and also tweets throughout the day about the markets and economy @LaMonicaBuzz. La Monica also oversees the site's economic, markets and technology coverage.

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