NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Small growth stocks have been leading the markets lately. During the past year, small growth funds returned 31.2%, outpacing the S&P 500 by 10 percentage points. At a time when the economy is sluggish, many investors may continue favoring the limited number of companies that can show rapid earnings increases.

But before you write a check to a hot fund, keep in mind that small stocks are no longer cheap. The average small growth fund has a price-to-earnings ratio of 23.8, according to Morningstar. That is a big premium compared to the S&P 500, which has a multiple of 16. In addition, small growth funds can be volatile. If the market drops, small stocks could fall a long way.

To limit risk, consider some top small growth funds that deliver relatively steady results. By holding cash or focusing on quality companies, these funds outperformed their peers when markets collapsed in 2008. Top choices include Kalmar Growth-With-Value Small Cap ( KGSCX), Needham Small Cap Growth ( NESGX) and Oppenheimer Discovery ( OPOCX).

Needham has been especially steady. While the average small growth fund dropped 41.6% in 2008, Needham lost 23.4% and outdid 99% of its peers. During the past five years, the fund returned 9.1% annually, surpassing 92% of peers. To limit losses, Needham portfolio manager Chris Retzler sometimes holds cash or sells short. During 2008, the fund had as much as 45% of assets in cash.

Retzler likes solid companies that seem likely to grow faster than Wall Street expects. He favors companies with little debt and the ability to survive hard times. The fund rarely holds financial companies because they tend to have big debt burdens. The portfolio includes many technology companies that have big cash holdings on their balance sheets.

Retzler favors stocks that are unloved by the market. He often takes turnaround candidates, companies that have struggled but now seem ready to report stronger results. A holding is FormFactor ( FORM), a troubled maker of equipment that is used to test semiconductors. After dissatisfied customers cut orders, the company began reporting losses. But new management has taken over and introduced new products. "They are regaining customers," says Retzler. "It will take 12 months before the story looks positive, but we are long-term investors."

Another holding is Brocade Communications Systems ( BRCD), which makes routers and switches that are used for networking systems. After struggling in recent years, the company introduced new products that are gaining traction with customers. Earnings have been increasing at a rate of more than 20%, but the shares sell for a forward P/E of only 11.

Kalmar Growth-With-Value Small Cap

Another solid fund is Kalmar Growth-With-Value Small Cap, which has returned 7.3% annually during the past five years, outdoing 72% of competitors. Portfolio manager Ford Draper looks for companies that seem poised to increase sales 10% or more annually for a sustained period. The steady businesses helped the fund outdo most competitors during the 2008 downturn. Many of Kalmar's holdings are increasing earnings at rates of more than 15%. But Draper is not willing to pay sky-high multiples. To find reasonable prices, he looks for companies that been overlooked or misunderstood.

A holding is LKQ ( LKQX) , which supplies parts that are used to repair cars and trucks. Big customers include auto body shops that buy bumpers, body panels and lights. Sales grew during the recession as drivers repaired old cars instead of buying new ones.

Another holding that grew through the recession is Ulta Salon, Cosmetics & Fragrance ( ULTA), a retailer. The chain offers a wide selection that ranges from the top prestige brands to mass-market products. The standalone stores offer an alternative to department stores. "Ulta has better values and better selection," says Draper. "They have 390 stores, and they can probably expand until they have 1,000 or 1,200."

Oppenheimer Discovery

Oppenheimer Discovery has achieved a solid record by favoring high-growth stocks that are typically increasing revenues at annual rates of 25% or more. Such stocks can be volatile, but portfolio manager Ron Zibelli limits risk by sticking with very high-quality companies. His holdings have strong balance sheets and dominant market positions. Many are the top players in their industries. Zibelli also controls risk by staying broadly diversified, roughly matching the sector weightings of the benchmark. He never puts more than 2% of assets in any one stock. The careful approach excels in downturns and enabled the fund to return 8.8% annually during the past five years, outdoing 88% of peers.

Zibelli likes Polypore International ( PPO), which makes membranes that are essential for lithium batteries. The batteries are being used increasingly for cameras and small consumer electronics products. In the first quarter, sales increased 28%, compared to the period a year ago, while earnings jumped 77%. The big growth opportunity is in electric cars, says Zibelli. "The company's products will be included in electric vehicles that will be rolled out around the globe in the next few years," he says.

Zibelli also owns HMS Holdings ( HMSY), which helps state agencies reduce Medicaid costs by spotting invalid insurance claims. As Medicaid programs have grown relentlessly, the company's sales and earnings have climbed.

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Stan Luxenberg is a freelance writer specializing in mutual funds and investing. He was executive editor of Individual Investor magazine.

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