This year's best-performing stocks have the best-looking balance sheets, punctuating investors' diminished appetite for risk-taking in the wake of the credit and housing-market turmoil.
Apple Computer, Google, Microsoft and T. Rowe Price are among 31 companies in the Standard & Poor's 500 with no debt.
They are also companies whose stocks are outperforming the broader equity market, according to Paul Hickey, co-founder of Bespoke Investment Group in Mamaroneck, N.Y.
"With credit markets continuing to show signs of weakness, companies that rely on the debt markets to fund their regular operations, or buyback programs, will see their borrowing costs rise," Hickey said.
"How will this impact their stocks?" he asked in a recent report to clients.
Evidently, a lot.
Hickey found that the shares of companies in the S&P with zero debt are "doing the best by far" with a gain of more than 17 percent this year.
Conversely, the stocks of companies with debt-to-equity ratios of more than 10 percent are up just 4 percent for the year, he added.
And the denizens of Corporate America whose debt levels were low -- debt-to-equity ratios not more than 10 percent -- are experiencing an increase in their stock prices of more than twice that with a gain of 9.29 percent, Hickey added.
"Debt levels always matter, but there is an emphasis on debt loads whenever the economy slows," said Keith Wirtz, chief investment officer of Fifth Third Asset Management, which manages $22.5 billion, in Cincinnati.