Large vs Small Caps: Fundamentals vs Risk

One of the asset allocation decisions we research is whether to favor large-caps or small-caps within an equity portfolio. Currently, we see a stark divergence in the broad categories of indicators: the fundamentals of earnings estimates and valuations are now more favorable for small-caps, while low risk appetite among investors and later cycle economic conditions have been favoring large-caps.

Shifting to neutral on equities

Our intermediate-term (3-6 month) indicators have deteriorated enough recently to argue for shifting from overweight equities in our asset allocation framework to neutral. While stocks are still favored over bonds on a longer-term relative valuation basis, the prospect for further consolidation and volatility means that easing back equity exposure and holding somewhat more cash makes sense in our view.

Recent rally in “junk stocks” is not unusual

Financial headlines have been captivated recently by explosive behavior in certain “meme stocks” that have been the subject of intense speculation by online retail traders as well as some hedge funds. This has been accompanied by a general trend of outperformance by smaller, money-losing, heavily-shorted, and volatile stocks (sometimes referred to as “junk stocks”, similar to risky high-yield “junk bonds”).

Still a risk-on environment, but option traders remain nervous

Markets globally continue to show strong risk-seeking behavior, a continuation of the broader trend in place for much of the time since late March 2020. That was the point at which monetary and fiscal policy activity surged to produce enormous stimulus in the US and globally.

Recent US legislation that included a total of about $900 billion in new fiscal support is now starting to be felt, and recent political developments have increased the odds of further fiscal support this year. Alongside this persistent fiscal support to counteract the severe economic impacts of COVID-19, monetary policy remains extremely accommodative. Near-zero policy rates and heavy bond buying programs are expected to be maintained for many months if not years, putting both monetary and fiscal policy firmly in the “highly stimulative” category at the same time.

Risk on? Not really since early June

In financial markets, it seems like “everything” is going up recently. Stocks, bonds, precious metals, even Bitcoin. Perhaps that should not be surprising given the huge amount of liquidity being produced by global central banks in addition to the fiscal stimulus earlier this year. That tends to have the effect of pushing asset prices up generally.

But when we look at relative returns of some key assets, it looks more like the “risk on” trend has not really gone anywhere since early June. That is, owning the riskier option within various asset classes has not generated excess returns to compensate for that extra risk since the recent peak in risk about June 8th.

Relative volatility risk in US small-caps remains high

Among the various asset allocation decisions for which we provide guidance to clients is whether to favor small-caps or large-caps (i.e., the “size” factor) within the US equity market. In our view, small-caps do not reliably outperform large-caps consistently over time (as some models and studies might suggest), and instead view the “size premium” (outperformance of small-caps) more as a cyclical phenomenon that tends to show up under certain macroeconomic and market conditions.

Global risk appetite measures slipping recently

Stock prices globally have remained unusually buoyant in the face of well-known health and financial risks. Thanks largely to aggressive global monetary and fiscal stimulus starting in March and still going on (though arguably fading), risk appetite jumped dramatically following the severe but relatively brief sell-off from late February to late March.

Most recently, however, several metrics of global risk appetite that we track have either plateaued or weakened. This coincides with a reduction in the pace of central bank activity and growing uncertainty about further fiscal stimulus programs, especially in the US. It also coincides with the recent turn higher in the growth of COVID-19 cases in the US and globally.