Tag Archive: size

Small-caps are gaining traction as light appears at the end of the COVID tunnel

After a long period of either underperformance or mixed relative returns, small-caps in the US are now finally gaining meaningful traction relative to large-caps.

As shown below, the relative return of the small-cap Russell 2000 index versus the large-cap Russell 1000 index has broken out of the range it has been in since June. The latest move started after the Pfizer vaccine news hit on November 9th, after making an initial move in early October.US Small-Cap Large-Cap Relative Return

Our view has long been that small-cap relative performance follows a cyclical pattern, with the best return/risk payoffs coming when the economic and market cycle have been weak and are starting to recover. The early stages of a new expansion or bull market are thus typically the best for small-caps, while the later stages of an expansion or the early phases of a bear market or recession tend to be better for large-caps, especially after accounting for risk.

The current economic cycle has been very unusual. After a record-long expansion, a very rare external shock (a virus) hit, causing far higher amplitude in the economic data (record-setting declines and recoveries), along with historically huge policy interventions (fiscal and monetary stimulus, etc.). The heavy uncertainty about how the current cycle will play out may explain why small-cap relative performance has only recently started to show the upturn we would expect as conditions start to improve after a recession. The recent signs of progress on a vaccine (or multiple vaccines) offer the prospect of “getting back to normal” next year, and may reduce some of the headwinds facing smaller companies relative to larger firms.

Several other indicators suggest the small-cap outperformance trend may be a better bet now than earlier this year.

First, US small-caps are outperforming across all sectors over the last month, indicating a broad-based trend. This includes the Technology sector, where large-cap Tech had outperformed small-cap Tech by 30% for the year through September 1st, but since then small-cap Tech has outperformed its larger brethren by 12%.

Second, as shown below, the “volatility penalty” for owning small-caps has declined and is now back to relatively low levels. The rolling three-month volatility of the Russell 2000 index has now fallen back to just a small differential over the volatility of large-caps (Russell 1000). That is, investors do not have to take on substantially more risk (volatility) in their portfolios by choosing small-caps over large-caps, as they would have done earlier in the year.US Small vs Large-cap Relative Volatility

And third, small-caps outside the US have been outperforming for some time now (as shown in the lower two sections of the chart below), and therefore US small-caps may have some catching up to do.Global Small-cap Relative Returns

With price activity looking better and the cyclical backdrop potentially becoming more favorable, there could be more room for the recent trend of small-cap outperformance to run over the coming months.

Vaccine news brought record style rotation in stocks

The headlines on Monday (Nov. 9th, 2020) from Pfizer announcing favorable early results in their COVID-19 vaccine trials, while certainly welcome, clearly caught investors off guard. While the major indices were either up or flat on the day, there was a historic level of divergence within the market among the various styles and sectors.

Such extreme rotations remind us that there is risk in the equity markets even when stocks overall do not fall. Investors focused on relative performance likely either had a huge win or huge loss on Monday.

The charts below give some perspective. We highlight returns to widely-used market-neutral factors (styles) that were most impacted yesterday: price momentum, value, and size (small-caps).

The first chart below shows how extreme the returns on Monday were in historical context. We use the daily returns of the Dow Jones Thematic Market Neutral indices for the three styles, data for which goes back to 2002. These indices assume equal dollar amounts invested in long and short portfolios (netting out to zero, or “market neutral”) based on the standard textbook definitions of price momentum (which favors stocks that have outperformed over the last 12 months), value (which favors stocks that have low multiples of price to book value, earnings and cash flow), and size (which favors stocks with lower market capitalizations). The indices are rebalanced quarterly.

Dow Jones Thematic Style Indices Daily Returns

The market-neutral Momentum style had the biggest move on Monday among these indices: a daily return of -14%, the largest daily movement (up or down) in the history since 2002. The next most negative day (April 9, 2009) was a -7% return, so Monday was twice the magnitude of the next-worst day. The biggest positive return historically (April 20, 2009) was +10%. The normal range for daily returns since 2002 (where 95% of observations have fallen) has been -1.3% to +1.3%. So Monday’s Momentum return was extraordinarily extreme.

The Value style was one of the big winners, showing a market-neutral return of +8% for the day on Monday. Before this week, the Value factor’s biggest gain was earlier this year (May 26th) at 4.4%, so Monday’s return was almost twice the next-largest move (the biggest decline was similar at -4.3%). The normal range for daily returns for Value since 2002 has been -0.9% to +0.9%.

The Size style also had a big day, showing a +4.5% return, meaning small-cap stocks outperforming large-cap stocks by nearly 5%. This basically matches the previous maximum return of +4.7% from March of this year. The Size factor has had a similar typical daily range as Value (+/- 0.8%).

However, context is important here. These extreme moves in styles essentially constitute reversals of the general trend they’ve shown most of this year. Momentum had been one of the stronger styles until this week, while Value and Size had been performing poorly. The second chart below shows the indices themselves (rather than daily changes) over the last 12 months.

Dow Jones Thematic Style Indices

We see that market-neutral price Momentum had posted a return of +36% over the 12 months through November 6th, so Monday’s drop cuts into that gain but still leaves the strategy with a positive return for the last 12 months.

Value, by contrast, had been the reverse: it had shown a -37% return (market neutral) through November 6th, so Monday’s gain helped but leaves the style still significantly negative over the last 12 months.

Size (small-caps) had also underperformed coming into this week, showing a -16% return through November 6th. Thus the 4.5% gain reduces the 12-month loss, but still leaves small-caps lagging large-caps by a wide margin over the last year.

The question remains open as to whether Monday’s sharp reversals in relative performance within the major equity market styles (and related sectors) mark the beginning of a durable new trend, or a short-term positioning event that will reverse like a similar event in May/June of this year. Further developments in COVID-19 vaccines, fiscal stimulus plans, and corporate earnings will likely help answer that question, but the uncertainty surrounding these developments means that elevated internal volatility and rotation in stocks may well continue in the coming months.

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.

While there are many potential conditions that might affect small-cap/large-cap relative performance, much of our work is oriented around the idea that small-caps give the best “bang for the buck” in the periods just before and through the early stages of a new economic or market cycle. That is, recessionary troughs in the economy and equity market set up the conditions for future small-cap outperformance, as smaller companies tend to benefit most from the re-acceleration of economic growth that typically occurs after recessions. This is also when monetary and fiscal stimulus tend to be strongest. In these scenarios, small-caps have typically underperformed before and during the preceding recession/bear market and become out of favor and potentially undervalued. Conversely, the later stages of an economic cycle and the early stages of a recession or bear market tend to be unfavorable for the riskier and more economically sensitive small-caps.

Looking at conditions now, there is certainly evidence that a recessionary trough has occurred or is in process, and both monetary and fiscal stimulus have been very aggressive. This would potentially argue for favoring small-caps over large-caps, and indeed small-cap relative returns have stabilized after a sustained period of significant outperformance by large-caps since mid-2018 (and arguably longer). However, it may be worth an extra dose of caution before making heavy overweight allocations to small-caps on an intermediate-term (6-12 month) basis. This is not only due to the unusual nature of the current cycle, but also more specifically to the extremely elevated relative risk still apparent in the volatility of small-caps versus large-caps.

Using the Russell 2000 Index to measure returns for US small-caps and the Russell 1000 Index for large-caps, the chart below shows the rolling three-month annualized volatility of daily returns for both indices over the last 20 years (small-caps in blue, large-caps in red) in the top section, and the difference between them in the bottom section.

US Small Large Cap Relative Volatility

A few things jump out: first, volatility for all equities surged to extreme levels earlier this year, matched only by the Great Financial Crisis in the last 20 years, and has been declining rapidly thanks to the Federal Reserve’s extraordinary interventions. And second, the difference between small-cap and large-cap volatility has remained near historic extremes even as volatility has declined for both size categories.

As shown in the bottom section of the chart, small-caps are almost always more volatile than large-caps (i.e., the volatility spread is usually above zero), with a historical average of about 4.5%. However, the latest readings on the volatility spread of over 14% are the highest in the last 20 years. That is, while large-cap volatility has dropped to a (still elevated) level of just under 24% (equal to average daily index movements of about 1.5%), the small-cap index volatility has only managed to decline to 38% so far (equal to average daily movements of about 2.4%). This is still far above the normal level of volatility for small-caps historically of about 22%.

The bottom line is quite straightforward: even after sharp rallies in equities and lower market volatility in general, owning small-caps remains much riskier on a price volatility basis than owning large-caps. So if expected returns must be commensurate with expected risk, then a decision to allocate heavily to small-caps requires either 1) an unusually high excess return expectation, or 2) an expectation of drastically lower small-cap volatility soon.

Given the economic backdrop and the reliance on government stimulus as well as the relative fundamentals of small-caps versus large-caps (a possible topic for another post), it may take a little while longer to have confidence that small-cap excess returns will be sufficient to compensate for their unusually high extra risk relative to large-caps.