How to Understand The Small-Stock Rally
Small-caps are drubbing large ones this year. What does it mean for what’s ahead?
Small-caps are drubbing large ones this year. What does it mean for what’s ahead?
Small stocks so far this year have beaten their large-capitalisation brethren by a wider margin than they have in more than two decades, raising questions about what is driving the outperformance and what it means for the overall market ahead.
The year-to-date return for small-caps through the end of February was a remarkable 25 percentage points greater than that of large-caps (as measured by the 20% of stocks with the smallest market caps vs. the comparative quintile of the largest). While it isn’t unexpected for small-cap portfolios to beat large-caps over time—a long-term tendency that Wall Street analysts refer to as the “size effect”—what is unusual is the magnitude of the outperformance. It has averaged just 0.9 percentage point over all two-month periods since 1926, according to data from Dartmouth professor Ken French.
You have to go back to January and February of 2000, at the top of the internet-stock bubble on Wall Street, to find a two-month stretch in which the small-caps beat the large-caps by more. Their margin of outperformance over those two months was 41 percentage points.
Any parallel to the top of the internet-stock bubble is ominous, to be sure. But there are several idiosyncrasies to small-caps’ recent performance that stand in the way of drawing any straightforward analogies to the frenzy in small stocks that heralded the 2000 tech-stock crash.
Indeed, according to several researchers, small-caps’ recent strength may actually be something else in disguise—that is, it may have to do with factors other than just size, such as the battle between growth and value stocks.
That doesn’t mean there is nothing to worry about in this bull market, where valuations are stretched thin for many stocks. But it does mean that investors who are focused solely on the small-cap/large-cap divergence could be missing the bigger picture.
One distinction that is crucial for understanding the relative strength of small-caps this year has to do with where small- and large-cap stocks lie on the growth-versus-value spectrum. Small-cap stocks currently are far closer to the value end of the spectrum than large-caps, meaning they are trading for lower prices relative to their net worth.
A stock’s place on this spectrum is defined by its ratio of price to per-share book value, with the highest ratios at the growth extreme and the lowest at the value extreme. Consider the Russell Microcap Index, which contains the smallest 1,000 stocks in the broad-market Russell 3000 index. Its average price-to-book ratio was 2.5 as of the end of February, according to Russell Indexes. That compares with a 4.2 ratio for the Russell 1000 Index (which contains the largest 1,000 stocks) and a 5.7 ratio for the Russell Top 50 Mega-Cap Index (which contains the largest 50 stocks).
These are significant differences, according to Kent Daniel, a finance professor at Columbia University and a former co-chief investment officer at Goldman Sachs. He says that, on average, small-cap growth stocks tend to underperform the market, while small-cap value stocks tend to outperform. Since 1926, he says, the smallest-cap stocks closest to the growth end of the spectrum have lost 3.3% annualized, while the smallest most value-oriented stocks have gained 13.3% annualized.
This pattern has been especially strong in recent months, making it difficult to determine what accounts for small-caps’ relative strength this year. But Prof. Daniel says there is the distinct possibility that it is really a “value effect masquerading as a size effect.” If so, a bet on small-cap relative strength continuing is really a bet that value will outperform growth.
That bet may pay off in coming months, he says, and value could continue to outperform growth for many years. But he also says that value stocks have lagged behind growth stocks for at least a decade now, and while there have been numerous predictions of a value resurgence over that time, it hasn’t happened—at least not yet.
The benchmark indexes for small-caps and large-caps have different sector weightings, which also makes it difficult to gauge whether the recent relative strength of small-caps is actually due to company size.
Consider the information-technology sector. The ETF benchmarked to the largest 50 stocks currently has a 38.6% weighting to this sector, more than three times the 12.7% weighting of the Russell Microcap Index.
Conversely, the microcap index has more than 10 times the weighting of the largest-50-stock ETF to the industrials sector (11.7% versus 0.8%) and more than double the allocation to the financials sector (17.6% to 7.1%).
These differences are a big part of small-caps’ year-to-date performance, since industrials and financials have each outperformed the information-technology sector. It was just the opposite for calendar 2020, and sure enough, the smallest stocks lagged behind the largest last year.
Until there are small-cap and large-cap benchmarks with the same sector weightings—Prof. Daniel says he is unaware of any currently—it will be difficult to determine what is driving small stocks’ relative strength. If it is being caused by differences in sector weightings, however, it is likely to persist only if the sectors in which the small-caps are overweight continue outperforming.
This discussion also points to a more fundamental question that many researchers have been asking in recent years: Does the small-cap effect even exist, in and of itself? That is, do smaller firms really have higher returns than larger firms, on average, over long periods?
Andrea Frazzini, a principal at AQR Capital Management and an adjunct professor of finance at New York University, has concluded that it exists only among a very narrow group of stocks. He says that some of the relative strength of small-caps in recent months traces to speculative fervour for stocks outside that narrow group, making it risky to bet that it will continue.
According to his research, small-caps are a good bet to outperform the large-caps only if you limit your focus to companies with high financial quality. By financial quality he means firms that are profitable, have robust profit growth and a stable earnings stream and a high dividend-payout policy, among other characteristics. Many of the small companies that have performed the best so far this year don’t qualify.
Companies that have been bid higher in recent weeks through social-media investor campaigns—such as GameStop and AMC Entertainment—are two obvious examples, but they are hardly alone in not qualifying for Prof. Frazzini’s high-quality category. Nearly half of the 2,000 companies in the Russell 2000 small-stock index, for example, lost money in 2020.
Prof. Frazzini’s research therefore suggests that, if you want to bet on a continuation of recent small-cap relative strength, you should focus on small stocks that score high on various measures of financial strength, safety and quality. And don’t sweat the comparisons to that internet-stock frenzy of 20 years ago.
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Investors are taming impulsive money moves by adding a little friction to financial transactions
To break the day-trading habit that cost him friendships and sleep, crypto fund manager Thomas Meenink first tried meditation and cycling. They proved no substitute for the high he got scrolling through investing forums, he said.
Instead, he took a digital breath. He installed software that imposed a 20-second delay whenever he tried to open CoinStats or Coinbase.
Twenty seconds might not seem like much, but feels excruciating in smartphone time, he said. As a result, he checks his accounts 60% less.
“I have to consciously make an effort to go look at stuff that I actually want to know instead of scrolling through feeds and endless conversations about stuff that is actually not very useful,” he said.
More people are adding friction to curb all types of impulsive behaviour. App-limiting services such as One Sec and Opal were originally designed to help users cut back on social-media scrolling.
Now, they are being put to personal-finance use by individuals and some banking and investing platforms. On One Sec, the number of customers using the app to add a delay to trading or banking apps more than quintupled between 2021 and 2022. Opal says roughly 5% of its 100,000 active users rely on the app to help spend less time on finance apps, and 22% use it to block shopping apps such as Amazon.com Inc.
Economic researchers and psychologists say introducing friction into more apps can help people act in their own best interests. Whether we are trading or scrolling social media, the impulsive, automatic decision-making parts of our brains tend to win out over our more measured critical thinking when we use our smartphones, said Ankit Kalda, a finance professor at Indiana University who has studied the impact of mobile trading apps on investor behaviour.
His 2021 study tracked the behaviour of investors on different platforms over seven years and found that experienced day traders made more frequent, riskier bets and generated worse returns when using a smartphone than when using a desktop trading tool.
Most financial-technology innovation over the past decade focused on reducing the friction of moving money around to enable faster and more seamless transactions. Apps such as Venmo made it easier to pay the babysitter or split a bill with friends, and digital brokerages such as Robinhood streamlined mobile trading of stocks and crypto.
These innovations often lead customers to trade or buy more to the benefit of investing and finance platforms. But now, some customers are finding ways to slow the process. Meanwhile, some companies are experimenting with ways to create speed bumps to protect users from their own worst instincts.
When investing app Stash launched retirement accounts for customers in 2017, its customer-service representatives were flooded with calls from panicked customers who moved quickly to open up IRAs without understanding there would be penalties for early withdrawals. Stash funded the accounts in milliseconds once a customer opted in, said co-founder Ed Robinson.
So to reduce the number of IRAs funded on impulse, the company added a fake loading page with additional education screens to extend the product’s onboarding process to about 20 seconds. The change led to lower call-centre volume and a higher rate of customers deciding to keep the accounts funded.
“It’s still relatively quick,” Mr. Robinson said, but those extra steps “allow your brain to catch up.”
Some big financial decisions such as applying for a mortgage or saving for retirement can benefit from these speed bumps, according to ReD Associates, a consulting firm that specialises in using anthropological research to inform design of financial products and other services. More companies are starting to realise they can actually improve customer experiences by slowing things down, said Mikkel Krenchel, a partner at the firm.
“This idea of looking for sustainable behaviour, as opposed to just maximal behaviour is probably the mind-set that firms will try to adopt,” he said.
Slowing down processing times can help build trust, said Chianoo Adrian, a managing director at Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association of America. When the money manager launched its online retirement checkup tool last year, customers were initially unsettled by how fast the website estimated their projected lifetime incomes.
“We got some feedback during our testing that individuals would say ‘Well, how did you know that already? Are you sure you took in all my responses?’ ” she said. The company found that the delay increased credibility with customers, she added.
For others, a delay might not be enough to break undesirable habits.
More people have been seeking treatment for day-trading addictions in recent years, said Lin Sternlicht, co-founder of Family Addiction Specialist, who has seen an increase in cases since the start of the pandemic.
“By the time individuals seek out professional help they are usually experiencing a crisis, and there is often pressure to seek help from a loved one,” she said.
She recommends people who believe they might have a day-trading problem unsubscribe from notifications and emails from related companies and change the color scheme on the trading apps to grayscale, which has been found to make devices less addictive. In extreme cases, people might want to consider deleting apps entirely.
For Perjan Duro, an app developer in Berlin, a 20-second delay wasn’t enough. A few months after he installed One Sec, he went a step further and deleted the app for his retirement account.
“If you don’t have it on your phone, [that] helps you avoid that bad decision,” he said.
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