Resisting the temptation to prognosticate at length on larger matters, we’ll say only that we agree with the consensus that the economy is indeed growing faster and stronger. We also think this is good news for small-cap stocks and our own disciplined approach to stock selection.
Everybody Had a Good Year
2013 will enter the annals of history as one of the stock market’s better years. Not only were there healthy double-digit returns for all of the major U.S. indexes, but there were also no major corrections along the way. The closest the market came to a bearish phase was during the second quarter, when the rate on the 10-year Treasury began to rise off its calendar-year low in early May, mostly as a result of talk that the Federal Reserve would begin to reduce its $85 billion monthly bond-buying program. The Fed’s intentions to taper, made official by an announcement in June, then sent markets across the globe into a tailspin, while the 10-year Treasury rate mostly kept rising. (From its low on May 2 through the end of the year, it climbed more than 83%.) Yet by mid-summer, all or most of this seemed to be forgotten. Share prices climbed more or less uninterruptedly into December, where a couple of unsettled weeks in the middle of the month failed to put a Scrooge-like face on returns. Stocks quietly rallied through the last weeks of the year, making the fourth quarter as solidly bullish as the first and third.
The market’s ability to shrug off negative news—potential or otherwise—may have been its most salient trait in 2013. Here at home, investors had to cope with the sequester, the government shutdown, questions about Fed policy, and who would succeed Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke. Outside the U.S., it was not much quieter. There was economic uncertainty in Europe, China, and Brazil, among other places, unrest in the Mideast, and a significant, still-brewing political scandal in Turkey. Yet none of these things, taken alone or in concert, possessed enough force to slow the pace of the rally. Even murmurings later in the year about overvalued stocks and a market bubble gave investors little pause.
The rally seemed to gain strength from the notion that the U.S. economy was finally entering a faster, more historically typical expansion after five years of slow and uncertain growth. This would be more than welcome news. Consider for a moment how strange and singular our present situation is. The economy has received unprecedented levels of federal stimulus in the form of both quantitative easing and historically low interest rates even as the economy has looked strong enough to stand more firmly on its own for more than a year. However, we still face stubbornly high, only slowly declining unemployment, still-stagnant levels of demand, and lower consumer confidence. On the other hand, we have robust housing and auto sales, record corporate revenues, and companies sitting on piles of cash. This complicated economic picture is set against the political background of a falling federal deficit, a national healthcare plan that refuses to be anything less than wildly controversial, and a culture in Washington so dysfunctional that it now plays like a bleak tragicomedy worthy of Samuel Beckett. (Or at least it would if politicians weren’t so verbose.) All of this makes the question of what happens next even harder to answer than it would be in more sanguine times. Resisting the temptation to prognosticate at length on larger matters, we’ll say only that we agree with the consensus that the economy is indeed growing faster and stronger. For reasons we’ll detail later, we also think this is good news both for small-cap stocks and our own disciplined approach to stock selection.
As measured by the Russell 2000 Index, the small-cap market has been on a remarkable run since the bottom in March 2009. However, there were a number of notable twists prior to last year’s mostly smooth ascent. The three years prior to 2013 all exhibited a similar performance pattern in the first half of the year. During 2010, 2011, and 2012, the opening quarter extended a bull run that had gotten underway no later than the previous year’s fourth quarter. These gains were then eroded to varying degrees by a bearish second quarter, with the market starting to reverse course in April, making it indeed the cruelest month. The motive force behind each reversal was macro oriented—recurring fears about the uneasy state of the U.S., Chinese, and/or developed European economies. (The persistence of macro factors influencing sell-offs at the expense of company fundamentals was the most troubling element to us.) In 2010 and 2012, the third quarter saw a resumption of rising stock prices, while in 2011 the third quarter was the year’s worst—political dithering in Europe and contention in the U.S. exacerbating economic and fiscal concerns. The fourth quarter was positive for small-caps in all three years (as it was in 2009), though in 2011 its gains were not enough to keep the major indexes from finishing the year in the red.
This pattern is worth mentioning because we saw a more muted version of it play out in 2013. The critical difference was that initially rattled investors recovered their confidence in equities before the second quarter had ended and before quarterly returns turned negative. This suggests perhaps not so much a new-found confidence as it does a steadier sense of conviction. With the economy improving and our fiscal situation increasingly more manageable, investors appear to be seeing the value of staying invested. We see this as one of several encouraging signs for active management as we enter 2014. It makes sense to us that longer investment horizons will lead larger numbers of investors to higher-quality companies.
Everybody Saw the Sunshine
Small-caps were once again leaders in what was a magnificent year for equities. For the full year, the Russell 2000 (+38.8%) and the tech-centric Nasdaq Composite (+38.3%) outpaced the large-cap Russell 1000 (+33.1%) and S&P 500 (+32.4%) Indexes. The Russell 2000 enjoyed its best calendar-year performance since 2003. 2013 was also the best since 1995 for the Russell 1000, since 1997 for the S&P 500, and since 2009 for the Nasdaq Composite. The latter index, however, has not yet topped the high it made back on March 10, 2000. By contrast, the small-cap index, the Russell 1000, and the S&P 500 all established new highs on the last day of 2013. It was also the first year since 1996 in which the Russell 2000 posted positive returns in all four quarters.
Small-caps were once again leaders in what was a magnificent year for equities. For the full year, the Russell 2000 (+38.8%) and the tech-centric Nasdaq Composite (+38.3%) outpaced the large-cap Russell 1000 (+33.1%) and S&P 500 (+32.4%) Indexes.
After a strong first half, in which all the major domestic indexes were positive both through the end of June