Market-Implied Small Cap Premium
If the historical data ceases to support the use of a historical risk premium, can we then draw on intuition and argue that since small companies tend to be riskier (or we perceive them to be), investors must require higher return when they invest in them? You can, but the onus is then on you to back up that intuition. In fact, you can check to see whether investors are demanding a forward looking “small cap” premium, by looking at how they price small as opposed to large companies, and backing out what investors are demanding as expected returns. Put simply, if small cap stocks are viewed by investors as riskier and that risk is being priced in, you should expect to see, other things remaining equal, higher expected returns on small cap stocks than large cap stocks.
As some of you are aware, I compute a forward-looking equity premium for the S&P 500 at the start of each year, backing out the number from the current level of the index and expected cash flows. On January 1, 2015, this is what I found:
In effect, to the extent that my base year cash flows are reasonable and my expected growth rate reflects market expectations, the expected return on large cap stocks on January 1, 2015 was 7.95% in the US (yielding an overall equity risk premium of 5.78% on that day).
To get a measure of the forward-looking small cap premium, I computed the expected return implied in the S&P 600 Small Cap Index, using the same approach that I used for S&P 500. In spite of using a higher expected earnings growth for small cap stocks, the expected return that I estimate is only 7.61%:
In effect, the market is attaching a smaller expected return for small cap stocks than large ones, stories and intuition notwithstanding.
I am not surprised that the market does not seem to buy into the small cap premiums that academics and practitioners are so attached to. After all, if the proponents of small cap premiums are right, bundling together small companies into a larger company should instantly generate a bonus, since you are replacing the much higher required returns of smaller companies with the lower expected return of a larger one. In fact, small companies should disappear from the market.
The Illiquidity Fig Leaf
Looking at the data, the only argument left, as I see it, for the use of the small cap premium is as a premium for illiquidity, and even on that basis, it fails at one of these four levels:
  1. If illiquidity is your bogey man in valuation, why use market capitalization as a stand-in for it? Market capitalization and illiquidity don’t always go hand in hand, since there are small, liquid companies and large, illiquid ones in the market. Four decades ago, your excuse would have been that the data on illiquidity was either inaccessible or unavailable and that market capitalization was the best proxy you could find for illiquidity. That is no longer the case and there are studies that categorize companies based on measures of illiquidity (bid ask spread, trading volume) and find an “liquidity premium” for illiquid companies.
  2. If illiquidity is what you are adjusting for in the small cap premium, why is it a constant across companies, buyers and time? Even if your defense is that the small cap premium is an imperfect (but reasonable) measure of the illiquidity premium, it is unreasonable to expect it to be the same for every company. Thus, even if you are valuing just privately owned businesses (where illiquidity is a clear and present danger), that illiquidity should be greater in some businesses than in others and the illiquidity (or small cap) premium should be larger for the former than the latter. Furthermore, the premium you add to the discount rate should be higher in some periods (during market crises and liquidity crunches) than others and for some buyers (cash poor, impatient) than others (patient, cash rich).
  3. Even if you can argue that illiquidity is your rationale for the small cap premium and that it is the same across companies, why is it not changing over the time horizon of your valuation (and especially in your terminal value)? In any valuation, you assume through your company’s cash flows and growth rates will change over time and it is inconsistent (with your own narrative for the company) to lock in an illiquidity premium into your discount rate that does not change as your company does. Thus, if you are using a 30% expected growth rate on your company, your “small” company is getting bigger (at least according to your estimates) and presumably more liquid over time. Should your illiquidity premium therefore not follow your own reasoning and decrease over time?
  4. If your argument is that size is a good proxy for illiquidity, that all small companies are equally illiquid and that that illiquidity does not change as you make them bigger, why are you reducing your end value by an illiquidity discount? This question is directed at private company appraisers who routinely use small cap premiums to increase discount rates and also reduce the end (DCF) value by 25% or more, because of illiquidity. You can show me data to back up your discount (I have seen restricted stock and IPO studies) but none of them can justify the double counting of illiquidity in valuation.


Why are we slow to give up on the “small cap” premium?
It is true that the small cap premium is established practice at many appraisal firms, investment banks and companies. Given the shaky base on which it is built and how much that base has been chipped away in the last two decades, you would think that analysts would reconsider their use of small cap premiums, but there are three powerful forces that keep it in play.
  1. Intuition: Analysts and investors not only start of with the presumption that the discount rates for small companies should be higher than large companies, but also have a “number’ in mind. When risk and return models deliver a much lower number, the urge to add to it to make it “more reasonable” is almost unstoppable. Consequently, an analyst who arrives at an 8% cost of equity for a small company feels much more comfortable after adding a 5% small cap premium. It is entirely possible that you are an idiot savant with the uncanny capacity to assess the right discount rate for companies, but if that is the case, why go through this charade of using risk and return models and adding premiums to get to your “intuited” discount rate? For most of us, gut feeling and instinct are not good guides to estimating discount rates and here is why. Not all risk is meant for the discount rate, with some risk (like management skills) being diversifiable (and thus lessened in portfolios) and other risks (like risk of failure or regulatory approval) better reflected in probabilities an expected cash flow. A discount rate cannot and is not meant to be a receptacle for all your hopes and
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