A Most Wonderful Year For Small-Caps
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We believe we have turned the page on the 2011-2015 period in which financial markets behaved in such odd ways, and expect a strong multi-year period for thoughtful and disciplined small-cap active management.

By any measure, 2016 was a terrific year for small-cap stocks, one that featured a double-digit positive return for the Russell 2000 Index, which advanced 21.3%, and a solid advantage over their large-cap counterparts.

Small-Caps
Image source: Wikimedia Commons
Small-Caps

It was an even better year for small-cap value stocks and a highly rewarding one for cyclical sectors. These last two factors were critical in boosting results for certain active management approaches within the asset class, including a number of our own.

Arguably even more important was what these developments may be telling us about the subsequent direction of small-cap equity returns. We flesh out the details later in this letter, but these three reversals—positive results for small-caps, leadership for value over growth, and outperformance for cyclicals—should be key in setting the tone for the direction of small-caps going forward. They coalesced around the central, normalizing force of rising interest rates.

The major impact of these reversals was both highly welcome and long overdue.

We saw 2015—a year in which large-cap beat small-cap, the Russell 2000 had a negative return, and market leadership was extremely narrow—as a hinge year. It marked the transition out of the period that began in 2011, when an unprecedented amount of monetary intervention into the global economy had the unintended effect of stoking an intense appetite for yield and safety at one extreme of the U.S. equity markets and a hunger for high risk at the other.

The bottom of a commodity super cycle, with the attendant slowdowns in the world’s largest developing markets, only exacerbated the challenges then faced by value stocks and active management approaches.

As has usually been the case historically, the longer market trends last, the more regularly they are mistaken for permanent realignments. In this most recent instance, the consensus lined up around the perpetuation of near-zero rates, growth stock dominance, and the futility of active management.

Whether in good times or bad for our own approaches, however, we have always stayed mindful of the fact that trends do not last forever—they persist, then, more often than not, they reverse. This investment truism should serve as a corrective for those who would take the example of a highly anomalous period for the markets and economy to validate an implacable bias against active management.

The Power of Rates and the Impact of the Paradigm Shift

Even as small-cap specialists, we recognize that few forces act as powerfully on the value of investments as interest rates. The effects can be as obvious as they are subtle. We think three conditions matter most: the level of rates, the spread between short- and long-term rates, and the disparity in borrowing rates for better-run companies worse ones.

Capitalism tends to best foster economic growth when short rates hover a bit above inflation; when long rates are high enough to encourage lenders but not so high as to discourage borrowers; and when there is a premium for fiscal prudence and a commensurate penalty for profligate debtors. During the era of zero (or near-zero) rates—roughly 2011-2015—these historically “normal” conditions were largely absent.

Yet we believe they began to manifest themselves again in 2016, marking a paradigm shift to a period of higher rates and a consequent reassessment of the relative values of financial assets.

More normalized rates have historically been better for stocks than bonds. More important for our purposes, they have also supported small-caps over large, value over growth stocks, and cyclicals over defensive areas. In many ways, 2016’s results exemplified exactly this shift—and we think it is just the beginning of what could be a steady, though not linear, multi-year run.

With 2016’s stellar results fresh in the mind, it may be difficult to recall just how poorly the year started and how fatalistic the expectations were for equities. Small-cap stocks plunged from the first peal of 2016’s opening bell. The downdraft exacerbated a trend that had begun the previous summer following the small-cap peak on June 23, 2015.

By the time it was all over with the small-cap bottom on February 11, 2016, the Russell 2000 had fallen 25.7%. The last leg of the downdraft included many of the signs of a classic bottoming-out process—panic selling in a number of sectors (most notably within the biopharma complex), small-caps losing more than large-caps, and more resilience from value stocks—to us, the most significant development in the down phase.

As unpleasant as any bear market is, we noted that the leadership shift, because it was nearly concomitant with the rate hike, was likely to last.

Moreover, these signs also gave us some assurance that this was a historically conventional decline, making us confident that the small-cap market was undergoing its own important and familiar shift. The depths plumbed by this bear market were comparable to previous downturns—and that encouraged our belief that the worst was over just before the Russell 2000 rebounded sharply from its February low through the end of the year.

These small-cap bear and bull markets received so little comment beyond our own and that of fellow small-cap specialists that we refer to them as “stealth” markets. They also reinforced our contention that this small-cap rally has room to run.

Despite its strong showing in 2016, the Russell 2000 finished the year only 7.2% above its June 2015 peak. For additional context, it is worth noting that small-cap upswings usually extend well beyond the 47.4% advance the small-cap index made from its February bottom through the end of 2016.

There have been 12 declines of 15% or more for the Russell 2000 since its 1979 inception. The median return for the subsequent recovery period was 98.8%. So both history and the currently hospitable economic environment suggest to us that there may well be plenty of life left in the small-cap rally.

Value’s Turn?

The recent extended run of small-cap growth leadership makes it worth recalling that it is actually small-cap value stocks that own the pronounced long-term historical edge in relative performance.


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Of course, it makes sense that many investors were not conscious of this history at the beginning of the year. Prior to resuming leadership, the Russell 2000 Value Index trailed the Russell 2000 Growth Index in six out of seven years between 2009 and 2015. Based on their long-term performance and leadership history, this was an inordinately lengthy span.

Is it now value’s turn, then? We think so. Prolonged periods of leadership for small-cap growth have historically been followed by long tenures at the helm for value.

Multi-year trends typically do not have brief reversals before reappearing. Based on this pattern, we think the current leadership status of small-cap value is likely to last. Further, value stocks have historically outpaced growth issues when the economy is expanding—growth companies generally being most highly valued when growth is scarce in the economy.

Rising interest rates have also historically provided a relative headwind for growth stocks because their valuations typically have a long-duration bond aspect to them that is highly sensitive to changes in rates.

Equity Indexes—As of

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