December’s Of Special Interest provided a recap of our Asset Allocation team’s view of small cap equities, suggesting that small caps had underperformed and reached a valuation discount that made them an interesting contrarian value proposition. Several clients responded with follow-up questions, wondering if the discount valuation of small caps was offset by their typically weaker business models.
For valuation work, we’ve traditionally favored the 1,200 company Leuthold Small Cap universe over the S&P SmallCap 600 because we get almost a full additional decade of perspective. But figures for the latter shed extra light on just how significant the revaluation in Small Caps has been.
A way to gain perspective on the present is by trying to view it from the future. Ask yourself, “What are the signs of impending decline, now ignored by investors, that will one day be memorialized by the same investors as the most obvious in retrospect?”
At October’s close, a long-term BUY signal was triggered on the Russell 2000. The fact that some market segments are triggering “oversold BUYS” when blue chips are at record highs speaks volumes about the internal disparities that have developed during the last few years. The Russell BUY signal is not inconsistent with our belief that the action since the January 2018 peak remains part of a lengthy cyclical topping process.
Small Caps came tantalizingly close to activating a major VLT BUY signal in September, with the Russell 2000 closing less than a half percent below the trigger level. A new bull signal from this indicator wouldn’t “fit” into our market and economic narrative, but we won’t sweep it under the rug if it occurs.
The 1999 leadership parallels we discussed in the latest Green Book remain intact—U.S. over foreign, Growth over Value, and Large over Small. Small Caps have given up most of the “beta bounce” enjoyed in the first two months off the December low, with one Small Cap measure—the Russell Microcap Index (the bottom 1000 of the Russell 2000)—undercutting last year’s relative strength low and those of 2011 and 2016.
It’s difficult to knock a stock market in which Small Caps and major breadth measures are making frequent new highs, however, there are performance anomalies that suggest liquidity is no longer sufficient to “float all boats.” Recent underperformance of the Equal Weighted S&P 500 is a case in point, at the same time, the current dichotomy in market breadth pales in comparison to the 1999-2000 episode.
Tomorrow is the Minnesota season-opener for muskies, but the fanatics who chase them are likely disappointed that it comes a few days after an event that’s known to trigger these beasts: the full moon. The screenshot is from our $9.95 “iSolunar” iPhone app, and shows that Saturday merits only a “three fish” day (out of a possible “four fish”)—based on the moon’s fading illumination.
Last week’s piece challenged the now popular view that new highs for the Russell 2000 are a decisively bullish factor for the stock market in the near term. To our surprise, we found that market returns during periods of well-defined Small Cap leadership are significantly lower than when Smalls are laggards.
While the Russell 2000 loss during the 2015-16 correction was almost double that of the S&P 500, the decline did not fully erase the P/E premium Small Caps have enjoyed since the middle of last decade. The premium might need to be entirely erased before a multi-year Small Cap leadership cycle can begin.
The S&P 500 has gained about 5% on the year, respectable but hardly consistent with the “melt up” scenario we thought might occur.
This bull market has appeared to be on shaky technical ground before, only for concerns to be swept aside. This time, we think it’s different.
Small Caps lagged the S&P 500 by almost ten percentage points in 2014, but their underperformance streak technically dates back to April 2011. Nonetheless, their cumulative, 45-month underperformance in relation to the S&P 500 (now about –18%) is still modest enough that any mention of the current “Large Cap Leadership Cycle” is bound to draw a few head scratches.