Investing in Small Cap Stocks

A Guide to Investing in Small cap stocks

Small cap stocks are an important part of a diversified investment portfolio. They had provided high historical return and diversification, which are key factors in the portfolio management process.

Many flagship companies started as small businesses in a local market and evolved to large multinational corporations. Some of these success stories include McDonalds, which opened its first restaurant in Des Plaines, Illinois to become one of the biggest food chains in the world.

Research has shown that small-cap stocks overperformed a large cap over an extended period.

The below chart shows 15-year performance between IWM, Russell 2000 Small Cap ETF and SPY, S&P 500 Large Cap ETF. For that period IWM surged by 164% while SPY rose by 67%.

Small versus large cap 15 year performance

Once we include dividends, the 15-year annualized return of a small cap blend strategy becomes 8.66% versus 6.71% for a large cap strategy.

If we extend our period to 40 years (1975 – 2015), the small cap generated 14.25% annualized return while large cap produced 11.66%.

Investing in small companies comes with many caveats.  Even though they bring potentially high returns, they also impose high risk and uncertainty.

Market capitalization

Small cap companies have a market capitalization between $300 million and $2 billion dollars. Overall, the small size market is very fragmented. There are thousands of publicly traded small-size companies, but they only make 10-15% of the total market. The definition of a small-cap company varies widely among index providers and portfolio managers. Standard & Poor’s tracks their own S&P 600 Small Cap Index while FTSE Russell tracks the Russell 2000 Small Cap Index.

Very often, small companies are managed by their original founders.  They are usually new and innovative companies with competitive strengths in a particular local market or a specific product. It is not uncommon for companies to go back and forth between small, mid and large-cap rankings depending on their business cycle.

Niche market

Small cap companies often operate in a niche market where they have a distinct competitive advantage. Small businesses have a unique product or service, which they offer on either national or local level.  Unlike their bigger counterparts, which offer a variety of products in different geographies, small size companies tend to be more focused, with one or two flagship products. A particular example can be Coca Cola versus Red Bull. Coca-Cola offers hundreds of varieties of beverages worldwide while Red Bull offers only one type of energy drink.

Regularly small companies will start from a local market and grow nationwide.  Starbucks is a great example of a local coffee shop that moved up the ranks and became one of the top 100 large company in the USA and the world.

Small businesses with a unique product will often become an acquisition target for a larger corporation that wants to gain a presence in a growing higher margin market. Great example for that is PepsiCo acquiring Gatorade. PepsiCo wanted to get access to the fast growing market of sports drinks and instead of developing their own line; they decided to purchase an already established brand.

Growth potential

Small cap companies often have higher revenue growth than large size ones. Their competitive advantages, innovative strategy, flexibility and market positioning allows them to grow faster. It is easier to increase 25% when you start at $10 million of revenue versus $25% at $ 1 billion of revenue. Many times small companies do not even have a competition in their market niche. Think of Facebook before they went public. It is common for small firms to grow their revenue between 25% and 50% annually for several consecutive years.

Volatile prices

Investing in small cap stocks is risky. The high potential return of small caps comes with greater risk. The share price of small companies is more volatile and subject to larger swings than those of bigger companies.

IWM, the biggest small-cap ETF, has a beta of 1.22 to the equity market. As the comparison, the beta of SPY, the most traded large-cap ETF, is equal to 1. Beta measures the volatility of a security compared to the market as a whole. IWM beta of 1.22 shows that the ETF is historically 22% more volatile than the overall market.

Another measure of volatility is a standard deviation. It illustrates how spread out are the historical returns compared to the average annualized return of the investments. In our case, the 15-year standard deviation of IWM is 19.73% versus 14.14% for SPY.

As I mentioned earlier, the average 15-year return for a small cap stock is 8.66%. With a standard deviation equal to 19.73%, an average annual return can go between -11.07% and 28.39%. For SPY the average range is between -7.43% and +20.85% with annualized return of 5.25%. Based on this historical data we can claim that the small cap market has a much wider probability of returns. The high upside comes with a bigger downside.

Limited access

Small cap stocks lack the liquidity and trading volume of the large public corporations. This makes them more vulnerable to large price swings in short periods.

In times of economic recession, small companies can take a bigger hit in their earnings and may take a longer time to recover. Ten or fifteen percent decline in revenues can have a much more adverse impact on a small company than a larger one.

Due to their limited access to equity markets and loan financing, small size companies have a higher risk to go into bankruptcy if they run out of money.

Many small firms are start-ups with one innovative product and untested business models. Their dependency on just one product or service puts them in a very high-risk category in cases when the product or service does not appeal to their target customer base.

Inefficient market

Traders and portfolio managers often ignore small-cap companies. The focus is usually on large size companies, which frequently have 5 to 10 analysts following their earnings.  In fact, research analysts cover very few of the 2,000 stocks in the Russell 2000 index. Therefore, it is common that a small company does not have a full coverage by any industry analysts. This lack of interest and publicity produces conditions for inefficient pricing.   Active investors with a focus on the small cap market can scan the universe for undervalued and mispriced stocks and generate higher returns based on their valuation techniques and knowledge of the market.

Diversification

Investing in small cap companies can significantly contribute to the diversification of your portfolio.  Even though small stocks have a higher risk than larger ones, their correlation to the overall market is lower. A small blend strategy has 0.86 correlation to the overall US stock market and 0.56 to the broader international stock market.

A correlation equal to 1 shows the highest strength of the relationship between two asset categories. In the case of small cap, the correlation of 0.86 shows a weaker link with the overall market. Small cap prices does not fluctuate in the same magnitude and pace as the large cap companies.  While there is some influence by S&P 500, they follow an independent path.

 

How to invest in small cap companies

Stocks

You can invest in small size companies by buying them directly on the open market. There are over 2,000 listed small size companies in various industries and stages of their business cycle. Naturally, you cannot invest in all 2,000 stocks. You have to find a way to narrow down your criteria and select stocks based on certain factors. Very few small companies have analyst coverage. Therefore investing in small caps stocks will require doing your own research, analysis, and valuation.

When you invest in any company directly, being that a small or large size, you have to keep in mind that concentrated positions can adversely affect your portfolio performance if that company has a bad year or goes bankrupt. While everyone’s risk sensitivity is different, I would recommend limiting the range of each individual stock investment to 1% – 2% of your portfolio.

Tax Impact

For the best tax impact, I recommend putting small cap stocks either in taxable or Roth IRA accounts. Small cap companies have higher expected return combined with a higher expected volatility. If you hold your stocks in a taxable account, you can take advantage of tax loss harvesting opportunities if a particular stock in your portfolio is trading at lower levels than original purchase price. Tax loss harvesting is not available in Roth IRA, Traditional IRA, and 401k accounts. I

If you have small-cap stocks with solid long-term return prospects, keeping them in a taxable account will also allow you to pay the favorable long-term capital gain tax when you decide to sell them.

Having stocks in a Roth IRA account will have even better tax treatment – zero tax at the time of sale.

Passive indexing

ETFs and index mutual funds are the top choice for passive small cap investing. They provide a low-cost alternative for investors seeking a broader exposure to the small cap market. Small cap ETFs come in different shapes and forms. The table below shows a list of the most traded small cap ETFs with AUM above $500 million:

List of Small Cap ETFs

TICKER

FUND NAMEEXPENSE RATIOAUMSPREAD %1 YEAR5 YEAR10 YEARSEGMENT

AS OF

IWMiShares Russell 2000 ETF0.20%$27.79B0.01%5.69%12.28%6.01%Equity: U.S. – Small Cap10/26/2016
IJRiShares Core S&P Small Cap ETF0.07%$20.83B0.03%7.35%14.16%7.56%Equity: U.S. – Small Cap10/26/2016
VBVanguard Small-Cap Index Fund0.08%$13.94B0.03%5.59%13.14%7.40%Equity: U.S. – Small Cap10/26/2016
VBRVanguard Small Cap Value Index Fund0.08%$8.16B0.04%7.31%14.20%6.77%Equity: U.S. – Small Cap Value10/26/2016
IWNiShares Russell 2000 Value ETF0.25%$6.72B0.01%9.39%12.17%4.82%Equity: U.S. – Small Cap Value10/26/2016
IWOiShares Russell 2000 Growth ETF0.25%$6.35B0.02%1.92%12.31%7.01%Equity: U.S. – Small Cap Growth10/26/2016
VBKVanguard Small-Cap Growth Index Fund0.08%$4.93B0.04%3.50%11.36%7.25%Equity: U.S. – Small Cap Growth10/26/2016
IJSiShares S&P Small-Cap 600 Value ETF0.25%$3.85B0.03%10.26%14.31%6.57%Equity: U.S. – Small Cap Value10/26/2016
SCHASchwab U.S. Small-Cap ETF0.06%$3.78B0.04%5.46%13.03%Equity: U.S. – Small Cap10/26/2016
IJTiShares S&P Small-Cap 600 Growth ETF0.25%$3.47B0.08%4.41%13.74%8.42%Equity: U.S. – Small Cap Growth10/26/2016
DESWisdomTree SmallCap Dividend Fund0.38%$1.59B0.12%11.96%14.36%6.35%Equity: U.S. – Small Cap10/26/2016
FNDASchwab Fundamental US Small Co. Index ETF0.32%$1.04B0.06%6.38%Equity: U.S. – Small Cap10/26/2016
SLYGSPDR S&P 600 Small Cap Growth ETF0.15%$807.64M0.27%4.61%13.74%9.00%Equity: U.S. – Small Cap Growth10/26/2016
VTWOVanguard Russell 2000 Index Fund0.15%$675.74M0.06%5.67%12.19%Equity: U.S. – Small Cap10/26/2016
XSLVPowerShares S&P SmallCap Low Volatility Portfolio0.25%$651.46M0.09%12.43%Equity: U.S. – Small Cap10/26/2016
SLYVSPDR S&P 600 Small Cap Value ETF0.15%$610.42M0.21%10.46%14.43%7.38%Equity: U.S. – Small Cap Value10/26/2016
SLYSPDR S&P 600 Small Cap ETF0.15%$512.80M0.25%7.10%13.99%8.19%Equity: U.S. – Small Cap10/26/2016

Benchmark

One of the main differences between small-cap ETFs is the index they track. Each of the three main Small Cap Indexes is constructed differently.

Russell 2000 (IWM) includes the bottom 2,000 of the largest 3,000 publicly traded companies. The average market cap of the constituents of Russell 2000 is equal to $1.9 billion. The median is 698 million. And the largest stock has a market cap of $6 billion.

S&P 600 Index (IJR) tracks a smaller subset of the market. It includes only 600 companies.  As of April 2016, the market capitalization of companies included in the Index ranged from US$ 400 million to US$ 1.8 billion. S&P 600 also sets additional requirements for liquidity, public float, sector and financial viability.

CRSP SmallCap index (VB) tracks the 2%-15% percentile of the total market. It has 1,462 companies. The smallest company has a market capitalization of $21 million; the largest has $7.9 billion. The average size is $1.85 billion. The median is $1.44 billion. It is worth noting that VB tracked Russell 2000 Index through May 16, 2003; MSCI US Small Cap 1750 Index through January 30, 2013; CRSP US Small Cap Index thereafter

Focus

Another big difference between Small Cap ETFs is their segment focus. There are three main segments – small cap blend, growth, and value. The blend strategy invests in the wide universe of small caps, which mechanically tracks the designated index. The value strategy tracks a specific group of companies that have a  certain level of Price to Earnings, Price to Sales, Price to Book, dividend yield, and other fundamental ratios. Growth strategy invests in a group of stocks that meet certain criteria for price, revenue and earnings growth.

Tax Impact

ETFs and index funds have more favorable tax treatment than actively traded mutual funds. Due to their passive nature and legal structure, these funds rarely release capital gains and losses to their shareholders. Therefore, investors looking to optimize taxes in their investment portfolio should consider these type of funds.

Active investing

This strategy includes investing in actively managed mutual funds. These funds are run by management teams. They normally charge higher fees than comparable ETF to cover for the trading, administrative, marketing and research expenses.  Mutual funds follow a benchmark, which is usually one of the three main indices described earlier – S&P 600, Russell 2000 or CSRP Small Cap Index. Because of their higher fees than comparable ETFs, fund managers are often expected to outperform their benchmark.

Active funds normally focus in one of the three main segments – blend, growth or value. The fund managers utilize a formal selection process that identifies a number of companies, which meet certain proprietary criteria. The end goal is to select those companies that will achieve a higher return than the undying benchmark. Since the characteristics of value vs. growth strategy can be subjective, it is not an unusual that the same company is owned by both value and growth oriented funds.

In the past 7-8 years, many of the active managers have been criticized for underperforming the market. Part of the reason is that we experienced a very long market rally driven by a small number of flagship companies.

Tax Impact

Actively managed mutual funds have a more complex tax structure. They must transfer most of their dividends and capital gains and losses to their shareholders. Mutual funds will often have large amounts of long or short-term gains and losses released in December regardless how long you had kept in your portfolio, to avoid paying additional taxes I recommend placing your actively managed mutual funds in tax deferred and tax exempt accounts. Another alternative is to look for tax-managed funds. They tend to have a low turnover ratio and tend to report long-term gain and losses less frequently.

 

About the author: Stoyan Panayotov, CFA is a fee-only financial advisor based in Walnut Creek, CA. His firm Babylon Wealth Management offers fiduciary investment management and financial planning services to individuals and families.

 

Disclaimer: Past performance does not guarantee future performance. Nothing in this article should be construed as a solicitation or offer, or recommendation, to buy or sell any security. The content of this article is a sole opinion of the author and Babylon Wealth Management. The opinion and information provided are only valid at the time of publishing this article. Investing in these asset classes may not be appropriate for your investment portfolio. If you decide to invest in any of the instruments discussed in the posting, you have to consider your risk tolerance, investment objectives, asset allocation and overall financial situation. Different investors have different financial circumstances, and not all recommendations apply to everybody. Seek advice from your investment advisor before proceeding with any investment decisions. Various sources may provide different figures due to variations in methodology and timing, Copyright: <a href=’http://www.123rf.com/profile_nonwarit’>nonwarit / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

About Stoyan Panayotov

I am a fee-only financial advisor and the founder of Babylon Wealth Management. As fiduciary advisors, we provide bespoke wealth management and personalized financial planning to busy families in the Bay Area and nationally. Many of our clients are tech workers, physicians, business owners, professionals preparing for retirement and young families looking to build financial independence.

I started Babylon Wealth Management to help young families and successful professionals build, grow and preserve their wealth. Being a fee-only financial advisor, I never earn sales commissions or sell investment products. Furthermore, I am committed to acting in my clients’ best interest by providing trusted advice and bespoke wealth management solutions. I enjoy helping clients develop robust and personalized long-term financial plans to achieve their personal and financial goals.

After completing a bachelor’s degree in Accounting at Varna University of Economics in Bulgaria, at the age of 23, I moved to New York City to pursue a Master of Business Administration at Pace University. I was fortunate enough to have a full merit-based scholarship and finished graduate school with no student loans. Upon completing grad school, I joined the ranks on Wall Street for nearly two years. I specialized in risk management and option strategies for equity and fixed income products for Deutsche Bank and Wells Fargo. In 2006 I obtained a highly recognized CFA designation.

Living in New York without family support was a life-changing experience for me. II arrived at JFK Airport on August 24, 2002. I stayed in a hostel for two weeks and later moved in with three of my fellow Bulgarian students into a one-bedroom apartment in the Bronx. There was a time in life when all I owned was $200, just enough to pay for the next month’s rent. Many times, I contemplated returning to Bulgaria, but somehow, I always pushed through life’s adversities. I’ve learned to appreciate each moment, big or small, that life presents. These challenges have helped me develop strength and flexibility, which supports my practice as a financial advisor.

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