Practical analysis for investment professionals
09 February 2018

Leveraging Active Investing with Small-Cap Stocks

Elizabeth M. Lilly, CFA, finds her investment opportunities in unusual places. After breaking her iPhone screen in 2016, she did some research and discovered ZAGG, an under-the-radar stock that produced replacements. It turned out to be a serendipitous find.

That general curiosity about the world and how it works has served Lilly well during her 25 years as a small-cap stock portfolio manager. She believes that small-cap stocks offer a tremendous opportunity to those willing to do the research: Small-cap investors can generate returns if they dig deep into a company’s financials, conduct multiple valuation analyses, meet face-to-face with management, and have a patient, long-term focus.

Lilly, who recently founded the small-cap value manager Crocus Hill Partners, outlined her investment approach at the 2017 CFA Institute Equity Research and Valuation Conference.

The Case for Small Caps

Even after a quarter-century in the space, Lilly said she is amazed that inefficiency still exists in the small-cap market. If anything, the sector may have gotten even more inefficient over the years. Lilly explained that the stocks she invests in are sparsely covered by Wall Street analysts, are more volatile, and have lower valuations.

Lilly believes a number of market trends will continue to propel the sector:

  1. Small caps typically outperform in rising interest rate environments. There’s a misperception that all small-cap companies are burdened with a lot of debt, Lilly said. In fact, many continue to actively deploy cash through dividends and stock buybacks.
  2. M&A activity is often a catalyst for growth. M&A activity targeting small- and micro-cap companies has continued at a robust pace. This has been driven by activists encouraging companies to unlock value and large firms seeking growth through acquisitions.
  3. Small caps outperform over long periods. The idea of a “small-cap premium” has been challenged in the past but has not been disproved. Aswath Damodaran has noted that small companies are more likely to be overlooked and the undervalued ones likely to have bigger payoffs.
  4. Volatility equals opportunity. Small-cap investors can often use market turmoil and liquidity events to their advantage.

Valuing the Business

Lilly enjoys rolling up her sleeves and doing the hard analysis necessary to value small businesses. She looks for off-the-radar companies, conducting intensive qualitative and quantitative analysis to uncover hidden value. “We look closely at the balance sheet, income statement, cash flows, and margins and the interrelationships among them — five years back and five years forward,” she said.

Valuation is an imprecise art, but Lilly explained, “Our aim is to buy $100 worth of value for $65. We look for enough downside protection through a margin of safety with significant upside potential.”

She also looks for a catalyst that will ultimately unlock the stock’s value. This catalyst could be a new leadership team, a new market in which to sell products, the selloff of underperforming businesses, renewed focus on high-achieving ones, or exogenous factors like industry consolidation. “You need a catalyst to surface value,” Lilly said, echoing a bit of wisdom she learned from working with Mario Gabelli.

Lilly is most interested in management’s long-term strategic vision for a company. That means at least a three- to five-year time horizon. Her questions for management focus on its process for allocating capital and whether all its business segments are earning their cost of capital. She also likes to see incentives that keep the board and management focused on the long term.

The most crucial piece is her assessment of the C-suite: “You’ve got to visit the headquarters and look in the whites of the eyes of the management team,” she said. “This is something you cannot get from quarterly conference calls.”

Sound Advice

Earlier in her career, Lilly learned value investing techniques under the tutelage of Robert Bruce, founder of the Bruce Fund, and Warren Buffett. “The best advice I ever received from Warren was to know what you own and really understand the business you’re investing in,” she said. Her mentors also conveyed the importance of working with good people and emphasized that management can make the difference between a good investment and an outstanding one.

In the end, Lilly said, “You have to ask yourself: Do you believe in management and do you want to be their partners?” Understanding the goals and incentives of company leadership is essential to evaluate whether it can execute on its vision and whether it’s focused on creating value or becoming big.

“If you ask me why I love what I do,” Lilly said, “it’s because you can generate very high returns over long periods.” She thinks that small-cap stock investing is an excellent way to leverage active management, if you do the research and are guided by your curiosity.

Like Buffett, Lilly clearly enjoys her work. And who wouldn’t? It’s a rare opportunity to transform iPhone mishaps into alpha.

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All posts are the opinion of the author. As such, they should not be construed as investment advice, nor do the opinions expressed necessarily reflect the views of CFA Institute or the author’s employer.

Image credit: ©Getty Images/Avosb

About the Author(s)
Julie Hammond, CFA

Julia Hammond, CFA, is a director in the Educational Events and Programs group at CFA Institute, where she leads the planning for a number of annual and specialty conferences, including the Fixed-Income Management Conference, Security Analysis Conference, and the Financial Analysts Seminar. Previously, she developed strategies for pension, endowment, and foundation fund clients at Equitable Capital Management (now AllianceBernstein), and she has also worked as an auditor for Coopers & Lybrand (now PricewaterhouseCoopers). Hammond served for a number of years as chair of the investment committee for the Rockbridge Regional Library Foundation. She holds a BS in accounting from the McIntire School of Commerce and an MBA from the Darden School at the University of Virginia.

3 thoughts on “Leveraging Active Investing with Small-Cap Stocks”

  1. Subhash Juneja says:

    Well written article. However, it does not provide any data to support the conclusions that the article shows.

  2. thang says:

    there is a problem with small cap stocks. they normally have fewer competitive advantages than big cap stocks. how a small companies can compete and outperform the big one. of course, the competitive landscape can change and the small companies can become bigger. but this chance rarely happens. the leading players with many competitive advantages can take most of the market opportunities to grow.

    the growth of small company is normally the growth of its industry. how the small company can growth faster than its industry and big companies when it dose not have competitive advantages. this growth faster than normal growth of course can happen but will be seldom and need careful analysis. all competitive advantages needed for faster growth than the industry growth are in the hand of big players already and it is the big players , by using these competitive advantages, which use up all market chances to grow faster and more stably than the industry growth. be carefull with the growth of small cap. it is not long term. it last only a few quarters.

    1. Qi Zong says:

      In my opinion, the successful small caps are not the competitors of the large caps. They are companies which provide supplementary goods or services. They serve in a niche market that the large caps have somehow under represented. Thats the main reason why they are good bolt-on M&A targets.

      Good small caps may be few because they are very likely to be bought out.
      Many people cash in their millions as soon as they can. It takes a visionary and a lot of hardwork to turn a small company into a large cap. I don’t endorse Tesla because of the valuation, but I happened to read the book about Elon Musk. He, too, sold a few of his start-ups before he launched Tesla.

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