The Case Against Small Caps
Small vs. Large Stocks
In the David vs. Goliath scenario, a smaller, weaker character faces down and defeats a larger and stronger opponent. Such triumphant underdog storylines abound in the realm of business: Think Netflix vs. Blockbuster, Alibaba vs. eBay in China, or Amazon vs. Barnes & Noble.
For small companies, survival is much more of a struggle than for their larger, more established counterparts. Their greater challenge is reflected in higher business risk. In the US stock market, the smallest 10% of companies by market capitalization exhibited annualized volatility of 15.3%, compared with 14.1% for the largest 10%, according to data going back to 1926 from the Kenneth R. French Data Library.
Investors naturally expect to be compensated for holding riskier stocks. But the Size factor, which represents a strategy of buying small-cap stocks and shorting large caps, has not generated attractive returns over the last 90-plus years. But maybe market capitalization is the wrong metric. Could different measurements of size have generated better performance?
The Long View
Returns from the Size factor have been almost flat since 1926, with some significant boom-and-bust cycles. The first influential paper on excess Size factor returns was published by Rolf W. Banz in 1981 — the approximate performance peak for the Size factor.
Although the returns were positive across the entire observation period, they were not especially robust given decade-long drawdowns. Making matters worse, the data excludes transaction costs and thus overstates returns.
The Long-Short Size Factor in the US Stock Market
Source: Kenneth R. French Data Library
Measuring Size Differently in the US Stock Market
Market capitalization is the prevailing metric for weighting stocks in equity indices. But it is not the only way to measure the size of companies. We used four alternatives and applied them in the US stock market. The results showed varied Size factor performance since 2000.
Market capitalization and average daily value traded (ADV) yielded almost identical returns. This is intuitive since the stocks with the largest market capitalizations tend to be among the most traded. Enterprise value, which comprises market capitalization and debt, resulted in flat performance. In contrast, weighting companies by total assets and total sales generated negative returns.
The strong performance of market capitalization and ADV between 2000 and 2002 is best ignored since it resulted from the rebound following the severe tech bubble drawdown as investors preferred large over small companies.
The US Long-Short Size Factor: Alternative Metrics
To analyze the alternative Size metrics, we looked at the current median market capitalizations for the long and short portfolios. We found the portfolio characteristics are comparable across the different metrics, except for total assets and total sales, which feature smaller companies in the long portfolio as measured by market capitalization. This likely reflects a preference among investors for fast-growing, asset-light companies over more mature businesses with greater assets and sales.
Median Market Capitalization ($ billions) for Alternative Size Metrics
Next, we developed a sector breakdown of the long portfolio of small caps for the different metrics from 2000 to 2018. This yielded the following observations:
- Market capitalization was the most diversified across sectors.
- Enterprise value was dominated by the technology sector — likely a reflection of tech stocks’ comparatively low leverage.
- ADV: Financials contributed most stocks, although it’s difficult to explain why.
- Total assets was heavy with tech and health care stocks, probably because such companies have few assets.
- Total sales: As with total assets, technology and health care (biotech) stocks tend to grow quickly, but often have little or no sales.
Overall, from a sector perspective, alternative Size factor metrics resulted in diverse portfolios.
Sector Breakdown for Alternative Size Metrics: Long Portfolio, 2000–2018
Europe to the Rescue?
The lack of a US small-cap premium is perplexing. But maybe the US equity market is an outlier. The same strategies applied in European stock markets, it turns out, yield positive and relatively consistent returns since 2000. The alternative metrics show somewhat similar trends, in contrast to the conflicting US results. So maybe there’s hope for small-cap investors after all.
The European Long-Short Size Factor: Alternative Metrics
Small vs. Large Stocks in Asia-Pacific
But what about elsewhere? Could the Japanese stock market offer a similar small-cap premium? Apparently not, no matter what small-cap measure is used. As in Europe, the alternative Size metrics show comparable trends. But the performance is disappointing.
The Japanese Long-Short Size Factor: Alternative Metrics
Comparing the Size Factor by Regions
Finally, we created equal-weight portfolios of the various small-cap metrics, including market capitalization, and compared Size factor performance across regions.
Investors were rewarded for buying smaller, riskier companies in Europe, but not in the United States or Japan. This would seem to cast doubt on the very existence of the small-cap premium.
Common equity factors like Value or Momentum tend to exhibit similar trends across different stock markets and even asset classes. But Size factor performance is relatively heterogeneous, except in Europe and Japan, from 2006 onwards. An interesting question to explore is why investors buy cheap or winning stocks at approximately the same time, but not necessarily small stocks.
Long-Short Size Factor Combinations across Regions
Investors frequently combine factors and including the Size factor in a multi-factor portfolio boosts performance, according to research. Sorting for small and cheap stocks, for example, is a popular strategy.
But billions have been allocated to pure small-cap mutual funds and exchange-traded funds (ETFs) on the basis of the small-cap premium. And long-term data for the US stock market contradicts this strategy’s underlying thesis — that the greater risk yields greater returns. Results across regions since 2000 provide a mixed verdict.
Unfortunately for aspiring small-cap investors, the message is clear: Alternative Size factor metrics do not boost performance. So while most of us may enjoy rooting for the Davids, we’re probably better off betting on the Goliaths.
For more insights from Nicolas Rabener and the Factor Research team, sign up for their email newsletter.
If you liked this post, don’t forget to subscribe to the Enterprising Investor.
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/ZU_09
Professional Learning for CFA Institute Members
Select articles are eligible for Professional Learning (PL) credit. Record credits easily using the CFA Institute Members App, available on iOS and Android.
9 thoughts on “The Case Against Small Caps”
When you compare the Russell 2000 to the S&P 500 for the past twenty years you get a 7.4% vs 5.63%. Not sue why your article didn’t include this basic info? Maybe I’m missing your point?
Hi Michael, thanks for your question. The data presented also shows that over the last 20 years small caps outperformed large caps. However, there is no consistency in that performance and it is highly dependent on the starting point, e.g. if you start in 2000 you’re capturing the rebound from the Tech bubble, where large caps outperformed small caps. If you look at the 90-year data from Fama-French (first chart), then you can spot decade-long underperformance from small caps, e.g. 1980 – 2000. The research was aimed to investigate if alternative metrics to market cap would provide more consistency, but the results do not indicate that.
Interview a small-cap with the same questions you would ask a prospective employer (i.e. Where do you want to be in five years?).
If investing in small caps purely based on indexes wouldn’t that understate what the performance would be of holding the underlying individual small cap securities (based on a selected starting point) since inherently any outperforming small cap would be reconstituted once it reaches a certain cap size (limiting the index to hold only underperforming small cap securities)?
Hi Mike, thanks for your thoughtful question. We partially avoid the issue of having too many underperforming small caps by imposing a minimum market cap of $1bn, i.e. the index excludes companies that heading into bankruptcy.
I also just ran the index with monthly and semi-annual rebalancing, which highlights slightly better CAGRs for the latter, supporting your argument. However, the performance is almost identical in trend and has not been particularly attractive since 2004, i.e. post the rebound from the Tech bubble.
Does leverage have any to do with this? If we take a look at the growth rate of earnings of mid/small caps vs large caps we will probably find that small and mid caps tend to have greater growth rates and therefore you would expect greater growth rates from them. Still we don’t see that and maybe it is because larger companies have access to cheaper and bigger access to debt, which then in turn would enhance their equity return, and I think that is someting that exacerbated after the last financial crisis and the subsequent overregulations in the bank’s balance sheets that made debt more restrictive to small and mid cap companies.
Hi David, I had a look at the median market caps of the Growth and Leverage factors since 2000. There was not a significant difference in market caps between fast and slow growing companies, i.e. small companies weren’t growing faster than large caps. However, large companies were indeed more levered, which would support the argument for higher returns on equity for lare caps.
Somewhat conflicting is that higher leverage should reflect in larger drawdowns during market downturns, but large caps outperformed small caps during the GFC, which poses new questions.
Isn’t the argument against using market caps which are less than $1bn being partly driven by the need for having stocks with market caps that most institution can buy? Forget about the bankruptcy question as everyone agrees that small caps are risky and the smaller the cap, the more the risk. What would happen is you look at companies in the the $500mn to 1bn range and the $250 to $500 mn range? This is the only fair way to look at the small cap effect? Then if the lowest market cap does well, you can raise questions of liquidity, etc.
Hi Leonard, yes, most institutional investors are constrained from investing in small caps from a liquidity perspective.
We looked at small and microcaps in another research note, which highlights that investors haven’t been compensated for higher risks. Here is the link: