Many highly regarded small-cap funds have put up "no vacancy" signs to new investors, writes Sarah Max in Barron's, their managers cautious among perky valuations or unwieldy AUM, or both. Notable closures include the $1.6B Artisan Small Cap Investor Fund, the $6.2B Fidelity Small Cap Discovery Fund, and the $993M Hotchkis & Wiley Small Cap Value Fund. T. Rowe Price has also closed two of its top performers, the $10.4B T. Rowe Price Small-Cap Fund and the $16B T. Rowe Price New Horizons Fund.
Caution may be in order given the big run for small-caps, but fund manager Bill Grierson says the current Russell 2000 (IWM +1.1%) P/E ratio is just slightly higher than its 10-year average of about 17x. Further, Q2 sales growth is at about 9% so far.
Another manager allows it's not an easy time to find cheap stocks, but beyond the sexy segments there's a whole universe of small companies, and he's been picking up some names.
Hammering away at the misconception that it pays to seek active managers in supposedly "less efficient" sectors like small caps, S&P Dow Jones' Philip Murphy finds - even choosing among the top mutual fund share classes - an alarmingly small number of managers failed to beat the benchmarks.
Starting at the March 2009 bottom and going out five years, only 9 of 139 share classes beat the S&P SmallCap 600 benchmark (that's 5.9% of the starting set).
Where alpha might be able to be delivered though, is in choosing which benchmark to track. A fund tracking the S&P SmallCap 600 (IJR, VIOO) would have outperformed one tracking the Russell 2000 (NYSEARCA:IWM) by 23% over the 5-year period.
"Knowingly overpaying never has made sense to me, which I think people are doing," says small-cap fund manager Eric Cinnamond, notable for being up 14.5% at the midway point in 2009 vs. peers' average loss of 27%, but missing out on the bull market of the last three years thanks to his large cash holdings.
The small cap stocks on his radar are as "expensive as I have ever seen them," he tells the WSJ. "We're just unwilling to overpay with other people's mooney in high-quality, small-cap stocks."
Chicago-based Good Harbor Financial is among the largest ETF portfolio managers and the company in May began to rebalance its $11B U.S. Tactical Core Strategy twice a month instead of once - today marks the first mid-month trade for the portfolio, reports the WSJ.
Good Harbor's main strategy today, says the Journal, looked to be selling small caps as well as two ETFs tied to the S&P 500 (SPY -0.7%), and volume spiked in the iShares Russell 2000 ETF (IWM -1.6%), the ProShares Ultra Russell 2000 (UWM -3%), the iShares Core S&P 500 ETF (IVV -0.7%) and the ProShares Ultra S&P 500 (SSO -1.5%).
Good Harbors was the largest single holder of three of those funds as of the end of March, and the 2nd largest holder of the fourth.
As it sold the equity ETFs, Good Harbors appeared to be buying two mid-to-long-dated Treasury bond ETFs, the iShares 7-10 Year Treasury Bond Fund (IEF +0.3%) and the ProShares Ultra 7-10 Year Treasury ETF (UST +0.7%), with both having volumes many multiples higher than normal.
Good Harbors was also a seller of small caps and a buyer of Treasurys in early May, says the Journal, which earlier this year reported traders growing accustomed to waiting for the firm's monthly rebalance.
Making the rounds across trading desks is this chart showing the Russell 2000 (IWM -1%) this week closing below its 200-day moving average for the first time since November 2012.
BAML's Macneil Curry adds a couple of additional technical ideas, noting Tuesdays this year have typically been positive, but not this week, and the Russell 2000 looks to be completing a 4-month head-and-shoulders top.
The small cap index is now off 5.3% YTD vs. a 1.6% gain for the S&P 500. It's also now fallen below the S&P on a Y/Y basis, up 13.3% vs. the big cap's 14.9% gain.
"It's hard to find a bargain out there," says Fidelity fund manager John Roth, as - even with two sharp small-cap selloffs this year - the Russell 2000 (IWM) is down only 3.5%, and still trades at a lofty 19.1x earnings. At the start of 2013, the index's P/E was 15.1, and the average since 1994 is 16.9. After trimming positions in Q1, Roth's New Millenium Fund holds just 12% of assets in small caps vs. an average of 19% from 2008-2013.
Manager of the $240M Wasatch Small Cap Value Fund, Jim Larkings is keeping cash towards the higher end of his typical 2-8% of AUM. He's finding some value in those small caps reeling due to the broader selloff in high-growth tech, but "The real darlings aren't even close to value territory."
Individual investors, however, continue to be believers, pouring $3.1B into small cap mutual funds to add to $16.4B in inflows last year.
There's little movement in the S&P 500 and Dow, but what the chart-watchers like to call a technical divergence is occurring in the Nasdaq (QQQ -1.4%) and Small Caps (IWM -0.8%) for the 2nd consecutive day.
Leading the Nasdaq lower are roughly 2% declines in Google and Microsoft. The deflating Biotech sector (IBB -2%) is again the main culprit in small caps. Up 20% YTD in late February, the IBB is back to about flat for 2014.
The Russell 2000 (IWM) is trading for 49x earnings compared with a multiple of 39x at the height of the Internet bubble. The S&P 500 P/E ratio of 17.2x is within spitting distance of its 75-year average.
The small cap gauge has returned an average of 30% per year since the March 2009 bottom vs. 25% for the S&P 500, but profits lately are not keeping up. In the last quarter, Russell 2000 profits climbed 6.8% vs. 8.6% for the S&P 500, and while S&P companies exceeded analyst estimates by 4.6%, Russell 2000 companies missed by 13%, according to Bloomberg.
"Monetary policy action cannot be taken off the table as a response to the build-up of broad and sustained systemic risk," said Fed Governor Daniel Tarullo recently, sighting bubbly small caps as one thing being eyed at the central bank.
"We are getting increasingly concerned about the extended nature of small-caps," writes MKM's Jonathan Krinsky, noting the Russell 2000 as of last week closed 42% above its 200-day moving average, the most in four years. A check of the records over the last 30 years when the Russell's been more than 40% above its 200-day finds forward returns 90 days out to be negative 94% of the time, with an average decline of 7%.
He notes biotech makes up about 5% of the Russell 2000 and that sector's rally seems particularly unsustainable.
The Dow, S&P 500, and Nasdaq are all ahead about 1.25%, but the small caps are really breaking out, with the Russell 2000 up 2.8%, at an all-time high, and now ahead 4% on the year vs. a 1.4% gain for the S&P 500.
The index's gain over the last month sums to nearly 11%. Last week, Ryan Detrick noted the Russell was up 14 of the previous 15 sessions for the first time in its history.
The major averages are posting moderate gains thus far in the session, but it's another big day for the small caps, with the Russell 2000 ahead 1.3%. Off 6% for the year around the start of February and lagging the S&P 500, the small cap gauge is now up 2.3% YTD, at a new all-time high, and ahead of the S&P by 190 basis points thus far in 2014.
The Russell 2000's (IWM -3.3%) decline is nearly twice that of the S&P 500 and has the small-cap index now underperforming the big-cap gauge YTD (down 5.7% vs. 5.2%). It was little more than a week ago, the Russell 2000 was outperforming by about 300 basis points, and there have been numerous warnings (I, II) in recent weeks about an overvaluation in small-cap stocks that just couldn't last.
Once again, it's the Russell 2000 (IWM -1.9%) leading the way as the averages tumble. Green for the year just a few sessions ago, the small cap index is now off 3.6%, though it still hasn't caught up with the Dow's (DIA -0.5%) 4.7% YTD drop.
Apple's higher ahead of earnings this evening, but the broader tech sector (QQQ -1.5%) is also taking a big hit. Excepting Apple, all of the top holdings of the Nasdaq 100 - Google, Microsoft, Amazon, Qualcomm, Gilead, Intel, Cisco, Comcast, and Facebook - are lower.
"Investors should prepare for a bout of significant Russell 2000 underperformance," presciently wrote Michael O'Rourke of Jones Trading last night, noting how unusual it was to see the DJIA off 2.3% YTD, but the Russell up 1%. Look for that performance gap to close, he said.
Closing it is today, with the small-cap index off 2.5%, about 1% worse than the Dow, S&P 500, and Nasdaq. The iShares Russell 2000 Index ETF (IWM) -2.7%.
December is the new January as far as small caps are concerned, with Arthur Hill pointing out it's actually the year's last month when small caps are most likely to outperform the market - they do it 74% of the time vs. 50% in January (and a range of 40-60% for the rest of the year).
The Russell 2000 (IWM -0.2%) is off today as the S&P 500 (SPY +0.3%) rises, and thus far this month the S&P 500 - is ahead of the Russell by 140 basis points.