Obstacles And Optimism: Our Review And Outlook For 2018
article 08-13-2018

Obstacles And Optimism: Our Review And Outlook For 2018

Although the first six months of 2018 remain curious to us, we’re hopeful the second half will feature more normalizing markets.

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Small-Cap's First Half

Value Trails For Now

During the first six months of 2018, small-cap stocks enjoyed the good times bred by a bull market that at this writing has not yet slowed down. Although the first half began with higher volatility and stalled equities prices—and ended with a series of wild days that made the bullish second quarter feel more tumultuous than it was—the overall direction of U.S. markets has remained positive, particularly for smaller stocks. For the year-to-date period ended June 30, 2018, the small-cap Russell 2000 Index gained 7.7%, well ahead of both the large-cap Russell 1000 (+2.9%) and S&P 500 (+2.6%) Indexes, while making a new historical high on June 20. Returns were even higher for micro-cap stocks—the Russell Microcap Index advanced 10.7% for the same period.

This mostly welcome absolute and relative performance took place against the backdrop of an accelerating U.S. economy, a strong job market, and, in many cases, sterling corporate profit growth while at the same time global economic progress slowed, most notably in China and other large emerging markets. The major non-U.S. indexes slipped deeper into negative territory during the first half, as the combination of slower international growth, rising emerging market instability, a stronger dollar, and heightened trade war worries led investors to prefer all things domestic. (In fact, 35 of the 45 non-U.S. small-cap markets that we follow had declines in the first half of 2018, though only 26 were negative when measured in local currencies.) Still, growth continued to skew positive outside the U.S., with the important economies of Japan and Germany continuing to look solid.

Equity Indexes Average Annual Total Returns as of 6/30/18 (%)

YTD indexesIndexes 1 YearIndexes 5 Year

Small-Cap is represented by Russell 2000; Small-Cap Value is represented by Russell 2000 Value, Small-Cap Growth is represented by Russell 2000 Growth, Large-Cap is represented by Russell 1000, Micro-Cap is represented by Russell Microcap. Past performance is no guarantee of future results.
1Not annualized

In this context, then, you would expect a small-cap specialist to be quite content, if not happy. This might especially be the case considering that small-caps—as well as micro-caps—have been true to their historical habit of outpacing larger companies through an economic expansion. Yet as much as we were pleased with first-half results, we find ourselves far from blissful. A closer look at small-cap performance in the first half reveals some genuine historical oddities in spite of all looking well on the surface. Our main concern is the disconnect between the confidence of the management teams we’ve been meeting with and the relatively underwhelming performance for many cyclical industries. We anticipated that stocks in these industries would do better owing to their recent earnings strength and ongoing prospects as well as to the healthy state of the U.S. economy (each, of course, being related to the other).



Obstacle on the Track

The Troublesome 10-Year Treasury Yield

Another related concern is the way in which the ongoing weakness of the 10-year Treasury yield is at odds with the quickened pace of U.S. economic growth—when the 10-year has been sluggish in the past, it’s often been seen as a symptom of economic weakness, and not without some justification. The fact that the economy has arguably been some distance down the track to normal for at least a couple of years remains a source of concern to us.

Road to Normalization: Economy vs Markets

GDP vs Tresury

Quarterly Data
Source: Bloomberg

We invite you to consider the following five points: through the end of June, the U.S. economy had grown for 109 consecutive months, GDP growth has converged with its long-term average, unemployment reached an 18-year low in June, personal consumption expenditure inflation hit the Fed’s 2% target in May, and short rates were rising. Additionally, we’re also seeing the early signs of inflation. Most are registering in increased commodity, raw material, and other input costs, which is historically familiar economic territory. History also shows, however, that these developments are also typically coincident with rising interest rates. So far, though, the 10-year Treasury yield has stubbornly refused to acquiesce to history—making the 10-year the major obstacle on the path back to normal in our view.

From our perspective as highly active, valuation-sensitive small-cap specialists, the most frustrating have been those periods when the 10-year yield has fallen back. It seems to us that nearly every time it has declined over the last 18 months, the market has witnessed a subsequent flight to high yielding or growth stocks while value and economically sensitive issues struggled to keep pace. It almost seems as if investors became temporarily convinced that we had slipped back into the 2010-2015 era of quantitative easing and zero interest rates. We think it bears emphasizing that, for all its uncertainty, the current environment could not be more different. Yet the disconnect persisted into June.

The critical question, then, is, what happens next? More pertinently for our investors, the question can be phrased in a more specific way as, are we likely to see a shift in small-cap style and sector leadership? We believe that we will. The second quarter saw an admittedly short-term sign when the Russell 2000 Value Index shook off five straight quarters of underperformance to outpace its small-cap growth counterpart, up 8.3% versus 7.2%. But exactly when, and under what conditions, a longer-running shift materializes remains to be seen, of course. To be sure, the kind of leadership change that we expect—from growth to value and from defensives to cyclicals—seldom occurs without a fair bit of volatility.


 

Small-Cap Highs

Returns, Valuations–and Risks

Putting the issue of market turbulence aside for a moment, the timing does seem apt to us for a change. First, the two-year cumulative return at the end of June for the Russell 2000 was 46.5%—which is a wonderful, but sadly not a sustainable, pace. Second, the one-, five-, and 10-year average annual total returns for the small-cap index for the period ended June 30, 2018 were all comfortably ahead of their long-term monthly rolling averages.

Recent Small-Cap Returns Higher Than History
Russell 2000 through 6/30/18

Russell 2000 AATR vs Rolling

When we look at the same information for the Russell 2000 Growth Index, the contrast is even more stark, with its latest five-year return significantly in excess of its historical rolling average (+13.6% vs. +8.6%). This is one important reason why we expect a leadership shift in the form of a reversion to the mean that would favor small-cap value outperforming small-cap growth over the next five years.

The state of small-cap valuations also looks unsustainably high to us, particularly if we see a continued, and more consistent, rise in the 10-year yield. While the P/E ratio for the Russell 2000 did not look especially rich at the end of June, another valuation metric, the last twelve months enterprise value to earnings before interest and taxes (EV/EBIT)—which we use most frequently when examining companies—tells a different story, one that reveals higher-than-average historical valuations. The currently elevated state of returns and valuations could mean that we are entering a longish period of multiple compression, which is one reason why we prefer select small-caps with strong earnings prospects and/or modest valuations. If we see increased volatility over the balance of the year, these types of stocks look better positioned to cope with it effectively.

Based on earnings and cash flow quality—as well as confident management teams—we are seeing superior fundamentals in selected cyclical areas that other investors are avoiding.

Cyclicals Cheaper than Defensives
Median LTM EV/EBIT¹ Ex. Negative EBIT for Russell 2000 as of 6/30/18

cyclicals vs defensives

¹ Last Twelve Months Enterprise Value/Earnings Before Interest and Taxes

For example, the supply/demand dynamics in a number of industries, such as semiconductors & semiconductor equipment, transportation, and chemicals, look favorable to us and do not appear to us to be fully reflected in their current valuations. Many cyclical companies appear much better positioned for intermediate-term growth than defensive and/or growth stocks. While many cyclical stocks have lagged the field over the last 18 months, they are also more reasonably priced than defensives based on EV to EBIT. We remain convinced that fundamentally strong small-cap companies, especially those with attractive-to-reasonable valuations, will become more appealing to investors as confidence in the U.S. economy continues to build.

There’s a related point that may be equally important when considering valuations: The sheer size and diversity of the small-cap asset class means that there are almost always opportunities to find what we think are promising or quality businesses trading at attractive discounts. Based on EV/EBIT, the bottom three deciles of the Russell 2000 were trading at sizable discounts compared to the median for the index as a whole at the end of June.

Many Small-Caps Sell at a Significant Discount
Bottom Three Deciles in Russell 2000 Median LTM EV/EBIT1 
Ex. Negative EBIT as of 6/30/18

Russell 2000 bottom three deciles

1 Last Twelve Months Enterprise Value/Earnings Before Interest and Taxes



Volatility and Interest Rates

Both On the Rise

During the first quarter, the Russell 2000 moved 1% or more in 33% of its trading days compared to 18% in all of 2017. Another volatility measure, the CBOE Russell 2000 Volatility Index (“RVX”), measures market expectations of near-term volatility conveyed by Russell 2000 stock index option prices. The RVX has averaged 24.1% per year since its inception on January 2, 2004 through June 30, 2018. Its average in 2017 was 15.9%, and its year-to-date average through the end of June 2018 was 17.5%. Eighteen months of lower volatility suggests—strongly to us—that increased volatility is likely.

We also believe that the upward trend in rates is under way—and suspect that the 10-year yield will begin to move up more consistently over the next year. We see both rising rates and increased volatility as healthy. In fact, looking once more at history, we find that periods of rising rates have been favorable for small-cap stocks on both an absolute and relative basis. When the 10-Year Treasury yield was rising, the Russell 2000 outperformed the large-cap Russell 1000 in 70% of monthly rolling one-year periods for the 20-year period ended June 30, 2018, with an average one-year return of 23.8% versus 19.2% for large-cap. Our expectations for returns are more modest, though we do expect this historical relative return spread pattern to hold up.

How Have Small-Caps Performed When Rates Were Rising?
Russell 2000 vs Russell 1000 Trailing Monthly Rolling 1-Year Returns When 10-Year Treasury Yield was Rising From 6/30/98 through 6/30/18

SC when rates are rising

10-Year Treasury Yield rose in 92 of 229 periods

More specifically, we see rising rates as a phenomenon that should also be helpful to risk-conscious active managers in the small-cap space—primarily because it fosters an environment where better balance sheet companies are likely to be rewarded for their fiscal prudence. In other words, risk management matters. This is relevant today because of the increased leverage—specifically financial leverage—within the Russell 2000. And as rates continue to move up, the overall small-cap index looks increasingly risky. As active managers, we have the ability to screen and scrutinize small-cap businesses with better balance sheets and shy away from those that we see as having excess financial leverage. (It is worth mentioning that the market has largely ignored better balance sheet companies for much of the last 10 years.) Most of our strategies gravitate toward companies with low debt. We would rather focus on companies that have great operating leverage—but not financial leverage. With rising rates, inflation, and economic growth becoming established, the market seems to be transitioning into an environment that will favor similar qualities.



Reasons to Be Cheerful

We are therefore of two minds about the current cycle. On the one hand, we think that we could see some consolidation or a correction—the latter certainly seems more probable now than it did a year ago. Yet we remain optimistic about small-cap earnings growth and like the fundamentals of our holdings across our strategies in terms of balance sheets, cash flows, and earnings strength. It is in cyclical areas, including Industrials, the more cyclical precincts of technology, and Materials, and that we have most often uncovered what we judge to be the best combination of value, quality, and/or growth prospects. And this has always been a function of our bottom-up process rather than a top down view of the economy.

This is why many of our portfolios have had perennially higher weightings in those sectors (and while others we manage have had high weightings in Financials and Consumer Discretionary). We also long ago developed the practice of leaning into those areas of the asset class where we see excess pessimism. Investments in industries that the rest of the market is abandoning have often borne fruit, though we have learned through decades of small-cap asset management that it usually requires a great deal of patience—measured in years in many cases—before the arrival of a bountiful harvest.

We think it’s worth noting that the three changes in the market environment that we expect—lower returns, higher volatility, and value/cyclical leadership—have all historically been coincident with leadership for active management. We see signs of progress that in our view place us squarely on the road to normalization, which was evident in the modest increases in bond yields and the reemergence of value’s leadership in 2018’s second quarter. We saw other equally positive signs in July, including stabilizing macro indicators from outside the U.S., a welcome rebound in the performance of many industrial companies, and ongoing earnings strength for several cyclical areas. We expect to see more signs of normalizing markets to emerge as the year goes on.

Important Disclosure Information

The thoughts expressed in this letter concerning recent market movements and future prospects for small company stocks are solely the opinion of Royce at June 30, 2018, and, of course, historical market trends are not necessarily indicative of future market movements. 

All indexes referred to are unmanaged and capitalization weighted. Each index’s returns include net reinvested dividends and/or interest income. Frank Russell Company (“Russell”) is the source and owner of the trademarks, service marks and copyrights related to the Russell Indexes. Russell® is a trademark of Frank Russell Company. Neither Russell nor its licensors accept any liability for any errors or omissions in the Russell Indexes and / or Russell ratings or underlying data and no party may rely on any Russell Indexes and / or Russell ratings and / or underlying data contained in this communication. No further distribution of Russell Data is permitted without Russell’s express written consent. Russell does not promote, sponsor or endorse the content of this communication. The Russell 2000 Index is an index of domestic small-cap stocks. It measures the performance of the 2,000 smallest publicly traded U.S. companies in the Russell 3000 Index. The Russell 2000 Value and Growth Indexes consist of the respective value and growth stocks within the Russell 2000 as determined by Russell Investments. The Russell 1000 Index is an index of domestic large-cap stocks. It measures the performance of the 1,000 largest publicly traded U.S. companies in the Russell 3000 Index. The Russell Microcap Index includes 1,000 of the smallest securities in the Russell 2000 Index, along with the next smallest eligible securities as determined by Russell. The performance of an index does not represent exactly any particular investment, as you cannot invest directly in an index.

This material is not authorized for distribution unless preceded or accompanied by a current prospectus. Please read the prospectus carefully before investing or sending money. (Please see "Primary Risks for Fund Investors" in the prospectus.)

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