Eq: Small Caps
The FINSUM team came across an interesting ETF recently, run by a team that we really liked. We always pay special attention to small caps because we think it is an area where strong research and a well defined strategy can create a lot of value. That is exactly the feeling we get with the LeggMason Small-Cap Quality Value ETF (SQLV). The fund is run by George Necakov, and experienced portfolio manager from Royce & Associates, themselves a specialist in small and microcap portfolio management that has been around since 1972. The fund seeks to create outperformance by tracking the results of an index made up of small cap stocks with relatively low valuations. The fund uses a multi-factor approach to choose companies with high profitability and low relative valuations. SQLV has an expense ratio of 60 bp.
FINSUM: This fund is still small but we like their approach and George seems like a very competent manager. Small cap value is an area where one needs a considered and labor-intensive approach and this ETF appears a great way to get some simple and reliable exposure.
Picking small caps is an art, a point that any serious investor in the space knows. Well, one of the best in the business is giving out tips today and advisors would be wise to listen. Samantha Lau, co-CIO of AllianceBernstein’s AB Small Cap Growth Portfolio is giving out her “rules” for small cap investing. Her fund has an admirable record, rising an average of 20% per year for the last decade, better than 95% of her peers. Some of her rules: “If you think something is wrong, exit and revisit”, “CFOs don’t quit to spend more time with family”, they leave because they see better performance elsewhere or something bad is coming. She continued “A good company is not always a good stock”. Her team uses a rigorous methodology that mixes quantitative and qualitative factors.
FINSUM: These are great tips for any investor, but we are particularly fascinated by the comment about great companies not being great stocks. It is an interesting and underappreciated point.
Small caps are having a great year so far, but there are increasing worries that the good times might not last. The Russell 2000 is outperforming the S&P 500 by 3% (13% vs 10%) this year, but has tumbled in recent days, a troubling sign. What could be driving the losses is that the big gains in price have not corresponding to improving fundamentals. For instance, small cap performance is very tied to purchasing managers index data (PMI), but the rise in price has not been tied to changes in the PMI. Additionally, small cap companies tend to have the most floating rate debt, which puts them at a higher risk of rising rates. They also tend to have much lower credit quality, meaning they are the most susceptible to shifting rates. More than half the debt issued by small companies is rated as junk.
FINSUM: There is no reason to think the bottom is going to fall out here. However, a sense check seems necessary for small cap investors as there are significant risks.
As part of our ongoing coverage of the best funds we found and met with at the recent Inside ETFs conference, we want to today suggest our readers take a look at TTAC, TrimTabs Asset Management’s US-focused quality ETF. The fund is predicated on providing investors with the highest quality stocks. In order to do so, TrimTabs focuses on free cash flow, strong balance sheets, and reducing share count. Free cash flow is a particularly important component as it is one of the hardest for companies to doctor, meaning it is a reliable indicator of quality. In order to implement this strategy, the fund uses a quantitative rules-based approach with human overlays that allow for flexibility in terms of sectors, industries, and market caps. TTAC seeks to outperform the Russell 3000 by holding the 100 companies in the index which best embody its investment criteria. The fund has about $125m in AUM and has an expense ratio of 0.59%.
FINSUM: We were very impressed by the folks at TrimTabs. Not only does the CIO, Theodore (Ted) Theodore have the best name in the business, but their enduring passion for their strategy was compelling. We feel this fund has a smart approach and is very competently managed. Definitely worth a look.
Here is potentially good news for investors—the market’s start to this year has been the best since 1987. Both the S&P and Russell have risen considerably in the first 12 sessions of the year, with the former jumping 8.8%. The best start since ’87 sounds good, except that 1987 rivals 2008 as having the worst reputation with investors (shares fell almost 23% in a single day in October 1987). Analysts are urging caution, especially on small caps, as the gains don’t seem sustainable given the huge buildup in leverage that has occurred in small companies over the last few years.
FINSUM: The parallel to 1987 is completely irrelevant, as it is really only based on the percentage gain over 12 sessions.
Small caps are in a major rut. The Russell 2000 peaked in August and is now on the verge of a bear market since then. Interestingly, small caps have fallen farther than their larger peers despite the fact that they are insulated from headwinds like the trade war. So how to pick them? The answer is to stay away from indexes and actually choose individual shares whose fundamental outlooks appear brighter than benchmarks. For instance, one fund manager says that investors should choose “quality value stocks” with “with high free-cash-flow yield, low net debt to earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization, or Ebitda, and below-market volatility”.
FINSUM: Small caps are a hugely diverse sector and some shares will inevitably have bright outlooks no matter what else may be going on in the market. The issue, of course, is the time and selection necessary to find such shares. Perhaps actively managed small cap value funds are a good bet?