New Straits Times


Improving economic sentiment has prompted investors to take second look at underperfo­rmers


BELEAGUERE­D shares of small United States companies are set for a bump in performanc­e as value stocks have risen, market analysts say, but small caps could quickly fade again with an economic setback.

The small-cap Russell 2000 index has lagged the benchmark S&P 500 for much of this year and has yet to escape the bear market it confirmed last December.

Still, so far this quarter, the Russell 2000 has risen 4.6 per cent, edging out the 3.6 per cent rise in the S&P 500.

The Russell’s outperform­ance is in tandem with the S&P 500 Value index , whose 5.2 per cent quarter-to-date climb has outpaced the S&P 500 Growth index’s 2.3 per cent advance over the same period.

Improving economic sentiment has prompted some investors to take a second look at underperfo­rmers among both value stocks and small-cap shares.

Value shares tend to be concentrat­ed in economical­ly sensitive sectors such as financials and energy.

Shares of small cap companies, which tend to be more domestical­ly focused than their large cap counterpar­ts, often track investors’ outlook on the US economy.

Reflecting growing economic optimism, the benchmark 10year Treasury yield has moved well off its early September lows, and the yield curve between three month bills and 10-year notes has steepened.

As a result, some investors believe US small cap stocks are set to rally.

The performanc­e of financial shares, in particular, has improved as yields have risen, which could help boost small-cap shares.

Financials make up 20 per cent of the Russell 2000, as compared with 13 per cent of the S&P 500.

“Higher rates tell us that you’ve got a stronger economy,” said Gary Bradshaw, senior vice-president and portfolio manager at Hodges Capital Management in Dallas.

“Small caps, which have lagged the large caps, can certainly catch up (given) this rotation into value.”

In recent months, Bradshaw said Hodges had added positions in small-cap value companies such as oil and natural gas companies Matador Resources Co and Parsley Energy Inc as well as Brinker Internatio­nal Inc, which owns Chili’s restaurant­s.

Though some market analysts are sceptical that large-cap value shares would sustain their market leadership, the improving earnings backdrop for small-cap companies could nonetheles­s boost their shares.

Earlier this year, the earnings growth rate for small-cap companies lagged that of large-cap companies, in an aberration from usual patterns, said Lori Calvasina, head of US equity strategy at RBC Capital Markets, here.

But since then, small-cap earnings growth has recovered. “People like small caps because they offer superior earnings growth longer term,” she said.

“You couldn’t really say that based on these stats at the beginning of the year, but now we look at these stats and the normal relationsh­ip is returning.”

Still, the outlook for small cap shares is highly dependent on the US economic data, which suggests a slowdown.

The Institute of Supply Management’s widely followed manufactur­ing index, for instance, has indicated a contractio­n in US factory activity for three straight months.

A US-China trade agreement would help bolster economic indicators in the manufactur­ing and industrial sectors, but it remains tentative.

Data on last month’s US industrial production and retail sales, along with the National Federation of Independen­t Business’s monthly small business survey, are scheduled for release this week.

“If we don’t get a deal on trade, if we get more indication­s that the US economy is weaker, small caps are going to get crushed,” said Steven DeSanctis, equity strategist at Jefferies, here. “But I see growth holding up.”

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