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Strengthening Economy Should Benefit High-Quality Small-Cap Stocks and Active Management - Royce Funds Commentary

February 28, 2014 | About:
Holly LaFon

Holly LaFon

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Resisting the temptation to prognosticate at length on larger matters, we’ll say only that we agree with the consensus that the economy is indeed growing faster and stronger. We also think this is good news for small-cap stocks and our own disciplined approach to stock selection.

Everybody Had a Good Year

2013 will enter the annals of history as one of the stock market’s better years. Not only were there healthy double-digit returns for all of the major U.S. indexes, but there were also no major corrections along the way. The closest the market came to a bearish phase was during the second quarter, when the rate on the 10-year Treasury began to rise off its calendar-year low in early May, mostly as a result of talk that the Federal Reserve would begin to reduce its $85 billion monthly bond-buying program. The Fed’s intentions to taper, made official by an announcement in June, then sent markets across the globe into a tailspin, while the 10-year Treasury rate mostly kept rising. (From its low on May 2 through the end of the year, it climbed more than 83%.) Yet by mid-summer, all or most of this seemed to be forgotten. Share prices climbed more or less uninterruptedly into December, where a couple of unsettled weeks in the middle of the month failed to put a Scrooge-like face on returns. Stocks quietly rallied through the last weeks of the year, making the fourth quarter as solidly bullish as the first and third.

The market’s ability to shrug off negative news—potential or otherwise—may have been its most salient trait in 2013. Here at home, investors had to cope with the sequester, the government shutdown, questions about Fed policy, and who would succeed Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke. Outside the U.S., it was not much quieter. There was economic uncertainty in Europe, China, and Brazil, among other places, unrest in the Mideast, and a significant, still-brewing political scandal in Turkey. Yet none of these things, taken alone or in concert, possessed enough force to slow the pace of the rally. Even murmurings later in the year about overvalued stocks and a market bubble gave investors little pause.

The rally seemed to gain strength from the notion that the U.S. economy was finally entering a faster, more historically typical expansion after five years of slow and uncertain growth. This would be more than welcome news. Consider for a moment how strange and singular our present situation is. The economy has received unprecedented levels of federal stimulus in the form of both quantitative easing and historically low interest rates even as the economy has looked strong enough to stand more firmly on its own for more than a year. However, we still face stubbornly high, only slowly declining unemployment, still-stagnant levels of demand, and lower consumer confidence. On the other hand, we have robust housing and auto sales, record corporate revenues, and companies sitting on piles of cash. This complicated economic picture is set against the political background of a falling federal deficit, a national healthcare plan that refuses to be anything less than wildly controversial, and a culture in Washington so dysfunctional that it now plays like a bleak tragicomedy worthy of Samuel Beckett. (Or at least it would if politicians weren’t so verbose.) All of this makes the question of what happens next even harder to answer than it would be in more sanguine times. Resisting the temptation to prognosticate at length on larger matters, we’ll say only that we agree with the consensus that the economy is indeed growing faster and stronger. For reasons we’ll detail later, we also think this is good news both for small-cap stocks and our own disciplined approach to stock selection.

As measured by the Russell 2000 Index, the small-cap market has been on a remarkable run since the bottom in March 2009. However, there were a number of notable twists prior to last year’s mostly smooth ascent. The three years prior to 2013 all exhibited a similar performance pattern in the first half of the year. During 2010, 2011, and 2012, the opening quarter extended a bull run that had gotten underway no later than the previous year’s fourth quarter. These gains were then eroded to varying degrees by a bearish second quarter, with the market starting to reverse course in April, making it indeed the cruelest month. The motive force behind each reversal was macro oriented—recurring fears about the uneasy state of the U.S., Chinese, and/or developed European economies. (The persistence of macro factors influencing sell-offs at the expense of company fundamentals was the most troubling element to us.) In 2010 and 2012, the third quarter saw a resumption of rising stock prices, while in 2011 the third quarter was the year’s worst—political dithering in Europe and contention in the U.S. exacerbating economic and fiscal concerns. The fourth quarter was positive for small-caps in all three years (as it was in 2009), though in 2011 its gains were not enough to keep the major indexes from finishing the year in the red.

This pattern is worth mentioning because we saw a more muted version of it play out in 2013. The critical difference was that initially rattled investors recovered their confidence in equities before the second quarter had ended and before quarterly returns turned negative. This suggests perhaps not so much a new-found confidence as it does a steadier sense of conviction. With the economy improving and our fiscal situation increasingly more manageable, investors appear to be seeing the value of staying invested. We see this as one of several encouraging signs for active management as we enter 2014. It makes sense to us that longer investment horizons will lead larger numbers of investors to higher-quality companies.

Everybody Saw the Sunshine

Small-caps were once again leaders in what was a magnificent year for equities. For the full year, the Russell 2000 (+38.8%) and the tech-centric Nasdaq Composite (+38.3%) outpaced the large-cap Russell 1000 (+33.1%) and S&P 500 (+32.4%) Indexes. The Russell 2000 enjoyed its best calendar-year performance since 2003. 2013 was also the best since 1995 for the Russell 1000, since 1997 for the S&P 500, and since 2009 for the Nasdaq Composite. The latter index, however, has not yet topped the high it made back on March 10, 2000. By contrast, the small-cap index, the Russell 1000, and the S&P 500 all established new highs on the last day of 2013. It was also the first year since 1996 in which the Russell 2000 posted positive returns in all four quarters.

After a strong first half, in which all the major domestic indexes were positive both through the end of June and for the more volatile second quarter, both small-cap and large-cap stocks sailed through the rest of the year. As it did in the second quarter, the Nasdaq led in the third, up an impressive 10.8% compared to a 10.2% gain for the Russell 2000 and respective increases of 5.2% and 6.0% for the S&P 500 and Russell 1000. As mentioned, December saw a brief squall of volatility, though fourth-quarter results for all four indexes wound up solidly positive. The Nasdaq marked its third consecutive quarter of market leadership, advancing 10.7% for the fourth quarter versus 8.7% for the Russell 2000 Index, 10.2% for the Russell 1000, and 10.5% for the S&P 500. It was also notable that from the 10-year Treasury yield low of 1.66% on May 2, 2013 through the end of the year small-caps were strong. The Russell 2000 gained 25.0% during this period versus respective gains of 17.9% and 17.4% for the Russell 1000 and S&P 500. (The 10-year yield finished 2013 at 3.04%.)

Outside the U.S., life was generally less bullish in 2013. Most non-U.S. indexes finished behind their stateside cousins in the first quarter and were in the red for the second. Results improved significantly in the second half, with European indexes turning in conspicuously high returns. For the third quarter, the Russell Global ex-U.S. Small Cap Index advanced 10.7% while the Russell Global ex-U.S. Large Cap Index increased 10.4%. The indexes also ended the year on a high note. For the fourth quarter, the Russell Global ex-U.S. Small Cap rose 4.0% while the Russell Global ex-U.S. Large Cap was up 5.0%. Calendar-year results were solid, though each index lagged its domestic peers. For 2013, the Russell Global ex-U.S. Small Cap Index climbed 17.2% while its large-cap sibling gained 16.1%.

The Russell Microcap Index posted impressive results for both the third (+11.6%) and fourth (+10.3%) quarters of 2013. This second-half strength helped the micro-cap index achieve an eye-catching 45.6% return for the calendar year. Results for both the second half and full year were not quite as robust for mid-cap stocks, as measured by the Russell Midcap Index, though they were more than respectable on an absolute basis. For the third quarter, the mid-cap index advanced 7.7% before rising 8.4% in the fourth, leading to a terrific 34.8% return for the full year.

Fixing a Hole

Our disciplined, risk-averse approach has often left us looking up at benchmarks during dynamic bull markets. In a more historically typical market cycle, 2013’s results would have given us less to explain or complain about. But these calendar-year results came after several portfolios underperformed their benchmarks in 2012 and 2011. The last three years, then, have left us increasingly frustrated, even as the reasons behind these underperformances are clear. Small-cap companies with high returns on invested capital (ROIC) and low-debt balance sheets have, as a group, underperformed their more leveraged counterparts. In addition, more economically sensitive cyclical sectors, including Energy, Industrials, Materials, and Information Technology—have trailed more defensive areas (such as Utilities) and less conservatively capitalized, higher-yielding vehicles (e.g., REITs and MLPs) where we have little if any exposure. Over the last several years, we have found many of what we think are highly attractive opportunities in cyclical sectors and/or in companies with strong balance sheets and high ROIC. Most have had only limited participation in the rally that began in March 2009. There have also been industries, such as precious metals & mining, that did very well in the initial phase of the recovery following the Financial Crisis before they began to correct sharply in 2011 and are yet to recover. So while nearly all sectors and industries across all asset classes did well in 2013, companies with many of the qualities that we look for have not yet led for long. Our approach leads us to conservatively capitalized companies with high ROIC and strong cash flow characteristics, among other attributes. Investors have still not gravitated to these kinds of companies in comparatively large numbers. However, it’s worth mentioning that many quality small-cap companies did very well on an absolute basis in 2013, particularly in the year’s last eight months.

Let It Be

There have also been signs over the last year-and-a-half that this leadership pattern is beginning to change. Two dates stand out to us as significant. The first was June 4, 2012. From that year’s small-cap low through the end of December 2012, investors showed a preference for companies with those quality characteristics mentioned earlier at the expense of high-yield vehicles, highly leveraged stocks, and explosive growth stories. (This helps to explain why many of our portfolios outpaced their benchmarks in the final half of 2012.) Unfortunately, this quality rally was short lived, petering out early in the first quarter of 2013. But we saw it as a significant step in the right direction. After all, we have been arguing for some time now that many quality stocks underperformed over the last several years because the Fed’s zero-interest-rate policies and multiple rounds of quantitative easing led to an outsized hunger for high yield and too few consequences for businesses carrying a lot of debt. This in turn led to a comparative neglect of companies with more pristine balance sheets and those with steady, but lower, dividends. We have also insisted, however, that these advantages have largely played themselves out in the context of a strengthening economy.

So it probably comes as no surprise that our second important date is the May 2, 2013 low for the 10-year Treasury yield, which marked the beginning of a rising interest-rate environment. Along with the onset of tapering, rising rates—though still historically low on an absolute basis—strongly suggest to us that we are moving closer, if at times by fits and starts, to a stock market that will reward quality businesses, especially those poised to benefit from a healthy, growing economy. In addition to the mini-rally in 2012, we saw improved results for many cyclical companies in the second half of 2013, especially compared to more defensive sectors. We have also seen a recovery in M&A and IPO activity. Most important, there have been increased levels of overall business activity, evidenced by the final revision of third-quarter GDP, which leaped from 3.6% to 4.1%.

We've Got a Feeling

Of course, considering where we have been over the last five-plus, even 13-plus, years, it seems fair to ask what a return to an "Old Normal" would look like in the market. Our sense is that small-caps are not on a collision course with a sustained decline or a catastrophic correction such as we saw in late 2008-early 2009. It seems more likely to us that the market will undergo a series of small corrections that will slow the current breakneck pace of returns. From our perspective, this would be part of the larger normalization process affecting the economy and the financial markets. Corrections are a fact of life, and we have not seen one in more than a year. So there will be some pullback, but we believe it will be manageable, at least for those of us with a disciplined, long-term approach.

As of this writing, the Russell 2000 Index may have hit, or may be nearing, another peak. Nonetheless, we see opportunity in our chosen asset class. So while the index as a whole looked overvalued to us at year-end, the primary selection universe for our domestic small-cap portfolios is much wider than the Russell 2000. It encompasses more than 4,000 companies with market caps up to $2.5 billion; we are also active in mid-cap stocks, a segment where the market caps fall between $2.5 billion and $5 billion. This area provides more than 400 additional names. Indeed, no small-cap index, including the Russell 2000, takes in the full measure of small-cap valuations or offers the most appropriate selection space. In these days of ETFs and strong relative results for index-based investing, we think the enormous breadth of the small-cap world has been forgotten to some degree. In our position as bottom-up stock pickers, we have always thought less about markets and indexes than we do about stocks and businesses. As has always been the case, our daily work focuses squarely on finding what we think are great companies at attractive prices. Our goal remains strong absolute returns over long-term periods. We cannot say for sure when conservatively capitalized, well-managed, and fundamentally sound businesses might assume market leadership. However, we are confident that they will in the not-too-distant future as the expanding economy leads investors to focus once more on fundamentals, particularly those that reveal high quality.

For The Royce Funds' one-, five-, 10-year, and/or since inception returns as of the most recent quarter-end period, please see our Prices and Performance page.

Important Disclosure Information

The thoughts in this piece are solely those of Royce & Associates, LLC, investment adviser for The Royce Funds. Smaller-cap stocks may involve considerably more risk than larger-cap stocks. Past performance is no guarantee of future results.

This material is not authorized for distribution unless preceded or accompanied by a currentprospectus. Please read the prospectus carefully before investing or sending money. All indices referenced are unmanaged and capitalization weighted. The Russell Investment Group is the source and owner of the trademarks, service marks, and copyrights related to the Russell Indexes. Russell® is a trademark of Russell Investment Group. The Russell 2000 Index is an unmanaged, capitalization-weighted 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 1000 Index is an unmanaged, capitalization-weighted 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 S&P 500 is an index of U.S. large-cap stocks selected by Standard & Poor's based on market size, liquidity, and industry grouping, among other factors. The Nasdaq Composite is an index of the more than 3,000 common equities listed on the Nasdaq stock exchange. The Russell Microcap Index includes 1,000 of the smallest securities in the small-cap Russell 2000 Index, along with the next smallest eligible securities as determined by Russell. The Russell Midcap Index measures the performance of the mid-cap segment of the U.S. equity universe. It includes approximately 800 of the smallest securities in the Russell 1000 Index. The Russell Global ex-U.S. Small Cap Index is an unmanaged, capitalization-weighted index of global small-cap stocks, excluding the United States. The Russell Global ex-U.S. Large Cap Index is an index of global large-cap stocks, excluding the United States. The performance of an index does not represent exactly any particular investment, as you cannot invest directly in an index.


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