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Size matters. Small Cap stocks are rarely this attractive

19 March 2015 | analyst insight

LIBERUM OPINION: Sebastian Jory, Liberum Strategy Analyst

Email Seb or call him on: +44 (0) 20 3100 2192


It’s well documented in academia that smaller companies tend to perform better over time horizons of 10 years or more. This is particularly evident in the UK, where we see good performance from the very smallest companies and bad performance from the very largest companies.

£100 invested in the FTSE 250 on January 1st 1997 would be worth £593 now.

By comparison, the FTSE 100 would have returned just £287.

This is largely down to the FTSE 100 being dominated by around 20 very large firms - the megacaps - which have historically been mostly Banking, Mining, Oil & Gas and Telecoms companies. The performance of the megacaps since 1997 has been relatively weak, offsetting the much stronger performance of the 80 smaller firms in the FTSE 100 and holding back the index. 

This chart shows the return on £100 since 1997 from UK indices.

Seb Returns

One key reason why smaller companies tend to generate better returns in the long term is the existence of a ‘liquidity discount’ that evaporates as they grow into larger businesses.

Institutional investors are willing to pay a higher price for a stock, all else being equal, if they can enter and exit positions quickly and without moving the market. This translates into broadly higher multiples (P/E EV / EBITDA etc.) on larger companies for a given level of earnings growth.

This effect has been particularly exaggerated of late. Not only has liquidity in small cap worsened markedly over the last 12-18 months, but the premium investors are willing to pay for liquidity has risen – likely a result of the 'lobster pot’ rotation out of small cap witnessed in April-June last year which left small cap ‘tourists’ particularly scarred.

This chart shows the number of days it takes to trade 10% of a stock.

Seb Liquidity

We therefore find the FTSE Small Cap index currently at a post-crisis record discount to the FTSE 100. It is trading, as a whole, on 13.2x 12m fwd P/E vs. the FTSE 100 on 15.8x – a 17% discount. We can expect this to normalise, as it has done in the past, if liquidity improves or if risk appetite for illiquid companies returns. 

Another key factor cited by academics for small cap outperformance is the increased likelihood of mispriced securities in small cap, given lower analyst coverage. One key caveat to this is that whilst there may be more mispriced securities in small cap, there are a similar number overpriced as underpriced.

The overpriced securities typically trade on a high multiple as a result of optimistic growth expectations, which often prove too enthusiastic. We find that expensive (cheap) stocks typically underperform (outperform) more in small cap than in large cap, where securities are more efficiently priced, for precisely this reason.

Therefore, when investing in small cap we should be careful to maintain a value ‘tilt’, an approach first characterised by David Swensen of Yale University.