While this part of the market is currently doing well, loss of momentum could signal trouble ahead
Thursday 25 Mar 2021 Author: Russ Mould

Small cap stocks are perceived to be riskier than their large cap counterparts and with good reason. As such, they can be used to judge wider market risk appetite – if small caps are rolling higher, we are likely to be in a bull market. If they are falling, we could be shifting to a bear market.

In general, small caps tend to be younger firms that are still developing. They are potentially more dependent upon certain key products or services, a narrower range of clients and even key executives.

Their finances might not be as robust as large caps and they are more exposed to an economic downturn, especially as they are less likely to have a global presence and be more reliant on domestic markets.

The UK’s FTSE Small Cap index currently trades at record highs, while the FTSE AIM All-Share stands near 20-year peaks. The latter is still well below its technology-crazed highs of 1999-2000. Equally, they are more geared into any local economic upturn.

America’s Russell 2000 index, the main small cap benchmark in the US, is up 16% this year and by 116% over the past 12 months. That beats the Dow Jones Industrials, S&P 500 and NASDAQ Composite hands down on both counts.

In fact, the Russell 2000 now trades near its all-time highs, having gone bananas since last March’s low. Such a strong performance suggests that investors are in ‘risk-on’ mode and pricing in a strong economic recovery for good measure.

RISING PRICES

One data point which does not sit so easily with the US small cap surge is the slight pullback in America’s monthly NFIB smaller businesses sentiment survey, which still stands 12 percentage points below its peak of summer 2018.

This indicator must be watched in case it does not pick up speed as America’s vaccination programme continues and lockdowns are eased. Further weakness could suggest the recovery might not be everything marketscurrently expect.

Equally, inflation-watchers will be intrigued by the NFIB’s sub-indices on prices. In particular, the balance between firms that are reporting higher rather than lower prices for their goods and services, and especially the shift in mix towards smaller companies that are planning price rises rather than price cuts.

If both trends continue, then bond markets could just be right in fearing that an inflationary boom is upon us.

Interest rates on the move

The number of interest rate rises continues to gather pace on a global basis. Last month there had already been five hikes this year in borrowing costs, in Zambia, Venezuela, Mozambique, Tajikistan and Armenia. There have now been six more – Kyrgyzstan, Georgia, Ukraine, Brazil, Russia and Turkey.

The 11 rate increases we’ve seen year to date is already two more than in the whole of 2020.

In contrast, the US Federal Reserve is content to sit on its hands despite what is happening elsewhere. Chair Jerome Powell continues to reaffirm the American central bank’s commitment to running its quantitative easing scheme at $120 billion a month, while any plans to increase interest rates from their record lows seem to be on hold until 2024.

Powell does not seem concerned about inflation and is seemingly willing to risk its resurgence to ensure that the economy gets back on track in the wake of the pandemic.

Yet financial markets are still taking the view that a strong upturn is coming, because US government bond prices are currently going down, and yields are going up, regardless of what the Fed says. That is a huge change from the last decade or so, when bond and stock markets have been happy to slavishly take their lead from central bank policy announcements.

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