Tuesday, November 3, 2015

The Opportunity of Stimulated International Small Caps

Additional bond-buying moves by the European Central Bank could extend the rally in the asset class.

Quantitative easing (QE) may be approaching an end in the United States, but the party is just starting in the eurozone. With the European Central Bank’s (ECB) pledge last week to not only continue but also possibly extend, if necessary, its bond-buying program beyond September 16, 2016, market sentiment is improving, and that is supporting the performance of small-cap stocks in the eurozone.

Based on the experience of Japan and the United states, small-cap stocks tend to outperform large caps in the months following the announcements of quantitative easing. The question we posited at the time was, “Would we see a similar response in Europe?” As Chart 1 suggests, if the trend line continues, the eurozone’s small-cap stocks may be well on their way to outperformance.

Chart 1. U.S. and Japanese Small Caps Outperformed after QE—Is Europe Next?
Performance of small-cap stocks relative to large caps in the months following the announcement of quantitative easing, post-2008

Source: Bloomberg.

Moreover, we believe that non-U.S. stocks in general are poised for recovery. The MSCI ACWI ex-US Index (on a price-return basis) peaked on October 7, 2007, and, as Chart 2 indicates, has yet to recover that position, unlike the S&P 500 Index, which benefited from the U.S. Federal Reserve’s quantitative easing following the financial crisis of 2008–09. With quantitative easing just starting in the eurozone, investors should consider the possibility of a similar recovery, if not further gains, in non-U.S. stocks.

Chart 2. Lagging Recovery in Non-U.S. Stocks May Leave Room for Additional Upside
Non-U.S. stock returns versus U.S. stock returns (price return only, as of 10/15/15)

Source: Bloomberg

In terms of small-cap stocks, there is an apparent correlation between small-cap performance and QE, at least in the developed markets, which can be explained by a number of factors peculiar to the small-cap asset class. First, small caps tend to be concentrated in growth-oriented sectors, such as information technology and consumer discretionary, where valuations are pushed up by investors seeking returns in the early stages of recovery. Second, small-cap valuations are supported by the potential for acquisition as larger firms seeking growth take advantage of low borrowing rates during a period of QE to acquire targets. Third, divergent monetary policies in the United States and Europe have weakened the euro versus the U.S. dollar, benefiting eurozone exporters and boosting local economic growth and, thus, small caps, which benefit from the stimulation of local domestic demand.

Because international small-cap stocks are less likely to rise and fall with their U.S. counterparts (and with the broader U.S. market as well), the asset class better lends itself to active management strategies, while it complicates the outlook for more passive investment strategies.

History seldom repeats itself, but often there are discernible patterns. We have seen the positive performance of U.S. and Japanese small caps following QE in those respective regions, and we believe that QE could have similar benefits in the eurozone and in other regions where QE strategies are applied. And so far, the data from the eurozone seem to support our case.

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