The Confluence of Small-Cap Stocks and the Economy

May 28, 2020 | Colleen Flannery, Research Analyst

Small businesses are often thought of as the backbone of the U.S. economy. Long before the coronavirus, the Russell 2000 index, which tracks the performance of domestic small-cap companies, peaked at the end of August 2018. A warning sign of a slowing economy struck at the same time, with the peaking of the ISM Manufacturing Index (PMI), a gauge of domestic manufacturing activity. The tandem crest of these two indices is not too surprising as smaller companies that make inputs or provide services for larger entities are typically squeezed first when the going gets tough. Over the long-term, small-cap returns have shown a higher correlation with domestic manufacturing activity relative to mid- and large-cap returns. Despite the peak of these two indices, the S&P 500 Index, which tracks the performance of domestic large-cap companies, went on to return 16.7% from August of 2018 to its height in February of this year; small-cap returns were flat to negative over the same period. During the worst of the market decline, the Russell 2000 was down 44.1%, underperforming the S&P 500 by nearly 10%, and the PMI hit 41.5, a level not seen since the depths of the Global Financial Crisis. What explains the performance differential between these market cap indices and given the close relation to the PMI, what can we expect from small-cap stocks going forward?

Relative to large-cap, the performance gap lies in quality and construction. Many small companies in the index have low cash reserves, no profits, and debt-laden balance sheets. A lack of access to capital pushes small-cap companies to issue debt at higher rates, creating a lower threshold for quality. Additionally, the small-cap index is more cyclical in nature with a 15% total differential between sectors like interest rate sensitive financials and REITs, as well as economically sensitive industrials. Given this, we might expect the asset class to underperform in the twilight of the longest bull market in U.S. history. Secondarily, the small-cap index has broader sector and industry exposure than the S&P 500. As a result, the closure of the U.S. economy may prove detrimental for many smaller-sized businesses.

In evaluating the last two recessions, there is no consistency as to when the PMI will trough. However, U.S. small-cap returns tend to rebound after a trough in the PMI. Investors like to see a strengthening of the economy prior to betting on small-cap. Looking forward, small-cap stocks usually have better relative performance to their large-cap peers coming out of a recession. The Russell 2000 outperformed the S&P 500 in the last two recessions over the one- and two-year periods post-trough by an average of 26% and 94%, respectively. It is possible we are already starting to see a rebound in small-caps. As of May 26th, the Russell 2000 has outperformed the S&P 500 by nearly 5% month-to-date, the majority of which has accrued over the last week. Small-cap stocks have rebounded on broader containment, economic reopening, and optimism around vaccine development. As is true in every economic downturn, the players here are different; the insurgence of COVID-19 has created an unprecedented headwind for the economically sensitive Russell 2000 Index. Predicting sentiment changes is impractical at best, but as the U.S. consumer economy reopens, we hope to see falling unemployment, rising consumer confidence, and a bottoming of the PMI as domestic production ramps up.

Print PDF > The Confluence of Small-Cap Stocks and the Economy


The opinions expressed herein are those of Marquette Associates, Inc. (“Marquette”), and are subject to change without notice. This material is not financial advice or an offer to purchase or sell any product. Marquette reserves the right to modify its current investment strategies and techniques based on changing market dynamics or client needs.

Colleen Flannery
Research Analyst

Get to Know Colleen

Related Content


Best Historical Performing Asset Class Is on Sale!

It is critical for institutional investors to understand the importance of both relative and absolute value when considering investment allocations….


Financial Factors in Selecting Plan Investments Proposed Rule

On June 23rd, 2020, the U.S. Department of Labor released a proposal to amend certain fiduciary regulation around the consideration of…


Russell Rebalance: What Happened?

Summer has arrived and with it comes the annual “Russell Rebalance,” or as FTSE Russell — the index administrator —…


Sustainable Investing in a Post-COVID World

Defined as an unpredictable occurrence that is beyond the scope of normal expectations, a black swan event is rare and…


Private Equity in Times of Crisis

While there is still much uncertainty around the long-term economic ramifications of COVID-19, financial markets have been undergoing frequent massive…


The Stock Market vs. Trump

Though it has so far taken somewhat of a backseat to the COVID-19 pandemic and global protests for racial justice,…

More articles

Subscribe to Research Email Alerts

Research Email Alert Subscription

Research alerts keep you updated on our latest research publications. Simply enter your contact information, choose the research alerts you would like to receive and click Subscribe. Alerts will be sent as research is published.

We respect your privacy. We will never share or sell your information.

Thank You

We appreciate your interest in Marquette Associates.

If you have questions or need further information, please contact us directly and we will respond to your inquiry within 24 hours.

Contact Us >