North AmericaAug 7 2017

Fund Review: US small-caps hit as ‘Trump trade’ peters out

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Fund Review: US small-caps hit as ‘Trump trade’ peters out
How US small caps have performed over the past three years
ByTaha Lokhandwala

All eyes have been on US equities following last November’s surprise election victory for Donald Trump. The president ran his campaign based on a socially divisive but corporate-friendly agenda, and much of this was quickly priced into markets. But nine months on this is starting to unwind.

A promise of corporate tax cuts and the tearing up of regulation helped fuel increasing optimism over the US economy. Both US small- and large-cap indices had been rising steadily in the second half of last year, despite uncertainty over the election’s outcome. Following Mr Trump’s victory, the small-cap Russell 2000 index sprang into life, rising 13 per cent in three weeks.

However, aside from the immediate reaction to the result, US small caps have struggled to outperform larger US stocks. Over five years the Russell 2000 has gained 1.4 percentage points less than the S&P 500, but with a marginally higher volatility.

So unlike the UK equity space, the US small-cap segment may not be one where investors can turn for substantially higher returns.

Compared with UK equities, for example, over the same period the FTSE Small Cap ex IT index has more than doubled the rise of the FTSE 100, while the mid-cap FTSE 250 has outperformed the large-cap benchmark by 43 percentage points.

Similarly, fund selection is difficult. The sector contains 14 vehicles with a combined £6.2bn in assets under management, which have seen net inflows of £186m over the 12 months to July. Although the sector’s relative underperformance is not as severe as that seen for the IA North America group, the average fund has lagged the Russell 2000 over the past half-decade.

Despite being a small sector, the potential for significant outperformance from individual funds remains, particularly as markets become increasingly muddled. The Russell 2000 has struggled year to date in the face of a growing realisation that optimism may have been misplaced. It has lagged the S&P 500, gaining 7.4 per cent versus 11.5 per cent.

Seven months on from the president’s inauguration and the effect of politics dominating fundamentals is beginning to wane. Many believe the outlook for US equities, and in particular small caps, remains healthy – albeit not as strong as it would be were tax cuts pushed through.

Cormac Weldon, manager of the Artemis range of US equity funds, including its £182m US Smaller Companies vehicle, says given the lack of progress of Mr Trump’s healthcare reforms, tax changes this year seem unlikely.

He says: “The market is no longer discounting these tax cuts, so if they do come through they will be a bonus, particularly for smaller companies that tend to pay higher taxes.”