Friday Highlight  

The widening gap between growth and value companies

The widening gap between growth and value companies

For some time, growth companies have been outperforming their value counterparts – and the trend has been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic. 

To date, the pattern has been in place for 13 years, costing US value investors a whopping 185 per cent versus their growth equivalents. 

In early 2020, with the worldwide spread of Covid-19, the trend has accelerated further.

Many value investors have been left scratching their heads, others are running for the door and some value fund managers are admitting defeat. 

Should value investors hold their nerve during these unprecedented times?  

Typically, trends revert to the mean over the course of a cycle.

The differential between a growth and value company cannot continue to widen indefinitely.

There are three main reasons why the prevailing market backdrop has been supportive for growth companies.

Market conditions

First, the more scarce growth has become, the more investors have been prepared to pay for it. Second, the falling interest rate environment has resulted in investors’ willingness to pay up for long-term growth. 

Third, monetary stimulus has boosted asset prices to inflated levels – so much so that investors no longer care about valuation. 

The current dominance of Covid-19 makes value companies – such as those in the travel, leisure, energy and banking sectors – look very unattractive.

It is worth asking whether during these unprecedented times, value companies are more unappealing relative to history?  

In a recent paper, Cliff Asness addresses this commonly raised question by assessing the quality and gross profitability of value companies compared to growth companies relative to history.

In doing so, Asness demonstrates that the net-debt to equity of a value company is lower than its historical average and less than a growth company. He also shows that gross profitability is ahead of longer-term trends compared to a growth company. 

There is therefore nothing fundamentally broken about value companies relative to history. Over the long term, their attractive valuations should be recognised by the market.  Investors just need to be patient enough to realise the inherent value of these companies.  

Growth companies

We must also consider the dominance of some growth companies, particularly in the US, where five companies make up over 21 per cent of the S&P 500.

This is even starker than at the peak of the dot.com boom in 1999, when the top five companies represented 18 per cent of the Index. 

At this time investors were extrapolating the strong performance of growth companies into the future with no expectation of a reversal in favour of value companies. 

It is interesting to note what happened subsequently: between 1 January 2000 and 31 January 2007, growth stocks fell 19 per cent, while those once-unloved value stocks rose 47 per cent.