Stay away from small-cap bank stocks.
It was more than two years ago now that Tim first dished out that advice. Though they looked cheap at the time, writedowns were happening across the industry, making financial institutions nearly impossible to value. On top of that, the economy was showing signs of sputtering with no resolution in sight.
Not much has changed
It's hard to believe, but the current economic downturn is two years old now -- and it's gone from bad to worse. Notwithstanding the recent rising tide in the market, stocks have gotten "cheaper," writedowns have gotten bigger, and the federal government is throwing Hail Mary passes -- now a spending freeze -- in the hopes of averting further crisis.
And while big financials such as Lehman, AIG, Fannie, Freddie
All of this is to say, it's still not time to start buying small-cap banks.
It may, however, be time to start looking hard at something a little off the beaten path: small-cap value.
What's the difference?
Small-cap value and small-cap banks often get conflated -- and for good reason. As Brian noted last year, the Vanguard Small-Cap Value ETF (VBR), like most small-cap value indexes, has substantial exposure to small banks. For the quarter ending in September, small financial services companies accounted for 34% of VBR's holdings.
So while you don't want to buy small-cap banks, you do want to buy small-cap value net of banks -- because, as Mark Hulbert noted in a New York Times article at the end of 2008, these historical outperformers "produce their most explosive gains right at the start of a bull market."
Indeed, Russell Investments recently released a report suggesting that "they could emerge as the frontrunners if the economy stages a recovery."
Let us be clear
Nonetheless, neither we nor Hulbert are predicting that we're at the start of a bull market. Rather, we're noting that:
- Small-cap value generally outperforms.
- Small-cap value outperforms by a particularly wide margin coming out of a bear market.
- This has certainly been a bear market.
And thus: Now is a good time to start buying small-cap exposure for the long term.
After all, a little exposure to this market segment gives you the chance to take advantage of this historical trend and puts you in the position for significant outperformance whenever this bear market turns for good.
Hulbert's recommended small-cap value investment vehicle, while low-cost, is imperfect, because he advised investors to "buy and hold an index fund benchmarked to the sector and to ride out the market's turbulence."
We see two main issues with that approach. First, as we mentioned previously, your run-of-the-mill small-cap value index has nearly 35% exposure to financial companies -- a sector that has been and will continue to be rocked by government intervention, regulatory changes, and low interest rates.
Second, just as the Vanguard 500 Index
Here's what we'd do
If you want to take advantage of this sector -- and we think you should -- then you ought to build your own diversified collection of superior small-cap value stocks that don't carry dangerous financial liabilities on their books.
That way, you can weight your portfolio toward high-quality businesses with entrepreneurial managers who treat their shareholders with respect, rather than to either small-cap banks or the small-cap value stocks with the largest market caps, as passive index funds will do.
If that sounds appealing and you'd like some stock ideas and additional guidance on how to unearth the best in small-cap value, join our Motley Fool Hidden Gems service, which recently started building a new real-money small-cap portfolio.
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This article was first published June 6, 2009. It has been updated.
Tim Hanson does not own shares of any companies mentioned. Brian Richards owns shares of VFINX and Microsoft. The Motley Fool owns shares of the Vanguard Small-Cap Value ETF. Microsoft is an Inside Value recommendation. Motley Fool Options has recommended buying diagonal calls on Microsoft. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy that has 19 minutes to spare before midnight.