Monday 3 March 2014
Small caps at irrational values
Last week, we wrote about the return of retail investors to the stock market, as indicated by the larger share of small cap stocks to the total value of transactions on Bursa Malaysia, and their net buying activities on the local bourse.
Retail investors have done well since January 2013. The FBM SCAP index of small cap stocks on Bursa Malaysia has risen by 47%, compared with the FBM KLCI’s gain of only 8.6% for the same period.
The biggest single monthly gain for the FBM SCAP Index was in May 2013, when it surged by 24%. For February 2014 so far, this index has appreciated by 7.5%. Since our report last week, where we had advised caution, the FBM SCAP Index has lost 1.6% in the last five trading days.
This week, we explain further why we believe the rise in the FBM SCAP is not rational and, therefore, unsustainable.
Since January 2013, the price-to-earnings (P/E) ratio for the FBM KLCI Index has increased from 15.1 times to 17.3 times. In contrast, the P/E ratio for the FBM SCAP Index has almost tripled from 9 times to 25 times.
Similarly, the price-to-book for the FBM KLCI has risen marginally from 2.25 times to 2.33 times. However, the price-to-book ratio for the FBM SCAP Index increased from 0.75 times to 1.10 times.
Chart 1 tells the story. Since January 2013, the gains in the stock prices for the small cap stocks were due entirely to higher valuations. In fact, during this period, earnings and dividend growth were both negative.
This explains why the P/E ratio for FBM SCAP Index went up by a significant 179%, much more than the gain in the index of 47%.
Please let me repeat. Prices for small cap stocks have risen by 47% since January 2013 at a time when the earnings and dividends of these same companies have fallen.
Is that reasonable? Yes, if the starting valuations were low. This was true in January 2013 when the P/E ratio was 9 times and price-to-book ratio was 0.75 times for the FBM SCAP Index.
Is it still rational now? The P/E multiple today for the small caps is 25 times and the price-to-book ratio is 1.10 times. Even if you believe in the stock market, it is better to switch to the FBM KLCI stocks.
It should be noted that the FBM SCAP price to book is almost always below one time (please see Chart 2). The reason for this is simple. Why would you buy a small cap, illiquid – and sometimes risky -- stock above its asset value?
The last time it traded at above one time book was during the period from Feb 2007 to Feb 2008. What happened to the FBM SCAP Index subsequently? It crashed from 12,261 to 6,319 by March 2009!
Finally, Chart 3 shows the historical P/E valuations for the FBM KLCI and the FBM SCAP Indices. It is normal for the KLCI stocks to trade at a premium to the small cap stocks. Smaller and less liquid stocks trade at a discount due to higher risks, which are not just operational or governance-related. Investors are always prepared to pay a premium for liquidity – to be able to buy in and get out quickly.
Since June 2013, the P/E ratio of the FBM SCAP Index has been higher than that of the FBM KLCI Index. This is not entirely attributable to rising prices for the small cap stocks, and has as much to do with falling earnings.
We believe the institutional investors are factoring in the rising risk bandwidth. Consequently, the FBM KLCI Index is trading more cautiously. On the other hand, we think retail investors remain too exuberant, driven by the strong performance of small cap stocks over the past year. Such irrationality may last for months before a major correction.
Note that our analysis above is for the stock market as a whole and our discussions on the FBM KLCI and the small cap stocks are in general terms. In other words, it relates to the overall indices.
Obviously, there will always be specific opportunities where great values can be found. If you do find them, we will be happy to hear from you.
“Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it” - Edmund Burke