Why Large-Cap Stocks Can't Seem to Break

By Michael A. Gayed  MAY 14, 2014 8:43 AM

It might simply be because emerging markets won't let them.

 


The breaking of a wave cannot explain the whole sea.
-- Vladimir Nabokov

Make no mistake about it -- there has been a selective correction under way within markets for nearly two months now. High-beta momentum names have gotten wrecked, and small-cap averages have severely underperformed. Utilities have been abnormally strong, and the 2014 Dow Award-winning paper I coauthored shows that going back to 1926, their leadership tends to precede corrective junctures. In addition, long-duration Treasuries have been strongly outperforming, which in the third-place Wagner Award-winning paper I coauthored shows tends to occur before better environments for bonds relative to stocks. For many, it certainly has felt like a correction, despite headlines of the Dow Jones Industrial Average (INDEXDJX:.DJI) hitting new highs.

What gives?  Why is it that large-cap stocks have been unable to break, particularly relative to small-cap equities? I believe the answer largely lies in a significant repricing of sentiment. Small-cap averages like the Russell 2000 (INDEXRUSSELL:RUT) tend to be highly dependent on domestic growth expectations. This is largely because smaller companies tend to have less exposure to global growth. On the other hand, large-cap multinational companies are unequivocally driven by global activity in a more pronounced way. Small caps are domestic, large caps are global.

The repricing of overly optimistic domestic hope is occurring at the same time that there's an overly pessimistic outlook for global markets. Take a look below at the price ratio of the iShares MSCI Emerging Markets ETF (NYSEARCA:EEM) relative to the S&P 500 (INDEXSP:.INX). Consider this the most extreme way of looking at market expectations for global activity. A rising ratio means the numerator/EEM is outperforming (up more/down less) the denominator/S&P 500. 



Perhaps large caps are unable to break because, since mid-March, emerging markets have been surprisingly strong and resilient. If a repricing out of the crisis that everyone was convinced of last year is now finally under way, then it stands to reason that large-cap stocks should outperform small caps purely because of the global factor. Should the selective correction be over, our ATAC models used for managing our absolute return and equity sector rotation mutual funds and separate accounts would likely begin to position more aggressively to take advantage of that repricing with further relative momentum. 

Perhaps the ultimate correction is the upward correction in emerging markets.

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