A Reflation Shock: The Catalyst for Small and Mid Cap Value?

Head of Equity Strategy
Follow Jeff Weniger
02/23/2021

It is an understatement to say that 2020 was tough for value investors. 

Stocks in the Energy, Materials and yield-sensitive Financials sectors were left wanting last year. That meant pain for reflation-heavy small- and mid-cap stocks, owing to their sizable weights in those groups. Our small and mid cap dividend-oriented value index (in teal in figure 1) are particularly heavy in them

Figure 1: Sector Weights, Reflation Beneficiaries

Figure 1Sector Weights Reflation Beneficiaries

For definitions of indexes in the chart, please visit our glossary.

Aside from the post-March bounce back in just about every asset class, disinflationary themes still dominated our Covid-19-focused world.

The underperformance by dividend payers last year was brutal. Here is what happened in small caps.

Figure 2: Return of Top Dividend Yield Quintile Minus Return of Non-Payers, Russell 2000 Index

Figure 2return of Top Dividend Yield Quintile Minus Return of NonPayers Russell 2000 Index

Not to be outdone, mid-cap companies with zero dividends—often in Tech, Healthcare and Communications Services—outperformed the highest-yielding quintile of stocks by 49.9% last year.

Figure 3: Return of Top Dividend Yield Quintile Minus Return of Non-Payers, Russell Midcap Index

Figure 3Return of Top Dividend Yield Quintile Minus Return of NonPayers Russell Midcap Index

What are the sparks that could provide the catalyst for an embrace of inflationary themes? For one, most housing markets are red hot. It’s a sellers’ market.

Figure 4: Monthly Supply of New Houses in the U.S. (SA)  

Figure 4_Monthly Supply of New Houses in the U.S. (SA)

The S&P/Case-Shiller 10-City Composite Home Price Index is well past the housing bubble peak, at least in non-inflation-adjusted terms. No surprise—Freddie Mac’s national average conforming mortgage rate was about 2.75% in January.

The median U.S. existing home price for December was $309,800, a cool doubling off the January 2012 low of $154,600. 

Then again, wages need to catch up.

Figure 5: U.S. Home Prices vs. Wages (January 1987 = 1.00)  

Figure 5_U.S. Home Prices vs. Wages

The bond market has an upset stomach.

The breakeven inflation rate is derived from a comparison of the yield on vanilla Treasuries and those of Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities (TIPS). The market’s expectation for inflation over the next five years went up through 2% a few weeks ago (figure 6). It’s still tame, yes, but running hotter.

Figure 6: U.S. 5-Year Breakeven Inflation Rate   

Figure 6_U.S. 5-Year Break-Even Inflation Rate

It’s a rare bird on the Street that is penciling in anything like an inflation shock. BofA Merrill Lynch, Barclays, Citi and JPMorgan Chase are all forecasting U.S. Consumer Price Inflation of 2.0%–2.4% for 2021. Look at the histogram of yearly inflation readings since 2000 (figure 7). I suspect many investors are ill-prepared for the very real odds of an upside deviation, perhaps into the 3-4% area.

Figure 7: Yearly U.S. Consumer Price Inflation Frequency (January 2000–December 2020)

Figure 7_Yearly U.S. Consumer Price Inflation Frequency

Suppose inflation starts to boil, or at least simmer, supporting Energy and Materials at the expense of disinflationary Tech.

Interest rates could also rise in that scenario—after all, bondholders will need a larger yield to justify their positions. With the Fed Funds rate pegged to the 0.00%–0.25% range, the attendant yield curve steepening could be accretive to banks’ profitability. 

With one-quarter of the WisdomTree U.S. MidCap Fund (DON) and the WisdomTree U.S. SmallCap Fund (DES) in Financials—and with both having sizable holdings in Materials—we believe they could be primed for outperformance if our post-Covid-19 world starts witnessing the right-hand side of the histogram.

Important Risks Related to this Article

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About the Contributor
Head of Equity Strategy
Follow Jeff Weniger
Jeff Weniger, CFA serves as Head of Equity Strategy at WisdomTree. Jeff has a background in fundamental, economic and behavioral analysis for strategic and tactical asset allocation. Prior to joining WisdomTree, he was Director, Senior Strategist with BMO from 2006 to 2017, serving on the Asset Allocation Committee and co-managing the firm’s ETF model portfolios. Jeff has a B.S. in Finance from the University of Florida and an MBA from Notre Dame. He is a CFA charter holder and an active member of the CFA Society of Chicago and the CFA Institute since 2006. He has appeared in various financial publications such as Barron’s and the Wall Street Journal and makes regular appearances on Canada’s Business News Network (BNN) and Wharton Business Radio.