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Small caps offer way to play inflation

Investors looking at asset class behaviour and potential hedges in an inflationary environment should look to a mix of small caps, commodities and real assets, according to Franklin Templeton.
Despite having prominent fund managers at the helm, both funds are managed in a collegial style, Dobrescu noted. Marion Le Morhedec, who managed the Axa fund since inception, moved to a different role in the firm in the late 2016, leaving the fund in the hands of her long-term deputy manager Jonathan Baltora, who joined the team in 2010. While the change is significant, Dobrescu said she maintained her confidence in the continuity of the management. “[Baltora] has a very good handle on the portfolio, knows all the positions and is really able to articulate the strategy very well,” she said. Baltora is supported in his role by the rest of the eight-person global rates and inflation team. The lead manager of the Pimco fund is Mihir Worah, a “Pimco veteran” who was one of the key people promoted in the wake of the departure of the superstar fund manager Bill Gross in 2014. Worah was named one of the six deputy CIOs in the flat structure the firm adopted after Gross’s departure. “We are very happy with the quality of this duo [of Worah and co-manager Jeremie Banet],” Dobrescu said, and its third member Michael Althof. They also rely on Pimco’s large resources for quantitative work and derivatives management, used in the fund’s bond-plus tactics.

Concerns over persistent inflation are forcing investors to look closely at asset class options to manage their portfolios and identify new opportunities.

Among them is the potential for small-cap equities, according to Francis Gannon, co-chief investment officer and managing director of Royce Investment Partners.

“If investors are looking for a way to play inflation, look no further than small caps. Using history as our guide, small caps are the only major asset class to beat inflation in every decade since the 1930s.”

Speaking as part of Franklin Templeton’s latest mega trends accelerate webcast, he said that following highly volatile markets, subsequent three-year small-cap returns have been strong on both an absolute and a relative basis.

“We are holding companies that are well positioned to sidestep the worst of today’s challenges, like those with pricing power, cash generative businesses with low debt, asset-light models and B2B businesses.”

Bullish in bear markets

Gannon points to the bear market territory as a reference point for how investors should consider the role of small-cap equities in their portfolios.

For example, while the S&P 500 Index has just entered a bear market, the Russell 2000 Index – a proxy for small caps – has been in a bear market since January.

“It’s important for investors to remember that bear markets happen, and more importantly, that bear markets end. Bear markets also provide opportunities for patient investors – tomorrow’s returns are on sale today,” he explained.

More specifically, although the average stock in the Russell 2000 Index is down between 45% and 50% from its 52-week high, with a lot of bad news priced into today’s market, the earnings picture for small caps is still healthy from a bottom-up perspective.

“Small caps are trading at 20-year lows compared with large caps,” said Gannon. “Even with outperformance on the small-cap value side versus small-cap growth, small caps are selling at a 54% discount.”

For investors eyeing small caps outside of the US, meanwhile, he said the focus should be on quality.

“[Investors should] consider companies that have high returns on investment capital and histories of longstanding consumer relationships,” added Gannon.

Appealing asset types

Investors should also be looking at the potential for commodities and real assets to weather the inflation storm.

“Commodities and real assets, such as private real estate and infrastructure, are reasonably effective hedges against today’s high inflation environment,” said Gene Podkaminer, head of research for Franklin Templeton Investment Solutions.

“Commodities are almost shorthand for what happens in inflation, and investors can look to more commodity-rich countries for exposure like Canada, Australia and Brazil.”

Given that inflation protection is part of a well-balanced and diversified portfolio, he added that Treasury inflation-protected securities and other global inflation-linked bonds do well in inflationary environments.

Part of the Mark Allen Group.