Small Cap Stocks: Everything You Need to Know

We take a deep dive into the features, benefits and risks of small cap stocks.

kent
|
Research Lead
Reviewed by: etf.com Staff
,
Edited by: Ron Day

Small cap stocks have lagged behind the broader market in recent years, as the Russell 2000 Index, which tracks the performance of small cap stocks, has underperformed the large-cap-dominated S&P 500 index. Small caps and the exchange-traded funds that invest in them are now trading at a discount to their historical valuations, making them look more attractive than their large-cap counterparts. 

Will small cap stocks return to favor in 2024?

Now can be a good time to brush up on your knowledge of investing in companies of small capitalization, as well as how to invest in them with ETFs, and determine if they have a place in your portfolio.  

What Are Small Cap Stocks? 

Small cap stocks are shares of companies with a market capitalization of between $300 million and $2 billion. Market capitalization is the total value of a company's outstanding shares, calculated by multiplying the share price by the number of shares outstanding. 

Small cap stocks are often seen as being riskier than large cap stocks, as they are less established and have less liquidity. However, they also have the potential to generate higher returns compared to stocks of larger capitalization.  

Small Value vs Small Growth Stocks 

Small value stocks and small growth stocks are two types of small cap stocks. Here are the basics on how they work: 

  • Small value stocks are companies that are considered to be undervalued, based on their financial metrics such as price-to-book ratio, price-to-earnings ratio and dividend yield. These stocks are often overlooked by investors, but they have the potential to generate high returns if they are able to meet or exceed expectations. 
  • Small growth stocks are companies that are expected to grow their earnings at a faster rate than the broader market. These stocks are often priced at a premium, but they have the potential to generate even higher returns if they are able to achieve their growth targets. 

Top Small Cap Stocks: Russell 2000 ETF Holdings 

For an example of small cap stocks, here is a brief description of the top five holdings in the iShares Russell 2000 ETF (IWM), one of the largest small cap exchange-traded funds, as of March 28, 2024: 

  1. Super Micro Computer, Inc. (SMCI) is a leading manufacturer of server and storage systems for the data center and enterprise computing markets. The company's products are used by a variety of customers, including cloud service providers, financial institutions and government agencies. 
  2. e.l.f. Beauty, Inc. (ELF) is an American cosmetics focusing on eyes, lips and face, hence the e.l.f. abbreviation in the name. The Oakland, California-based brand was founded in 2004 by Joseph Shamah and Scott-Vincent Borba. They focus on offering high-quality, cruelty-free cosmetics at affordable prices.
  3. MicroStrategy Incorporated (MSTR) is an American company that was founded in 1989 as a developer of software tools for businesses to analyze internal and external data, with the goal of helping companies make better data-driven decisions. In recent years, MicroStrategy has become widely known for its aggressive investment strategy in Bitcoin. Since 2020, they have been actively acquiring large amounts of Bitcoin and holding them as part of their treasury reserve assets. Their CEO, Michael Saylor, is a vocal proponent of Bitcoin and believes it to be a valuable store of value.
  4. Comfort Systems USA, Inc. (FIX), based in Houston, Texas, is a leading building and service provider for mechanical, electrical, and plumbing (MEP) building systems across the United States, specializing in the installation, maintenance, repair, and replacement of HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) systems, as well as other critical building systems. Their primary focus is on the commercial, industrial, and institutional sectors.
  5. Onto Innovation, Inc. (ONTO) is an American semiconductor company formed in 2019 through the merger of two established companies in the industry: Rudolph Technologies and Nanometrics Incorporated. They specialize in developing process control equipment and software solutions used in the fabrication process of microelectronic devices, primarily for the semiconductor industry.

Small Cap Stocks vs Midcap Stocks vs Large Cap Stocks 

Small cap stocks offer higher growth potential but come with increased risk and volatility compared to midcap stocks and large cap stocks. Large cap stocks provide stability and may be more suitable for investors seeking consistent performance and lower risk, while midcap stocks provide a balance between growth and risk.  

Here’s how small caps, midcaps and large caps differ in market capitalization: 

  • Small cap stocks: Small cap stocks are issued by companies with relatively small market capitalizations. Market capitalization is defined differently by various market participants, but it generally falls within a range of around $300 million to $2 billion or sometimes higher. Small cap companies are smaller and less established in terms of size and market presence. 
  • Midcap stocks: Midcap stocks represent companies with market capitalizations that fall between small cap and large cap stocks. Midcap companies typically have market capitalizations ranging from about $2 billion to $10 billion or even higher. 
  • Large cap stocks: Large cap stocks, on the other hand, are issued by well-established companies with significant market capitalizations. There isn't a strict threshold, but large cap companies are often considered to have market capitalizations above $10 billion. Megacap stocks have market caps up to $1 trillion or higher. These companies tend to be industry leaders and have a well-established presence in their respective markets. 

Small Cap Stocks vs Penny Stocks 

Small cap stocks are generally more established and have a higher degree of transparency and regulation compared to penny stocks. Penny stocks typically have extremely low market capitalizations and low stock prices, often trading for a few dollars or even cents per share. There is no strict definition for penny stocks, but they are generally associated with very small or microcap companies.  

While both categories involve investing in smaller companies, small cap stocks offer a more reasonable level of risk and potential for growth, whereas penny stocks are associated with higher levels of speculation and risk. 

Pros & Cons of Investing in Small Cap Stocks 

Investing in small cap stocks can offer both opportunities and challenges. Here's a breakdown of the pros and cons associated with investing in small cap stocks: 

Pros 

  • High growth potential: Small cap stocks have the potential for significant growth due to their smaller size and greater room for expansion. These companies can be in the early stages of their growth trajectory and may have innovative products, services or business models that can lead to rapid appreciation in stock prices. 
  • Undervalued opportunities: Smaller companies may be overlooked or undervalued by institutional investors and analysts, creating opportunities for astute individual investors to identify hidden gems before they become widely recognized. 
  • Less analyst coverage: While this can be a challenge, it can also be a benefit. With fewer analysts covering small cap stocks, individual investors who conduct thorough research may be able to gain a competitive edge and identify promising investment opportunities. 
  • Mergers and acquisitions: Small cap stocks are often considered attractive acquisition targets for larger companies seeking to expand their market presence or access innovative technologies. 
  • Diversification: Including small cap stocks in a diversified investment portfolio can help spread risk and enhance overall portfolio performance, especially when these stocks are not closely correlated with larger market trends. 
  • Flexibility and agility: Smaller companies can often respond more quickly to changing market conditions and capitalize on emerging opportunities compared to larger, more bureaucratic organizations. 

Cons 

  • Higher risk and volatility: Small cap stocks tend to be more volatile and sensitive to market fluctuations compared to larger, more established companies. This increased volatility can lead to larger price swings and potential losses. 
  • Limited resources: Smaller companies may have limited financial resources, making them more vulnerable to economic downturns or unexpected challenges. This can impact their ability to weather adverse conditions and meet financial obligations. 
  • Liquidity concerns: Small cap stocks may have lower trading volumes, leading to less liquidity in the market. This can result in wider bid/ask spreads and difficulty executing trades, especially for larger positions. 
  • Less information and transparency: Smaller companies may provide less comprehensive and timely information to investors, making it challenging to fully understand their financial health and performance. 
  • Higher failure rate: Small cap companies have a higher risk of failure compared to larger, more established firms. They may face difficulties in competing, gaining market share or attracting sufficient capital. 
  • Limited track record: Many small cap companies are relatively new and may not have a long track record of consistent financial performance. This makes it harder to assess their stability and growth potential. 
  • Market manipulation risk: Due to lower trading volumes, small cap stocks can be more susceptible to market manipulation and speculative trading. 

What Are the Small Cap Stock Indexes? 

There are several major small cap stock indexes that track the performance of small cap companies in the stock market. These indexes are used by investors, fund managers and analysts to gauge the performance of the small cap segment of the market.

Here are some of the most well-known small cap indexes: 

  • Russell 2000 Index: The Russell 2000 Index is one of the most widely used benchmarks for tracking the performance of U.S. small cap stocks. It includes the 2,000 smallest companies within the Russell 3000 Index, which represents approximately 10% of the total market capitalization of the U.S. stock market. 
  • S&P SmallCap 600 Index: The S&P SmallCap 600 Index is maintained by S&P Dow Jones Indices and includes 600 small cap companies chosen for their market capitalization, liquidity and industry group representation. It is a subset of the broader S&P 1500 Index. 
  • Wilshire 4500 Completion Index: The Wilshire 4500 Completion Index is designed to measure the performance of U.S. equities outside the S&P 500 Index. It includes small cap, midcap and large cap stocks, with the small cap component representing the smaller companies. 
  • CRSP U.S. Small Cap Index: The CRSP U.S. Small Cap Index is managed by the Center for Research in Security Prices (CRSP) and is used to track the performance of U.S. small cap stocks. It is part of the CRSP Indexes, which cover various segments of the U.S. stock market. 
  • NASDAQ Composite Index: While the NASDAQ Composite Index is often associated with technology stocks, it also includes a significant number of small cap companies. The index tracks the performance of all companies listed on the NASDAQ stock exchange, including small cap stocks. 
  • MSCI USA Small Cap Index: This index is part of the MSCI family of indexes and represents the performance of small cap stocks in the U.S. equity market. 
  • Dow Jones U.S. Small-Cap Total Stock Market Index: This index is designed to measure the performance of small cap stocks in the U.S. stock market. It is part of the broader Dow Jones Total Stock Market Index. 

What Are the Different Ways to Invest in Small Cap Stocks? 

There are several ways to invest in small cap stocks, including individual stock purchases, mutual funds and exchange-traded funds. Each method has its own advantages, disadvantages and considerations.

Here are some different ways to invest in small cap stocks: 

Individual Stock Purchases 

  • Directly buy shares of specific small cap companies through a brokerage account. 
  • Allows for greater control and customization of your portfolio. 
  • Requires research and due diligence to select individual stocks. 

Small Cap Stock Mutual Funds 

  • Invest in mutual funds that focus on small cap stocks. 
  • Provides instant diversification across a range of small cap companies. 
  • Managed by professional fund managers who make investment decisions. 
  • May have management fees higher than other types of funds like ETFs. 

Small Cap Stock ETFs 

  • Invest in ETFs that track small cap stock indexes. 
  • Offer diversification and trades like a stock on stock exchanges. 
  • Generally has lower fees compared to mutual funds. 
  • Provides exposure to the broader small cap market.

Tip: For more information, see etf.com's small cap ETF topics page featuring details and links to top small cap ETFs. 

Robo Advisors 

  • Some robo advisors offer portfolios that include small cap stocks based on your risk tolerance and investment goals. 
  • Provides automated portfolio management and rebalancing. 

Outlook for Small Cap Stocks and ETFs in 2024

The outlook for small-cap stocks in 2024 appears cautiously optimistic, according to market analysts and economic trends. Here's a breakdown of the factors influencing their potential performance: 

Positive Indicators

  • Potential rebound: After a period of underperformance in 2023, many experts believe small caps are poised for a comeback in 2024. Their valuations are generally lower compared to large caps, making them potentially more attractive to investors seeking higher growth opportunities. 
  • Interest rate environment: If interest rates peak or start to decline in 2024, as some predictions suggest, this could benefit small caps. Lower interest rates make borrowing less expensive, potentially stimulating investment in smaller companies with high growth potential. 
  • Economic factors: A strong and ongoing economic recovery in the U.S. could create a favorable environment for small businesses, which can translate to better performance for small-cap stocks that represent these companies. 

Potential Challenges

  • Geopolitical risks: Global events and tensions can create market uncertainty, impacting investor sentiment and potentially hindering small-cap stock performance. 
  • Inflation: Persistently high inflation could erode corporate profits and lead to tighter monetary policies, which could dampen small-cap stock growth. 

Certain sectors within the small-cap space might outperform others depending on economic conditions. For example, technology or healthcare stocks might see more favor if the overall economy thrives. Due to the higher volatility of small-cap stocks, actively managed small-cap ETFs or mutual funds might be a suitable option for some investors seeking exposure to this asset class. 

It's important to remember that the stock market is inherently unpredictable. While the outlook for small caps and small cap ETFs appears promising in 2024, conducting your own research and understanding your risk tolerance is crucial before making any investment decisions. 

Kent Thune is Research Lead for etf.com, focusing on educational content, thought leadership, content management and search engine optimization. Before joining etf.com, he wrote for numerous investment websites, including Seeking Alpha and Kiplinger. 

 

Kent holds a Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree and is a practicing Certified Financial Planner (CFP®) with 25 years of experience managing investments, guiding clients through some of the worst economic and market environments in U.S. history. He has also served as an adjunct professor, teaching classes for The College of Charleston and Trident Technical College on the topics of retirement planning, business finance, and entrepreneurship. 

 

Kent founded a registered investment advisory firm in 2006 and is based in Hilton Head Island, SC, where he lives with his wife and two sons. Outside of work, Kent enjoys spending time with his family, playing guitar, and working on his philosophy book, which he plans to publish in the coming year.