Beyond the SPY: Small Cap ETFs

Jonathan Bernstein, Contributing Editor
June 5, 2011

Small cap indexes represent 8-16% of the total US stock market. But many investors have no small cap exposure at all. They own strictly large companies. Thoughtful investors will equal-weight or even overweight small cap ETFs because historically small caps outperform their large cap brethren.The chart below compares the small cap ETF iShares Russell 2000 Index (NYSEArca:IWM - News) with the large cap SPDR S&P 500 (SPY:NYSEArca). The performance of the two ETFs in chart above is similar. Yet the funds shown here have effectively no overlapping holdings. IWM tracks the Russell 2000. The weighted average market cap of the Russell is about 1.5 billion. It median market cap is 0.6 billion. The S&P 500 has an average weighted market cap of about 24 billion. Its median market cap is 11.3 billion.The chart above goes back just five years. Longer-term, small cap has performed better. In a study that tracks a 50-year period from 1956-2005 Fama and French concluded that small caps outperform large caps by 4% annually.There are many reasons for a long-term outperformance of small cap. Smaller companies tend to be more nimble. They adapt quickly to market conditions. They are less hamstrung by bureaucracy than larger companies. And small companies are often acquired, boosting their price.But there are risks in investing in small cap. Small cap ETFs hold less established companies. They tend to be more volatile than large cap ETFs. In times of market stress small cap companies typically underperform. They are more quickly sold.What kind of underperformance can investors in small cap expect in weak markets? The iShares Russell 2000 Index (NYSEArca:IWM - News) has a beta of 1.20. Benchmark large cap ETFs that track the S&P 500 Index such as the SPDR S&P 500 (SPY:NYSEArca) have a beta of 1.00. If the SPY falls 1 point, expect IWM to fall 1.2 points. Of course, the same on the way up: for every 1 point the SPY goes up, expect IWM to go up 1.2 points. In strong markets small cap ETFs will usually outperform large cap funds.Although they mostly perform similarly, small cap ETFs are not all alike. Small cap companies lie within the 750 to 2000 US stocks ranked by size. But some small cap ETFs hold relatively smaller companies within this range. Some hold relatively larger companies in this range.Investors seeking exclusively small companies will want to examine IWM.For more broad offerings investors should consider Vanguard's Small-Cap ETF (NYSEArca:VB - News) and SPDR Dow Jones Wilshire Small Cap ETF (NYSEArca:DSC - News). These ETFs include mid-cap companies at one end, micro-cap at the other.iShares S&P 600 Small Cap Index (NYSEArca:IJR - News) targets a tight band of larger-than-average small firms. It is one of the most popular small cap ETFs by volume.Fees for the basic small-cap ETFs range from about 0.10% per year to about 0.25%. Although its net assets are smaller than some of the other funds, VB is a good choice for an investor with no specific index target in mind.Like in other asset classes, even among very similar ETFs there is sometimes deviation. The SPDR and Vanguard products for example seem to use identical indexes. Both follow stocks ranked 751-2500. But the DJ Wilshire Small Cap Index and the MSCI US Small Cap 1750 Index commonly deviate by 1% per year, or more. Likely causes are specific filtering methodologies which result in different industry sector weightings.A prudent course when deciding between any set of similar ETFs is to avoid those with high exposure to industries considered overvalued. We hesitate to call any one index better for the long-term just because it outperforms over specific periods. Reversion to the mean will likely occur. Still, it remains instructive to see how indexing methodology can cause two seemingly identical ETFs to diverge at times.A list of popular small cap ETFs follows:Plain Vanilla Small Cap ETFsiShares Russell 2000 Index (NYSEArca:IWM - News)SPDR Dow Jones Wilshire Small Cap ETF (NYSEArca:DSC - News)Vanguard Small Cap ETF (NYSEArca:VB - News)Focused Small Cap ETFsSPDR Dow Jones Wilshire Small Cap Growth ETF (NYSEArca:DSG - News)SPDR Dow Jones Wilshire Small Cap Value ETF (NYSEArca:DSV - News)Vanguard Small-Cap Growth ETF (NYSEArca:VBK - News)Vanguard Small-Cap Value ETF (NYSEArca:VBR - News)iShares Morningstar Small Growth ETF (NYSEArca:JKK - News)iShares Morningstar Small Value ETF (NYSEArca:JKL - News)iShares Morningstar Small Core ETF (NYSEArca:JKJ - News)iShares Russell 2000 Growth ETF (NYSEArca:IWO - News)iShares Russell 2000 Value ETF (NYSEArca:IWN - News)iShares MSCI EAFE Small Cap Index Fund (NYSEArca:SCZ - News)iShares S&P SmallCap 600 Growth Index Fund (NYSEArca:IJT - News)iShares S&P SmallCap 600 Value Index Fund (NYSEArca:IJS - News)Rydex S&P SmallCap 600 Pure Growth ETF (NYSEArca:RZG - News)Rydex S&P SmallCap 600 Pure Value ETF (NYSEArca:RZV - News)International Small Cap ETFsSPDR Russell/Nomura Small Cap Japan ETF (NYSEArca:JSC - News)SPDR S&P Emerging Markets Small Cap ETF (NYSEArca:EWX - News)SPDR S&P International Small Cap ETF (NYSEArca:GWX - News)WisdomTree International SmallCap Dividend Fund (NYSEArca:DLS - News)WisdomTree Europe SmallCap Dividend Fund (NYSEArca:DFE - News)WisdomTree Japan SmallCap Dividend Fund (NYSEArca:DFJ - News)Sub-Sector Small Cap ETFs PowerShares S&P SmallCap Financal (NasdaqGM:PSCF - News)PowerShares S&P SmallCap Consumer Discretionary (NasdaqGM:PSCD - News)PowerShares S&P SmallCap Consumer Stapl (NasdaqGM:PSCC - News)PowerShares S&P SmallCap Energy (NasdaqGM:PSCE - News)PowerShares S&P SmallCap Information Technology(NasdaqGM: PSCT - News)PowerShares S&P SmallCap Utilities (NasdaqGM:PSCU - News)PowerShares S&P SmallCap Health(NasdaqGM:PSCH - News)PowerShares S&P SmallCap Industrials (NasdaqGM:PSCI - News)PowerShares S&P SmallCap Materials (NasdaqGM:PSCM - News)Fundamental Small Cap ETFsPowershares Dynamic Small Cap Value Portfolio ETF (NYSEArca:PWY - News)Powershares FTSE RAFI US 1500 Small-Mid Portfolio ETF (NYSEArca:PRFZ - News)First Trust Small Cap Core AlphaDEX Fund (NYSEArca:FYX - News)FTSE RAFI Developed Markets ex-U.S. Small-Mid Portfolio ETF (NYSEArca:PDN - News)PowerShares Dynamic Small Cap Growth ETF (NYSEArca:PWT - News)PowerShares Dynamic Small Cap Portfolio ETF (NYSEArca:PJM - News)RevenueShares Small Cap ETF (NYSEArca:RWJ - News)Leveraged/Short Small Cap ETFsProShares Ultra Russell 2000 ETF (NYSEArca:UWM - News)ProShares Ultra Russell 2000 Growth ETF (NYSEArca:UKK - News)ProShares Ultra Russell 2000 Value ETF (NYSEArca:UVT - News)ProShares UltraShort Russell 2000 ETF (NYSEArca:TWM - News)ProShares UltraShort Russell 2000 Growth ETF (NYSEArca:SKK - News)ProShares UltraShort Russell 2000 Value ETF (NYSEArca:SJH - News)ProShares UltraShort SmallCap600 ETF (NYSEArca:SDD - News)ProShares Short SmallCap 600 ETF (NYSEArca:SBB - News)ProShares Ultra SmallCap 600 ETF (NYSEArca:SAA - News)Jonathan Bernstein has been writing about ETFs since 2003 and is the author of Sector Trading: A Year in Exchange Traded Funds.