This well-diversified exchange-traded fund is likely to continue outperforming its U.S. small-cap equity peers over the long haul.
It is intuitive to presume that small-cap stocks should outperform their large-cap counterparts over the long run. After all, small caps do tend to have more-limited financial resources, weaker competitive advantages (if any), and lower profitability than large caps. They also tend to be more volatile and have less analyst coverage--which may increase the risk of mispricing. An efficient market should compensate investors for accepting greater nondiversifiable risk with higher expected returns.
Consistent with this view, U.S. small-cap stocks historically have outpaced their large-cap counterparts over the long term. However, since the early 1980s, the small-cap premium has diminished despite outperformance during the past decade. Even if the premium still exists, it is unreliable at best. Investors should not count on a small-cap tilt to boost long-term performance.
Stocks in the MSCI USA Small Can Index are only screened by size (unlike its rival S&P SmallCap 600 Index, which applies a profitability filter). In that regard, the fund is purely passive. That said, nearly a fifth of the index value is composed of companies that were not profitable over the trailing 12-months through end of December 2016 compared with only 12% for the S&P SmallCap 600 Index and only 7% for the large-cap S&P 500.
In terms of performance, the MSCI USA Small Cap Index has outpaced the Russell 2000 by more than 1% during the past 10 years, but trailed the S&P SmallCap 600 benchmark by nearly 1% during the same time. The latter enjoys a slight quality tilt (because of its profitability filter).
IShares MSCI USA Small Cap tracks the MSCI USA Small Cap Index, which provides exposure to approximately 1800 U.S. small-cap equities. Small-cap stocks are usually less established and less liquid names compared with large caps. This can lead to higher transaction costs when the portfolio is rebalanced. To mitigate these costs, the MSCI USA Small Cap Index applies buffer zones. Buffer zones allow constituents to stay in the portfolio even if their market capitalisation falls above or below target size thresholds. Furthermore, BlackRock applies an optimisation process to replicate the index; the fund held 1,791 stocks, instead of the index's 1,848 constituents, as of December 2016. While optimisation may mitigate transaction costs, it can also contribute to higher tracking error. The fund's ongoing charge of 0.43% is cheap relative to active funds in the U.S. Small-Cap Equity Morningstar category, which charge an average fee of 1.90%. However, this ETF is expensive compared with passive rivals in the category.
Although the fund could be cheaper, its efficient index construction has aided performance. It ranked in the second quartile on both a three- and five-year risk-adjusted basis relative to category peers.
For these reasons, we have awarded the iShares MSCI USA Small Cap ETF a Morningstar Analyst Rating of Bronze.