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Course 405
Mid-Cap Funds: The Small-Cap Substitute?


There are a lot of golden rules in investing. Buy low and sell high. Don’t pay more in expenses than necessary. Buy small-company stocks for diversification.

Many investors have done all of those things, including dutifully putting money into small-cap funds only to watch them badly trail the S&P 500 index for much of the 1980s and 1990s. That’s okay, they thought, because at least the small caps were diversifying their portfolios and lowering their overall risk.

Sad to say, all that small-cap-induced pain may have been for naught. If these investors had held mid-caps instead of small caps over the past 20 years, they not only would have lowered their portfolio’s risk, but they also would have improved their returns.

Suppose they had placed 60% of their portfolios in the S&P 500 index and 40% in the Russell 2000, a common small-cap index. From 1979 to 1998, that portfolio would have delivered lower returns than that of a pure S&P 500 portfolio, with about the same amount of risk. (Even with the rally in small-cap land in recent years, mid-caps have still kept pace, generally posting roughly equivalent returns with slightly less volatility.) If they had devoted 40% to mid-caps instead of small caps, however, risk would have fallen, but returns would have remained about the same.

Returns that are competitive with small-cap funds, but with less risk--looks like it’s time to consider how mid-cap funds can work in your portfolio.

Mid-Cap Stocks: What They Are

Of all the parts of the Morningstar style box, none is so nebulous as the strip labeled mid-cap. Everyone recognizes a large-cap company: That’s Coca-Cola KO or IBM IBM. Little-known small-cap firms also have an identity: They are the entrepreneurial startups that may turn into giants tomorrow. But what, exactly, are mid-cap companies?

Perhaps the best way to get a handle on the mid-cap universe is to view it as a collection of the most successful small-cap stocks and the least successful large-cap stocks. Small-cap companies that grow become mid-cap companies. That type of mid-cap company would still be a rapidly growing firm, but would have less operational risk (in other words, it would be less likely to go bankrupt) than a smaller company. Meanwhile, large-cap companies whose stock returns don’t keep pace with their peers’ returns will eventually slip into mid-cap range. That type of mid-cap could be a solid company with lackluster returns, such as tobacco giant RJ Reynolds RJR.

Intuitively, you’d expect mid-cap stocks to behave a little like small caps and a little like large caps. The numbers bear this out. Using the Russell Midcap index as a proxy, it’s possible to get an idea of how mid-caps have behaved over the past 20 years. The index’s annual returns typically fall between those of the Russell 2000 index and the S&P 500. In 2001, for example, the Russell 2000 eeked out a 2.5% return while the S&P 500 slid 11.9%. The Russell Midcap, meanwhile, was neither hot nor cold with a middling 5.6% loss. Only six years in that two-decade period did mid-caps either lead or trail both market-cap groups.

Why Small Caps Haven't Worked Well

Saying why mid-caps have behaved as they have doesn’t explain why they’ve done such a good job of diversifying a large-cap-heavy portfolio, though. The answer lies in small caps’ horrible risk/return profile. You diversify in order to squeeze the highest amount of return out of your portfolio for a given level of risk. Small caps delivered more volatility than mid-caps during the past 20 years, but actually offered lower returns. An asset could have a high level of volatility but still lower a portfolio’s risk if it gained money when other assets were in the red. For the 20-year period that we examined, though, small caps’ ability to zig when large caps zagged wasn’t enough to compensate for their greater volatility.

Small-cap boosters would argue that their stocks might look more attractive if we studied a more-hospitable time span. In all fairness, then, let’s suppose that small caps’ risk profile and their diversification from large caps remain the same going forward, but that small-cap returns improve. The question then becomes: How much more would small caps have to return over mid-caps to be the diversifier of choice, given the greater volatility of small caps? The answer: Small caps would have to outperform mid-caps by more than 2.4 percentage points per year. That’s certainly within the realm of possibility. Indeed, it has happened before.

How to Use Mid-Caps

On the one hand, mid-caps would have worked better in your portfolio than small caps over the past 20 years. On the other hand, there’s no guarantee that they’ll continue to outperform small caps. What to do?

We suggest hedging your bets. Don’t think about breaking your portfolio into large- and small-cap portions. Instead, think of large-cap and non-large-cap exposure. Mid-caps could be especially useful for investors who want diversification but who can’t stand the volatility of small-company stocks.

As a fund investor, to get the benefit of mid-cap stocks you need to find true mid-cap funds. That can be a tall order. Many mid-cap funds gain that classification because their managers buy a mix of large- and small-cap companies. Relatively few managers seem committed to the market’s middle, perhaps because it’s just not as glamorous as investing in one of the extremes.

To find funds specifically targeting the middle part of the market, look for funds with mid-cap in their names, such as T. Rowe Price Mid-Cap Growth RPMGX or Vanguard Mid Capitalization Index VIMSX. Premium members can also find what percentage of a fund’s holdings are in mid-cap stocks on our Quicktake Reports. Some fund-family Web sites also provide this information.

Quiz 405
There is only one correct answer to each question.

1 During the 1980s and 1990s, what diversified a large-company portfolio better?
a. Small-cap stocks.
b. Mid-cap stocks.
c. They did about the same.
2 Mid-cap companies:
a. Are small-cap companies that have grown.
b. Are one-time large companies whose stock returns haven't kept pace with those of other large companies.
c. Can be either A or B.
3 In any given year, the returns of mid-cap stocks most often land:
a. Between the returns of large- and small-cap stocks.
b. Ahead of the returns of large- and small-cap stocks.
c. Behind the returns of large- and small-cap stocks.
4 Mid-cap stocks would be a good option for an investor who:
a. Is aggressive and wants to take on a lot of risk in the hopes of the highest possible return.
b. Wants to diversify but can't handle the volatility of small-cap stocks.
c. Thinks small-cap stocks are ready for an extended rally.
5 Which is not a good way to find a mid-cap fund?
a. Choose any fund from one of Morningstar's mid-cap categories.
b. Look for funds with "mid-cap" in their names.
c. Ask what percentage of a fund's assets are held in mid-cap stocks.
To take the quiz and win credits toward Morningstar Rewards go to
the quiz page.
Copyright 2006 Morningstar, Inc. All rights reserved.
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