It’s time to ditch one of the past year’s hottest trades

Small-cap stocks are lagging their larger-cap peers so far this year, and some market watchers say their underperformance could continue.

While the large-cap S&P 500 is up 5.5 percent since the beginning of the year, the small-cap S&P 600 is up just over 2 percent in the same time. The Russell 2000 index, tightly correlated to the S&P 600, has shown a similar trajectory. These small-cap equities surged following the U.S. election in November; the Russell 2000 rose 16 percent in the month following Election Day as investors priced in economic growth and corporate tax cuts under the Trump administration.

The S&P 600 in Wednesday trading was roughly 12 percent higher than its 200-day moving average, which may indicate a crowded trade.

"Right now, I'm a bit cautious because the Russell 2000 is 'over-owned,'" Matt Maley, Miller Tabak equity strategist, wrote to CNBC in an email Wednesday.

"The [Commitments of Traders] data shows that the dumb money 'specs' still have VERY large long positions," Maley added, referring to data that measure exchanges in the futures market, breaking down the open interest positions of major contracts that have 20 or more traders, and is often used as a contrary indicator.

Large caps may look more attractive here, according to Chad Morganlander, portfolio manager at Washington Crossing Advisors.

"I would definitely go with large caps at this point. The small caps had this huge run over the course of 2016. That was the beta trade in the later part of the year, after the election," Morganlander said Tuesday on CNBC's "Trading Nation."

Small caps have been the "beta play that needs to take a breather," he wrote in an email Tuesday to CNBC; beta refers to the volatility of a stock relative to the volatility of the broader market, and investors may have reverted these names last year intending to capitalize on the market's overall rise.

Valuations in the space, along with growth, doesn't justify being overweight small caps at this point, Morganlander said, so he would prefer shifting to large caps at this juncture.

On a technical basis, large-cap stocks are likely to outperform small caps, according to Craig Johnson, managing director and technical market strategist at Piper Jaffray.

Stocks that show better growth, over stocks that are generally value plays, are coming into favor as value lags, he said.

"At this point in time, I definitely favor the large-cap, but over the long-term, over, say two, three years, small caps, historically, have done very well," Johnson said.

In the last 20 years, the S&P 600 has far outperformed, rising 332 percent in that time while the S&P 500 has risen nearly 195 percent.


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Trading Nation is a multimedia financial news program that shows investors and traders how to use the news of the day to their advantage. This is where experts from across the financial world – including macro strategists, technical analysts, stock-pickers, and traders who specialize in options, currencies, and fixed income – come together to find the best ways to capitalize on recent developments in the market. Trading Nation: Where headlines become opportunities.

Michael Santoli

Michael Santoli joined CNBC in October 2015 as a Senior Markets Commentator, based at the network's Global Headquarters in Englewood Cliffs, N.J.  Santoli brings his extensive markets expertise to CNBC's Business Day programming, with a regular appearance on CNBC's “Closing Bell (M-F, 3PM-5PM ET).   In addition, he contributes to CNBCand CNBC PRO, writing regular articles and creating original digital videos.

Previously, Santoli was a Senior Columnist at Yahoo Finance, where he wrote analysis and commentary on the stock market, corporate news and the economy. He also appeared on Yahoo Finance video programs, where he offered insights on the most important business stories of the day, and was a regular contributor to CNBC and other networks.

Follow Michael Santoli on Twitter @michaelsantoli

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