Small caps' snapback is flashing an ominous signal.
The Russell 2000 has rallied 16.5 percent in 2019, the third best start to a year since the index's inception. However, small caps' future is bound to be bleaker if history is any guide. According to Jefferies, in the previous five best starts to a year, small caps suffered weaker-than-average performance in the following three months and squeezed out only a 1.2 percent gain for the rest of the year.
"Can't draw up a better start to new year than this, however we need a pullback," Steven DeSanctis, a Jefferies strategist, said in a note on Sunday. "We'd like the market to take a breather."
He added that earnings have shown strong double-digit growth, but small caps still trail large company earnings, and the outlook for first and second quarter is "in the red."
Small-cap stocks dipped into bear market territory when recession fears triggered a massive sell-off in December. Now, the group is up 24 percent since Christmas Eve, but the strong comeback might be overlooking the poor earnings outlook. Wall Street is now foreseeing a 2.9 percent decline in small-cap earnings in the first quarter, according to FactSet. In addition, the China trade uncertainty is clouding the road ahead.
"If the U.S. does not get a trade deal done with China over the next few weeks, a recovery in earnings growth is unlikely, as companies put off capex until 2020," DeSanctis said. "This is one of the biggest risks for the market and explains why we have not raised our Russell 2000 year-end target of 1550." The index is currently trading at around 1,569.
Growth stocks are seen beating value stocks in the small-cap world given the earnings growth, DeSanctis pointed out.
"The next two quarters should be weak and even down year-over-year for Small and Large caps. We think this supports our Growth over Value theme. [Growth stocks] do look better with the price to book and price to sales ratios double digits below average," he said.
The strong rally coupled with downward earnings revisions have also made small caps expensive again in a short period of time. The Russell 2000 is trading at 19.8 times forward earnings.