The Small Caps That May Be Holding Back Your Portfolio’s Returns

  • The underperformance of small caps in 2021 was driven by poor returns of small growth companies with low profits.

  • These companies have underperformed historically.

  • An approach that excludes small growth stocks with low profits may increase returns.

The stock market is off to a rocky start in 2022. Some shares have fallen more than others: Exhibit 1 shows how small caps have lagged large caps in 2021 and into 2022, at least when measured using Russell indices. However, a deeper look shows a subset of small cap stocks drove much of this underperformance. Small companies with high stock prices that lose money or generate little profit may be holding back your small cap portfolio.

Exhibit 1

Small Returns

Growth of wealth, Russell 1000 vs. Russell 2000

Past performance is no guarantee of future results.

The top detractors to the Russell 2000 Index performance in 2021 share a common trait: they have low to negative profits and trade at high relative prices. At the beginning of 2021, each of the five companies charted in Exhibit 2 had generated negative profits over the previous year and traded at price-to-book ratios that placed them in the highest relative price quartile of the market.

Exhibit 2

Index Anchors

Top five detractors to the Russell 2000 Index return in 2021

Past performance is no guarantee of future results.

Looking more broadly, we can see negative 2021 returns across many small caps with low profitability—particularly growth stocks with low profitability, as shown in Panels A and B of Exhibit 3.

Exhibit 3

Bubble Trouble

Panel A

Russell 2000 Index, market cap percentiles

Past performance is no guarantee of future results.

These stocks were the worst-performing segment by far among small caps in 2021. This follows a four-year streak when these names outperformed other small caps, which led some investors to wonder whether looking to valuation and profitability to make investment decisions was outmoded.

Panel B

Russell 2000 Index, market cap percentiles

Past performance is no guarantee of future results.

However, looking broadly across decades of returns in global markets, we observe that small cap growth stocks with low profitability tend to underperform over the long run. And for good reason. From a valuation perspective, paying a lot for a company that earns little profit is a good sign of a very low discount rate, and therefore a low expected investor return. Research has shown that when examining stocks by their size, price-to-book, and profitability characteristics, small cap stocks with the lowest profitability and highest relative price have experienced the lowest historical returns.1 By seeking to avoid these stocks, one can improve the expected return of a small cap portfolio. Commenting on the body of research examining these stocks, Professor Robert Novy-Marx said, “The small unprofitable growth portfolios are … way less than the sum of their parts. They just do so badly in the data.”2

Dimensional seeks to avoid these stocks in our portfolios that invest in small caps, such as those shown in Exhibit 4. And while this is not the only way our small cap funds may seek to add long-term value, 2021 adds another year to our long-run track record of delivering small cap solutions that have outperformed both peers and index funds.

Exhibit 4

Surviving and Thriving

One- and 10-year performance, as of December 31, 2021

Funds may have experienced negative performance over the time period. Past performance is no guarantee of future results.


  1. 1See Eugene F. Fama and Kenneth R. French, “A Five-Factor Asset Pricing Model,” Journal of Financial Economics 116, no.1 (2015): 1-22.

  2. 2“Episode 149: Professor Robert Novy-Marx—The Other Side of Value,” May 13, 2021, in Rational Reminder, podcast.

  3. 3Average Index Fund Placement is provided where index fund(s) with a Morningstar 1 or 10-Year Total Return Absolute Category Rank exist in the category as of the period ending date.


Price-to-book ratio (P/B): The ratio of a firm’s market value to its book value, where market value is computed as price multiplied by shares outstanding and book value is the value of stockholder’s equity as reported on a company’s balance sheet.


Performance information as of 06/30/22. Expense information as of the prospectus dated 02/28/22. Performance data shown represents past performance and is no guarantee of future results. Current performance may be higher or lower than the performance shown. The investment return and principal value of an investment will fluctuate so that an investor’s shares, when redeemed, may be worth more or less than their original cost. To obtain performance data current to the most recent month-end, visit


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This information is not meant to constitute investment advice, a recommendation of any securities product or investment strategy (including account type), or an offer of any services or products for sale, nor is it intended to provide a sufficient basis on which to make an investment decision. Investors should consult with a financial professional regarding their individual circumstances before making investment decisions.

Risks include loss of principal and fluctuating value. Investment value will fluctuate, and shares, when redeemed, may be worth more or less than original cost. Small cap investments are subject to greater volatility than those in other asset categories.

Robert Novy-Marx provides consulting services to Dimensional Fund Advisors LP.

Eugene Fama and Ken French are members of the Board of Directors of the general partner of, and provide consulting services to, Dimensional Fund Advisors LP.