Small-Cap Stocks

A small-cap stock is a financial security that represents an ownership interest in a publicly traded firm. It is called small-cap because the firm’s market capitalization (the share price times the number of shares outstanding) is smaller than that of firms categorized as mid-cap or large-cap. Read on to learn more about this potentially lucrative class of stocks.

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    Thomas J. Brock, CFA®, CPA

    Thomas J. Brock, CFA®, CPA

    Investment, Corporate Finance and Accounting Expert

    Thomas Brock, CFA®, CPA, is a financial professional with over 20 years of experience in investments, corporate finance and accounting. He currently oversees the investment operation for a $4 billion super-regional insurance carrier.

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    Lamia Chowdhury
    Lamia Chowdhury

    Lamia Chowdhury

    Financial Editor

    Lamia Chowdhury is a financial editor at Lamia carries an extensive skillset in the content marketing field, and her work as a copywriter spans industries as diverse as finance, health care, travel and restaurants.

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  • Financially Reviewed By
    Chip Stapleton
    Chip Stapleton

    Chip Stapleton

    FINRA Series 7 and Series 66 License Holder

    Chip Stapleton is a financial advisor who has spent the past several years of his career working primarily in financial planning and wealth management. He is a FINRA Series 7 and Series 66 license holder and passed the CFA Level II exam in 2022.

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  • Updated: August 14, 2023
  • 6 min read time
  • This page features 4 Cited Research Articles
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What Is Market Capitalization?

Market capitalization, or market cap, is a measurement of the total market value of a publicly traded stock. The larger the market capitalization, the larger the footprint of the company in question — and the more money it would take to acquire all of the company’s shares. Market capitalization can be calculated as follows:

Market Capitalization = Market Price Per Share x Number of Common Shares Outstanding

For example, a company with stock trading at $25 per share and 40 million shares outstanding would have a market capitalization of $1 billion ($25 × 40,000,000 = $1,000,000,000).

How Is Market Capitalization Used?

In addition to serving as a gauge for comparing companies’ market values, market capitalization is an important metric used for index-linked investing, also known as passive investing. This widely popular method of investing is a low-cost way to replicate the returns of an index rather than trying to outperform it.

Index-linked investing involves the establishment of an investment fund or strategy with positions that mirror an index. A metric such as market capitalization or stock price is used to establish the relative positions and proportions.

For example, you can replicate the performance of the Russell 2000 Index, which tracks the performance of approximately 2,000 of the smallest publicly traded companies in the United States, by buying positions in the constituent companies and maintaining the appropriate proportions of those positions over time based on their market capitalization. Essentially, this means buying more of the stock of outperforming companies and selling the stock of the underperforming companies.

What Are Small-Cap Stocks?

A small-cap stock refers to a company with a small market capitalization, or a relatively small total market value compared to other publicly traded companies. At a high-level, the universe of publicly traded companies consists of small-cap, mid-cap and large-cap companies. In financial terms, the distinction is generally broken down as follows:

  • Small-cap stocks have a market capitalization of $2 billion or less.
  • Mid-cap stocks reflect a market capitalization between $2 billion and $10 billion.
  • Large-cap stocks have a market capitalization of more than $10 billion.
Quick Fact

While these market capitalization distinctions are widely accepted, some analysts go even further, adding micro-cap stocks below $300 million in market capitalization and mega-cap stocks above $200 billion.

It’s important to note that small-cap stocks should not be confused with startup companies. While some startups can be considered small-cap stocks, not all small-caps are startups. Many small-cap stocks have long track records of strong financial results, and they just haven’t yet crossed the measurement threshold to be categorized as mid-cap or large-cap. Examples of small-cap stocks include Abercrombie & Fitch Co., Dave & Buster’s Entertainment Inc., Genworth Financial Inc. and Office Depot (ODP Corp).

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How To Invest in Small-Cap Stocks

If you decide that investing in small-cap stocks makes sense for you, you can purchase small-cap stocks through your brokerage firm or your financial advisor. These days, it’s increasingly common to make these purchases via an online brokerage firm such as Charles Schwab, E-Trade or Fidelity Investments. Brokerage firms can facilitate your trades, maintain pertinent records and safeguard your investments in a low-cost manner.

That said, unless you’re an experienced securities analyst with plenty of free time, buying individual stocks is not recommended, as there is just too much risk. If you’re new to investing or just getting started with small-cap stocks, a fund-style investment such as an exchange traded fund (ETF) is a good way to go.

Pooled investment vehicles like ETFs offer hassle-free, low-cost and diversified access to an array of markets and market segments. When it comes to the domestic small-cap space, most people consider the Russell 2000 to be the best stock market index. Two other widely followed small-cap indexes include the MSCI USA Small Cap Index and the S&P 600 Index.

Small-Cap vs. Mid-Cap vs. Large-Cap Stocks

Beyond the differences in market value, small-cap stocks tend to be less mature than mid-caps and large-caps. As a result, they usually have much greater potential for growth, but they also experience more erratic cash flows and volatility in stock price than larger companies.

That said, small-cap stocks like those in the Russell 2000 Index can outperform their larger counterparts such as those in the S&P 500 Index when you compare their performance over an extended period. This concept is illustrated below for the 20-year period that ended June 17, 2022.

Russell 2000 vs. S&P 500 Index from 2003 to 2022

While the performance of small-cap stocks in the Russell 2000 was clearly superior for much of the 20-year period, the margin of outperformance has largely been erased in 2022. This is largely due to anxiety from high inflation and aggressive Fed rate-hike action to blunt the trend. During times like this, small-caps are hit much harder than larger companies, mainly due to their relatively erratic cash flows and smaller financial reserves — both of which translate to greater risk for investors.

Unfortunately, until the economic uncertainty subsides, small-cap stocks are likely to continue to lag behind the performance of larger companies. Nevertheless, over the long-term, small-caps hold a lot of promise and should be included as part of any portfolio diversification. Leaving small-caps out of your portfolio, even while investing during inflation, can have a serious drag on your return on investment in the long term.

Quick Fact

All things considered, small-cap stocks tend to outperform large-cap stocks in bull markets (good times) but underperform them during bear markets (bad times).

Small-Cap Stock Risks

All investment opportunities involve some risk, but as described above, volatility is even greater when you invest in small-cap stocks. You can help mitigate this risk by diversifying your portfolio, but only to a certain extent. Investing in small-cap stocks will expose you to a much higher degree of volatility than you will have with most other asset classes, such as large-cap stocks in the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index (S&P 500).

The growth potential of small-cap stocks can overshadow the risks, but you’ll want to consider your investment horizon carefully and understand that it only makes sense to invest in small-cap stocks if you can let them grow and appreciate for at least 5 years. Ideally, you should let them grow and appreciate much longer.

A financial advisor can help guide you through the process of assessing your tolerance for risk and learning the process of investing for beginners, which includes understanding both your ability and your willingness to take on risk. You can also find investment advice and a risk tolerance quiz online.

Pro Tip

Gaining insight into your tolerance for risk is essential to determining whether investing in small-cap stocks is right for you.

5 Best Small-Cap ETFs

If you’re interested in investing in a small-cap ETF, take a look at the funds below. They are among the largest and most diversified ETFs in the market. All are relatively low-cost and sensible for anyone seeking passive, small-cap exposure.

Vanguard Small-Cap ETF (VB)
Launched in 2004, this $120 billion fund seeks to replicate the performance of the Center for Research in Security Prices (CRSP) U.S. Small Cap Index. It has an annual expense ratio of 0.05%.
iShares Core S&P Small-Cap ETF (IJR)
Launched in 2000, this $65 billion ETF seeks to track the investment results of the S&P 600 Index. It has an annual expense ratio of 0.06%.
iShares Russell 2000 ETF (IWM)
Launched in 2000, this $54 billion fund seeks to track the investment results of the Russell 2000 Index. It has an annual expense ratio of 0.19%.
Schwab U.S. Small-Cap ETF (SCHA)
Launched in 2009, this $14 billion ETF seeks to track the total return of the Dow Jones U.S. Small-Cap Total Stock Market Index. It has an annual expense ratio of 0.04%.
Vanguard Russell 2000 ETF (VTWO)
Launched in 2010, this $6 billion fund seeks to track the investment results of the Russell 2000 Index. It has an annual expense ratio of 0.10%.
Please seek the advice of a qualified professional before making financial decisions.
Last Modified: August 14, 2023