Is there a liquidity problem in the UK small-cap sector?

3 mins. to read
Is there a liquidity problem in the UK small-cap sector?

James Henderson, co-fund manager of Henderson Opportunities Trust, explains why liquidity concerns around UK smaller companies may be exaggerated; and why a rally could be around the corner.

The smaller-company investor faces a new problem following the fallout from Woodford’s funds; a focus on liquidity. How long would it take to liquidate a position at the quoted price?

This is the question portfolio managers are being asked by their risk departments and business managers. The usual answer is to say that if you take 20% of the average daily volume of a stock and divide that into the number of shares held, we get an idea of how many days it should take to sell.

The problem with this answer is that it does not necessarily reflect how the market for smaller companies works. The daily volume number is taken direct from figures published by the London Stock Exchange.

A trend in recent years has been for there to be more trades happening ‘off market’, in the so-called ‘dark pools’. It is estimated that across the market as much as 40% of trades by value happen in this way. Therefore, using just LSE volumes overexaggerates the liquidity problem. Currently, small-cap trading volumes have been low as investors sit and watch macroeconomic developments. Activity will pick up as confidence returns and the current problems with small-cap investment will partially recede.

Advantage investment trusts

Mid-cap companies are not suffering the same problem, so takeover activity by larger established companies is likely to be a feature of 2020. However, the current concerns over liquidity are an opportunity for funds with a mandate to invest in small companies.

It is closed-ended funds that are best suited to these mandates because they do not have to meet redemptions in the same way that open-ended funds do, meaning a trust will not become a forced seller in times of stress. This is why the Henderson Opportunities Trust portfolio has more than 60% invested in AIM stocks.

The premium investors are paying for liquidity has expanded significantly. However, the earnings and dividend growth of large companies in comparison to the small companies is unlikely to justify this premium valuation.

Smaller companies are often tied more closely to the fortunes of the UK economy. The UK has been subdued as a result of the consumer drawing back and corporates putting spending plans on hold. These plans cannot be deferred indefinitely and a replacement cycle will start up with capital investment injecting momentum into economic growth.

Many UK small domestic companies have been focusing on cost savings, so when sales growth increases on this disciplined low cost base; operating profit margins will expand. The drop through of increased sales to profits usually surprises as an economy grows. The analyst upgrades will follow and this is the catalyst that will prompt investors to move money into UK shares in an ‘unloved’ sector.


Liquidity: The ability to buy or sell a particular security or asset in the market. Assets that can be easily traded in the market (without causing a major price move) are referred to as ‘liquid’.

Mid cap: A term used to describe medium-sized companies based on their market capitalisation.

Small cap: A term used to describe companies with small market capitalisations.

These are the views of the author at the time of publication and may differ from the views of other individuals/teams at Janus Henderson Investors. Any securities, funds, sectors and indices mentioned within this article do not constitute or form part of any offer or solicitation to buy or sell them.

Past performance is not a guide to future performance. The value of an investment and the income from it can fall as well as rise and you may not get back the amount originally invested.

The information in this article does not qualify as an investment recommendation.

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