Top Small-Cap Manager Plays It Safe

Small-cap growth is an area of the stock market that would seem to imply frequent trading and extra risk. But Jeff Cardon, whose Wasatch Small Cap Growth Fund has been one of the best performers in its class for more than a decade, has built a strong track record without high turnover or added risk.

“That’s how I judge whether I’m being careful,” Cardon tells Forbes magazine in saying that only 12% of his portfolio involved brand-new names last year. “If you have a high turnover of names, then you’re saying there’s a lot of stuff in the portfolio you don’t know very well. If you look at my top 10 holdings, there are companies that have been in the portfolio for 15 years. That’s way weird. But that’s our whole thing. We’re trying to figure out which are the really great companies, and over time they’ll work their way up through the portfolio.”

Cardon says that safety is particularly important in the current environment. “There is a small-cap cycle, but I’m not sure it’s relevant,” he says. “It’s not the paradigm that matters. You should be thinking about safety. There’s not an index of companies that have no debt on their balance sheets and are throwing off excess cash flow, right? That’s the index you need to own if you want to own stocks now. In a world of more risk and a lot of leverage that is deleveraging, things are going to blow up. A company with no debt that’s making a profit cannot go bankrupt.”

Cardon talks about some of his current favorite small-cap picks in the U.S. market. He also explains why he views “the world as without borders”, and says that international small caps are cheaper than their U.S. peers right now.