Aberforth Smaller Companies Trust (ASL) owns a portfolio of cheap companies which the managers expect to outperform their more expensive peers. ASL has been team-managed since it was launched in 1990, and has outperformed the Numis Smaller Companies ex IT Index significantly since then. In more recent years the value style has been out of favour, and ASL has struggled relative to its growth-oriented peer group. As we discuss in the Performance section, the end of last year saw an outstanding quarter of outperformance which was brought to an end by the unforeseeable event of the pandemic. The resulting market decline now sees ASL on its lowest month-end portfolio valuation since March 2009, which subsequently led to strong returns over the following five years. The managers are investing in their own portfolios and preparing to build up gearing to take advantage of low valuations in the companies most likely to prosper through the other side of the current crisis. Aside from total-return potential, ASL is also in a strong position with regards to the dividend. Having fallen onto an 11% discount, the historical yield is 3.7%. Although the managers say that they expect to see 50–60% dividend cuts on the market and on their portfolio in 2020, ASL has 2.4 times last year’s dividend in reserve. This means the board has the firepower to maintain or grow the dividend should it wish to. Following the coronavirus crash, the managers have been through the portfolio with a fine-tooth comb. They have made few changes to their portfolio as a result, remaining confident in most of their business models.
Companies: Aberforth Smaller Companies Trust
Smaller companies are usually a problematic area to invest in during significant downturns or recessions; and the sharp fall in 2020 hasn’t been an exception. In this article we assess the performance of smaller companies trusts throughout the pandemic, while identifying the factors that have differentiated the winners from the losers. This includes the impact that cash, market cap exposure, sector allocation, revenue exposure and growth or value biases have had, with some surprising results. We also ask whether now is an attractive time to invest in smaller companies, highlighting the trusts which stand out to us…
Companies: THRG GHE MINI RMMC ASIT ASL MTE TRG BRSC DSM
We have knitted together the impact on the investment companies from what is now widely considered to be the most severe pandemic in a century. The collapse in asset prices over the latter part of March, brought the curtain down on an up-market that lasted more than ten years. In amongst this, there were pockets, such as the technology sector, that held up well. For many industries, the worst is still to come, as we brace ourselves for the sharpest contraction to global growth since the US great depression.
Companies: ASL SDV ASIT BGEU BRLA CCPE DPA IEM JMF JZCP JUKG EPIC PSHD CSH RIII CCPG BLP TMPL BPCR SEQI AIF SMT CIFU SQNX FAIR ICON RSE CRS GWI USF DIGS
A long, long time ago, I can still remember how, that election had us all talking about sterling (well, some of us). Instead now we are hard put not to talk about mass dividend cuts, with Link Group estimating dividend cuts of 47% or more in the UK equity market. Way back in those distant epochs of early December 2019, we appeared to be approaching a greater degree of certainty about the shape of the future in the UK: an election was in the offing which promised to help resolve the outlook for our relationship with the EU and the rest of the world, and to clarify what kind of environment businesses would face going forward. At the time, GBP looked undervalued on the basis of the Economist’s ‘Big Mac’ index (a way of looking at the relative valuations of various currencies based upon the relative cost of a McDonald’s Big Mac in different countries). With signs that global investors’ positions in UK assets were starting to move towards normality from their previous large underweights, it seemed prudent to highlight that a rising currency could prove a headwind for dividend streams. With UK payout ratios (the proportion of earnings paid out as dividends) very elevated, and in general terms a roughly inverse relationship between UK corporate earnings and the strength of the currency, dividends funded by overseas earnings logically seemed somewhat vulnerable. Sure enough, following the general election we saw the GBPUSD rate move up to c. 1.35 in fairly rapid fashion (having traded below 1.30 since May 2019). Even so GBPUSD remained short of the ‘fair value’ level of c. 1.42 suggested by the ‘Big Mac’ index at the time, but there were certainly positive signals in sentiment surveys that suggested sterling was setting up for a more durable rally.
Companies: TIGT ASEI JCH CTY DIG SCF BRIG ASL
Aberforth Smaller Companies Trust (ASL) takes a disciplined value approach to investing in UK small-caps, which has generated market-beating returns since launch in 1990. Since the financial crisis, growth strategies have tended to outperform in the UK and globally, and ASL has not been spared. However, in the past few months there has been a sharp rally in value stocks. This has seen ASL’s share price rise by almost 20% – with the NAV rising and the discount narrowing – illustrating the potential should the ‘elastic snap back’. The managers note that, in terms of the historical price-to-earnings (P/E) valuation measure, ASL’s portfolio is trading on the widest discount to the smaller companies index in its near 30-year history. The trust is managed by a team of seven, five of whom are partners of Aberforth. The investment approach is long-term, and the managers are active shareholders behind the scenes. The partnership structure and the managers’ significant investments in their own funds mean that interests are strongly aligned with those of the shareholders, in our view. Although ASL aims to generate total returns, dividends are viewed as an important part of that return and the value approach means that the portfolio often yields more than the market. The current historic yield is 2%, excluding special dividends. Revenue reserves are healthy, as discussed in the Dividend section. As sentiment has shifted back towards value strategies since the summer, the discount has narrowed and ASL now trades on a 3.5% discount, compared to an AIC UK Smaller Companies sector average of 6.5%.
“Is life always this hard, or just when you’re a kid?” “Always like this” (Leon: The Professional) In the post-financial crisis world, value investors have found themselves facing a period of structural underperformance relative to growth investors which has been unusual relative to history. In fact, this is the longest period of underperformance since at least the 1920s. This raises the question; what, if anything, could cause this to change?
Companies: GVP ASL BEE MIGO TMPL
There is a problem with the UK’s core crop of income funds. UK equity income trusts are highly concentrated in a few big names, which we think is a potential cause for concern for income-seeking investors. It is also a good reason to diversify one’s sources of income. This concentration is particularly worrying when you consider that many of the largest yielders in the index have an uncertain future, and there are question marks over the sustainability of their dividends. Just eight companies make up over the 50% of the yield of the FTSE 100, according to Bloomberg figures, and the likes of Shell, BP and GlaxoSmithKline feature 17, 14 and ten times in the top five holdings across the 24 trusts in the UK Equity Income sector. As we discussed in our recent article, Rebel Rebel, the AIC has overhauled its sectors, aiming to make it easier for investors to identify and compare appropriate investments. However, we believe they have overlooked a potentially interesting group of trusts that could more properly be considered a sector and which might help mitigate this problem: small cap equity income. As we highlighted in Rebel, Rebel, trusts that don’t easily fit within sector definitions frequently trade on wider discounts than might otherwise be the case. We think this may be the situation with the trusts in our new sector, which offer an interesting way of diversifying an investor’s sources of income and resolving the problem of concentration in the AIC UK Equity Income sector. Although yielding less than the large cap income vehicles on average, there are some trusts with innovative structures and policies offering significant yields, and there are good dividend growth prospects from some of them too. There are other benefits to small cap equity income trusts, including the potential for capital appreciation. Here, we discuss the overlooked opportunity in small cap equity income and the benefits for income-hungry investors.
Companies: IPU SDV ASIT ASL ASCI
Aberforth Smaller Companies (ASL) is the only UK smaller companies trust with an unambiguous value approach, barring its income-focused sister Aberforth Split Level Income. The long-term track record has been extremely strong, although returns in recent years have been below those of the peer group thanks to the managers’ diligent adherence to a value approach - a style that has been very much out of favour in what has been a growth or momentum driven market. The value approach and the concentration on the smaller end of the market (due to its lower valuations) differentiate the trust from its peers. The value approach leads to a contrarian tilt to the portfolio, which has in recent years become overweight domestic earners and picked up exposure to resilient retailers that have been sold off on sentiment rather than fundamentals. These exposures have helped the trust in recent months. The team of managers has extensive experience, with the two remaining founding partners having been involved in running the portfolio since 1990. One of them, Richard Newbery retires at the end of this month (April 2019), leaving a committed team of six experienced investors who follow the same philosophy and approach the company has had since the beginning. The team has significant shareholdings in the trust, and so their interests are well-aligned with the long-term interests of shareholders. Although the trust aims for total returns, the value approach often leads the company into higher dividend-payers. The historic yield is 2.4% excluding non-recurring special dividends, which compares favourably to a sector average that does include specials of 2.5%. The board is committed to a progressive dividend policy, which has been supplemented by special dividends over recent years. With significant revenue reserves and high average cover for dividends paid by the portfolio holdings, the managers hope that the dividend can grow even through the next cyclical downturn. The trust is trading on an 8.7% discount compared to a sector average of 7.2%. The trust did trade on a tighter discount than the sector briefly in Q1. In this period many investors bought back into the UK on value grounds, although after the date for “Brexit” was pushed back into the autumn the discount widened again.
It is almost three years since the UK voted to leave the EU. It seems like it might possibly happen, although we wouldn’t want to make any more precise predictions than that. The political picture still remains cloudy, and it would be a brave investor who made a decision based on these tea leaves. However, the ending of the article 50 period is a good moment to take stock and get a clearer picture of what has actually happened to the UK market since June 2016. Amidst the noise and, at times, the panic, global markets and to a lesser extent UK equities have actually made strong gains. Despite this, UK valuations, as a result of the apocalyptic headlines surrounding this never-ending fiasco, remain at rock bottom in relative terms - which makes this an interesting time to look past the headlines and discover what’s really going on.
Companies: IPU MRC KIT ASL IVI
Popular wisdom has it that, while over the long term small caps have outperformed large caps, this has tended to be at the cost of greater levels of volatility. However, our research suggests that the extent of this volatility is overstated. In fact, the last five years have seen lower volatility from small-cap stocks relative to large caps across the world. This could be due to the fact we have enjoyed an extended bull run, or that the UK government has been utilising quantitative easing to maintain artificially low interest rates. Whatever the cause, crunch the numbers and you will find that over this period the FTSE SmallCap sector has seen a lower maximum drawdown than the FTSE 100, but a maximum gain 21.6% greater than large caps. This phenomenon is not limited to the UK either. When comparing the MSCI Europe Small Cap Index to the MSCI Europe Index, the former has delivered double the annualised returns, again at a lower standard deviation. This combination of superior returns and comparable volatility is an attractive blend. Furthermore, with research on small caps likely to become even more thinly available as a result of Mifid II, the ability of small-cap managers to add alpha – a trait they’ve already shown themselves very capable of – is likely to be magnified. Against this backdrop, we consider the outlook for smaller companies.
Companies: SLS MINI IPU ASL JUSC BGS
Closed-ended funds have outperformed open-ended funds in the major equity sectors since 2000. Unlike the latter, investment trusts have outperformed their benchmarks net of fees too, according to research from academics at Cass Business School. According to research recently published by Andrew Clare and Simon Hayley, one major reason for trusts outperforming was that they hold more illiquid assets, namely smaller companies. They stripped out this effect in order to calculate the alphas generated by managers running these two types of investment fund (because overweighting higher beta areas, like small caps, should lead to extra returns irrespective of manager skill). However, they found that investment trusts still showed significant outperformance over their benchmarks and open-ended peers. Interestingly, gearing was not a reason for the outperformance, on their analysis, although market timing and share buybacks did contribute. The fact that closed-ended funds held significantly more in smaller companies is no accident: the structure allows managers to take larger positions in less liquid parts of the market and be truly long term about investment, both of which favour investing more in small and mid caps. While it makes sense to exclude a higher small cap weighting from the alpha attributed to a set of managers, as Clare and Hayley have done, when comparing the relative merits of open and closed ended funds it is clearly relevant. This is particularly true given that one cannot invest passively in small caps due to precisely the same liquidity issues. We drill into the details of the research before asking whether closed-ended funds will retain their advantages in the future. We find reason to be optimistic they will, and consider some trusts which display the key characteristics the research highlights.
Companies: AGT SMT ASL RCP
Aberforth Smaller Companies (ASCoT) is the only UK smaller companies trust with an unambiguous value approach, barring its income-focused sister Aberforth Split Level Income Trust. The long-term track record has been extremely strong, but returns in recent years have been below those of the peer group thanks to the managers’ diligent adherence to a value approach - a style that has been very much out of favour in what has been a growth or momentum driven market. The team of six managers have extensive experience, with the two founding partners having been involved in running the portfolio since 1990. The team has significant shareholdings in the trust, and all are partners. The progressive dividend policy has been supplemented by special dividends over recent years, and with a well-covered dividend and significant revenue reserves, the managers hope they will be able to continue to grow the dividend even through the next cyclical downturn. At 10%, the trust is currently trading on a wider discount than the sector, itself out of favour, thanks to its style having underperformed.
Many smaller companies managers have been shifting into micro caps in the first half of 2018, including Aberforth Smaller Companies, BlackRock Smaller Companies and JPMorgan Smaller Companies - all of which increased their weightings significantly in late 2014 too, before a strong run for this area of the market. Against this backdrop, we examine the case for micro-caps and highlight a number of trusts focused on the area, and a number which have high allocations to this segment. Micro cap stocks have shown high growth potential in the past, offer diversification benefits to a balanced portfolio and since the Great Financial Crisis (GFC) have been cheaper than the larger small caps. However, there are significant risks involved, and greater flexibility allows the manager a degree of leeway to manage them.
Companies: ASL SLS MINI IPU
Aberforth Smaller Companies is the largest investment trust in the AIC’s Smaller Companies sector, with an outstanding long-term track record stretching back to 1990, managed by a highly experienced and deeply anchored team with more than 80 years of experience on this trust alone. The six-strong management team, who are all partners at Aberforth, pursue a bottom-up approach to the market. The major differentiator with this trust is the fact it is an out-and-out value portfolio, with the managers focusing on what they deem to be undervalued companies. For example, over the past 12 months the team have added numerous domestically-facing stocks to the portfolio thanks to share price declines following the EU referendum such as Mitchells & Butlers, Stagecoach Group and Dunelm Group. This means, at the margin, the trust’s overall exposure to the UK consumer has increased. It is this investment style (and the team’s implementation of it) that has led to the trust’s significant outperformance relative to its peers and the Numis Smaller Companies ex IT index over the long term, though is also the reason why it has gone through relatively prolonged periods of underperformance in the past (such as over the past 10 years, a period when value investing has been significantly out of favour). The fact that the large majority of its peers are entirely growth-focused in what has mainly been a very low growth environment has done little to help its returns relative to the AIC UK Smaller Companies sector. Nevertheless, the team have added value relative to their benchmark over the past five years with NAV total returns of 115.4% to the end of December and outperformed the index in 2017 despite clear style headwinds. The trust has also produced a good, growing and highly covered dividend over recent years, yet still trades on a wider than average discount of 12.7%.
In a report early last year, we analysed the argument surrounding whether value investing (a style that has significantly underperformed relative to growth investing) was about to make a sustained comeback. Simply put, value investing involves buying shares in companies that the managers believe are ‘cheap’ relative to the wider market and their own histories. Many value managers, however, will only buy ‘cheap’ stocks where they have pinpointed a potential catalyst they believe will lead to share prices increasing (by analysing metrics such as cashflow, leverage, balance sheets and external factors) in order to avoid ‘value traps’ - stocks that are still in a period of decline or worse, are heading for total collapse. Growth investing, again put simply, means buying companies that are displaying above average earnings growth. Most growth managers will follow a GARP (growth at a reasonable price) approach, which means they don’t mind paying higher than average valuations for a stock if they believe future earnings growth is undervalued by the wider market. In recent times especially, value investing has become synonymous with more cyclical stocks such as mining, energy and banks, while growth investing has meant a focus on more defensive companies (with futures which aren’t dependent on economic growth) such as utilities, telecoms, tobacco and other consumer goods stocks. Those who predicting that value stocks were on the verge of a new era of outperformance were proved wrong (or too early), as they generally underperformed growth over the course of 2017. However, in our report last year (and with the proviso that the past is no guide to future returns), we found that had been a correlation between the relative performance of value versus growth stocks and the trajectory of UK government bond (or gilt) yields, with value generally underperforming when yields fell (or when bond prices rose) and outperforming when yields rose (or when bond prices fell). Government bonds have delivered almost unprecedented risk-adjusted returns over the past three decades due to factors such as credit boom prior to the global financial crisis and ultra-low interest rates over the past 10 years. However, many believed bond yields would rise last year (as they did in 2016) as inflation picked up in the UK following Brexit-induced weakness in sterling, coupled with Donald Trump’s commitment to economic stimulus. However, despite these two strong forces at work, 10-year gilt yields fell from their peak of 1.54% in late January 2017 to 1.26% by the end of the year (representing a fall of c.20%). We don’t claim to be experts in global fixed income markets, but the commonly-held view among those who do, is that bond yields will rise over the coming years (though as we mentioned last year, many have incorrectly called the collapse of the bond market for a number of years now…). While this might not be repeated, and again like last year, our analysis shows that value stocks have historically outperformed growth when bond yields have risen. However, as we highlight in this report, it is surprising how little exposure the ‘average’ UK investor has to “value” as a style, with the large majority of inflows into equity funds heading towards funds with a clear “growth” or “quality” bias. As such, if this long-anticipated revival in value investing does indeed occur – most investors look likely to miss out, or worse, be hit by capital losses.
Companies: AGT WTR ASL TMPL GVP
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Trading in the royalty partner portfolio over Q1/21 shows a material rebound from May, which has been sustained to date, as the portfolio as a whole returns to more normalised trading. Consequently, Duke's cash receipts, while down 20% YoY currently, are set to step up in H2/21 as forbearance measures largely expire and deferred royalties realised. This bodes well for a rebound in earnings and a return to cash paid dividends. A share price down over 55% since Feb 20, standing at p/book of 0.56x H1/20A's NAV p/s thus appears overdone. We await further clarity on the portfolio before reissuing forecasts, thus leave our recommendation U/R.
Companies: Duke Royalty
L&G reported an operating profit from continuing divisions (excluding Mature Savings and General Insurance businesses) of £1,128m, -2.2% yoy. The COVID-19-related cost was £129m. LGR posted a growing operating profit to £721m. Net profit amounted to £290m vs. £874m a year before, being affected by the reduced discount rate used to calculate LGI reserves. The Solvency II ratio stood at 173%. The Board recommended an interim dividend of 4.93p/share, stable relative to H1 19.
What’s new: Purplebricks Group results for the year to 30 April 2020, show the Australian and US units as discontinued; but include the Canadian unit sold for C$60.5m (i.e. £35m) in July. Investors will focus on the UK unit which revealed:
11% fall in UK revenue to £80.5m (FY19: £90.1m), as the number of instructions fell 23% (impacted by early Covid uncertainty and lockdown), but the average revenue per instruction “ARPI” rose 12% to £1,394;
UK gross profit margin improved to 64.1% (FY19: 63.0%);
UK marketing costs to revenue improved to 25.6% (FY19: 29.6%);
Spend on Digital capacity pushed UK operating costs 32% to £26.2m (FY19: £19.9m), as new management team pursued initiatives which are being “delivered at pace with significant opportunity for further innovation.”
UK adjusted EBITDA fell 53% to £4.8m (FY19: £10.2m).
Companies: Purplebricks Group Plc
For this Monthly, we are delighted that Rooney Nimmo and 24Haymarket have allowed us to reproduce a recent report they jointly published, entitled An analysis of UK exits (2015-2019), which provides a granular analysis by sector of the activity in our dynamic private companies world. We hope you find the insights of interest.
Companies: AVO AGY ARBB ARIX CLIG ICGT NSF PCA PIN PXC PHP RECI SCE TRX SHED VTA
H1 20 operating profit declined by 12% to £1,225m and the COVID-19 claims impact was £165m. Cash remittances from business units to the group was only £150m. The insurer said that it will focus on the UK, Ireland and Canada, which means an exit from other European and Asian markets. The Board has declared a second interim dividend in respect of the 2019 financial year of 6p/share and will inform shareholders about the 2019 final dividend in Q4 20.
Companies: Aviva Plc
Since the restrictions were lifted in mid-May, Belvoir has seen a surge in activity due to pent-up demand, resulting in June being a record breaking month for the group’s Newton Fallowell estate agency network in terms of instructions and sales and the financial Services division in terms of written income. Management have stated that with the positive impact of the stamp duty reductions still to take effect they are confident that the Group is well positioned to capitalise on the current market upturn and to take advantage of the opportunities arising from more challenging conditions. We have upgraded our PBT forecasts for FY 2020 to the level we forecast pre-COVID. We have also upgraded our target price from 169p to 233p and highlight that H1 2020 has demonstrated the resilience of the group, management’s ability to navigate difficult market conditions and the power of the franchise-led strategy.
Companies: Belvoir Group Plc
We believe now is an interesting time to invest in Northgate, with a new executive board and a capable management team in place who have already delivered progress on an ongoing turnaround as we await a full strategic review. The group now has a clear and well communicated capital allocation strategy in place and improved earnings quality, in our view. We believe that the growth opportunity in the UK, the value of the Spanish business and the progress made to date with the turnaround are not being reflected in the share price, which is currently 15.9% below book value (414p per share in FY19A rising to 468p in FY22E). We use a variety of valuation methods including P/B, SOTP, DDM and DCF modelling and arrive at an average implied share price of 450p, 29.0% above the current share price.
Companies: Redde Northgate Plc
Vacancy strongly increased in Q2 20. LTV surpassed the 50% mark on 30 June 2020 due to strong value destruction in H1 20. Hammerson announced a £550m cash capital increase coupled with a disposal of £270m. Its ex-post pro forma net debt should be £2.2bn, i.e. LTV of 42% on a proportionate basis. Too high?
Companies: Hammerson Plc
Today's update highlights that despite the Covid-19 outbreak and UK/IRE lockdown, which has affected trading, Duke has continued to collect cash royalties from most of its royalty partners. Short-term alternative payment terms have been agreed with those partners hardest hit, to support them to periods where royalties can be fully recouped. Therefore the 61% fall in p/b from 1.3 (at 20 Feb) to 0.5 today, appears overdone.
The group’s earnings surprise was driven by goodwill impairments. On the negative side, management upgraded, albeit slightly, its full-year loan impairments guidance and warns about revenue and CET1 pressure. It also reckoned that the tensions between the US and China will impact the group.
Companies: HSBC Holdings Plc
The Law Debenture Corporation (LWDB) has reported another strong set of results for its independent professional services (IPS) business in H120, with EPS growth remaining in the target mid- to high single-digit range despite a more challenging economic backdrop. With the trust’s largely UK investment portfolio having been hit by the widespread stock market sell-off in February and March, IPS has provided a larger than average contribution to revenue returns. This means fund managers James Henderson and Laura Foll can continue to search for attractive total return opportunities in a broad range of sectors, while maintaining LWDB’s focus on both capital appreciation and above-inflation dividend growth.
Companies: Law Debenture Corporation
Despite challenging market conditions, Picton’s Q121 DPS was well-covered by EPRA earnings and robust portfolio capital values. Combined with low gearing, NAV per share was just 1.3% lower versus Q420 and including DPS paid, the NAV total return was -0.6%. With encouraging rent collection data continuing and the lockdown easing, we have reinstated our estimates and look for the quarterly DPS run-rate to increase in H221.
Companies: Picton Property Income Ltd.
Duke delivered significant YoY growth in H1/20A results, as earlier efforts to broaden the royalty portfolio came through this year. This strong growth will continue with recent debt & equity raises forward funding investments to income levels of £15m by FY21E. Met with an enhanced, but now stabilised cost base, operational leverage should drive continued strong adj EBIT growth (to £13m, at a c85% margin) and further DPS rises.
The scaling of Duke's royalty portfolio was progressing as expected up to March 2020, with record cash receipts that month. Due to Covid-19 and the UK's economic shutdown, macro conditions have worsened and become highly uncertain. This is likely to see some royalty partners' future cash royalties decline, which in turn, will negatively impact FV's in the FY20E results. Duke's high margin and cash generative nature ensures it is well placed to trade through these challenges. Given the degree of uncertainty in outlook, we remove forecasts and put our recommendation Under Review and await further clarity on the portfolio.
Raven’s positive trading update was reassuringly robust, despite ongoing uncertainty regarding the long-term impact of Covid-19 on the Russian market. We believe that kind of performance deserves attention, although we plan to reinstate detailed forecasts post (a) the General Meeting scheduled for 31 July, which will decide upon proposals designed to create a simplified capital structure (outlined below) and (b) the interim results due in August.
Companies: Raven Property Group Ltd.