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%.
Companies: Aberforth Smaller Companies Trust
“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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Ramsdens has reported a strong set of trading results in the last twelve months to March 2020. COVID lockdown has led to store closures, which will lead to weaker trading over the following months. However, Ramsdens has a very solid balance sheet, is diversified and is well positioned to re-open stores and continue its growth. We use an 8x multiple on last 12 months to March 2020 earnings as a reflection of a normalised earnings base which reduces our target price to 162p from 180p. At this target price Ramsdens would trade on a CY20 P/B of 1.5x. This target price offers 15% upside and we re-iterate BUY.
ULR’s finals were in line with on EPRA NAV and earnings a little better than expected. Valuations remain stable and full rent collection has been achieved for the current quarter. We see fundamental quality and resilience in the (now expanded) portfolio – ULR has already invested nearly £100m in the first two months of the new year following the £136m equity raise. We make no material changes to forecasts. Current valuation points to an 7%+ annualised return, with upside remaining from deployment of funding headroom, active management and potential for valuations to improve.
Companies: Urban Logistics REIT
A number of REITs have the ability to thrive in current market conditions and thereafter. Not only do they hold assets that will remain in strong demand, but they have focus and transparency. The leases and underlying rents are structured in a manner to provide long visibility, growth and security. Hardman & Co defined an investment universe of REITs that we considered provided security and “safer harbours”. We introduced this universe with our report published in March 2019: “Secure income” REITs – Safe Harbour Available. Here, we take forward the investment case and story. We point to six REITs, in particular, where we believe the risk/reward is the most attractive.
Companies: AGR CSH ESP DIGS IHR LXI PHP RESI SIR SUPR THRL SOHO BBOX SHED WHR
Aside from its FY 19 earnings presentation, British Land has adopted a more cautious anticipation about Offices in the City of London. We share this pessimism and have been surprised by the recent share’s bump. The latter is the opportunity to turn negative, again, and update our divestment case.
Companies: British Land Company
The Merchants Trust (MRCH) is managed by Simon Gergel at Allianz Global Investors (AllianzGI). Aiming to continue to provide a high and growing level of income, he is adjusting the trust's portfolio in the wake of dividend cuts sparked by the negative economic effects of COVID-19. If there is an income shortfall in this financial year, MRCH is well positioned to maintain its dividend, with revenue reserves of more than 1x the last annual payment. It has not been an easy period for value managers over the last decade as growth stocks have led the charge; however, Gergel has outperformed the UK market over this period in both NAV and share price terms. The board reduced MRCH's gearing in late January 2020, which was opportune timing ahead of the recent significant stock market weakness.
Companies: Merchants Trust
The covid-19 pandemic has had a devastating effect on the share price of property companies, with 31% wiped off the value of their total market capitalisation during the first quarter of 2020.
Companies: AEWU CREI CSH BOOT INL HLCL THRL SUPR RESI RGL DIGS GR1T SOHO PHP BOXE ASLI UTG AGR UAI BLND UANC CAL SHED CWD WHR EPIC WKP GRI YEW HMSO PCA INTU NRR
In the past month the group has made significant progress in pivoting its business away from its traditional face-to-face model. Although lending levels remain appropriately subdued, it has achieved an impressive collections performance, with its largest business running at about 90% of pre-lockdown levels. This, combined with the group’s high risk-adjusted margins has enabled it to generate £3m of FCF in the first three weeks of April, taking its net cash position to £38.7m as of 21 April. This strong financial position, combined with the group’s innovative approach to product development puts it in an extremely strong position to serve its clients and win share when the current government restrictions are eventually lifted. Reflecting this positive outlook we reiterate our BUY rating.
Companies: Non-Standard Finance
In this note, we analyze the indebtedness of 35 international E&Ps publicly listed in the UK, Canada, Norway, Sweden and the USA. For each company, we look at (1) cash position, (2) level and nature of debt (including covenants), (3) debt service and principal repayment framework and (4) Brent price required from April to YE20 to meet all the obligations and keep cash positions intact. We also estimate YE20 cash if Brent were to average US$20/bbl from April to YE20. While the oil demand and oil price collapse are of unprecedented historical proportions and the opportunities to cut costs much more limited than in 2014, most companies (with a few exceptions) entered the crisis in much better position than six years ago, with stronger balance sheets and often already extended debt maturities. In addition, this time around, many E&Ps have already been deleveraging for 1-2 years and are not caught in the middle of large developments that cannot be halted. The previous crisis also showed that debt providers could relax debt covenants for a certain period as long as interest and principal repayment obligations were met. This implies that as long as operations are not interrupted and counterparties keep paying their bills (Kurdistan), the storm can be weathered by most for a few quarters.
With (1) Brent price of about US$50/bbl in 1Q20, (2) reduced capex programmes, (3) material hedging programmes covering a large proportion of FY20 production at higher prices and (4) limited principal repayments in 2020, we find that most companies can meet all their costs and obligations in 2020 at Brent prices below US$40/bbl and often below US$35/bbl) from April until YE20 and keep their cash intact, allowing them to remain solvent at much lower prices for some time. In particular, Maha Energy and SDX Energy are cash neutral at about US$20/bbl. When factoring the divestment of Uganda, Tullow needs only US$9/bbl to maintain its YE20 cash equal to YE19. Canacol Energy, Diversified Gas and Oil, Independent Oil & Gas, Orca Exploration, Serica Energy and Wentworth Resources are gas stories not really exposed to oil prices and Africa Oil has hedged 95% of its FY20 production at over US$65/bbl.
Companies: AKERBP AOI CNE CNE DGOC EGY ENOG ENQ GENL GKP GPRK GTE HUR IOG JSE KOS LUPE MAHAA OKEA ORC.B PEN PHAR PMO PTAL PXT RRE SDX SEPL TETY TGL TLW TXP WRL
The positive market movements (£19.5bn) offset the net outflows of £1.3bn. The adjusted operating profit before tax reached £1,149m, down 21.9% yoy. The insurer benefited less from longevity assumption changes (£126m vs. £441m in 2018) in the Heritage business and the lower Asset Management fees margin (38bp vs. 40 bp in 2018) in the Savings and Asset Management one. The current context has led to a decrease in the Solvency II ratio by 10%, but the capital position remains resilient at 166%.
Today's news & views, plus announcements from VOD, POLY, SMDS, BLND, BYG, WEIR, DC, SNR, SHI, INTU, IHR, CNC, ARE, INCE
Companies: INTU SHI INCE
U+I’s post-close trading update confirms c. £16m of development and trading gains for FY20, which includes Harwell. This is broadly in line with our revised expectations. Proactive steps are being taken to preserve liquidity in the short-term, including suspending the final dividend and stopping all non-essential spend. Positively, benefits of the cost saving programme will now be realised 12 months early. The balance sheet is strong, with ample liquidity; covenant levels are a long way off. Management’s time is being spent repositioning teams to be ready when restrictions are lifted, when there will be a renewed focus on the short-to-medium term value gain opportunities, of which there are plenty. The shares currently trade at 59% spot discount to our updated NAV forecasts, vs the UK sector at a 9% discount. We leave our recently lowered 180p target price unchanged and continue to see upside from here.
Companies: U&I Group
Recent news: On 21 April CLIG’s 3Q trading update to 31 March 2020, revealed:
27% fall in Funds Under Management (“FUM”) from US$6.0bn to US$4.4bn
- with weaker Sterling, FUM in £ fell 20% from £4.5bn to £3.6bn.
In 3Q, while Diversification CEF strategies (Opportunistic Value and Developed funds) had net inflows of US$25m, the Group’s Emerging Market Funds had net outflows US$68m
The Group has an active pipeline across all its major CEF offerings with increased interest in the Diversification CEF strategies
Post COVID-19, income to FuM remains unchanged at c. 75 bps of FuM
Companies: City Of London Investment Group
The COVID-19-related crisis further increases the top-line pressure. However, the quarter showed ongoing efficiency gains and, above all, management’s cost of risk guidance stood significantly below our stress test based projections.
Companies: Lloyds Banking Group
We wrote on 7 May, about the shape of the music global industry following the publication of the IFPI 2019 report. Taking a deeper dive into this report we examine the prospects of further growth in streaming numbers as the nonwestern markets come online.
Companies: Hipgnosis Songs Fund
Seneca Global Income & Growth Trust (SIGT) is managed by a four-strong team at Seneca Investment Managers, seeking undervalued securities across multiple asset classes in order to diversify the trust’s risk and return drivers. Its UK equity portfolio was particularly negatively affected by the coronavirus-led market sell-off in March, given its focus on domestic, mid-cap value stocks, which performed relatively poorly. However, these holdings could stand SIGT in good stead during an economic recovery. The trust’s board has committed to continue paying quarterly dividends, using reserves where necessary if income falls short, which seems likely given the number of dividend cuts announced by corporates in response to the global pandemic.
Companies: Seneca Global Income & Growth Trust