Last year we published a number of studies showing that investment trust managers were counteracting the rise of passive vehicles by further concentrating their portfolios and using the advantages of the closed-end structure such as gearing and the ability to pay income from capital more aggressively. New analysis from the team at Kepler shows that that over the past five years, trusts which have seen the greatest reduction in number of stocks in portfolios have generated the highest levels of alpha. Similarly those trusts which reduced their turnover the most have generated a higher alpha compared with those which haven’t. This corroborates the academic literature on the subject. In our view this finding is a strong indicator of the future direction for investment trusts in combating the threat from passives. In this article we dive into the data, which shows that having more active portfolios has delivered strong benefits for shareholders. We also consider the reasons why the investment trust universe remains a place that active managers can outperform. Finally we highlight three trusts that have most recently taken decisive steps to become significantly more active.
Companies: MNP MNKS HNE MRC FSV JAM
The Mercantile Investment Trust (MRC) looks to deliver long term capital growth from a portfolio of UK medium and smaller companies. Managed by Guy Anderson and Anthony Lynch, the trust typically consists of over 80 positions in various UK companies where the managers believe the wider market fails to sufficiently appreciate the long-term potential of the business. Performance was extremely strong in 2019, with NAV returns far outstripping the wider market and share prices doing even better, further aided by a narrowing in the discount to near parity to NAV. Excess returns in MRC share prices in 2019 were over 30% above those of the FTSE All-Share. Long-term returns have also been rewarding for investors. The managers operate a disciplined investment process focussing on the characteristics and advantages of a business, how these are presently valued and whether this represents an incorrect representation of its prospects, and what the operational momentum of the business is. MRC will generally focus on the mid-cap market, where the managers believe there are greater pricing inefficiencies and other structural advantages for active investors. As well as the active management benefit JPM hope to bring to this market, there is structural gearing in place which should benefit investors in rising markets, albeit increasing the downside potential in falling markets. With net assets of over £2bn, the trust has a very low OCF (ongoing charges figure) of only 0.45%. Despite its large size, the closed-ended structure helps Guy and Anthony to manage portfolio liquidity whilst continuing to look for the most attractive growth opportunities and to invest further down the market capitalisation spectrum. As part of the wider JP Morgan Asset Management team in London, there are significant benefits of scale and analytical resources available to the managers. The shares currently yield c. 2.5% and stand on a discount to NAV of c. 2.6% (as of 31/12/2019).
Companies: Mercantile Investment Trust
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
Mercantile (MRC) is a large and liquid investment trust, which invests in mid and small sized companies listed on the UK stock market. The trust is now managed by a triumvirate, having been managed by Martin Hudson since 1994, who was joined by Anthony Lynch since 2009, and finally Guy Anderson who joined the team in 2012. The portfolio has consistently had a tilt towards growth characteristics, but the strategy is flexible and the managers also consider valuations and move the portfolio significantly as the market environment changes. MRC has a track record of outperforming strongly in rising markets, historically aided by its structural gearing. On the other hand, it has suffered when markets reverse – for example it underperformed the index and sector in 2018. It is noteworthy that the manager’s net gearing has been coming down reflecting their caution, and is currently c 5%. The trust aims chiefly for capital growth, but also to grow the dividend in excess of inflation, which it has comfortably done over ten years; it currently yields 3%, well above the 2.2% average for the AIC UK All Companies sector. The discount of 9.5% has remained relatively persistent. The board has used buybacks in the past to tackle the discount when it widens out from current levels, although it has not tended to do so when markets are in “risk-off” mode. Last year, the board negotiated a cut to the management fee from 0.475% to 0.45% of market cap, which has helped make it the cheapest UK All Companies trust without a performance fee. The OCF (calculated on net assets) is 0.45%.
Today, we introduce our investment trust ratings. According to the quantitative screens we have selected in an attempt to highlight the best performers in the closed-ended universe, the trusts discussed here have been the best in their classes over the last five years. We have selected trusts using two different sets of criteria, aiming to identify the top performers for capital growth and for achieving a high and growing income. There are many rating systems for open-ended funds, but no quantitative-based system for investment trusts that is available to the average investor. While we cannot identify trusts which will perform well in the future – past outperformance is no guide to future out-performance – we hope these ratings will highlight the outstanding performers in the closed-ended universe and those managers who have best used the advantages of investment trusts to generate alpha. We are trying to reward consistent and long-term outperformance, and so we have decided to look over a five-year period. All data is as of the end of December 2018, sourced from Morningstar and JPMorgan Cazenove. We have looked at NAV total return performance and discount value has not been considered: the aim is to identify those trusts which have performed the best rather than highlight bargains.
Companies: IPU FAS ATR JEO FEV FGT THRG SEC PAC BRSC IAT HNE MIGO TRY JMG DIVI SLS BGS SDP JETI SOI BCI MRC TIGT EDIN JAI BEE SDV BRIG AAIF HFEL SCF SIGT BRFI IVPG CTY HINT JCH NAIT
Mercantile is a large and liquid UK mid-cap focused investment trust, with net assets of just under £2bn. It buys companies with strong earnings outlooks and operating in favourable industry or economic environments, with a strong bias to growth rather than value. It has a track record of outperforming strongly in rising markets, although has suffered when markets reverse. After the Brexit referendum, the trust has been steadily tilting away from companies exposed to the UK consumer and towards those plugged into global supply chains. The trust aims chiefly for capital growth, but also to grow the dividend in excess of inflation, which it has comfortably done over ten years. The yield is 2.5%. It has been managed by Martin Hudson since 1994, and he was joined by Anthony Lynch in 2009 and Guy Anderson in 2012. In February, the manager agreed to cut the OCF from 0.475% to 0.45%, which figure makes it the cheapest UK All Companies trust without a performance fee. The discount of 9% is protected by a highly active buyback policy. The trust has tended to trade on a similar discount to the sector, although in recent months the trust has slipped out slightly despite performance being strong in absolute terms and relative to peers and sector. During the same period the discount on the average smaller companies trust has also been narrowing and is now tighter than the trust’s.
The star fund manager culture and its effect on open-ended fund industry has been the subject of debate for many years, frequently making headlines when a high profile manager leaves for pastures new. To try and address the problems associated with key man risk, many fund management groups have pushed the ‘team-based’ approach more in recent years in an effort to soften the blow if a lead manager does change fund management houses The idea being if a manager does depart, investors won’t feel the need to sell out of a fund because they know the team taking over will run it in a similar way. Given their structure of being closed-ended, investment trusts have traditionally been shielded by the effects of key-man risk. However a recent example of a high profile departure at River & Mercantile shows they are not immune. Rather than being swamped with outflows, the River & Mercantile UK Micro Cap Trust saw is share price fall 14.6% and its discount to net asset value (NAV) move from 16.2% premium to a 0.6% as investors hit the panic button after the announcement its lead manager, Philip Rodrigs, had left the group. For Nick Greenwood, manager of the Miton Global Opportunities trust, the large drops the trust has faced since Rodrigs’ departure, represent the risks that investment trusts with key managers can face when those managers leave. “If you have a key manager following, the price that the trusts trades at can be very different to its peers, meaning that if the manager leaves, the price can quickly fall either back into line or below the peer group,” he says. In its 2018 rebalancing of its model portfolio, Winterflood replaced the R&M UK Micro Cap Trust with the JP Morgan-managed Mercantile Investment Trust in the UK equities section of its portfolio for its mid and small cap exposure. Trading at a 9% discount at the time, it felt the Mercantile Investment Trust, which is managed by Guy Anderson, represented a better value opportunity (versus the premium the R&M UK Micro Cap was trading at the time). However after the events that unfolded since Rodrig’s departure, Simon Elliott, a research analyst at Winterflood Investment Trust, says the micro cap fund does offer value versus its nearest peers. He also believes there is a large opportunity in the micro cap segment of the UK market for a genuinely active manager to add considerable value through stock picking. “The fund’s assets of £102m are nearly only 10% below where the board has deemed it appropriate in the past to return capital at NAV,” he says. “It is feasible that the portfolio could generate sufficient growth within the next 12 months to warrant a third return of capital and we would expect this to act as a catalyst in narrowing the discount.” At the same time, while many in the past may have invested in the fund because of the previous manager, its new manager, George Ensor, knows the trust having been involved with its running since launch in December 2014. “As a key member of River and Mercantile’s equity team, Ensor has gained the respect of the team’s leadership and we were impressed with his knowledge of the stocks in the portfolio at a recent meeting,” says Elliott. “Whether this will translate into strong returns, both absolute and relative, will only be proven in time. “However he has a head start given his current knowledge of the portfolio and this is an important, high profile mandate for River and Mercantile, not least as its only listed collective to date.” Meanwhile Greenwood, who never held the fund, says things can work in the opposite way. Namely a badly performing trust can see its discount narrow if it gets taken over by new management. A most recent example of this would be the Aurora Investment Trust. Having been a serial underperformer in the IT UK All Companies sector, since Phoenix Asset Management took over the trust in January 2016 it has undergone a complete transformation under new manager Gary Channon. As such it has moved from a 17% discount in April to 2015 to currently trading at parity, with the trust ranked second article over one and three years. So the movements in discounts can work for and against investment trusts when a high profile manager departs. However what they are not subject to is large outflows thanks to their closed-ended structure meaning any incoming manager does not have to deal with a firesale of assets on day one. In the case of the R&M UK Micro Cap Trust, it would seem after all the negative headlines, many are realising the strength of the team that lay behind the key man and at its current 11.9% discount to NAV could be sensing a buying opportunity.
Companies: RMMC MIGO MRC ARR
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AFH interim results have shown resilience in a tough period. Revenues grew by 5% yoy and Adj. EPS is up 8% yoy. We reduce our FY20 EPS forecast by 8% to reflect the wider market falls and slower new business due to the lockdown. This reduction in earnings is significantly less than peers, highlighting the defensive nature of the business and the prudent temporary cost measures being introduced in FY20. The improved FCF of the business should lead to a re-rating, particularly as AFH now trades on 9.3x CY20 P/E, a significant discount to peers. Our reduced target price of 524p implies 81% upside. Re-iterate BUY.
Companies: AFH Financial Group
Much has been written about the effects of the virus on the world and on the stock market. Here is one analyst’s take on some of the likely impacts on the way we should look at companies. This article was originally produced as a blog, “10 Changes Post Virus”, which was published a few weeks ago.
Companies: AGY ARBB ARIX DNL GDR NSF PCA PIN PHNX PHP RE/ RECI STX SCE SIXH TRX SHED VTA
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
Hipgnosis Songs Fund (SONG LN) has today announced a trading update for the full year ending 31 March 2020. The unaudited NAV has risen 13% YoY to 116.7p, up 14.3% since the last published NAV of 102.2p as at 10 January 2020. This represents a like for like valuation uplift of 11.4%. All equity has been fully deployed and shareholder approval has been sought to increase net debt from 20% to 30%. Revenue is strong with £64.7m generating an EPS of 10.7p (more than 2x the annual 5p dividend target). NAV growth has been driven by revenue statements which were up 2%, and an increase in streaming growth rate assumptions by the independent valuers. The portfolio comprises 54 catalogues, with 13,291 individual songs, now valued at £757m which was acquired at purchase price of £697m on an acquisition multiple of 13.9x – now valued on 15.0x historical earnings.
Companies: Hipgnosis Songs Fund
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
TCS has confirmed it will pay the previously announced interim dividend of 3.25p. A number of mitigating actions to preserve cash ensures that this is affordable. We estimate the £1.7m payment is less than 10% of cash and available facilities, which should be little changed from the April update. Rent collection levels of 75%, or 86% including deferrals, is resilient under the circumstances. There are also optimistic signs from Europe that people will be shopping in material numbers from 15 June. TCS will have all locations safely open from that date. We lower our NAV forecasts c.2%, mostly for the dividend payment, but also for a tougher outlook for CitiPark. Official guidance understandably remains withdrawn. The shares currently price in a c. 30% decline in underlying property values, which we think is excessive. On this basis, we see upside to the share price, setting it at 235p, still a c. 25% discount to NAV while short-term visibility is low. BUY
Companies: Town Centre Securities
Burford has announced its results for 2019. As previously indicated, these were lower than in the previous year. Revenue fell 17% from $430m in 2018 to $357m. Profit after tax, on Burford’s basis, declined 31% from $329m to $226m. As announced earlier, there will be no final dividend so only the interim dividend of ¢4.17 was paid for FY19. Unusually, Burford has also released a trading update for early 2020 alongside its main figures. Court results and arbitral awards have been obtained that would generate some healthy profits. Most notable is $200m in income ($300m in cash receipts) regarding which further legal review is unlikely.
Companies: Burford Capital
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
Today’s FY update reports that the decisive action taken at the outset of the COVID crisis has protected returns. Revenues held up through to the May year end. Aided by cost savings, adj. EBITDA is expected to be 20% ahead. We expect a more modest final dividend to protect the capital surplus. Additional savings have been outlined, which we overlay on a conservative “flat market/fewer new clients” scenario for FY21e – where we hope outperformance is possible. Updating EPS forecasts: FY20e +25%, FY21e -10% and FY22e -7%; also incorporating the Hurley Partners acquisition (+8%). We consider MW a high quality core holding with long term potential.
Companies: Mattioli Woods
Tetragon Financial Group (TFG, Tetragon) achieved a 13.6% NAV/share total return and a 13.4% ROE in FY19, in line with its long-term target of 10–15%. The main driver of Tetragon’s performance was its asset management business (TFG Asset Management), which comprises managers with a total AUM attributable to Tetragon of US$27.4bn and generated an EBITDA of US$59.5m in FY19 (up 51% y-o-y). The late-2019 investment activity left Tetragon with a relatively low net cash position (4.1% of NAV at end-April). The shares trade at a three-year average discount to NAV of 44% (currently at 62.7%), which is relatively wide compared to peers given the company’s track record of delivering a 16% NAV TR pa over the last 10 years. The recent market sell-off has so far resulted in a 5.1% decrease in NAV (ytd to end-April 2020).
Companies: Tetragon Financial Group
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
MJ Hudson has confirmed that it expects to achieve profits in line with expectations for FY20E. This is a good result linked to new client wins during the COVID-19 disruption and timely cost management. Whilst much of the group's activities are proving resilient, uncertainty remains and in line with most of the peer group, MJ Hudson is withdrawing guidance for FY21E. We similarly withdraw our FY21E forecasts until visibility improves, moving our rating to Under Review. Meanwhile, the shares are now down 30% since their pre-COVID-19 highs, which is beyond that seen at outsourcing peers (Sanne, JTC). Whilst COVID-19 is presenting challenges for many businesses, we believe that: 1) the structural growth drivers in alternatives that underpin MJ Hudson's growth will continue to remain highly relevant, and 2) its strong balance sheet gives it a relative advantage.
Companies: MJ Hudson Group
Today's update confirms Equals delivered another quarter of significant revenue growth YoY, delivered by organic and acquisitive means. Performance across the product range has varied unsurprisingly and we expect these trends to continue over Q2/20E. Given the great uncertainty over the duration and severity of COVID-19's impact on the group, we withdraw FY20-21E forecasts and place our recommendation Under review, awaiting further clarity. Equals is supported by a strong, debt-free, balance sheet and is undertaking measures to further conserve cash.
Companies: Equals Group
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