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
River & Mercantile UK Micro Cap (RMMC) aims to achieve long-term capital growth from investment in a diversified portfolio of UK micro-cap companies, typically comprising those with a market cap of less than £100 million at the time of purchase. The company launched in December 2014, with George Ensor having taken over as manager from Philip Rodrigs in 2018. George looks to utilise an active, bottom-up strategy looking to add real value in the micro-cap end of the market via in-depth analysis where coverage is sparse. Like all managers at River & Mercantile, George follows the group’s PVT (Potential, Valuation, Timing) investment approach (see portfolio section). As of the end of June 2019 the portfolio is relatively concentrated, with only 43 holdings, but diversified by size and sector. Only financials have a weighting greater than 20%, and even the largest sector overweights, oil & gas and health care are relatively low at +6.5% and +5.4% respectively. Performance has been varied since George took over the portfolio in a difficult period for UK small cap managers. Initially, performance was strong and for much of 2018 the trust outperformed the benchmark and peers alike. However the trust saw its returns hit hard in Q4, ruining what might have otherwise been a strong start for the new manager. Since then, to 28 August 2019, the trust has returned 6.6% marginally underperforming the benchmark (6.9%) and trailing the AIC peer group (9.5%). As with most UK focused trusts, the past few years have seen the discount widen dramatically – although in this case, exacerbated by the change in manager in early 2018. Over the past two years the trust has reached a premium of close to 17%, and a discount of over 20%. Currently the trust is trading at a discount of around 20%, considerably wider than the sector average of 9.2%.
Companies: River & Mercantile UK Micro Cp Iv Co
River and Mercantile UK Micro Cap (RMMC) aims to achieve long-term capital growth from investment in a diversified portfolio of UK micro-cap companies, typically comprising companies with a market cap of less than £100 million at the time of purchase. The company launched in December of 2014, and now has George Ensor at the helm who took over the portfolio from Philip Rodrigs in 2018. The team utilise an active, bottom-up strategy looking to add real value in the micro-cap end of the market via in-depth analysis where coverage is sparse. Like all managers at River & Mercantile, George follows the group’s PVT (Potential, Valuation, Timing) investment approach. As of the end of March 2019 the portfolio is relatively concentrated, with only 43 holdings, but the managers believe it boasts a well-diversified array of companies. Not only is the portfolio evenly split among the small to micro market cap spectrum, the companies are fairly evenly split among the sectors. Only financials has a weighting greater than 20%, and the largest sector overweights come from oil and gas (+8.2%) and health care (+6.2%). At the other end of the spectrum, the portfolio has very little exposure to consumer services and consumer goods (-11.3% and -6.4% relative to the benchmark, respectively). Since launch the trust has delivered NAV returns of 96.2%, compared to 40% for the Numis SC Plus AIM ex Invt Cos Index, 60% for the AIC peer group and 60.4% for the IA peer group. As such, the long-term track record is strong. However, the last quarter of 2018 hit the portfolio particularly hard and saw the company fall 21.7% in NAV terms. As with most UK focused trusts, the past few years have seen the discount widen dramatically – although in this case, exacerbated by the change in manager in early 2018. Over the past two years the trust has reached a premium of close to 17%, and a discount of close to 15%. Currently the trust is trading at a discount of around 14%, considerably wider than the sector average.
In our February article 'Sweet Treats', we launched our list of discount opportunities - trusts we felt had the potential to see their discounts close significantly and, in turn, supercharge investors' returns. Our list has had a good beginning to its life, with the majority seeing their discounts close slightly in the almost three months since, aided by a good period for the markets. The investment trust universe has seen its average price rise by 3.2% since 13 February, as the below graph shows. We can trace the rally in the market to the meeting of the Federal Reserve’s interest rate setting body, the FOMC, on the 20 March. Shortly after that meeting, global equity markets began their rise, as investors lowered their expectations for future interest rates.
Companies: ASCI HOT ASCI HOT RMMC OCI MHN TFG BEE
One of the attractions of investment trusts is the potential to pick up discounted bargains, which can supercharge NAV returns if correctly anticipated. As we have remarked before, closed-ended funds have historically delivered superior NAV returns. But buying shares on a substantial discount can significantly enhance those NAV returns should the discount narrow on a sustained basis. The reasons for investment companies long run NAV outperformance of equivalent open-ended funds, lies with their structural advantages, as we discussed in detail last year. Firstly, they have the ability to make the best use of less liquid assets and managers can manage those assets without having to worry about inflows and outflows. Secondly, they can employ gearing, which should be accretive to returns over the long run even if timing isn’t attempted, assuming equity markets continue to rise over the course of each cycle. While we tend to focus on the trusts with long-term potential, here we are considering those trusts currently sitting on discounts that have caught our eye. These trusts are trading on unusually wide discounts (at least 10% in absolute terms), but most importantly, have the potential to produce attractive NAV returns (in relative or absolute terms) as well.
Companies: BEE AAS RMMC MHN OCI TFG
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
Investment trusts are often the structure of choice during booming markets. The ability to gear, plus the investment freedom of a closed-ended structure allow skilled managers to capitalise on rising share prices. However, the same has not necessarily been true on the way down, as leverage exaggerates losses and discounts widen. This has often been a time to buy, with market volatility providing a chance to buy into good trusts at knockdown rates. Cherry Reynard asks, has the market rout since the start of the year produced any opportunities for value-hunters? There are 28 trusts that have seen their discounts widen by more than 5%* since the start of the year. This appears a mild reaction to the market sell-off. The FTSE 100 was down 7.5% over the same period. Peter Walls, manager of the Unicorn Mastertrust (a fund of investment trusts), said this first bout of volatility, triggered by expectations of higher interest rates in the US, passed much of the sector by unnoticed: “There was some intra-day volatility in some of the more highly geared, specialist funds. Some of the trusts that had enjoyed strong demand from self-directed investors also proved volatile – Fidelity China, Scottish Mortgage and F&C Global Smaller Companies. However, those hoping to pick up cheap opportunities were disappointed.” There were a number of reasons why investment trusts didn’t exhibit panic selling. Notably, companies proved active in buying back shares. Scottish Mortgage, for example, bought back 3,000,000 ordinary shares at a price of 449.34p at the start of March. Walls added: “The boards are aware that discount volatility is not great for shareholders and did their best to manage discounts through this time.” However, while the rout itself did not throw up any conspicuous bargains, it did exaggerate some existing trends among some familiar investment trusts. The first is the weakness of the infrastructure trusts. There were seven infrastructure trusts among those trusts that saw the greatest discount widening over the period. In some cases, the moves were extreme - GCP Infrastructure saw a 9.4% move, while HICL saw an 8.0% move. 3i Infrastructure and John Laing Infrastructure moved from a long-standing premium to a small discount. Infrastructure trusts have long been seen as a ‘bond proxy’ investment and as such, might be expected to suffer on the prospect of rising rates. However, as Walls points out, there were also other factors at work. Concerns over the collapse of Carillion and an increasingly aggressive stance from the Labour Party on PFI have weighed heavily on investors. This has unquestionably led to better value, with discounts at multi-year highs. The question for investors is whether the rising interest rate environment is reflected in current prices, or whether any further inflation shocks could send prices lower still. Simon Moore, senior investment manager at Seven Investment Management (7IM) believes a more fertile ground may be the UK Equity income sector, where sentiment has been dented by Brexit concerns. He says: “There are three investment trusts which stick out where their price has fallen significantly over the last three months. All of these have Neil Woodford/ Mark Barnett connections (make of that what you will): Edinburgh Investment Trust, Perpetual Income & Growth and Woodford Patient Capital. “These have a few UK small caps that have been in trouble, arguably nothing to do with the market sell-off, but each manager have been vocal supporters of UK listed companies despite obvious global pessimism on UK equities post-Brexit referendum. If they are right - and their judgement calls have often been right in the past - then these funds could be rerated.” Moore points out that both managers have styles that will go in and out of favour. Certainly, all three trusts have moved down a long way. Patient Capital has seen its share price total return dip 10.7% and its discount widen 5.4%. Edinburgh Investment Trust hasn’t seen a significant change in its discount, which is hovering around 9%, but its shares are down 8.6%. It is a similar situation with Perpetual Income & Growth, where the shares are down 7.7%, but the discount remains at around 9.5%. Moore says: “It is worth remembering that Patient Capital is a very different fund to either Edinburgh Investment Trust or Perpetual Income and Growth and is not for the faint hearted. Given the nature of some of the companies it invests in, there may well be more ups and downs to come. But the clue is in the name - investors who can afford to be patient may well be rewarded over the long-term." Walls sounds a note of caution, saying that some of the classic equity income type stocks favoured by these two managers are still seeing a difficult time. Some of the outsourcing groups, for example, remain out of favour with investors. Much will depend on whether investors come to believe in the ‘value’ trade, where this type of stock will revert to more normal valuations. The other sector to see some change in ratings among the recent volatility has been the technology and media sector. Of course, this comes after a lengthy expansion in the technology sector, with companies such as Facebook, Amazon and Netflix leading markets higher for much of 2017. Walls says: “A couple of the technology trusts, such as Polar Technology Trust and the Allianz Technology Trust have moved to a small discount. I wouldn’t say they look like bargains.” Walls suggests that some sectors where there should have been bargains – such as UK smaller companies – have not seen any real movement in aggregate and are certainly ‘not exciting for value-minded investors’. That said, some are certainly cheaper than they were: Chelverton Growth trust has taken a hit, for example. The other weak trust has been the River & Mercantile UK Micro Cap, though this dropped following the departure of manager Philip Rodrigs over a ‘conduct issue’. Overall, most trusts have held up well since the start of the year. This reflects well on the sector, which appears to have grown better at managing market downturns. There are opportunities, but these have arisen from issues idiosyncratic to each sector rather than market volatility as a whole
Companies: SMT EDIN PLI SUPP PCT ATT RMMC
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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: AGY ARBB ARIX BUR CMH CLIG DNL HAYD NSF PCA PIN PXC PHP RE/ RECI SCE SHED VTA
With a new CEO, Amanda Blanc, Aviva’s shareholders could dream of a possible change in the group’s strategy, with a more focused insurance business. The new Chief has an opportunity to take painful decisions in a year where no one will require a high operating performance.
Companies: Aviva Plc
The Native Antigen Company (“NAC”) has been acquired by LGC for up to £18.0m – with the ongoing COVID pandemic highlighting the value of knowledge and execution in the infectious diseases space. Mercia invested in NAC via both its balance sheet and 3rd party funds. The exit represents a strong return for both sources of capital, validating complete connected capital to optimise value creation. For the balance sheet stake, the £5.2m proceeds represent a £2.5m gain on realisation (c.1.5% of our FY21e NAVps). Final Results will be announced next week, when we will review our forecasts. The shares are currently trading at a 45% discount to NAV (which is 20% cash). Today’s exit demonstrates justification for a much narrower discount, if not a premium, to conservative carrying values.
Companies: Mercia Technologies
Trading Well in Tough Market
Companies: Palace Capital
With the sale of The Native Antigen Company (NAC) for up to £18m in cash, Mercia expects to realise £5.2m (1.2p per share) for its 29.4% stake. This exit delivers another significant milestone in management’s strategy to achieve an evergreen funding model. Management has confirmed that the group is profitable on a day-to-day basis following the acquisition of the NVM VCT management contracts (NVM) in December 2019. NVM, together with additional allocations from the British Business Bank (BBB), has lifted AUM to c £800m. Management’s three-year strategy targets a sustainable, evergreen balance sheet with AUM of £1bn in FY22, with future investment commitments met through existing cash resources and realisations without the need for further recourse to the markets. Despite real progress, Mercia trades at 0.69x its September 2019 NAV, with the fee-earning funds business as further upside, not captured in an NAV-based calculation. FY20 results are due on 14 July 2020.
HgCapital Trust’s (HGT) 12-month NAV TR to end-March 2020 was a solid 13.8% despite the COVID-19 market downturn in March 2020 (ytd NAV performance since end-December 2019 was a 6.2% decline). The coverage ratio reached a historically low level (13% vs three-year average of 53%) after HGT notably increased its investment activity and commitments in Q120. However, a significant part of these new commitments will not be drawn in the near term. The board continues to review its future funding arrangements and may also opt out of a new investment without penalty across all funds. HGT’s portfolio focus is on the resilient software and technology sector and the manager expects a limited direct earnings impact on its portfolio from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Companies: Hgcapital Trust
Hot on the heels of the Architas acquisition – announced 1st July, Liontrust has issued in line final results (£38.1m adj. PBT vs £38.3m consensus, 24p second interim dividend). An accompanying trading update also confirms that AuM bounced back in Q1 as markets recovered and net inflows were sustained at a record £971m for the quarter. The Architas acquisition – once completed later this year – stands to drive Liontrust through the £25bn AuM mark and bolster the existing multi-asset product offering and wider appeal to the current client base. As joint corporate broker, we have withdrawn forecasts pending the approval of the acquisition at the forthcoming general meeting.
Companies: Liontrust Asset Management
Beijing’s forced implementation of the Hong Kong security law threatens the region’s financial hub status. This is a potential game-changer for HSBC but it does not seem to come as a surprise for the group as confirmed by the acceleration of its investments in China or its efforts to secure a leading position on the RMB.
Accelerating activity in to FY21
Companies: Manolete Partners
PetroTal (PTAL LN/TAL CN)C; Target price £0.45: 1Q20 results/Bretaña expected to restart in July – 1Q20 financials are in line with expectations and 1Q20 production had been reported previously. At the end of 1Q20, current trade and other payables had been reduced to ~US$45 mm compared to ~US$55 mm at YE19. Most importantly. PetroTal continues to expect the Bretaña field to be re-opened this month. The contingent liability with Petroperu is estimated at US$25 mm at the current oil price and the company has entered into a financial swap for 0.46 mmbbl of oil with an ICE Brent reference price of US $40.58/bbl to cover the upcoming sale by Petroperu at the Bayovar port. This is a recovery story that we continue to like. It offers a combination of value, production and cash flow growth and reserves upside. We anticipate that the imminent reopening of the field with be an important catalyst to the share price.
i3 Energy (I3E LN): Reveals takeover target in Canada | Maha Energy (MAHA-A SS): Production update | Aker BB (AKERBP NO): 2Q20 update in Norway | Energy (RRE LN): Recommended offer by Viaro Energy | Spirit Energy: Dry hole in Norway | Enwell Energy (ENW LN): Ukraine update | JKX Oil & Gas (JKX LN): 2Q20 update in Ukraine and Russia | Pharos Energy (PHAR LN): Operating update in Egypt and Vietnam | Sound Energy (SOU LN)C: Terms of Moroccan licence renegotiated | Tethys Oil (TETY SS): June production in Oman | Victoria Oil & Gas (VOG LN): Gas sales contract with ENEO in Cameroon terminated
EVENTS TO WATCH NEXT WEEK
14/07/2020: Aker BP (AKERBP NO) – 2Q20 results
15/07/2020: Premier Oil (PMO LN) – 1H20 update
13-17/07/2020: GeoPark (GPRK US) – 2Q20 update
Companies: I3E MAHAA JKX PHAR EQNR AKERBP ENI HUR PTAL REP RRE SOU TPL VOG OMV
Key takeaways from NSF’s results and presentation were: i) solid underlying 2019 with normalised operating profits up 20% and lower impairments to revenue; ii) £60m cash now ‒ April and May cash-generative; and iii) current collections 86% of pre-lockdown levels. NSF is a going concern and is considering an equity raise to help fund additional growth. Downside includes: i) statutory loss with further goodwill impairments; ii) material uncertainty arising from COVID-19 effects and so possibly its going-concern status; and iii) operating performance improvement needed for further securitisation-line drawings (waiver extended on 29 June).
Companies: Non-Standard Finance
Numis’ update for Q320 was positive, reflecting both the need for equity funding in the market and the strength of the group’s franchise as well as its ability to deal with current operating constraints. Subject to the market background in its final quarter, we now expect Numis to achieve a full-year result in line with or ahead of the high end of our previous scenario range.
Companies: Numis Corporation
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
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
Gfinity plc* (GFIN.L, 1.625p/£14.0m) | Blackbird plc* (BIRD.L, 16.5p/£55.4m) | Tern plc* (TERN.L, 11.5p/£31.1m) | The Panoply Holdings (TPX.L, 72.5p/£39.9m)
Companies: GFIN BIRD TERN TPX