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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FY20A results largely reflect a period prior to the Covid-19 lockdown, yet show Duke entering a more challenging FY21E with momentum. Yesterday's trading update demonstrated another notable rise in quarterly cash receipts for Q2/21, as royalty partner trading continues to improve. As some partners' forbearance measures will expire this month, Q3/21 receipts should continue this upwardly momentum. This opens the door to a return to cash dividends at some future point. Today, Duke also confirms it is now seeking new royalty partners, alongside follow-ons.
Companies: Duke Royalty
With the sale of the Singaporean operations for £1.6bn, the new CEO, Amanda Blanc, shows her intention to focus rapidly on its preferred markets (the UK, Ireland and Canada). The next candidate for sale is the French unit. This transaction is more complicated than the previous one, with the necessity to obtain the agreement of Afer, its key partner in France. With potential proceeds of £2.9bn, Aviva could reduce its debts significantly and allocate more capital to the UK bulk annuity business.
Companies: Aviva Plc
The COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact globally in many areas. While primarily a health issue, it has had wide-ranging implications for stock markets, which have now rallied after the plunge in share prices in mid-March when the full severity of the emerging pandemic became more widely appreciated. Nonetheless, the FTSE 100 Index remains almost 20% off its late February 2020 figure.
Companies: AVO ARBB ARIX CLIG DNL GDR ICGT NSF PCA PIN PXC PHP RECI STX SCE TRX SHED VTA YEW
Frontier IP has announced it has invested £320k in a £720k convertible loan financing of Nandi Proteins. Nandi Proteins is developing functional proteins for food ingredients aimed at reducing levels of fat, additives and gluten in processed foods addressing important social, health and environmental concerns about processed food. Frontier IP holds a 20.1% equity stake in Nandi Proteins; the last disclosed value of the holding was back in July 2017 at approx. £2.9m. Connected in part to the announcement today, we have used the opportunity to refresh our cash flow forecasts to reflect the net £2.1m proceeds of the July 2020 fundraise, the planned deployment of proceeds into bridge financing and refreshed our Sum-of-the-Parts valuation analysis to reflect the excellent portfolio progress made in FY’20. We anticipate a 50% increase in the unrealised profit on the revaluation of investments in FY’20e to £5.82m (vs. £3.0m prior estimate; £3.85m in FY’19). Applying the peer group multiple of 1.6x on Yr1 Book value of late-stage assets and incorporating the £2.1m proceeds and dilution associated with the July placing, implies an intrinsic value of 82p/share, 27% above the current share.
Companies: Frontier IP Group Plc
Artemis Alpha Trust (ATS LN) has undergone a radical transformation over the past two years following a comprehensive strategic review. In April 2018, the trust held around 90 stocks with approximately 25% of NAV held in unquoted positions. Following the implementation of the review, Kartik Kumar (who has been with Artemis since 2012) was appointed lead manager alongside John Dodd remaining in place with an overseeing role. Kartik has since significantly reduced the number of stocks to a much more concentrated high conviction portfolio of just 36 stocks, and has significantly reduced the unquoted exposure to only 7%. This shift in focus has at the same time improved portfolio liquidity by moving up the market capitalisation scale.
Companies: Artemis Alpha Trust
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
As expected, the quarter saw a sharp increase in loan impairments. However, one can wonder if the increase was not capped by the group’s willingness to keep its results afloat. Management’s downbeat guidance in terms of revenue recovery potential and cost reduction does not bode well as regards the group’s future credit loss absorption capacity.
Companies: Lloyds Banking Group Plc
Deltic Energy is entering an exciting phase in its development based on its fully funded joint-venture projects with Shell. Preparations are now underway for an exploration well to test the Pensacola Zechstein prospect in the SNS (Southern North Sea). Deltic has indicated that it expects the current contingent well commitment to become firm on schedule by December 1, 2020. Drilling, according to Deltic, should follow in H2 2021. We see scope for positive news flow over the next few months, not least from the evaluation of Shell’s recently obtained processed 3-D seismic over Pensacola. Following Pensacola, the Selene prospect is scheduled to be drilled in mid-2022. The recent 32nd Round UKCS licence awards greatly expands Deltic’s exploration potential in the CNS and particularly the SNS Carboniferous fairway. Here some highly prospective acreage has been obtained.
Companies: Deltic Energy Plc
What’s new: CLIG results have beaten Zeus expectations at revenue, EPS and DPS. On 14 July CLIG provided an update which revealed $338m of net inflows (6% of opening FUM), outperformance of the Emerging Market and Developed strategies (98% of FuM) and 25% rise in FuM in 4Q to $5.5bn and an indication that the final dividend would be not less than last year. In our opinion, key features of CLIG’s full year results include:
4.4% rise in revenue to £33.3m (Zeus forecast: £32.0m);
6.1% fall in adj PBT to £10.7m (Zeus forecast: £10.3m), excluding gains/losses on seed investment 9.4% rise to £11.6m (FY19: £10.6m);
3.2% rise in adj EPS to 35.3p (Zeus forecast 32.5p);
11.1% rise in final DPS to 20.0p (Zeus forecast: 18p) with the total DPS of 30p (Zeus forecast: 28p) is 11.1% above the prior year excluding special DPS.
Net cash of £14.6m (Zeus forecast: £10.0m)
The acquisition of KMI is expected to complete on 1 October 2020.
Companies: City of London Investment Group Plc
What’s new: Interims confirm the strength of JTC’s business model and cash conversion, and management has restated its medium-term guidance.
Companies: JTC Plc
JPMorgan Global Growth & Income (JGGI) aims to provide superior total returns and outperform its benchmark over the long term by investing in a portfolio of 50–90 companies from around the world. It has achieved this objective, delivering outright gains and outperforming its benchmark since the inception of its current strategy in 2008. JGGI makes quarterly distributions set at the beginning of the financial year, with the intention of paying at least 4% of NAV at the time of announcement. Dividend payments can be funded from reserves, which means the managers are not constrained by the need to purchase high-yielding stocks but are instead free to invest in non-dividend paying stocks for capital growth. The managers believe this gives investors ‘the best of both worlds’.
Companies: Jpmorgan Global Gwth & Inc Plc
City of London has announced its full-year results for FY’20. As previously indicated, over a volatile year, FUM grew to $5.51bn. This led to a 4% increase in fee income to £33.3m. With cost control excellent, as usual, this led to a 9% increase in operating profits to £11.6m. Earnings were impacted by exceptional costs for the Karpus transaction and losses on the seed investments in the new REIT strategies, and fell 19% to £7.37m. The final dividend was increased from 18p to 20p, giving 30p for the full year. This leaves cover ahead of the target cover over a rolling five-year period of 1.2x.
Accelerating activity in to FY21
Companies: Manolete Partners Plc
As anticipated, Record has confirmed a material uplift in AUME following the rebound in financial markets from April. We upgrade FY21E forecast EPS by +18%, with higher staff costs offsetting some of the benefit. We expect AUME growth to be more modest from herein. While no performance fees have been recognised over Q1/21 and will be harder to achieve due to Covid-19, any future recognition would have a materially positive impact on earnings. Covid has temporarily paused new client wins, but we expect further additions to come as conditions improve.
Companies: Record Plc
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