In a scenario marked by numerous macroeconomic and geopolitical challenges, in which it will be very difficult to obtain the same returns as in the past, five asset managers offer their ideas for achieving attractive returns. In equities, Henderson Global Investors sees opportunities in China, while Asian consumer history is the guideline for equity investment in one of Matthews Asia's best-known strategies; and the value style, the key for obtaining attractive emerging market returns according to Brandes Investment Partners. In a segment as complicated as fixed income is today, M&G Investments sees opportunities in high yield and in floating rate high yield bonds. Beyond a single asset, Aberdeen Asset Management is committed to a multi-asset and diversified approach that invests in truly innovative market segments.
These strategies were presented during the first day of the third edition of the Fund Selector Summit 2017, a meeting aimed at the main selectors and investors in USA Offshore funds and a joint venture between Open Door Media and Funds Society, held in Miami over those two days.
Multi-assets: a strategy based on diversification
Simon Fox, Senior Investment Specialist at Aberdeen Asset Management, explained why it is important to take an innovative and different stance when investing in multi-assets: instead of using market timing strategies, something very difficult to do, or those based on the use of derivatives, which are complex and dependent on the asset managers' abilities and the bets taken, he supports the preference for a more active strategy focused on the diversification and search of opportunities in new market segments. For the expert, diversification needs to be improved because traditional portfolios based solely on fixed and variable income, which have worked very well over the last few decades, when fixed income not only played a defensive role, but also provided a large source of returns, will not offer the same returns from now on: "The future will be marked by lower global growth and lower yields and that means that traditional assets will offer lower returns than they have in the past": thus, in an environment of more adjusted prices in equities and credit, a study by McKinsey Global Institute points to a fall in returns over the next 20 years of 250 basis points in US stocks (compared to the average for the period 1985-2014) and 400 in fixed income.
And all that without taking into account risks and concerns, such as China or Brexit, in addition to others: "The biggest risk for a multi-asset portfolio is not the short, but the long term, because there are factors that have supported global growth in the past that will not be repeated, or which may even become obstacles," explains the specialist, pointing to examples of demography, adjustment in China, or de-globalization.
Given this scenario, the need to diversify arises, with clear advantages: "It is what many investors have been doing over the years, adding more assets to the portfolios, not only to find more sources of growth, but also to reduce volatility." And, as a bonus, the traditional obstacles to diversification (such as transparency, illiquidity, regulation, commissions...) are dissipating, so that "currently, it is possible to diversify better thanks to the size and the globality gained by asset managers and by the greater exposure and access to different assets". As examples in this regard, Fox points out bonds in India (which can offer annual returns above 7%, and is a market that benefits from the improvement in fundamentals - in fact, the asset manager has a fund focused on this asset- ), or access to equities through a smart beta perspective (focusing on low volatility or on obtaining income). The alternative spectrum also opens new opportunities, such as aircraft leasing (which can offer returns close to 10%), or insurance-linked securities.
In short, "there are now many more opportunities than in the past," leading Aberdeen AM to speak about multi-multi-assets rather than of multi-assets, as the best way to deliver long-term profitability, according to Fox. In this regard, the asset manager has two strategies, one focused on obtaining income and another on growth, both with similar positions and a low turnover due to its focus on fundamentals and long-term vision (five to ten years).
Opportunities in Asian Equities
In this environment, equities also continue to be an attractive option for portfolios. And Asia is a region worth considering. For Rahul Gupta, Manager at Matthews Asia, "Asia is the past, present, and also the future," he says, explaining the meaning of investing in the continent for the asset manager. Citing Vietnam as an example, he speaks about its social evolution from an economy based on agriculture to one of consumption and industrialization... a trend which he uses to his fund’s advantage.
"Asian middle class will be a very important economic force in the world and what they buy and that on which they spend, will be increasingly important for business and investment," adds the asset manager. In his opinion, the major catalyst for growth and rising incomes - and therefore for consumption - will be productivity improvements in Asia. As an example, wages are growing faster on the continent than in most of the rest of the world.
Not surprisingly, the main anchor for the Matthews Pacific Tiger fund - managed by Gupta - is domestic demand; the second guide, the search for businesses that grow sustainably, over a cycle, even if the figures are lower. "The growth is there, you do not have to look for it, but you do have to look for those businesses," he says. As evidence of the importance of sustainability in the search for growth, the asset manager explains that, for some industries in China, a lower growth environment is more favorable because it helps to achieve "more rational" capital development and returns for the "healthier" investors.
The fund has two important biases: first, it is underweight in more cyclical sectors, such as materials or energy, which do not offer such sustainability in growth; secondly, it is mainly positioned in companies from emerging Asian countries, which offer more growth than the more developed ones. A third feature of the fund is that it has more allocation to businesses with a median capitalization than its comparables: "Historically, in these firms we find more opportunities or sustainable growth, and less linear, and that leads to the creation of greater alpha."
The asset manager also explains the importance of active management in Asia, given the rapid pace of the movement that is taking place in the continent, and aiming at choosing the good names - looking for opportunities in sectors where the indices have less weight but which rapidly gain positions at breakneck speed in the economies - but also to avoid "horror stories". The objective of the fund is to capture the same return as the Asian stock market but with less volatility, thanks to its focus on companies with good balance sheets, good management and attractive valuations.
What About China?
Within Asia, you cannot forget the story of China, in which Charlie Awdry, Manager of Henderson Global Investors, sees opportunities. The expert points out the improved macroeconomic scenario, marked by a growth-reform, and deleveraging triangle, as well as a boost in consumerism, a benign impact of Trump's presidency and a stronger renminbi this year. "Concern over the fall of the currency during the last few years was evident, but the downward movement has already stopped," he points out.
But the Henderson Horizon China Fund seeks to capture opportunities at the micro-economic level, rather than at the macro-level: hence the asset manager, rather than focusing on the country's growth, analyzes the PMI data to conclude that Chinese companies are reinvesting... and growing with greater force. And not just private ones: the environment of major reforms following the 19th Communist Party Congress will allow some state controlled firms (SOEs) to make better capital allocations and raise their dividends. That is the reason why the asset management company, while still relying mainly on the Henderson Horizon China Fund for private companies, also holds important positions in this type of companies (34% of the fund). In general, and in an environment of rate increases due to economic but also to regulatory reasons, the asset manager sees a greater differentiation between companies, as the supply of cheap money moderates... something that offers opportunities to active managers.
For the expert, the most robust part of the Chinese economy is always consumption, and he points out the evolution of the sectors of the new China (information technology, healthcare, consumption...) over those of old China. With respect to the differentiation between growth and value, and taking into account that the first has beaten the second and that the gap of valuations has extended, he believes that at some point the value will return to scene and, to play that story, there’s nothing better than to invest in banks. The reasons: the improvement in the quality of its fundamentals, and the benefits which an improvement in the macro and in valuations generates in this sector. Investment from a tactical point of view also makes sense, as banks offer dividends of 5% -6%: "There are not many places where those levels are found," says the asset manager, who also mentions as a catalyst the momentum of the Hong Kong -Shanghai Connect to invest in A shares.
Awdry, who mentioned the advantages and opportunities when investing in China in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Shenzen, or even in shares of Chinese companies listed in the US. (which offer attractive prices: "You have to sell US companies and buy Chinese"), explains the overweight of sectors such as discretionary consumption or financial firms, in the Henderson Horizon China Fund, versus the underweight in telecommunications or utilities, a long-short fund 130 / 30, with a market exposure of 90% -100% and focused on taking advantage of rises but also protecting against falls. Not forgetting the possibility of making money - and not just protecting capital - with short positions (currently the portfolio has about 40 long and 12 short). And all of this, with a bottom-up perspective and a selection of values.
The Value in the Emerging Markets Opportunity
Without leaving the emerging world, Brandes Investment Partners relies on the idea of investing in these markets from a value perspective. "We believe that with a value-oriented approach, there is a great opportunity in emerging markets," says John Otis, Institutional Client Portfolio Manager at the asset management company. Among the beliefs that support this vision and commitment to value, he points out that stock markets are not always efficient, that price is key to determining long-term results - which explains their strong bias towards the price factor -, and emphasizes how being contrarian offers opportunities for beating the market and how patience is critical to generate attractive returns. That is why the asset manager, based in San Diego and with 28 billion dollars in assets, is faithful to the value philosophy since its foundation in 1974.
But, why value when investing in emerging markets? Gerardo Zamorano, Director of the entity’s Investment Group, explains that, in general, an investor would have obtained higher returns by positioning in the lowest historical valuation deciles... something that intensifies when investing in emerging markets: "A lot of people buy emerging for growth, but if everyone thinks the same, you end up paying more for it, and, even if the fundamentals are good, you can run the risk of paying too much," he warns. On the other hand, he explains that sometimes we tend to be too negative with a country because of political and economic aspects... leading to volatility and sharp price falls and this can generate opportunities for his strategy, materialized in the Brandes Emerging Markets Value. The expert indicates his preference for good companies, but with good prices.
And he points out that the fund is 90% different from the index, with a very strong active share, which is explained by several reasons: among them, investment in companies of all capitalizations (which makes them have a large weight in small and mid Caps, unlike the index), the fact that they take advantage of the overreactions to macro or political events (the asset manager points out the investment in Mexico after Trump’s election, or in Brazil currently, after the last corruption scandal), their willingness to invest in situations that others fear for governance or regulatory reasons, or their search in all corners of the emerging universe, even in those with little or no coverage. In addition, the fund includes non-index securities, such as developed-market companies linked to emerging markets (companies listed in Luxembourg but with assets in Latin America, or Austrian banks with their main operations in Eastern Europe, as examples), Hong Kong securities - although the index classifies it as a developed market-, border market companies (such as a mini-conglomerate in Pakistan, or some positions in Argentina or Kuwait...) and securities of countries that are not in the global indices - a bank in Panama, or some firms in Saudi Arabia. All this explains its great differentiation with respect to the index.
Among the positions, Zamorano points out China’s underweight (where he prefers to invest in the consumer sector, but not in banks) and the overweight of Brazil, Russia, Mexico or Chile; by sectors, they’re overweight on cars and components, or discretionary consumption, and they’re underweight in information technologies (because of their high prices in markets such as China, or their dependence on a single product in others such as Taiwan).
As a positive aspect for investing in emerging markets, he also points out that these markets have seen outflows since 2013 and that, global portfolios are underweight in the asset, so he sees "potential for a change of mentality." That, without taking into account the attractive valuations, improved margins and corporate returns, or the continuity of value investing’s comeback.
Floating Rate High Yield Bonds
In debt, and although opportunities seem to be more limited than in other markets, such as equities or multi-asset portfolios, there is still where to look. James Tomlins, M&G Investments Portfolio Manager, explained his vision for the high yield segment, and also talked about floating rate high yield bonds, where he now sees more opportunities and a more defensive form of exposure to credit risk than the traditional high yield.
Of course, the asset manager warns of valuations: high yield credit spreads are fairly valued, but offer very little potential for capital gains. With respect to defaults, he explains that they are reducing very fast but that, because there are still traces of stress, their positions in both traditional and floating rate high yield strategies are defensive.
In a review of the markets, Tomlins points out that high yield has been volatile in recent years, especially in the US, indicating that the prospects of returns are more attractive precisely in the American giant, as compared to Europe. As for the global market for floating rate high-yield bonds, the movement direction is the same as that of conventional high yield, but the amplitude is smaller, so it is a way to access credit spreads with a lower beta: "If you seek exposure to credit spreads, while at the same time preserving capital, floating rate bonds are more attractive." Added to this is the fact that upward rate movements have no impact on that market; what's more, coupons move in line with rates, something to consider in an environment where the Fed is likely to undertake three rate hikes throughout the year.
As for the universe and its portfolio (M&G Global Floating Rate High-Yield), Tomlins explains that the low risk duration and the majority of "senior secured" issues outweigh the risks posed by majority B positions from a rating perspective. In the portfolio, in some cases where they see that the traditional high yield market offers greater spread and potential earnings from the same credit risk, they resort to the strategy of investing in the traditional high-yield bond and covering the duration. In the fund, 23% of positions use this strategy, compared to 43% in physical floating rate or 24% in CDS (because of their better convexity).