Last updated: 22:59 / Monday, 4 April 2016
Interviewing Robert Hackney

Making More, by Losing Less: Amundi First Eagle’s Pure Value Strategy

Making More, by Losing Less: Amundi First Eagle’s Pure Value Strategy

Robert Hackney is Senior Managing Director for First Eagle Investment Management, which advises the First Eagle Amundi International Fund, a fund that has been in operation for the past 20 years, and boasts a volume of assets under management of 6,45 billion dollars. We have had the opportunity to talk to him about the fund and its investment philosophy.

This fund is presented with the slogan "Making more, by losing less", but what is really the philosophy of your strategy?

The manager explains that at First Eagle they follow Ben Graham’s - the father of Value Investing- investment philosophy, as set out in his book “The Intelligent Investor”. He believes that "Investors should look for opportunities to grow their wealth, but above all to preserve it. If an investor is comfortable investing in a company whose intrinsic value is higher than its stock market listing, you can be sure he is minimizing the risk of capital loss. "

Quoting Ben Graham, Hackney refers to the "margin of safety" concept: "there must be a difference between the intrinsic value of a stock and its market price, and when there is a significant discount in relation to the intrinsic value, it’s the time to buy." Hackney believes that "investment should be approached by analyzing the fundamental value of a company, its ability to generate cash flow, so we can get to identify companies that are overvalued in order to move away from them," this is when the motto "making more, by losing less" acquires its full meaning: "When the bubbles of overvalued stock burst is when our fund earns more", because it loses less than the indices, in which the items with more weight tend to belong to overvalued popular companies.

“The only way to buy at a cheap price is by investing in companies which are not very popular.” Graham believes we can find value in undesired and unwanted companies, as could currently be the case with the energy industry, unattractive to most managers, “but which are, nevertheless, the ones we have added to our portfolio during the last six months”.

In short, the philosophy of the fund is to select companies for their intrinsic value and fundamentals, thus avoiding large unrecoverable losses.

What is the current level of cash in the strategy? And six months ago? What has changed? And gold?

"We use liquidity as a residual item while waiting to find good opportunities, preserving purchasing power, in order to have the opportunity to buy when we really think we should do it. When the market is cheap, we have little liquidity in the portfolios, and vice versa. We currently have 15% in cash, this item has historically been 10%, and the time it has been at its highest, during the second quarter in 2014, it reached 27%"

"With respect to gold, we have been buying for a year and a half, and the idea is to always maintain a 10% weight in our portfolio, which is what we have now, and we use it as a potential hedge against market decline and possible financial hardship and policies. During the period 2008-2011 the value of gold increased much faster than the value of shares, and as a result had to sell gold so as not to exceed 10%. In 2012 the value of gold began to fall and that of shares began to rise, therefore, we had to start buying to maintain that percentage."

As Hackney points out, gold plays no role in the global economy. It has no industrial use and is either intrinsically worthless or intrinsically priceless, depending upon the state of affairs in the world. Humans have used it as currency and throughout history it has been the mirror of the world of finance and the barometer of investor confidence. In 1999, with an almost perfect global economic situation, gold traded at $ 300 an ounce, in 2016 it trades at $ 1,200, reaching $ 1,800 an ounce during the most tumultuous time globally.

The portfolio is constructed searching for balance and protection among the various items in the portfolios, thus minimizing risk exposure.

Are there good buying opportunities during a market correction? Where? Which sectors?

"Yes, there are good opportunities to be found within the energy sector and oil companies, some examples are Suncor Energy and Imperial Oil, Ltd., both Canadian companies, or Phillips 66. These are companies with healthy balance sheets that have little debt and which will survive. We need energy and oil, and if our investment horizon is long term, we can safely keep these companies in the portfolio," says Hackney.

The expert finds other opportunities in markets such as Hong Kong, in which "real estate companies have great potential, as a result of fears and the collapse of the Chinese market are shifting activity and development to the Hong Kong market." Finally, Hackney adds that the strategy is very interested in holding companies such as Jardine Matheson, Investor AB or Pargesa. "Generally they tend to be family-controlled companies that have a philosophy that fits perfectly with ours."

One of the sectors which is not usual for this strategy is the banking sector. "We don’t have any European banks, since they are heavily indebted and it’s difficult to independently assess their assets. We do have a couple of U.S. banks in the portfolio, one is U.S. Bancorp and the other is  BB&T. "

We have probably gone through a long period in which the "growth" stocks have behaved better than the "value" stocks. What has to happen for the market to be based on the fundamentals again?

"When the market is bullish and growing rapidly, we think it’s time to take positions in cash and gold, thus being below market. But we know that those periods are not eternal and that they often end up falling sharply, and that’s when we’ll return to buy," said Hackney. "Humans react to fear and markets are a great school of the irrational, and can remain irrational for longer than we can remain solvent. For example, one may think Amazon is overvalued but you never know when, or if, the correction will come. For that reason we do not put ourselves short."

How do you see current valuations?

"Currently in certain parts of the market there are companies with very attractive valuations such as in some parts of the global real estate sector; or companies with some exposure to the oil industry but which are not producers of the commodity, but have very attractive prices and they are what we are looking to buy," says the manager. "The valuations we don’t like very much are in the social media or new tech sectors, because they are no longer adjusted in price and do not interest us."

Do you think the proliferation of generic and factor based ETFs affect your investment style?

"In the short term, the proliferation of ETFs that replicate indices have dramatically increased market volatility, the spread is wider and the prices do not conform to reality, but the long-term effect is positive for selective managers who know what to buy, allowing them to acquire companies with artificially low values." Hackney points out that they are really two completely opposite styles. "Our philosophy is that if you want to beat the market, it is impossible to achieve it by following the index, you must stop staring at the screen and look for the intrinsic value of the companies."