Category Archives: Podcasts

Seafarer Overseas Growth and Income Fund (SFGIX)

By David Snowball

The fund:

Seafarer Overseas Growth and Income Fund
(SFGIX and SIGIX)

Manager:

Andrew Foster, Founder, Chief Investment Officer, and Portfolio Manager

The call:

Here are some quick highlights from Thursday night’s conversation with Andrew Foster of Seafarer.

Seafarer’s objective: Andrew’s hope is to outperform his benchmark (the MSCI EM index) “slowly but steadily over time.” He describes the approach as a “relative return strategy” which pursues growth that’s more sustainable than what’s typical in developing markets while remaining value conscious.

Here’s the strategy: you need to start by understanding that the capital markets in many EM nations are somewhere between “poorly developed” and “cruddy.” Both academics and professional investors assume that a country’s capital markets will function smoothly: banks will make loans to credit-worthy borrowers, corporations and governments will be able to access the bond market to finance longer-term projects and stocks will trade regularly, transparently and at rational expense.

None of that may safely be assumed in the case of emerging markets; indeed, that’s what might distinguish an “emerging” market from a developed one. The question becomes: what are the characteristics of companies that might thrive in such conditions.

The answer seems to be (1) firms that can grow their top line steadily in the 7-15% per annum range and (2) those who can finance their growth internally. The focus on the top line means looking for firms that can increase revenues by 7-15% without obsessing about similar growth in the bottom line. It’s almost inevitable that EM firms will have “stumbles” that might diminish earnings for one to three years; while you can’t ignore them, you also can’t let them drive your investing decisions. “If the top line grows,” Andrew argues, “the bottom line will follow.” The focus on internal financing means that the firms will be capable of funding their operations and plans without needing recourse to the unreliable external sources of capital.

Seafarer tries to marry that focus on sustainable moderate growth “with some current income, which is a key tool to understanding quality and valuation of growth.” Dividends are a means to an end; they don’t do anything magical all by themselves. Dividends have three functions. They are:

An essential albeit crude valuation tool – many valuation metrics cannot be meaningfully applied across borders and between regions; there’s simply too much complexity in the way different markets operate. Dividends are a universally applicable measure.
A way of identifying firms that will bounce less in adverse market conditions – firms with stable yields that are just “somewhat higher than average” tend to be resilient. Firms with very high dividend yields are often sending out distress signals.

A key and under-appreciated signal for the liquidity and solvency of a company – EMs are constantly beset by liquidity and credit shocks and unreliable capital markets compound the challenge. Companies don’t survive those shocks as easily as people imagine. The effects of liquidity and credit crunches range from firms that completely miss their revenue and earnings forecasts to those that drown themselves in debt or simply shutter. Against such challenges dividends provide a clear and useful signal of liquidity and solvency.

It’s certainly true that perhaps 70% of the dispersion of returns over a 5-to-10 year period are driven by macro-economic factors (Putin invades-> the EU sanctions-> economies falter-> the price of oil drops-> interest rates fall) but that fact is not useful because such events are unforecastable and their macro-level impacts are incalculably complex (try “what effect will European reaction to Putin’s missile transfer offer have on shadow interest rates in China?”).

Andrew believes he can make sense of the ways in which micro-economic factors, which drive the other 30% of dispersion, might impact individual firms. He tries to insulate his portfolio, and his investors, from excess volatility by diversifying away some of the risk, imagining a “three years to not quite forever” time horizon for his holdings and moving across a firm’s capital structure in pursuit of the best risk-return balance.

While Seafarer is classified as an emerging markets equity fund, common stocks have comprised between 70-85% of the portfolio. “There’s way too much attention given to whether a security is a stock or bond; all are cash flows from an issuer. They’re not completely different animals, they’re cousins. We sometimes find instruments trading with odd valuations, try to exploit that.” As of January 2015, 80% of the fund is invested directly in common stock; the remainder is invested in ADRs, hard- and local-currency convertibles, government bonds and cash. The cash stake is at a historic low of 1%.

Thinking about the fund’s performance: Seafarer is in the top 3% of EM stock funds since launch, returning a bit over 10% annually. With characteristic honesty and modesty, Andrew cautions against assuming that the fund’s top-tier rankings will persist in the next part of the cycle:

We’re proud of performance over the last few years. We have really benefited from the fact that our strategy was well-positioned for anemic growth environments. Three or four years ago a lot of people were buying the story of vibrant growth in the emerging markets, and many were willing to overpay for it. As we know, that growth did not materialize. There are signs that the deceleration of growth is over even if it’s not clear when the acceleration of growth might begin. A major source of return for our fund over 10 years is beta. We’re here to harness beta and hope for a little alpha.

That said, he does believe that flaws in the construction of EM indexes makes it more likely that passive strategies will underperform:

I’m actually a fan of passive investing if costs are low, churn is low, and the benchmark is soundly constructed. The main EM benchmark is disconnected from the market. The MSCI EM index imposes filters for scalability and replicability in pursuit of an index that’s easily tradable by major investors. That leads it to being not a really good benchmark. The emerging markets have $14 trillion in market capitalization; the MSCI Core index captures only $3.8 trillion of that amount and the Total Market index captures just $4.2 trillion. In the US, the Total Stock Market indexes capture 80% of the market. The comparable EM index captures barely 25%.

Highlights from the questions:

While the fund is diversified, many people misunderstand the legal meaning of that term. Being diversified means that no more than 25% of the portfolio can be invested in securities that individually constitute more than 5% of the portfolio. Andrew could, in theory, invest 25% of the fund in a single stock or 15% in one and 10% in another. As a practical matter, a 4-5% position is “huge for us” though he has learned to let his winners run a little longer than he used to, so the occasional 6% position wouldn’t be surprising.

A focus on dividend payers does not imply a focus on large cap stocks. There are a lot of very stable dividend-payers in the mid- to small-cap range; Seafarer ranges about 15-20% small cap amd 35-50% midcap.

The fundamental reason to consider investing in emerging markets is because “they are really in dismal shape, sometimes the horrible things you read about them are true but there’s an incredibly powerful drive to give your kids a better life and to improve your life. People will move mountains to make things better. I followed the story of one family who were able to move from a farmhouse with a dirt floor to a comfortable, modern townhouse in one lifetime. It’s incredibly inspiring, but it’s also incredibly powerful.”

With special reference to holdings in eastern Europe, you need to avoid high-growth, high-expectation companies that are going to get shell-shocked by political turmoil and currency devaluation. It’s important to find companies that have already been hit and that have proved that they can survive the shock.

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The conference call (When you click on the link, the file will load in your browser and will begin playing after it’s partially loaded.)


 

Highlights from our previous call:

We previously spoke to Mr. Foster on February 19,2013. Highlights from that call included:

  • Andrew offered a rich discussion about his decision to launch the fund. The short version: early in his career, he concluded that emergent China was “the world’s most under-rated opportunity” and he really wanted to be there. By late 2009, he noticed that China was structurally slowing.  Reflection and investigation led him to begin focusing on other markets. Given Matthews’ focus on Asia, he concluded that the way to pursue other opportunities was to leave Matthews and launch Seafarer.
  • Andrew concluded that markets were a bit stretched, so he was moving at the margins from smaller names to larger, steadier firms.
  • He was 90% in equities because there were better opportunities there, then in fixed income.
  • Income plays an important role in his portfolio.

The audio from our previous conference call with Seafarer can be found here, February 2013.

The profile:

Andrew has a great track record built around winning by not losing. His funds have posted great relative returns in bad markets and very respectable absolute returns in frothy ones. It’s a pattern that I’ve found compelling.

The Mutual Fund Observer profile of SFGIX, Updated May 2015

The Mutual Fund Observer profile of SFGIX, Updated March 2013.

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 The SFGIX audio profile, March 2013

Web:

Seafarer Overseas Growth and Income Fund website

Quarterly Briefing, 1Q2015

Fund Focus: Resources from other trusted sources

Guinness Atkinson Global Innovators Fund (IWIRX)

By David Snowball

The fund:

guinnessGuinness Atkinson Global Innovators Fund (IWIRX) and Guinness Atkinson Dividend Builder Fund (GAINX).

Managers:

Matthew Page and Ian Mortimer. 

The call:

In February we spoke with Matthew Page and Ian Mortimer of the Guinness Atkinson funds. Both of their funds have remarkable track records, we’ve profiled both and I’ve had good conversations with the team on several occasions. Here’s what we heard on the call.

The guys run two strategies for US investors. The older one, Global Innovators, is a growth strategy that Guinness has been pursuing for 15 years. The newer one, Dividend Builder, is a value strategy that the managers propounded on their own in response to a challenge from founder Tim Guinness. These strategies are manifested in “mirror funds” open to European investors. Curiously, American investors seem taken by the growth strategy ($180M in the US, $30M in the Euro version) while European investors are prone to value ($6M in the US, $120M in the Euro). Both managers have an ownership stake in Guinness Atkinson and hope to work there for 30 years, neither is legally permitted to invest in the US version of the strategy, both intend – following some paperwork – to invest their pensions in the Dublin-based version. The paperwork hang up seems to affect, primarily, the newer Dividend Builder (in Europe, “Global Equity Income”) strategy and I failed to ask directly about personal investment in the older strategy.

The growth strategy, Global Innovators IWIRX, starts by looking for firms “doing something smarter than the average company in their industry. Being smarter translates, over time, to higher return on capital, which is the key to all we do.” They then buy those companies when they’re underpriced. The fund holds 30 equally-weighted positions.

Innovators come in two flavors: disruptors – early stage growth companies, perhaps with recent IPOs, that have everyone excited and continuous improvers – firms with a long history of using innovation to maintain consistently high ROC. In general, the guys prefer the latter because the former tend to be wildly overpriced and haven’t proven their ability to translate excitement into growth.

The example they pointed to was the IPO market. Last year they looked at 180 IPOs. Only 60 of those were profitable firms and only 6 or 7 of the stocks were reasonably priced (p/e under 20). Of those six, exactly one had a good ROC profile but its debt/equity ratio was greater than 300%. So none of them ended up in the portfolio. Matthew observes that their portfolio is “not pure disruptors. Though those can make you look extremely clever when they go right, they also make you look extremely stupid when they go wrong. We would prefer to avoid that outcome.”

This also means that they are not looking for a portfolio of “the most innovative companies in the world.” A commitment to innovation provides a prism or lens through which to identify excellent growth companies. That’s illustrated in the separate paths into the portfolio taken by disruptors and continuous improvers. With early stage disruptors, the managers begin by looking for evidence that a firm is truly innovative (for example, by looking at industry coverage in Fast Company or MIT’s Technology Review) and then look at the prospect that innovation will produce consistent, affordable growth. For the established firms, the team starts with their quantitative screen that finds firms with top 25% return on capital scores in every one of the past ten years, then they pursue a “very subjective qualitative assessment of whether they’re innovative, how they might be and how those innovations drive growth.”

In both cases, they have a “watch list” of about 200-250 companies but their discipline tends to keep many of the disruptors out because of concerns about sustainability and price. Currently there might be one early stage firm in the portfolio and lots of Boeing, Intel, and Cisco.

They sell when price appreciates (they sold Shire pharmaceuticals after eight months because of an 80% share-price rise), fundamentals deteriorate (fairly rare – of the firms that pass the 10 year ROC screen, 80% will continue passing the screen for each of the subsequent five years) or the firm seems to have lost its way (shifting, for example, from organic growth to growth-through-acquisition).

The value strategy, Dividend Builder GAINX is a permutation of the growth strategy’s approach to well-established firms. The value strategy looks only at dividend-paying companies that have provided an inflation-adjusted cash flow return on investment of at least 10% in each of the last 10 years. The secondary screens require at least a moderate dividend yield, a history of rising dividends, low levels of debt and a low payout ratio. In general, they found a high dividend strategy to be a loser and a dividend growth one to be a winner.

In general, the guys are “keen to avoid getting sucked into exciting stories or areas of great media interest. We’re physicists, and we quite like numbers rather than stories.” They believe that’s a competitive advantage, in part because listening to the numbers rather than the stories and maintaining a compact, equal-weight portfolio both tends to distance them from the herd. The growth strategy’s active share, for instance, is 94. That’s extraordinarily high for a strategy with a de facto large cap emphasis.

Bottom line: I’m intrigued by the fact that this fund has consistently outperformed both as a passive product and as an active one and with three different sets of managers. The gain is likely a product of what their discipline consciously and uniquely excludes, firms that don’t invest in their futures, as what it includes. The managers’ training as physicists, guys avowedly wary of “compelling narratives” and charismatic CEOs, adds another layer of distinction.

podcast  The conference call

The profiles:

While we need to mechanically and truthfully repeat the “past performance is not indicative of future results” mantra, Global Innovator’s premise and record might give us some pause. Its strategy is grounded in a serious and sustained line of academic research. Its discipline is pursued by few others. Its results have been consistent across 15 years and three sets of managers. For investors willing to tolerate the slightly-elevated volatility of a fully invested, modestly pricey equity portfolio, Global Innovators really does command careful attention.

The Mutual Fund Observer profile of IWIRX, August 2014.

The fund strives for two things: investments in great firms and a moderate, growing income stream (current 2.9%) that might help investors in a yield-starved world. Their selection criteria strike us as distinctive, objective, rigorous and reasonable, giving them structural advantages over both passive products and the great majority of their active-managed peers. While no investment thrives in every market, this one has the hallmarks of an exceptional, long-term holding.

The Mutual Fund Observer profile of GAINX, March 2014.

Web:

Guinness Atkinson Funds

Fund Focus: Resources from other trusted sources

Polaris Global Value (PGVFX)

By David Snowball

The fund:

polarislogoPolaris Global Value Fund (PGVFX)

Managers:

Bernard Horn. Mr. Horn is Polaris’s founder, president and senior portfolio manager.

The call:

About 40 of us gathered in mid-January to talk with Bernie Horn. It was an interesting talk, one which covered some of the same ground that he went over in private with Mr. Studzinski and me but one which also highlighted a couple new points.

Highlights:

  • The genesis of the fund was in his days as a student at the Sloan School of Management at MIT at the end of the 1970s. It was a terrible decade for stocks in the US but he was struck by the number of foreign markets that had done just fine. One of his professors, Fischer Black, an economist whose work with Myron Scholes on options led to a Nobel Prize, generally preached the virtues of the efficient market theory but carries “a handy list of exceptions to EMT.” The most prominent exception was value investing. The emerging research on the investment effects of international diversification and on value as a loophole to EMT led him to launch his first global portfolios.
  • His goal is, over the long-term, to generate 2% greater returns than the market with lower volatility.
  • He began running separately-managed accounts but those became an administrative headache and so he talked his investors into joining a limited partnership which later morphed into Polaris Global Value Fund (PGVFX).
  • The central discipline is calculating the “Polaris global cost of equity” (which he thinks separates him from most of his peers) and the desire to add stocks which have low correlations to his existing portfolio.
  • The Polaris global cost of capital starts with the market’s likely rate of return, about 6% real. He believes that the top tier of managers can add about 2% or 200 bps of alpha. So far that implies an 8% cost of capital. He argues that fixed income markets are really pretty good at arbitraging currency risks, so he looks at the difference between the interest rates on a country’s bonds and its inflation rate to find the last component of his cost of capital. The example was Argentina: 24% interest rate minus a 10% inflation rate means that bond investors are demanding a 14% real return on their investments. The 14% reflects the bond market’s judgment of the cost of currency; that is, the bond market is pricing-in a really high risk of a peso devaluation. In order for an Argentine company to be attractive to him, he has to believe that it can overcome a 22% cost of capital (6 + 2 + 14). The hurdle rate for the same company domiciled elsewhere might be substantially lower.
  • He does not hedge his currency exposure because the value calculation above implicitly accounts for currency risk. Currency fluctuations accounted for most of the fund’s negative returns last year, about 2/3s as of the third quarter. To be clear: the fund made money in 2014 and finished in the top third of its peer group. Two-thirds of the drag on the portfolio came from currency and one-third from stock selections.
  • He tries to target new investments which are not correlated with his existing ones; that is, ones that do not all expose his investors to a single, potentially catastrophic risk factor. It might well be that the 100 more attractively priced stocks in the world are all financials but he would not overload the portfolio with them because that overexposes his investors to interest rate risks. Heightened vigilance here is one of the lessons of the 2007-08 crash.
  • An interesting analogy on the correlation and portfolio construction piece: he tries to imagine what would happen if all of the companies in his portfolio merged to form a single conglomerate. In the conglomerate, he’d want different divisions whose cash generation was complementary: if interest rates rose, some divisions would generate less cash but some divisions would generate more and the net result would be that rising interest rates would not impair the conglomerates overall free cash flow. By way of example, he owns energy exploration and production companies whose earnings are down because of low oil prices but also refineries whose earnings are up.
  • He instituted more vigorous stress tests for portfolio companies in the wake of the 2007-09 debacle. Twenty-five of 70 companies were “cyclically exposed”. Some of those firms had high fixed costs of operations which would not allow them to reduce costs as revenues fell. Five companies got “bumped off” as a result of that stress-testing.

A couple caller questions struck me as particularly helpful:

Ken Norman: are you the lead manager on both the foreign funds? BH: Yes, but … Here Bernie made a particularly interesting point, that he gives his associates a lot of leeway on the foreign funds both in stock selection and portfolio construction. That has two effects. (1) It represents a form of transition planning. His younger associates are learning how to operate the Polaris system using real money and making decisions that carry real consequences. He thinks that will make them much better stewards of Polaris Global Value when it becomes their turn to lead the fund. (2) It represents a recruitment and retention strategy. It lets bright young analysts know that they have a real role to play and a real future with the firm.

Shostakovich, a member of the Observer’s discussion board community and investor in PGVFX: you’ve used options to manage volatility. Is that still part of the plan? BH: Yes, but rarely now. Three reasons. (1) There are no options on many of the portfolio firms. (2) Post-08, options positions are becoming much more expensive, hence less rewarding. (3) Options trade away “excess” upside in exchange for limiting downside; he’s reluctant to surrender much alpha since some of the firms in the portfolio have really substantial potential.

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The conference call

The profile:

There’s a Latin phrase often misascribed to the 87-year-old titan, Michelangelo: Ancora imparo. It’s reputedly the humble admission by one of history’s greatest intellects that “I am still learning.” After an hour-long conversation with Mr. Horn, that very phrase came to mind. He has a remarkably probing, restless, wide-ranging intellect. He’s thinking about important challenges and articulating awfully sensible responses. The mess in 2008 left him neither dismissive nor defensive. He described and diagnosed the problem in clear, sharp terms and took responsibility (“shame on us”) for not getting ahead of it. He seems to have vigorously pursued strategies that make his portfolio better positioned. It was a conversation that inspired our confidence and it’s a fund that warrants your attention.

The Mutual Fund Observer profile of PGVFX, December 2014.

Web:

Polaris Global Value Fund homepage

Fund Focus: Resources from other trusted sources

RiverPark Large Growth Fund (RPXFX)

By Chip

The fund:

RiverPark Large Growth Fund (RPXFX)RiverPark Logo

Managers:

 Mitch Rubin, a Managing Partner at RiverPark and their CIO.

The call:

On December 17th we spoke for an hour with Mitch Rubin, manager of RiverPark Large Growth (RPXFX/RPXIX), Conrad van Tienhoven, his long-time associate, and Morty Schaja, CEO of RiverPark Funds. Here’s a brief recap of the highlights:

  • The managers have 20 years’ experience running growth portfolios, originally with Baron Asset Management and now with RiverPark. That includes eight mutual funds and a couple hedge funds.
  • Across their portfolios, the strategy has been the same: identify long-term secular trends that are likely to be enduring growth drivers, do really extensive fundamental research on the firm and its environment, and be patient before buying (the target is paying less than 15-times earnings for companies growing by 20% or more) or selling (which is mostly just rebalancing within the portfolio rather than eliminating names from the portfolio).
  • In the long term, the strategy works well. In the short term, sometimes less so. They argue for time arbitrage. Investors tend to underreact to changes which are strengthening firms. They’ll discount several quarters of improved performance before putting a stock on their radar screen, then may hesitate for a while longer before convincing themselves to act. By then, the stock may already have priced-in much of the potential gains. Rubin & co. try to track firms and industries long enough that they can identify the long-term winners and buy during their lulls in performance.

In the long term, the system works. The fund has returned 20% annually over the past three years. It’s four years old and had top decile performance in the large cap growth category after the first three years.

Then we spent rather a lot of time on the ugly part.

In relative terms, 2014 was wretched for the fund. The fund returned about 5.5% for the year, which meant it trailed 93% of its peers. It started the year with a spiffy five-star rating and ended with three.  So, the question was, what happened? 

Mitch’s answer was presented with, hmmm … great energy and conviction. There was a long stretch in there where I suspect he didn’t take a breath and I got the sense that he might have heard this question before. Still, his answer struck me as solid and well-grounded. In the short term, the time arbitrage discipline can leave them in the dust. In 2014, the fund was overweight in a number of underperforming arenas: energy E&P companies, gaming companies and interest rate victims.

  • Energy firms: 13% of the portfolio, about a 2:1 overweight. Four high-quality names with underlevered balance sheets and exposure to the Marcellus shale deposits. Fortunately for consumers and unfortunately for producers, rising production, difficulties in selling US natural gas on the world market and weakening demand linked to a spillover from Russia’s travails have caused prices to crater.

The fundamental story of rising demand for natural gas, abetted by better US access to the world energy market, is unchanged. In the interim, the portfolio companies are using their strong balance sheets to acquire assets on the cheap.

  • Gaming firms: gaming in the US, with regards to Ol’ Blue Eyes and The Rat Pack, is the past. Gaming in Asia, they argue, is the future. The Chinese central government has committed to spending nearly a half trillion dollars on infrastructure projects, including $100 billion/year on access, in and around the gambling enclave of Macau. Chinese gaming (like hedge fund investing here) has traditionally been dominated by the ultra-rich, but gambling is culturally entrenched and the government is working to make it available to the mass affluent in China (much like liquid alt investing here). About 200 million Chinese travel abroad on vacation each year. On average, Chinese tourists spend a lot more in the casinos and a lot more in attendant high-end retail than do Western tourists. In the short term, President Xi’s anti-corruption campaign has precipitated “a vast purge” among his political opponents and other suspiciously-wealthy individuals. Until “the urge to purge” passes, high-rolling gamblers will be few and discreet. Middle class gamblers, not subject to such concerns, will eventually dominate. Just not yet.
  • Interest rate victims: everyone knew, in January 2014, that interest rates were going to rise. Oops. Those continuingly low rates punish firms that hold vast cash stakes (think “Google” with its $50 billion bank account or Schwab with its huge network of money market accounts). While Visa and MasterCard’s stock is in the black for 2014, gains are muted by the lower rates they can charge on accounts and the lower returns on their cash flow.

Three questions came up:

  • Dan Schein asked about the apparent tension between the managers’ commitment to a low turnover discipline and the reported 33-40% turnover rate. Morty noted that you need to distinguish between “name turnover” (that is, firms getting chucked out of the portfolio) and rebalancing. The majority of the fund’s turnover is simple internal rebalancing as the managers trim richly appreciated positions and add to underperforming ones. Name turnover is limited to two or three positions a year, with 70% of the names in the current portfolio having been there since inception.
  • I asked about the extent of international exposure in the portfolio, which Morningstar reports at under 2%. Mitch noted that they far preferred to invest in firms operating under US accounting requirements (Generally Accepted Accounting Principles) and U.S. securities regulations, which made them far more reliable and transparent. On the other hand, the secular themes which the managers pursue (e.g., the rise of mobile computing) are global and so they favor U.S.-based firms with strong global presence. By their estimate, two thirds of the portfolio firms derive at least half of their earnings growth from outside the US and most of their firms derived 40-50% of earnings internationally; Priceline is about 75%, Google and eBay around 60%. Direct exposure to the emerging markets comes mainly from Visa and MasterCard, plus Schlumberger’s energy holdings.
  • Finally I asked what concern they had about volatility in the portfolio. Their answer was that they couldn’t predict and didn’t worry about stock price volatility. They were concerned about what they referred to as “business case volatility,” which came down to the extent to which a firm could consistently generate free cash from recurring revenue streams (e.g., the fee MasterCard assesses on every point-of-sale transaction) without resorting to debt or leverage.

For folks interested but unable to join us, here’s the complete audio of the hour-long conversation.

podcast

The conference call

The profile:

The argument for RiverPark is “that spring is getting compressed tighter and tighter.” That is, a manager with a good track record for identifying great underpriced growth companies and then waiting patiently currently believes he has a bunch of very high quality, very undervalued names in the portfolio. They point to the fact that, for 26 of the 39 firms in the portfolio, the firm’s underlying fundamentals exceeded the market while the stock price in 2014 trailed it. It is clear that the manager is patient enough to endure a flat year or two as the price for long-term success; the fund has, after all, returned an average of 20% a year. The question is, are you?

The Mutual Fund Observer profile of RPXFX, January 2015.

Web:

RiverPark Large Growth Fund homepage

Fund Focus: Resources from other trusted sources

TCW/Gargoyle Hedged Value (RGHVX)

By David Snowball

The fund:

TCW/Gargoyle Hedged Value (RGHVX)

Managers:

Alan Salzbank and Josh Parker, Gargoyle Group

The call:

On February 12th we spoke for an hour with Alan Salzbank and Josh Parker, both of the Gargoyle Group, and Morty Schaja, CEO of RiverPark Funds. Here’s a brief recap of the highlights:

Alan handles the long portfolio. Josh, a securities lawyer by training, handles the options portfolio. He’s also an internationally competitive bridge player (Gates, Buffett, Parker…) and there’s some reason to believe that the habits of mind that make for successful bridge play also makes for successful options trading. They have 35 and 25 years of experience, respectively, and all of the investment folks who support them at Gargoyle have at least 20 years of experience in the industry. Morty has been investigating buy-write strategies since the mid-1980s and he described the Gargoyle guys as “the team I’ve been looking for for 25 years.”

The fund combines an unleveraged long portfolio and a 50% short portfolio, for a steady market exposure of 50%. The portfolio rebalances between those strategies monthly, but monitors and trades its options portfolio “in real time” throughout the month.

The long portfolio is 80-120 stocks, and stock selection is algorithmic. They screen the 1000 largest US stocks on four valuation criteria (P/B, P/E, P/CF, P/S) and then assign a “J score” to each stock based on how its current valuation compares with (1) its historic valuation and (2) its industry peers’ valuation. They then buy the 100 more undervalued stocks, but maintain sector weightings that are close to the S&P 500’s.

The options portfolio is a collection of index call options. At base, they’re selling insurance policies to nervous investors. Those policies pay an average premium of 2% per month and rise in value as the market falls. That 2% is a long-term average, during the market panic in the fall of 2008, their options were generating 8% per month in premiums.

Why index calls? Two reasons: (1) they are systematically mispriced, and so they always generate more profit than they theoretically should. In particular, they are overpriced by about 35 basis points/month 88% of the time. For sellers, that means something like a 35 bps free lunch. And (2) selling calls on their individual stocks – that is, betting that the stocks in their long portfolio will fall – would reduce returns. They believe that their long portfolio is a collection of stocks superior to any index and so they don’t want to hedge away any of their upside.

And it works. Their long portfolio has outperformed the S&P 500 by an average of 5% per year for 15 years. The entire strategy has outperformed the S&P in the long-term and has matched its returns, with less volatility, in the shorter term. Throughout, it has sort of clubbed its actively-managed long-short peers. It also anticipates clubbing the emerging bevy of buy-write ETFs.

The guys identify two structural advantages they have over an ETF: (1) they buy stocks superior to those in broad indexes and (2) they manage their options portfolio moment by moment, while the ETF just sits and takes hits for 29 out of 30 days each month.

There’s evidence that they’re right. The ETFs are largely based on the CBOE S&P Buy-Write Index (BXM). Between 2000-12, the S&P 500 returned 24% and the BXM returned 52%; the options portion of the Gargoyle portfolio returned 110% while the long portfolio crushed the S&P.

Except not so much in 2008. The fund’s maximum drawdown was 48%, between 10/07 and 03/08. The guys attributed that loss to the nature of the fund’s long portfolio: it buys stocks in badly dented companies when the price of the stock is even lower than the company’s dents would warrant. Unfortunately in the meltdown, those were the stocks people least wanted to own so they got killed. The fund’s discipline kept them from wavering: they stayed 100% invested and rebalanced monthly to buy more of the stocks that were cratering. The payback comes in 2009 when they posted a 42% return against the S&P’s 26% and again in 2010 when they made 18% to the index’s 15%.

The managers believe that ’08 was exceptional, and note that the strategy actually made money from 2000-02 when the market suffered from the bursting of the dot-com bubble.

In general, the strategy fares poorest when the market has wild swings. It fares best in gently rising markets, since both the long and options portfolios can make money if the market rises but less than the strike price of the options – they can earn 2% a month on an option that’s triggered if the market rises by more than 1%. If the market rises but by less than 1%, they pay out nothing, pocket the 2% and pocket the capital appreciation from their long portfolio.

What’s the role of the fund in a portfolio? They view it as a substitute for a large-cap value investment; so if your asset allocation plan is 20% LCV, then you could profitably invest up to 20% of your portfolio in Gargoyle. For the guys, it’s 100% of their US equity exposure.

podcastThe conference call

The profile:

On average and over time, a value-oriented portfolio works. It outperforms growth-oriented portfolios and generally does so with lower volatility. On average and over time, an options overlay works and an actively-managed one works better. It generates substantial income and effectively buffers market volatility with modest loss of upside potential. There will always be periods, such as the rapidly rising market of the past several years, where their performance is merely solid rather than spectacular. That said, Messrs. Parker and Salzbank have been doing this and doing this well for decades.

The Mutual Fund Observer profile of RGHVX, September, 2015.

Web:

TCW/Gargoyle Hedged Value homepage

Fund Focus: Resources from other trusted sources

ASTON/River Road Long-Short (ARLSX)

By David Snowball

The fund:

Aston/River Road Long-Short (ARLSX)aston

Managers:

Daniel Johnson and Matt Moran, River Road

The call:

 

We spoke with Daniel Johnson and Matt Moran, managers for the River Road Long-Short Equity strategy which is incorporated in Aston River Road Long-Short Fund (ARLSX). Mike Mayhew, one of the Partners at Aston Asset, was also in on the call to answer questions about the fund’s mechanics. About 60 people joined in.

The highlights, for me, were:

the fund’s strategy is sensible and straightforward, which means there aren’t a lot of moving parts and there’s not a lot of conceptual complexity. The fund’s stock market exposure can run from 10 – 90% long, with an average in the 50-70% range. The guys measure their portfolio’s discount to fair value; if their favorite stocks sell at a less than 80% of fair value, they increase exposure. The long portfolio is compact (15-30), driven by an absolute value discipline, and emphasizes high quality firms that they can hold for the long term. The short portfolio (20-40 names) is stocked with poorly managed firms with a combination of a bad business model and a dying industry whose stock is overpriced and does not show positive price momentum. That is, they “get out of the way of moving trains” and won’t short stocks that show positive price movements.

the fund grew from $8M to $207M in a year, with a strategy capacity in the $1B – 1.5B range. They anticipate substantial additional growth, which should lower expenses a little (and might improve tax efficiency – my note, not theirs). Because they started the year with such a small asset base, the expense numbers are exaggerated; expenses might have been 5% of assets back when they were tiny, but that’s no longer the case. 

shorting expenses were boosted by the vogue for dividend-paying stocks, which  drove valuations of some otherwise sucky stocks sharply higher; that increases the fund’s expenses because they’ve got to repay those dividends but the managers believe that the shorts will turn out to be profitable even so.

the guys have no client other than the fund, don’t expect ever to have one, hope to manage the fund until they retire and they have 100% of their liquid net worth in it.

their target is “sleep-at-night equity exposure,” which translates to a maximum drawdown (their worst-case market event) of no more than 10-15%. They’ve been particularly appalled by long/short funds that suffered drawdowns in the 20-25% range which is, they say, not consistent with why folks buy such funds.

they’ve got the highest Sharpe ratio of any long-short fund, their longs beat the market by 900 bps, their shorts beat the inverse of the market by 1100 bps and they’ve kept volatility to about 40% of the market’s while capturing 70% of its total returns.

A lot of the Q&A focused on the fund’s short portfolio and a little on the current state of the market. The guys note that they tend to generate ideas (they keep a watchlist of no more than 40 names) by paging through Value Line. They focus on fundamentals (let’s call it “reality”) rather than just valuation numbers in assembling their portfolio. They point out that sometimes fundamentally rotten firms manage to make their numbers (e.g., dividend yield or cash flow) look good but, at the same time, the reality is that it’s a poorly managed firm in a failing industry. On the flip side, sometimes firms in special situations (spinoffs or those emerging from bankruptcy) will have little analyst coverage and odd numbers but still be fundamentally great bargains. The fact that they need to find two or three new ideas, rather than thirty or sixty, allows them to look more carefully and think more broadly. That turns out to be profitable.

podcastThe conference call

The profile:

Messrs. Moran and Johnson embrace Benjamin Graham’s argument that “The essence of investment management is the management of risks, not the management of returns.” With the stock market up 280% from its March 2009 lows, there’s rarely been a better time to hedge your gains and there’s rarely been a better team to hedge them with.

The Mutual Fund Observer profile of ARLSX, February 2014.

Web:

Aston/River Road Long-Short website

Fund Focus: Resources from other trusted sources

RiverPark Strategic Income Fund (RSIVX)

By Chip

The fund:

RiverPark Strategic Income Fund (RSIVX)RiverPark Logo

Manager:

David Sherman, Cohanzick Management

The call:

On Monday, December 9th, Morty Schaja, RiverPark president, and David Sherman, fund manager, joined me and about 50 Observer readers for an hour-long conversation about the fund and their approach to it.

Highlights of the call include:

  • The fund focuses on “money good” securities.  Those are securities where, if held to maturity, he’s confident that he’ll get his entire principal and all of the interest due to him. They’re the sorts of securities where, if the issuer files for bankruptcy, he still anticipates eventually receiving his principal and interest plus interest on his interest. Because he expects to be able to hold securities to maturity, he doesn’t care about “the taper” and its effects – he’ll simply hold on through any kerfuffle and benefit from regular payments that flow in much like an annuity stream.  These are, he says, bonds that he’d have his mother hold.
  • While the fund might hold a variety of securities, they hold little international exposure and no emerging markets debt. They’re primarily invested in North American (77%) and European(14%) corporate debt, in firms where the accounting is clear and nations where the laws are. 
  • The portfolio focuses on non-investment grade securities, mostly in the B – BB range, but that’s consistent with his intention not to lose his investors’ money.  He values liquidity in his investments; that is to say, he doesn’t get into investments that he can’t quickly get out of.  The fund has been letting cash build, and it’s now about 30% of the portfolio.  David’s general preference is to get out too early and lose some potential returns, rather than linger too long and suffer the risk of permanent impairment.

There were rather more questions from callers than we had time to field.  Some of the points we did get to talk about:

David is not impressed with the values available in one- to three-year bonds, they’ve been subject to too much buying by the anxious herd.  He’s currently finding better values in three- to five-year bonds, especially those which are not included in the major bond indexes.  There is, he says, “a lot of high yield value outside of indexed issues.”

About 50% of the corporate bond market qualifies as “high yield,” which gives him lots of opportunities.

This could function as one’s core bond portfolio.  While there will be more NAV volatility because of mark-to-market rules (that is, you have to ask “what would I get if I stupidly decided to sell my entire portfolio in the midst of a particular day’s market panic”), the risk of permanent impairment of capital occurs only if he’s made a mistake.

Munis are a possibility, but they’re not currently cheap enough to be attractive.

If there’s a limited supply of a security that would be appropriate for both Short-Term and here, Short-Term gets dibs.

Cohanzick is really good at pricing their portfolio securities.  At one level, they use an independent pricing service.  At another, getting the price right has been a central discipline since the firm’s founding and he’s comfortable with his ability to do so even with relatively illiquid names.

At base, David believes the fund can generate returns in the 7-8% range with minimal risk of capital loss.  Given his record with Cohanzick and RPHYX, we are confident that he’s capable of delivering on that promise.  By way of full disclosure: In aligning our mouths and our money, both Chip and I added RSIVX to our personal portfolios this fall.  Once we work out all of the Observer’s year-end finances, we also intend to transfer a portion of the money now in MFO’s credit union savings account into an investment in this fund.

podcastThe conference call (When you click on the link, the file will load in your browser and will begin playing after it’s partially loaded.)

The profile:

The Mutual Fund Observer profile of RSIVX, December 2013.

Web:

RiverPark Funds website

Fund Focus: Resources from other trusted sources

Oakseed Opportunity Fund (SEEDX)

By David Snowball

The fund:

oakseed logoOakseed Opportunity Fund (SEEDX)

Manager:

John Park and Greg Jackson

The call:

On November 18th, Messrs Jackson and Park joined me and three dozen Observer readers for an hour-long conversation about the fund and their approach to it.

I was struck, particularly, that their singular focus in talking about the fund is “complete alignment of interests.” A few claims particularly stood out:

  1. their every investable penny in is in the fund.
  2. they intend their personal gains to be driven by the fund’s performance and not by the acquisition of assets and fees
  3. they’ll never manage separate accounts or a second fund
  4. they created an “Institutional” class as a way of giving shareholders a choice between buying the fund NTF with a marketing fee or paying a transaction fee but not having the ongoing expense; originally they had a $1 million institutional minimum because they thought institutional shares had to be that pricey. Having discovered that there’s no logical requirement for that, they dropped the institutional minimum by 99%.
  5. they’ll close on the day they come across an idea they love but can’t invest in
  6. they’ll close if the fund becomes big enough that they have to hire somebody to help with it (no analysts, no marketers, no administrators – just the two of them)

Highlights on the investing front were two-fold:

first, they don’t intend to be “active investors” in the sense of buying into companies with defective managements and then trying to force management to act responsibly. Their time in the private equity/venture capital world taught them that that’s neither their particular strength nor their passion.

second, they have the ability to short stocks but they’ll only do so for offensive – rather than defensive – purposes. They imagine shorting as an alpha-generating tool, rather than a beta-managing one. But it sounds a lot like they’ll not short, given the magnitude of the losses that a mistaken short might trigger, unless there’s evidence of near-criminal negligence (or near-Congressional idiocy) on the part of a firm’s management. They do maintain a small short position on the Russell 2000 because the Russell is trading at an unprecedented high relative to the S&P and attempts to justify its valuations require what is, to their minds, laughable contortions (e.g., that the growth rate of Russell stocks will rise 33% in 2014 relative to where they are now.

Their reflections of 2013 performance were both wry and relevant. The fund is up 21% YTD, which trails the S&P500 by about 6.5%. Greg started by imagining what John’s reaction might have been if Greg said, a year ago, “hey, JP, our fund will finish its first year up more than 20%.” His guess was “gleeful” because neither of them could imagine the S&P500 up 27%. While trailing their benchmark is substantially annoying, they made these points about performance:

  • beating an index during a sharp market rally is not their goal, outperforming across a complete cycle is.
  • the fund’s cash stake – about 16% – and the small short position on the Russell 2000 doubtless hurt returns.
  • nonetheless, they’re very satisfied with the portfolio and its positioning – they believe they offer “substantial downside protection,” that they’ve crafted a “sleep well at night” portfolio, and that they’ve especially cognizant of the fact that they’ve put their friends’, families’ and former investors’ money at risk – and they want to be sure that they’re being well-rewarded for the risks they’re taking.

John described their approach as “inherently conservative” and Greg invoked advice given to him by a former employer and brilliant manager, Don Yacktman: “always practice defense, Greg.”

When, at the close, I asked them what one thing they thought a potential investor in the fund most needed to understand in order to know whether they were a good “fit” for the fund, Greg Jackson volunteered the observation “we’re the most competitive people alive, we want great returns but we want them in the most risk-responsible way we can generate them.” John Park allowed “we’re not easy to categorize, we don’t adhere to stylebox purity and so we’re not going to fit into the plans of investors who invest by type.”

podcastThe conference call (When you click on the link, the file will load in your browser and will begin playing after it’s partially loaded.)

The profile:

If you’re fairly sure that creeping corporatism – that is, the increasing power of marketers and folks more concerned with asset-gathering than with excellence – is a really bad thing, then you’re going to discover that Oakseed is a really good one.

The Mutual Fund Observer profile of SEEDX, May 2013.

Web:

Oakseed Funds website

Fund Focus: Resources from other trusted sources

Beck, Mack & Oliver Partners Fund (BMPEX)

By David Snowball

The fund:

Beck, Mack & Oliver Partners Fund (BMPEX)

Manager:

Zachary Wydra, portfolio manager.

The call:

I spoke for about an hour on Wednesday, October 16, with Zac Wydra of BMPEX. There were about 30 other participants on the call. I’ve elsewhere analogized Beck, Mack to Dodge & Cox: an old money, white shoe firm whose core business is helping the rich stay rich. In general, you need a $3 million minimum investment to engage with them. Partners was created in 1991 as a limited partnership to accommodate the grandkids or staff of their clients, folks who might only have a few hundred thousand to commit. (Insert about here: “Snowball gulps”) The “limited” in limited partnership signals a maximum number of investors, 100. The partnership filled up and prospered. When the managing partner retired, Zac made a pitch to convert the partnership to a ’40 fund’ and make it more widely available. He argued that he thought there was a wider audience for a disciplined, concentrated fund.

He was made the fund’s inaugural manager. He’s 41 and anticipates running BMPEX for about the next quarter century, at which point he’ll be required – as all partners are – to move into retirement and undertake a phased five year divestment of his economic stake in the firm. His then-former ownership stake will be available to help attract and retain the best cadre of younger professionals that they can find. Between now and retirement he will (1) not run any other pooled investment vehicle, (2) not allow BMPEX to get noticeably bigger than $1.5 billion – he’ll return capital to investors first – and (3) will, over a period of years, train and oversee a potential successor.

In the interim, the discipline is simple:

  1. never hold more than 30 securities – he can hold bonds but hasn’t found any that offer a better risk/return profile than the stocks he’s found. 
  2. only invest in firms with great management teams, a criterion that’s met when the team demonstrates superior capital allocation decisions over a period of years
  3. invest only in firms whose cash flows are consistent and predictable. Some fine firms come with high variable flows and some are in industries whose drivers are particularly hard to decipher; he avoids those altogether. 
  4. only buy when stocks sell at a sufficient discount to fair value that you’ve got a margin of safety, a patience that was illustrated by his decision to watch Bed, Bath & Beyond for over two and a half years before a short-term stumble triggered a panicky price drop and he could move in. In general, he is targeting stocks which have the prospect of gaining at least 50% over the next three years and which will not lose value over that time. 
  5. ignore the question of whether it’s a “high turnover” or “low turnover” strategy. His argument is that the market determines the turnover rate. If his holdings become overpriced, he’ll sell them quickly. If the market collapses, he’ll look for stocks with even better risk/return profiles than those currently in the portfolio. In general, it would be common for him to turn over three to five names in the portfolio each year, though occasionally that’s just recycling: he’ll sell a good firm whose stock becomes overvalued then buy it back again once it becomes undervalued.

There were three questioners:

Kevin asked what Zac’s “edge” was. A focus on cash, rather than earnings, seemed to be the core of it. Businesses exist to generate cash, not earnings, and so BM&O’s valuations were driven by discounted cash flow models. Those models were meaningful only if it were possible to calculate the durability of cash flows over 5 years. In industries where cash flows have volatile, it’s hard to assign a meaningful multiple and so he avoids them.

In follow up: how do you set your discount rate. He uses a uniform 10% because that reflects consistent investor expectations.

Seth asked what mistakes have you made and what did you learn from them? Zac hearkened back to the days when the fund was still a private partnership. They’d invested in AIG which subsequently turned into a bloody mess. Ummm, “not an enjoyable experience” was his phrase. He learned from that that “independent” was not always the same as “contrary.” AIG was selling at what appeared to be a lunatic discount, so BM&O bought in a contrarian move. Out of the resulting debacle, Zac learned a bit more respect for the market’s occasionally unexplainable pricings of an asset. At base, if the market says a stock is worth twenty cents a share, you’d better than remarkably strong evidence in order to act on an internal valuation of twenty dollars a share.

Andy asked how Zac established valuations on firms with lots of physical resources. Very cautiously. Their cash flows tend to be unpredictable. That said, BMPEX was overweight energy service companies because things like deep water oil rig counts weren’t all that sensitive to fluctuations in the price of oil.

podcastThe conference call (When you click on the link, the file will load in your browser and will begin playing after it’s partially loaded.)

The profile:

Successful investing does not require either a magic wand or a magic formula. No fund or strategy will win in each year or every market. The best we can do is to get all of the little things right: don’t overpay for stocks and don’t over-diversify, limit the size of the fund and limit turnover, keep expenses low and keep the management team stable, avoid “hot” investments and avoid unforced errors, remember it isn’t a game and it isn’t a sprint. Beck, Mack & Oliver gets an exceptional number of the little things very right. It has served its shareholders very well and deserves close examination.

The Mutual Fund Observer profile of BMPEX, September 2013.

podcastThe BMPEX audio profile

Web:

BM&O Partners website

Fund Focus: Resources from other trusted sources

The Bretton Fund (BRTNX)

By Chip

The fund:

The Bretton Fund (BRTNX)

Manager:

Stephen Dodson, portfolio manager, president, and founder of the fund.

The call:

Does it make sense to you that you could profit from following the real-life choices of the professionals in your life?  What hospital does your doctor use when her family needs one?  Where does the area’s best chef eat when he wants to go out for a weeknight dinner?  Which tablet computer gets Chip and her IT guys all shiny-eyed?

If that strategy makes sense to you, so will the Bretton Fund (BRTNX).

Bretton Fund (BRTNX) is managed by Stephen Dodson.  For a relatively young man, he’s had a fascinating array of experiences.  After graduating from Berkeley, he booked 80-100 hour weeks with Morgan Stanley, taking telecom firms public.  He worked in venture capital, with software and communications firms, before joining his father’s firm, Parnassus Investments.  At Parnassus he did everything from answering phones and doing equity research, to co-managing a fixed-income fund and presiding over the company.  He came to realize that “managing a family relationship and what I wanted in my career were incompatible at the time,” and so left to start his own firm.

In imagining that firm and its discipline, he was struck by a paradox: almost all investment professionals worshipped Warren Buffett, but almost none attempted to invest like him.  Stephen’s estimate is that there are “a ton” of concentrated long-term value hedge funds, but fewer than 20 mutual funds (most visibly The Cook and Bynum Fund COBYX) that follow Buffett’s discipline: he invests in “a small number of good business he believes that he understands and that are trading at a significant discount to what they believe they’re worth.”    He seemed particularly struck by his interviews of managers who run successful, conventional equity funds: 50-100 stocks and a portfolio sensitive to the sector-weightings in some index.

I asked each of them, “How would you invest if it was only your money and you never had to report to outside shareholders but you needed to sort of protect and grow this capital at an attractive rate for the rest of your life, how would you invest.  Would you invest in the same approach, 50-100 stocks across all sectors.”  And they said, “absolutely not.  I’d only invest in my 10-20 best ideas.” 

And that’s what Bretton does.  It  holds 15-20 stocks in industries that the manager feels he understands really well. “Understands really well” translates to “do I think I understand who’ll be making money five years from now and what the sources of those earnings will be?” In some industries (biotech, media, oil), his answer was “no.” “Some really smart guys say oil will be $50/bbl in a couple years. Other equally smart analysts say $150. I have no hope of knowing which is right, so I don’t invest in oil.” He does invest in industries such as retail, financial services and transportation, where he’s fairly comfortable with his ability to make sense of their dynamics.

When I say “he does invest,” I mean “him, personally.”  Mr. Dodson reports that “I’ve invested all my investible net-worth, all my family members are invested in the fund.  My mother is invested in the fund.  My mother-in-law is invested in the fund (and that definitely sharpens the mind).”   Because of that, he can imagine Bretton Fund functioning almost as a family office.  He’s gathering assets at a steady pace – the fund has doubled in size since last spring and will be able to cover all of its ‘hard’ expenses once it hits $7 million in assets – but even if he didn’t get a single additional outside dollar he’d continue running Bretton as a mechanism for his family’s wealth management.   He’s looking to the prospect of some day having $20-40 million, and he suspects the strategy could accommodate $500 million or more.

Bottom Line: The fund is doing well – it has handily outperformed its peers since inception, outperformed them in 11 of 11 down months and 18 of 32 months overall.  It’s posted solid double-digit returns in 2012 and 2013, through May, with a considerable cash buffer.  It will celebrate its three-year anniversary this fall, which is the minimum threshold for most advisors to consider the fund. While he’s doing no marketing now, he’s open to talking with folks and imagines some marketing effort once he’s got a three year record to talk about.  Frankly, I think he has a lot to talk about already.

podcastThe conference call (When you click on the link, the file will load in your browser and will begin playing after it’s partially loaded.)

The profile:

Bretton has the courage of its convictions.  Those convictions are grounded in an intelligent reading of the investment literature and backed by a huge financial commitment by the manager and his family.  It’s a fascinating vehicle and deserves careful attention.

The Mutual Fund Observer profile of BRTNX, updated June 2013.

podcastThe BRTNX audio profile

Web:

The Bretton Fund website

2013 Q3 Shareholder Letter

Fund Focus: Resources from other trusted sources

Riverpark/Wedgewood Fund

By Chip

The fund:

RiverPark/Wedgewood (RWGFX)riverparkwedgewood

Manager:

David Rolfe, manager since inception.

The call:

I had a chance to speak with David Rolfe of Wedgewood Partners and Morty Schaja, president of RiverPark Funds. A couple dozen listeners joined us, though most remained shy and quiet. Morty opened the call by noting the distinctiveness of RWGFX’s performance profile: even given a couple quarters of low relative returns, it substantially leads its peers since inception. Most folks would expect a very concentrated fund to lead in up markets. It does, beating peers by about 10%. Few would expect it to lead in down markets, but it does: it’s about 15% better in down markets than are its peers. Mr. Schaja is invested in the fund and planned on adding to his holdings in the week following the call.

The strategy: Rolfe invests in 20 or so high-quality, high-growth firms. He has another 15-20 on his watchlist, a combination of great mid-caps that are a bit too small to invest in and great large caps a bit too pricey to invest in. It’s a fairly low turnover strategy and his predilection is to let his winners run. He’s deeply skeptical of the condition of the market as a whole – he sees badly stretched valuations and a sort of mania for high-dividend stocks – but he neither invests in the market as a whole nor are his investment decisions driven by the state of the market. He’s sensitive to the state of individual stocks in the portfolio; he’s sold down four or five holdings in the last several months nut has only added four or five in the past two years. Rather than putting the proceeds of the sales into cash, he’s sort of rebalancing the portfolio by adding to the best-valued stocks he already owns.”

His argument for Apple: For what interest it holds, that’s Apple. He argues that analysts are assigning irrationally low values to Apple, somewhere between those appropriate to a firm that will never see real topline growth again and one that which see a permanent decline in its sales. He argues that Apple has been able to construct a customer ecosystem that makes it likely that the purchase of one iProduct to lead to the purchase of others. Once you’ve got an iPod, you get an iTunes account and an iTunes library which makes it unlikely that you’ll switch to another brand of mp3 player and which increases the chance that you’ll pick up an iPhone or iPad which seamlessly integrates the experiences you’ve already built up. As of the call, Apple was selling at $400. Their sum-of-the-parts valuation is somewhere in the $600-650 range.

On the question of expenses: Finally, the strategy capacity is north of $10 billion and he’s currently managing about $4 billion in this strategy (between the fund and private accounts). With a 20 stock portfolio, that implies a $500 million in each stock when he’s at full capacity. The expense ratio is 1.25% and is not likely to decrease much, according to Mr. Schaja. He says that the fund’s operations were subsidized until about six months ago and are just in the black now. He suggested that there might be 20 or so basis points of flexible room in the expenses. I’m not sure where to come down on the expense issue. No other managed, concentrated retail fund is substantially cheaper – Baron Partners and Edgewood Growth are 15-20 basis points more, Oakmark Select and CGM Focus are 15-20 basis points less while a bunch of BlackRock funds charge almost the same.

Bottom Line: On whole, it strikes me as a remarkable strategy: simple, high return, low excitement, repeatable and sustained for near a quarter century.

podcastThe conference call (When you click on the link, the file will load in your browser and will begin playing after it’s partially loaded.)

The profile:

Ellis argues that professional investors, in the main, play a losers game by becoming distracted, unfocused and undistinguished. Mr. Rolfe and his associates are determined not to play that game. They position themselves as “contrarian growth investors.”

The Mutual Fund Observer profile of RWGFX, September 2011.

Web:

The Riverpark/Wedgewood Fund website

Fund Focus: Resources from other trusted sources

The Cook and Bynum Fund

By admin

The fund:

The Cook and Bynum Fund
(COBYX)

Manager:

Richard P. Cook and J. Dowe Bynum, managers and founding partners.

The call:

Recently published research laments the fact that actively-managed funds have become steadily less active and more index-like over time.

The changing imperatives of the fund industry have led many managers to become mediocre by design. Their response is driven by the anxious desire for so-called “sticky” assets. The strategy is simple: design a product to minimize the risk that it will ever spectacularly trail its peer group. If you make your fund very much like its benchmark, you will never be a singular disaster and so investors (retirement plan investors, particularly) will never to motivated to find something better The fact that you never excel is irrelevant. The result is a legion of large, expensive, undistinguished funds who seek safety in the herd.

The Cook and Bynum Fund (COBYX) strikes me as the antithesis of those. Carefully constructed, tightly focused, and intentionally distinct. On Tuesday, March 5, we spoke with Richard Cook and Dowe Bynum in the first of three conversations with distinguished managers who defy that trend through their commitment to a singular discipline: buy only the best. For Richard and Dowe, that translates to a portfolio with only seven holdings and a 34% cash stake. Since inception (through early March, 2013), they managed to capture 83% of the market’s gains with only 50% of its volatility; in the past twelve months, Morningstar estimates that they captured just 7% of the market’s downside.

Among the highlights of the call for me:

  1. The guys are willing to look stupid. There are times, as now, when they can’t find stocks that meet their quality and valuation standards. The rule for such situations is simply: “When compelling opportunities do not exist, it is our obligation not to put capital at risk.” They happily admit that other funds might well reap short-term gains by running with the pack, but you “have to be willing to look stupid.” Their current cash stake is about 34%, “the highest cash level ever in the fund.” That’s not driven by a market call; it’s a simple residue of their inability to find great opportunities.
  2. The guys are not willing to be stupid. Richard and Dowe grew up together and are comfortable challenging each other. Richard knows the limits of Dowe’s knowledge (and vice versa), “so we’re less likely to hold hands and go off the cliff together.” In order to avoid that outcome, they spend a lot of time figuring out how not to be stupid. They relegate some intriguing possibilities to the “too hard pile,” those businesses that might have a great story but whose business model or financials are simply too hard to forecast with sufficient confidence. They think about common errors (commitment bias, our ability to rationalize why we’re not going to stop doing something once we’ve started, chief among them) and have generated a set of really interesting tools to help contain them. They maintain, for example, a list all of the reasons why they don’t like their current holdings. In advance of any purchase, they list all of the conditions under which they’d quickly sell (“if their star CEO leaves, we do too”) and keep that on top of their pile of papers concerning the stock.
  3. They’re doing what they love. Before starting Cook & Bynum (the company), both of the guys had high-visibility, highly-compensated positions in financial centers. Richard worked for Tudor Investments in Stamford, CT, while Dowe was with Goldman, Sachs in New York. The guys believe in a fundamental, value- and research-driven, stock-by-stock process. What they were being paid to do (with Tudor’s macro event-driven hedge fund strategies for Richard) was about as far from what they most wanted as they could get. And so they quit, moved back to Alabama and set up their own shop to manage their own money and the investments of high net-worth individuals. They created Cook & Bynum (the fund) in response to an investor’s request for a product accessible to family and friends. The $250 million invested with them (about $100 million in the fund) includes 100% of their own liquid net worth, with their investment split between the fund and the partnerships. Since both sets of vehicles use the same fees and structure, there’s no conflict between the two.
  4. They do prodigious research without succumbing to the “gotta buy something” impulse. While they spend the majority of their time in their offices, they’re also comfortable with spending two or three weeks at a time on the road. Their argument is that they’ve got to understand the entire ecosystem in which a firm operates – from the quality of its distribution network to the feelings of its customers – which they can only do first-hand. Nonetheless, they’ve been pretty good at resisting “deal momentum.” They spent, for example, some three weeks traveling around Estonia, Poland and Hungary. Found nothing compelling. Traveled Greece and Turkey and learned a lot, including how deeply dysfunctional the Greek economy, is but bought nothing.
  5. They’re willing to do what you won’t. Most of us profess a buy low / buy the unloved / break from the herd / embrace our inner contrarian ethos. And most of us are deluded. Cook and Bynum seem rather less so: they’re holding cash now while others buy stocks after the market has doubled and profits margins hit records but in the depth of the 2008 meltdown they were buyers. (They report having skipped Christmas presents in 2008 in order to have extra capital to invest.) As the market bottomed in March 2009, the fund was down to 2% cash.

Bottom Line: the guys seem to be looking for two elusive commodities. One is investments worth pursuing. The other is investing partners who share their passion for compelling investments and their willingness to let other investors charge off in a herd. Neither is as common as you might hope. 

podcastThe conference call (When you click on the link, the file will load in your browser and will begin playing after it’s partially loaded.)

The profile:

It’s working.  Cook and Bynum might well be among the best.  They’re young.  The fund is small and nimble.  Their discipline makes great sense.  It’s not magic, but it has been very, very good and offers an intriguing alternative for investors concerned by lockstep correlations and watered-down portfolios.

The Mutual Fund Observer profile of COBYX, April 2013.

podcast

 The COBYX audio profile

Web:

The Cook & Bynum Fund website

The Cook and Bynum Fact Sheet

Fund Focus: Resources from other trusted sources

Seafarer Overseas Growth & Income (SFGIX)

By admin

The fund:

Seafarer Overseas Growth and Income Fund
(SFGIX and SIGIX)

Manager:

Andrew Foster, Founder, Chief Investment Officer, and Portfolio Manager

The call:

On February 19th, about 50 people phoned-in to listen to our conversation with Andrew Foster, manager of Seafarer Overseas Growth * Income Fund (SFGIX and SIGIX).   The fund has an exceptional first year: it gathered $35 million in asset and returned 18% while the MSCI emerging market index made 3.8%. The fund has about 70% of its assets in Asia, with the rest pretty much evenly split between Latin America and Emerging Europe.   Their growth has allowed them to institute two sets of expense ratio reductions, one formal and one voluntary. 

Among the highlights of the call, for me:

  1. China has changed.   Andrew offered a rich discussion about his decision to launch the fund. The short version: early in his career, he concluded that emergent China was “the world’s most under-rated opportunity” and he really wanted to be there. By late 2009, he noticed that China was structurally slowing. That is, it was slow because of features that had no “easy or obvious” solution, rather than just slowly as part of a cycle. He concluded that “China will never be the same.” Long reflection and investigation led him to begin focusing on other markets, many of which were new to him, that had many of the same characteristics that made China exciting and profitable a decade earlier. Given Matthews’ exclusive and principled focus on Asia, he concluded that the only way to pursue those opportunities was to leave Matthews and launch Seafarer.
  2. It’s time to be a bit cautious. As markets have become a bit stretched – prices are up 30% since the recent trough but fundamentals have not much changed – he’s moved at the margins from smaller names to larger, steadier firms.
  3. There are still better opportunities in equities than fixed income; hence he’s about 90% in equities.
  4. Income has important roles to play in his portfolio.  (1) It serves as a check on the quality of a firm’s business model. At base, you can’t pay dividends if you’re not generating substantial, sustained free cash flow and generating that flow is a sign of a healthy business. (2) It serves as a common metric across various markets, each of which has its own accounting schemes and regimes. (3) It provides as least a bit of a buffer in rough markets. Andrew likened it to a sea anchor, which won’t immediately stop a ship caught in a gale but will slow it, steady it and eventually stop it.

podcastThe conference call (When you click on the link, the file will load in your browser and will begin playing after it’s partially loaded.)

The profile:

The case for Seafarer is straightforward: it’s going to be one of your best options for sustaining exposure to an important but challenging asset class.

The Mutual Fund Observer profile of SFGIX, Updated March 2013.

podcast

 The SFGIX audio profile

Web:

Seafarer Overseas Growth and Income Fund website

Shareholder Conference Call

2013 Q3 Report

Fund Focus: Resources from other trusted sources

Matthews Asia Strategic Income (MAINX)

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The fund:

Matthews Asia Strategic Income (MAINX)

Manager:

Teresa Kong, Manager

The call:

We spent an hour on Tuesday, January 22, talking with Teresa Kong of Matthews Asia Strategic Income. The fund is about 14 months old, has about $40 million in assets, returned 13.6% in 2012 and 11.95% since launch (through Dec. 31, 2012).

Highlights include:

  1. this is designed to offer the highest risk-adjusted returns of any of the Matthews funds. 
  2. the manager describes the US bond market, and most especially Treasuries, as offering “asymmetric risk” over the intermediate term. Translation: more downside risk than upside opportunity. 
  3. given some value in having a fixed income component of one’s portfolio, Asian fixed-income offers two unique advantages in uncertain times. First, the fundamentals of the Asian fixed-income market are very strong. Second, Asian markets have a low beta relative to US intermediate-term Treasuries. 
  4. MAINX is one of the few funds to have positions in both dollar-denominated and local currency Asian debt (and, of course, equities as well). 
  5. in equities, Matthews looks for stocks with “bond-like characteristics.” 
  6. most competitors don’t have the depth of expertise necessary to maximize their returns in Asia. 
  7. TK said explicitly that they have no neutral position or target bands of allocation for anything, i.e., currency exposure, sovereign vs. corporate, or geography. They try to get the biggest bang for the level of risk across the portfolio as a whole, with as much “price stability” (she said that a couple of times) as they can muster.

podcastThe conference call (When you click on the link, the file will load in your browser and will begin playing after it’s partially loaded.)

The profile:

MAINX offers rare and sensible access to an important, under-followed asset class. The long track record of Matthews’ funds suggests that this is going to be a solid, risk-conscious and rewarding vehicle for gaining access to that class.

The Mutual Fund Observer profile of MAINX, updated March, 2012

podcastThe MAINX audio profile

Web:

Matthews Asia Strategic Income Fund

Fact Sheet

2013 Q3 Report

Fund Commentary

Fund Focus: Resources from other trusted sources

ASTON / River Road Long Short (ARLSX)

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The fund:

ASTON / River Road Long Short (ARLSX)

Manager:

Matt Moran and Dan Johnson

The call:

Highlights of the call:

In December 2012, we spoke with Matt and Dan about the River Road Long Short Strategy, which is also used in this fund. With regard to the strategy, they noted:

  • they believe they can outperform the stock market by 200 bps/year over a full market cycle. 
  • they believe they can keep beta at 0.3 to 0.5. They have a discipline for reducing market exposure when their long portfolio exceeds 80% of fair value. 
  • risk management is more important than return management, so all three of their disciplines are risk-tuned. 
  • River Road is committed to keeping the strategy open for at least 8 years.
  • The fund might be considered an equity substitute. Their research suggests that a 30/30/40 allocation (long, long/short, bonds) has much higher alpha than a 60/40 portfolio.

podcastThe conference call (When you click on the link, the file will load in your browser and will begin playing after it’s partially loaded.)

The profile:

Long/short investing makes great sense in theory but, far too often, it’s dreadful in practice.  After a year, ARLSX seems to be getting it right and its managers have a pretty cogent explanation for why that will continue to be the case.

The Mutual Fund Observer profile of ARLSX, dated June 2012.

podcastThe ARLSX audio profile

Web:

For information about the Aston mutual fund, subadvised by River Road, please see the following:

Aston Asset Management

2013 Q3 Report

Fact Sheet

ARLSX Profile Sheet

Fund Focus: Resources from other trusted sources

RiverPark Long/Short Opportunity Fund (RLSFX)

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The fund:

RiverPark Long/Short Opportunity Fund (RLSFX)RiverPark Logo

Manager:

Mitch Rubin, a Managing Partner at RiverPark and their CIO.

The call:

For about an hour on November 29th, Mitch Rubin, manager of RiverPark Long/Short Opportunity(RLSFX) fielded questions from Observer readers about his fund’s strategy and its risk-return profile.  Nearly 60 people signed up for the call.

The call starts with Morty Schaja, RiverPark’s president, talking about the fund’s genesis and Mr. Rubin talking about its strategy.  After that, I posed five questions of Rubin and callers chimed in with another half dozen. I’d like to especially thank Bill Fuller, Jeff Mayer and Richard Falk for the half dozen really sharp, thoughtful questions that they posed during the closing segment.

Highlights of the conversation:

  • Rubin believes that many long/short mutual fund managers (as opposed to the hedge fund guys) are too timid about using leverage.
  • He believes long/short managers as a group are too skittish.  They obsess about short-term macro-events (the fiscal cliff) and dilute their insights by trying to bet for or against industry groups (by shorting ETFs, for example) rather than focusing on identifying the best firms in the best industries.
  • RiverPark benefits from having followed many of their holdings for nearly two decades, following their trajectory from promising growth stocks (in which they invested), stodgy mature firms (which they’d sold) and now old firms in challenged industries (which they short).

podcastThe conference call (When you click on the link, the file will load in your browser and will begin playing after it’s partially loaded.)

The profile:

All long-short funds have about the same goal: to provide a relatively large fraction of the stock market’s long-term gains with a relatively small fraction of its short-term volatility.  They all invest long in what they believe to be the most attractively valued stocks and invest short, that is bet against, the least attractively valued ones.  Many managers imagine their long portfolios as “offense” and their short portfolio as “defense.”

That’s the first place where RiverPark stands apart.  Mr. Rubin intends to “always play offense.”  He believes that RiverPark’s discipline will allow him to make money, “on average and over time,” on both his long and short portfolios.

The Mutual Fund Observer profile of RLSFX, dated August, 2012

podcastThe audio profile

Web:

RiverPark Funds Website

2013 Q3 Report

RLSFX Fact Sheet

Fund Focus: Resources from other trusted sources

RiverPark Short Term High Yield (RPHYX)

By admin

The fund:

RiverPark Short Term High Yield (RPHYX)RiverPark Logo

Manager:

David Sherman of Cohanzick Management, LLC

The call:

For about an hour on September 13th, David Sherman of Cohanzick Management, LLC, manager of RiverPark Short Term High Yield (RPHYX) fielded questions from Observer readers about his fund’s strategy and its risk-return profile. Somewhere between 40-50 people signed up for the RiverPark call.

Highlights include:

  1. they expect to be able to return 300 – 400 basis points more than a money market fund
  2. they manage to minimize risk, not maximize return
  3. they do not anticipate significant competition for these assets
  4. expenses are unlikely to move much
  5. NAV volatility is more apparent than real – by any measure other than a money market, it’s a very steady NAV. 

podcastThe conference call (When you click on the link, the file will load in your browser and will begin playing after it’s partially loaded.)

The profile:

People are starting to catch on to RPHYX’s discrete and substantial charms.  Both the fund’s name and Morningstar’s assignment of it to the “high yield” peer group threw off some potential investors.  To be clear: this is not a high yield bond fund in any sense that you’d recognize.

The Mutual Fund Observer profile of RPHYX, updated October, 2012

podcastThe audio profile

Web:

RiverPark Funds Website

2013 Q3 Report

RPHYX Fact Sheet

Fund Focus: Resources from other trusted sources