GaveKal Knowledge Leaders Fund (GAVAX/GAVIX), August, 2014

By David Snowball

Objective and strategy

The fund is trying to grow capital, with the particular goal of beating the MSCI World Index over the long term. They invest in between 40 and 60 stocks of firms that they designate as “knowledge leaders.” By their definition, “Knowledge Leaders” are a group of the world’s leading innovators with deep reservoirs of intangible capital. These companies often possess competitive advantages such as strong brand, proprietary knowledge or a unique distribution mechanism. Knowledge leaders are largely service-based and advanced manufacturing businesses, often operating globally.” Their investable universe is mid- and large-cap stocks in 24 developed markets. They buy those stocks directly, in local currencies, and do not hedge their currency exposure. Individual holdings might occupy between 1-5% of the portfolio.

Adviser

GaveKal Capital (GC). GC is the US money management affiliate of GaveKal Research Ltd., a Hong Kong-based independent research boutique. They manage over $600 million in the Knowledge Leaders fund and a series of separately managed accounts in the US as well as a European version (a UCITS) of the Knowledge Leaders strategy.

Manager

Steven Vannelli. Mr. Vannelli is managing director of GaveKal Capital, manager of the fund and lead author of the firm’s strategy for how to account for intangible capital. Before joining GaveKal, he served for 10 years at Denver-based money management firm Alexander Capital, most recently as Head of Equities. He manages about $600 million in assets and is assisted by three research analysts, each of whom targets a different region (North America, Europe, Asia).

Strategy capacity and closure

With a large cap, global focus, they believe they might easily manage something like $10 billion across the three manifestations of the strategy.

Active share

91. “Active share” measures the degree to which a fund’s portfolio differs from the holdings of its benchmark portfolio.  High active share indicates management which is providing a portfolio that is substantially different from, and independent of, the index. An active share of zero indicates perfect overlap with the index, 100 indicates perfect independence. The active share for the Knowledge Leaders Fund is 91, which reflects a very high level of independence from its benchmark MSCI World Index.

Management’s stake in the fund

Minimal. Mr. Vannelli seeded the fund with $250,000 of his own money but appears to have disinvested over time. His current stake is in the $10,000-50,000 range. As one of the eight partners as GaveKal, he does have a substantial economic stake in the advisor. There is no corporate policy encouraging or requiring employee investment in the fund and none of the fund’s directors have invested in it.

Opening date

September 30, 2010 for the U.S. version of the fund. The European iteration of the fund launched in 2006.

Minimum investment

$2500

Expense ratio

1.5% on A-share class (1.25% on I-share class) on domestic assets of $190 million, as of July 2014.

Comments

The stock investors have three nemeses:

  • Low long-term returns
  • High short-term volatility
  • A tendency to overpay for equities

Many managers specialize in addressing one or two of these three faults. GaveKal thinks they’ve got a formula for addressing three of three.

Low long-term returns: GaveKal believes that large stocks of “intangible capital” are key drivers of long-term returns and has developed a database of historic intangible-adjusted financial data, which it believes gives it a unique perspective. Intangible capital represents investments in a firm’s future profitability. It includes research and development investments but also expenditures to upgrade the abilities of their employees. There’s unequivocal evidence that such investments drive a firm’s long-term success. Sadly, current accounting practices punish firms that make these investments by characterizing them as “expenses,” the presence of which make the firm look less attractive to short-term investors. Mr. Vannelli’s specialty has been in tracking down and accurately characterizing such investments in order to assess a firm’s longer-term prospects. By way of illustration, research and development investments as a percentage of net sales are 8.3% in the portfolio companies but only 2.4% in the index firms.

High short-term volatility: there’s unequivocal empirical and academic research that shows that investors are far more cowardly than they know. While we might pretend to be gunslingers, we’re actually likely to duck under the table at the first sign of trouble. Knowing that, the manager works to minimize both security and market risk for his investors. They limit the size of any individual position to 5% of the portfolio. They entirely screen out a number of high leverage sectors, especially those where a firm’s fate might be controlled by government policies or other macro factors. The excluded sectors include financials, commodities, utilities, and energy. Conversely, many of the sectors with high concentrations of knowledge leaders are defensive.  Health care, for example, accounts for 86 of the 565 stocks in their universe.

Finally, they have the option to reduce market exposure when some combination of four correlation and volatility triggers are pulled. They monitor the correlation between stocks and bonds, the correlation between stocks within a broad equity index, the correlation between their benchmark index and the VIX and the absolute level of the VIX. In high risk markets, they’re at least 25% in cash (as they are now) and might go to 40% cash. When the market turns, though, they will move decisively back in: they went from 40% cash to 3% in under two weeks in late 2011.

A tendency to overpay: “expensive” is always relative to the quality of goods that you’re buying. GaveKal assigns two grades to every stock, a valuation grade based on factors such as price to free cash flow relative both to a firm’s own history and to its industry’s and a quality grade based on an analysis of the firm’s balance sheet, cash flow and income statement. Importantly, Gavekal uses its proprietary intangible-adjusted metrics in the analysis of value and quality.

The analysts construct three 30 stock regional portfolios (e.g., a 30 stock European portfolio) from which Mr. Vannelli selects the 50-60 most attractively valued stocks worldwide.

In the end, you get a very solid, mildly-mannered portfolio. Here are the standard measures of the fund against its benchmark:

 

GAVAX

MSCI World

Beta

.42

1.0

Standard deviation

7.1

13.8

Alpha

6.3

0

Maximum drawdown

(3.3)

(16.6)

Upside capture

.61

1.0

Downside capture

.30

1.0

Annualized return, since inception

10.5

13.4

While the US fund was not in operation in 2008, the European version was. The European fund lost about 36% in 2008 while its benchmark fell 46%.  Since the US fund is permitted a higher cash stake than its European counterpart, it follows that the fund’s 2008 outperformance might have been several points higher.

Bottom Line

This is probably not a fund for investors seeking unwaveringly high exposure to the global equities market. Its cautious, nearly absolute-return, approach to has led many advisors to slot it in as part of their “nontraditional/liquid alts” allocation. The appeal to cautious investors and the firm’s prodigious volume of shareholder communications, including weekly research notes, has led to high levels of shareholder loyalty and a prevalence of “sticky money.” While I’m perplexed by the fact that so little of the sticky money is the manager’s own, the fund has quietly made a strong case for its place in a conservative equity portfolio.

Fund website

GaveKal Knowledge Leaders. While you’re there, read the firm’s white paper on Intangible Economics and their strategy presentation (2014) which explains the academic research, the accounting foibles and the manager’s strategy in clear language.

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About David Snowball

David Snowball, PhD (Massachusetts). Cofounder, lead writer. David is a Professor of Communication Studies at Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois, a nationally-recognized college of the liberal arts and sciences, founded in 1860. For a quarter century, David competed in academic debate and coached college debate teams to over 1500 individual victories and 50 tournament championships. When he retired from that research-intensive endeavor, his interest turned to researching fund investing and fund communication strategies. He served as the closing moderator of Brill’s Mutual Funds Interactive (a Forbes “Best of the Web” site), was the Senior Fund Analyst at FundAlarm and author of over 120 fund profiles. David lives in Davenport, Iowa, and spends an amazing amount of time ferrying his son, Will, to baseball tryouts, baseball lessons, baseball practices, baseball games … and social gatherings with young ladies who seem unnervingly interested in him.