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

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About Chip

Cheryl Welsch, MBA (Western Governors). Cofounder, technical director. Chip is the lead developer for information technology, virtual reality, and business programs at Eastern Iowa Community Colleges. Chip is responsible for making the Observer actually happen; in cooperation with our graphic designer, she also controls how the Observer looks and acts. She also writes our monthly Manager Changes feature and whittles away at the typofest in our drafts.