Seafarer Overseas Growth and Income Fund (SFGIX)

By David Snowball

The fund:

Seafarer Overseas Growth and Income Fund


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.


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.


 The SFGIX audio profile, March 2013


Seafarer Overseas Growth and Income Fund website

Quarterly Briefing, 1Q2015

Fund Focus: Resources from other trusted sources

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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.