Q&A with Scottish Mortgage Investment Trust

"One must be willing to accept loss, to have an equal or greater chance of (almost) unlimited gain."

James Anderson and Tom Slater from the Scottish Mortgage Investment Trust team at Baillie Gifford talk investment strategies.

Q&A with Scottish Mortgage Investment Trust

Q&A with Scottish Mortgage Investment Trust

Q) What is your investment philosophy?

Our basic philosophy is very simple. We are long term growth investors, looking to own stakes in individual businesses because of the attractiveness of their fundamentals and growth potential over the next five years and beyond. This is based on the premise that over time share prices move to reflect companies’ earnings and therefore those businesses which can grow substantially faster than the market have the potential to produce very attractive returns for our clients. This is in contrast to most market participants who trade based on much shorter time horizons and are more akin to speculators on markets.

We look to create relatively concentrated portfolios from the best such growth opportunities available around the globe. Scottish Mortgage typically has around 70 holdings, but the weightings of the individual positions vary considerably, reflecting both our relative levels of conviction and share price performance; the thirty largest positions usually account for around 80% of the portfolio. We believe it is critically important to back your judgment and run your winners in this way if you want to achieve good long term returns. This comes down to the fact that equity market returns are skewed. Whilst the capital at risk is capped at the funds invested, the upside potential is theoretically unlimited.

Even in the real world, the potential returns on offer over the long term from the very few, truly extraordinary growth companies are a multiple of the mere market average. Sceptics may dissemble, so let us consider an example. Over the past 10 years Amazon’s shares have risen more than 10 fold (either in USD or GBP), compared with the broader US market, in the form of the S&P500 which roughly doubled over the period. Broadly speaking, this is due to Amazon’s clear focus and corporate ambition, combined with constant reinvestment in its own future growth. The approach has driven it from a disruptive online US book retailer to a global ecommerce behemoth and dominant cloud service provider. In the process, it has created one of the most valuable companies in the world.

Our analysis of long run stock market returns clearly shows us that owning such “multi-bagger stocks” contributes the bulk of the returns on offer from markets. So that is what we aim to do, regardless of where, or in which industry, they operate. Finding these extraordinary growth companies is much more important than avoiding those where we may lose money for our shareholders.  Behaviourally, this is quite hard to do. Academic research suggests that most individuals dislike financial loss at least twice as much as they take pleasure in gains. We fear that for fund managers this relationship is greatly magnified by the internal and external pressures within the industry.

One must be willing to accept loss, to have an equal or greater chance of (almost) unlimited gain. A portfolio must also have a meaningful amount invested in the successful individual companies to benefit from the power of compounding to make a significant impact at the overall portfolio level, hence “back your judgment and run your winners.” Just having 10% less in Amazon shares at the start, would have meant missing out on the equivalent of a more than 100% gain on your total initial investment over the past 10 years. Similarly, repeatedly trimming your position over time can significantly erode the power of compounded returns.

Whilst it is true that over the longer term, share prices move to reflect such growth in a company’s earnings, that does not mean that these companies are immune to the vagaries of short term market swings or the myopic focus of Wall Street and London on quarterly earnings targets.  It requires patience to invest in this way, together with a willingness to look through short term noise which can significantly impact share prices, even when not directly related to the company itself. You must be a genuinely long term, patient investor to succeed at this type of investing.

Q) You’re very much an active fund manager in what appears to be increasingly volatile markets. How do you attempt to mitigate the risks inherent in investing?

Dealing with uncertainty is one of the greatest challenges we face as fund managers and one that humans generally struggle with. This may be one (of several) reasons that our industry tends to focus on the shorter term.  Trying to predict the future on a five year plus investment horizon is hard.  We see this as our opportunity to differentiate ourselves from others. Our willingness to look at alternative methods for evaluating companies and our long time horizons are two of our key advantages.

As a starting point, we utterly reject the notion that market volatility is the same as the very real risk of permanent destruction of capital. As long term investors, we can turn short term market gyrations to our shareholder’s advantage.

A company’s share price can become disconnected from its long run fundamentals, either through macro market concerns or because of a perceived “earnings miss.” Often in the companies in which we invest, the latter is caused by reinvestment of current cash flows into the long run growth of the business, rather than simply allowing it to drop through to the bottom line earnings number. This reinvestment makes perfect sense to us as long run owners of the businesses, but is often badly received by market analysts with much shorter term horizons.

A recent example of this would be the Chinese search engine Baidu.com, in which we invest. Its shares fell by over 15% in a single day when it released its results. Yet those results showed that the company’s revenues have continued to grow at a healthy rate. However, as expenses also increased significantly, its earnings were not as high as analysts hoped. A large portion of these expenses were due to heavy investment in new and developing areas of its business.  We agree with the company in terms of the potential of the new and growing markets in which they are investing and are not concerned over the short term impact on earnings, believing such investment to be of greater value to the company in the longer term.

That is not to say that we do not consider investment risk. We believe that the key risk in investing is the permanent loss of capital and that therefore the main risk in our process is making poor investment decisions, through a failure to understand the companies in which we invest. Rigorous examination of the companies is therefore critical. As part of this, gaining access to and engaging in a meaningful way with the management over their long term plans for the business is essential. Our reputation as long term patient investors is critical to our success in this regard. We work hard at getting to know and understand the companies in which we invest and the opportunities for them. A management’s ability to execute on the opportunities will be very important over our 5+ year time horizons and we spend time speaking to them about their intentions and scrutinising their actions/records. Bad management can kill a good opportunity.

Despite being stock pickers, we acknowledge that a favourable industry background can be a large part of the investment case, especially if a particular company is well placed to execute on this. It is therefore possible to draw out broad themes or, more specifically common drivers across the individual investment cases within the portfolio. These can and do overlap. We undertake qualitative analysis of these overlaps on a regular basis, both to ensure that there is sufficient exposure to important trends as well as to avoid over concentration in a few linked sources of revenue and profit drivers within the portfolio. This is based on “real world” economic exposure analysis rather than index-defined classifications.

This last point is important. In investing, it is important not to follow existing conventions blindly as over time they can become outdated. Today, companies are far more global in their exposures; the stock exchange upon which their shares are listed does not automatically indicate the geographic location of their revenue and profit exposures. Similarly, we see the sector level definitions of the index providers as too simplistic. They do not always capture a sufficiently narrow set of common features in each of their component companies, so as to reflect one dominant exposure. This is particularly true of the technology sector. It is no longer comprised of a relatively homogenous group of companies built around the development of the silicon chip.  The world has moved on. Today semiconductors are ubiquitous and the revenue streams of the companies within this single sector range from semiconductor testing, to consumer advertising, data analytics and the rise of software as a service. Clearly any single event or trend may effect this group of companies in a wide variety of ways, or possibly have no impact at all on some despite being critical for others. Therefore, we believe that analysing investment risk based on such broad index classifications, or simply on the geographic location of a company’s share listing, is, at best, somewhat outdated.

We are active investment managers, running concentrated portfolios of what we believe are the best growth companies in the world. We believe that our growth-led approach has an important place within our clients’ overall portfolios and is one which should benefit from broad based changes we see on the horizon. Now is a particularly exciting time to be growth investors because of the huge amount of change taking place on the back of the adoption and development of technology across a broad range of industries. This is not just limited to communications, consumption and advertising but, as we have highlighted, also healthcare, energy and transportation. Such change tends to be exponential in nature and thereby underestimated by traditional, rather lineal, investment metrics.

Against this backdrop, we believe the real risks for investors from here lie hidden in the index, in the large traditional safe haven names which are steadily paying out their cash to shareholders at the expense of investing for future growth and development. This seems, to us, short sighted.

Q) You’ve delivered outstanding returns over the past 10 years to June 30, 2015, with the trust’s share price increasing 329% and net asset value up 238%, compared to a 127% for the FTSE All World Index over the same period. To what do you attribute this?

As you would expect our performance is dominated by our choice of individual stocks.  Over the past ten years we have been fortunate enough to own some of the truly extraordinary growth businesses in the world that have managed to grow substantially by anticipating and answering their customers’ changing needs, despite the broader tribulations of the last decade.

We have already mentioned the strength of the performance of Amazon and I would also highlight alongside this, the astounding success of the technology giant Apple. This was largely due to the genius of Steve Jobs, who introduced the world to the concept of mobile devices, first through the iPod, then iPhone and latterly iPad, ultimately changing the way we all communicate and consume media forever. Others may have subsequently copied these devices but Apple remains the dominant brand at the highest value end of this market. Apple’s shares increased nearly 700% over this ten year period to create the world’s largest company, overtaking previous giants such as Microsoft and Oracle.

One of the most important broader developments of the last decade has been the rise of China. It is perhaps no surprise that their national internet search engine Baidu, has been a strong contributor to performance. It grew rapidly on the back of China’s whole-hearted adoption of the internet, and shares have risen well over 600% in the period we have held them for Scottish Mortgage.  Yet the stand-out domestic Chinese performer has been Tencent, which started out as a social gaming company but has now evolved into the dominant social communications platform in China. Its shares have risen a staggering 16 fold in the time we have owned them.

There are benefits to be had from finding a simple well run business which carves itself a competitive niche and, sustained by a well-earned reputation, can simply compound its growth over the long term. The Swedish industrial compressors business, Atlas Copco, has been held in the portfolio for over two decades. Over that time management have proven their ability to execute on their business model. They have been able to demonstrate the value of the company’s products and after sales service, as well as showing strong through the cycle cost management. The business has continued to grow steadily as a result.  Through the power of compounding, it has achieved a five-fold increase in its value over the ten year period.

The key lesson we have learnt over time is that finding the real winners, who have a sustainable, even self-reinforcing, competitive advantage, and then being patient and holding them in size really matters. It is important to embrace the inherent element of uncertainty investing in this way.  Sometimes you will be wrong, sometimes the company will be wrong and sometimes there will be a left field event which neither party could have foreseen. Being willing to accept that this will be the case and not to allow yourself to be come unduly distracted is vital. The decisions you get right have the potential to make a multiple of the initial investment, more than covering the inevitable losses from your mistakes and misfortunes.

Q) What is your typical holding period for a stock? And what advantage does this offer you as an investor?

Our investment horizon is five to ten years and beyond. The portfolio turnover figures for Scottish Mortgage reflect this, with a long run average turnover of 20% of the portfolio per annum, suggesting an average holding period of five years. Within these figures there are of course variations, from those investments where we have only just made the initial purchase to those which we have held for much longer, as we believe them to be truly extraordinary companies. In contrast, inevitably there have also been those investments which we have sold, as their investment cases either changed or our initial contentions were proved wrong.

Based on turnover figures available for the wider market, it is clear that our five year plus investment horizon is a key area of differentiation from most market participants. It allows us to look through the vagaries of short term market moves and concentrate on company fundamentals, which we see as having a more discernable and predictable impact on the value of our investments over the long run. In investing, doing something different is usually a good starting point.  Following the herd all but guarantees average returns by definition.

Q) What’s been your most successful investment and how long have you held it?

Scottish Mortgage has owned shares in Amazon.com since 2005, and over the last ten years, it has been the highest contributor to our investment returns (at the end of June 2015). The reasons for this are two-fold. First as the company has grown from disruptive online book seller to global ecommerce giant, the shares have returned over 1100% to the portfolio. Second, we have been prepared to hold a substantial amount of the portfolio in this company, both by virtue of buying more shares and resisting the urge to trim as the share price, and therefore the overall holding size, rose. It is currently one of the largest positions in the Scottish Mortgage portfolio. Selling shares to trim portfolio positions too frequently not only results in higher trading costs, but crucially also limits the benefits of compounding returns which is one of the most powerful forces in investment.

We consider Amazon to be one of the most significant companies in the world today. In Jeff Bezos it has a truly visionary leader, who is capable and willing to take genuinely long term strategic decisions.  It is interesting that the company’s central mantra is to “make investment decisions in light of long-term market leadership considerations rather than short-term profitability considerations or short-term Wall Street reactions.”

This long term focus has been clear since the company’s first annual report in 1997, when it listed on the New York Stock Exchange. As Mr. Bezos has said ‘[i]f everything you do needs to work on a three year time horizon, then you’re competing against a lot of people. But if you’re willing to invest on a seven year time horizon you’re now competing against a fraction of the people.’ Management aims to make bold investment decisions and accepts that some of these investments will pay off, whilst others will not. This is not unlike the way we invest for Scottish Mortgage.

Amazon is a terrifyingly destructive force in some ways.  The mature cash generative elements of it business allow it to invest in new areas with an almost zero cost of capital. Mr Bezos has proven himself adept at selecting which these new areas should be. It was clear from the beginning that the ambition was to be much more than an all encompassing book retailer, but the company has also evolved. It was early to identify and embrace the implications of the cloud and emergence of software as a service, through its development of Amazon Web Services. It has just released results for this area of the business for the first time, showing a healthy profit. Amazon’s willingness to invest heavily for the long term despite the implied low immediate financial returns (and the immediate impact on company earnings), terrifies competitors away across a range of businesses as well as short term investors.  In contrast, patient holders of the shares have been well rewarded.

The key to the company’s success is the involvement of Jeff Bezos. Not only has he been visionary in terms of strategy, he is a significant owner of the company. Without him it is doubtful that the years of losses would have been tolerated and the company would not have built the dominant position it has today.  At less than 1% of US retail sales currently, there is clearly plenty of room for the company to grow from here, not only in its domestic market but also abroad.

Q) You’ve recently written that you’re excited by opportunities presented by technological progress in healthcare, energy and transportation. Can you explain? What are you investing in to harness this potential?

Over the past ten years, the remorseless progress in silicon chip development, as per Moore’s Law, led not only to the spread of the internet, but also to the creation of mobile smart devices. Smartphones and tablets became increasingly powerful, lighter and more efficient.  Crucially though they also became much cheaper, driving mass adoption and increasing the time spent online. In areas with less traditional communications infrastructure, mobile devices allowed communities to leap frog old technologies to get connected.

In turn, these trends have fundamentally changed social communications, media consumption and retail commerce. Out of these broader changes, we have enjoyed the success of a range of companies; from the familiar Amazon, Facebook and Google, through to Alibaba, Tencent and Baidu . The network effects involved in these businesses have led to self-reinforcing competitive advantages, which have helped to ensure their longevity. We believe these trends have much further to go.  E-commerce, for example, currently remains in single digit percentages of total commerce in all of the major economies, as well as covering only a fairly limited product base  at present (although this is broadening).  Advertising revenues have proved relatively slow to move from traditional media, but this too is changing and, in turn helping a number of these companies to monetise their large user bases.

But this doesn’t even go half way to explaining why we are so excited as growth investors today. These developments in information technology, along with others, have begun to spread far and wide. The two elements of instant mobile connectivity, combined with the capacity to process and analyse vast volumes of data at high speed and at a relatively low cost, have extremely broad implications.

We have spoken at length of the extraordinary development and success of the gene sequencing company, Illumina, in bringing down the cost of such technology to a clinically viable level. The company now enjoys a dominant position in an addressable market which has undergone a step change in size, from application within the academic research world to having the potential for the gene sequencing of the general population at birth over the longer term.  However, it is worth highlighting that the improvements in computing power and data handling have also been crucial to this story.

The data capacity has meant that scientists can now gather and analyse the full genomes of a large number of individuals, so as to be able to develop a new area of medicine: genomics. In the UK we have the Government’s 100,000 Genome Project for example, with which Illumina is involved. Along with vast improvements in our understanding of the nature of diseases and the human body, this technology offers the tantalising prospect of personalised medicine with better patient outcomes from targeted treatments, and with a concomitant reduction in costs which can only serve to benefit overstretched healthcare budgets. As investors, not only are we large holders of Illumina but we have begun taking positions in a number of genomics companies offering new genetic testing services and treatments based on this nascent technology. We believe the scale of the implications of these developments will at least equal that of the discovery of penicillin.

The innovators dilemma is well known. A company invents a product which answers a core need or desire and rises to be the dominant provider of the technology. The focus then moves to sustaining that position. Even if the company subsequently develops another great “new idea,” it is likely that there will be an institutional reluctance to cannibalise the successful existing business, if there is an overlap. This was famously Kodak’s problem with digital photography. The problem with such a defensive approach is that if the company does not evolve to embrace new technologies it risks obsolescence.

The same dilemma has arisen over electric vehicles.  Despite huge research and development budgets, even the best makers in the large traditional combustion engine space have largely failed to produce a good electric vehicle.  Elon Musk has managed considerably better. In Tesla, Musk created a new luxury brand from scratch within a decade. An impressive feat in itself, but he achieved this by creating a fully electric luxury vehicle, which car enthusiasts rate highly in performance terms, regardless of its power-train.

Yet even this understates Mr. Musk’s ambition. He seeks to tackle nothing short of the problem of climate change by virtue of changing how we produce and consume energy. For him, Tesla’s electric vehicles and home storage batteries, the Tesla Powerwall, are simply the start.  From here, on the basis of growth potential in the market for Tesla’s electric vehicles alone, we see the potential to make a multiple of our initial investment for our shareholders. The potential that Tesla will solve the storage issue for renewable energy technologies is a truly exciting bonus.

Furthermore, if Mr. Musk succeeds, this will present challenge to the somewhat complacent, incumbent energy and grid companies. Consider what would happen if individuals can produce and store their own energy. What if the same becomes true for companies/factories? There is real potential for dramatic change here, not just in the way we travel, but also in the broader energy sector and beyond.

Q) Can you briefly mention a couple of recent investments in lesser known companies that might interest our readership?

The main purpose of finance is the provision of capital, be it to individuals and small and medium enterprises (SMEs) by the traditional retail banking sector, or to larger corporations through investment banks. Traditional retail banking has changed very little in decades, if not a century. There is a wide margin between the consumer deposit rates on offer and the rate at which the banks and credit card companies are prepared to lend money to those same customers. Granted, the retail banking sector has an expensive legacy of bricks and mortar outlets and staff to maintain and faces high regulatory and capital burdens, but this is a business ripe for creative disruption.

LendingClub could be the company to do just that. It brings a new technology-enabled business model to the traditional banking industry. It offers access to short to medium term loans to prime US consumers and is expanding into the SME space.  LendingClub is not a bank and is not involved in the lending process itself. Instead, it offers an online platform that capital providers can use to access borrowers, with enhanced risk metrics and expanded credit scoring models based upon broader range of information. The company started life as a peer-to-peer lender, primarily focused on individuals, but this has shifted over time and it now has institutional providers of capital on the platform as well. The central premise behind its business model is that it is possible to separate the two core elements of a traditional bank (operations and capital) and provide both more efficiently, allowing it to run a profitable business.  We see a very large growth opportunity for the company.

Souq.com is an online marketplace and one of the most popular websites in the Middle East. The key markets are the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt where e-commerce is growing rapidly amongst the young population as smartphone penetration rises. Having initially focused on consumer electronics, the company is broadening its offering into fashion, cosmetics and household products. The company is not listed on a public stock exchange and we took the opportunity to purchase some shares for Scottish Mortgage in a private fundraising round as we are very excited about the company’s long term growth prospects.

Scottish Mortgage’s closed ended investment trust structure with its permanent capital basis, allows us to access less illiquid investments for our shareholders than a comparable open ended investment vehicle might be able to do. This includes the capacity to invest a small percentage of the portfolio in unlisted companies, such as Souq.com. We see this element as being of growing importance, not only because it means we can access companies at an early stage in their growth, and therefore capture a greater amount of the overall value creation, but also because we think many of the exciting growth businesses of the future may well choose to list on stock exchanges later in their lives.

This does not represent a shift in what we are doing for shareholders, so much as it reflects a change in the companies themselves. Internet-based businesses in particular, such as Souq.com, are now less capital intensive in their growth phase and cash generative at a much earlier stage. They therefore no longer need to come to the public markets in order to grow. To this end we see Scottish Mortgage’s ability to own unlisted equities of increasing value. This gives our investors the opportunity to access such growth and to do so at a much lower costs than through the traditional hedge fund and venture capital structures. 

Q) Which investor do you most admire and which has taught you the most?

James Anderson:

“Whilst there are many investors who I regard very highly for their seriousness of purpose and deepness of thought, if truth be told there is no one individual I could identify above all others or who I venerate as much as I do several founder owners of truly great companies. I say this because there is a disconcerting gap in today’s investment scene. There are so few growth investors, so few who threaten to become the Buffett of our glorious and dynamic exponential and globalized era that it is scarcely possible to find an investment book of hope and conviction. For influence therefore I think you can look back to Philip Fisher (and his ‘Common Stocks and Uncommon Profits’) for the faithful pursuit of Growth and his advocacy of a consistent investment process.  We’ve tried hard to imitate him. Or one can look sideways to the great venture capitalists of today such as Marc Andreessen, Reid Hoffman, Peter Thiel and Mike Moritz.”

Q) What advice would you have for a private investor attempting to pick stocks for themselves?

The honest answer is that it is very difficult, and more importantly costly, to be an individual stock picker as a private investor today. Even a concentrated portfolio needs 20-30 stocks to diversify individual stock risk. As per our investment philosophy, we would argue strongly that in today’s world you need to be global in your approach, but as an individual investor it is difficult to invest directly outside of one’s own domestic stock market. Whether you take a growth or value orientated approach, it takes a lot of time and resources to cover enough companies in sufficient depth to make an informed selection of an entire portfolio.

In short, our answer would therefore be, don’t. Spend your time looking for a few select funds or investment companies which meet your investment time horizon and requirements and give a good range of exposures. Such vehicles have the benefits of scale in terms of costs and resources which you simply cannot match as an individual. When selecting such investments, always consider the overall charges you have to pay. Fees erode compounded returns. After that, be patient.

Having made these points, there are some simple rules that apply to everyone, regardless of whether you are picking stocks, funds or broad asset classes:

  • Only invest in what you understand.
  • Understand your time horizon and invest on that basis.
  • Volatility is not the same as risk. What matters is the risk of permanent loss of capital in the long term, through poor investment decisions.
  • Don’t over diversify.
  • Don’t be the busy fool, trading costs erode investment returns. Be patient.

Q) For a retail investor is there any book that you’d recommend they read?

James Anderson: Zero to One, Notes on Startups or How to Build the Future, by Peter Thiel (Random House, paperback).

Tom Slater: The nature of Technology, by Brian Arthur.

Trust invest in Equity Release shares

New Delhi, Dec. Officials said after the amendment to the Act, all trusts set up under the Act, which include private and public trusts such as educational trusts, would be allowed to invest in shares, bonds, debentures or other marketable securities.

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