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Time for investors to score portfolios on investing horizon



The writer is a senior fellow at the London School of Economics and chairman of Ricardo Research

Many of the problems of present-day finance have their origins in the horizons set along the investment chain.

The key participants in this chain are the giant pension, sovereign wealth and endowment funds which appoint external asset managers who in turn invest in companies. If these funds invest with their eyes set partially or largely on the short term, it sends a clear message down the line and embeds similar standards throughout the capitalist system.

Short-termism has been a recurring concern of policymakers and commentators for decades, but little or nothing has ever been done to address it. The policy horizon of corporations has shortened further over the past decade, leaving them especially vulnerable to extraordinary shocks such as Covid-19.

The absence of a remedy can be explained by the failure to adopt an operationally useful definition. I suggest using the motivation for buying securities rather than the length of holding period as the defining difference between long and short-horizon investing.

All investing boils down to a choice of two distinct strategies implemented in a variety of ways. One is buying securities that are priced cheaply in relation to their expected future cash flows, which is what everyone assumes is done with their savings.

Bizarrely, the other is almost the exact opposite: buying securities whose prices have recently been on the rise or that have already gone up most, both without reference to fundamental value. Another version of this, though present on a lesser scale, is selling assets that have recently been going down in price.

This second strategy has its origins in what might justifiably be termed “the curse of the benchmarks”. Most large funds delegate to external asset managers by setting index benchmarks, often with limits on how far returns should stray from the index return. Benchmarking is now shown to amplify mispricing by forcing managers to chase prices instead of fundamental value.

Trend-riding momentum investors successfully game this response, pushing prices higher knowing that benchmarkers are likely to come along later and be prepared to pay more. Price-only investing explains much of what is going wrong in financial markets. It is also the essence of short-termism.

When investors obsess about prices, corporate bosses are encouraged to do the same. With the added incentive of early-exercise stock options, they seek to maximise the company’s share price instead of building the business for the future. Among the ways to do that are reducing capital expenditure and research and development, focusing on quick pay-off projects, share buybacks and raised debt levels.

The onus is on giant funds to collectively shift their stance towards longer-term investing in both the public interest and that of their ultimate beneficiaries.

As a first step these big funds should measure and report their use of the two basic strategies. They should assign scores for each sub-portfolio as well as the total fund, with a range from one for price-only to 10 for pure cash flow, broadly matching the implied investment horizon in years.

Separating out the contribution of the two strategies may often be challenging but that is no excuse for not doing it. The trend-riding strategy damages markets while the other improves them. Funds also need a clearer understanding of where manager returns are coming from.

Trading data and changes in portfolio composition are both good indicators of how a portfolio is run. High turnover of holdings is consistent with a short horizon, and so too is a propensity for purchases being made when prices are on the rise.

Any form of close tracking to an index benchmark is in effect a hybrid strategy warranting a score in the middle range. This is because market prices are set by investors using both strategies.

Scoring also helps to establish the skill of the manager. Funds will have a better idea of where the gains and losses come from and what they are paying managers for: the skill of fundamental investing or the luck of trend-following. The analysis will also help to substantiate managers’ claims to be genuinely long-term investors.

The horizon score should become one of the standard metrics for describing a portfolio or fund. Trustees and fund staff mostly recognise the private and social merits of long-term investing and this new measurement will empower them to find ways to move closer to that goal. This will be the best way of dealing with short-termism in the system and far preferable to policy intervention by regulators.


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Earnings beats: lukewarm reaction shows prices are stretched




Investors are picking over first-quarter results for signs of economic recovery and proof that record market highs can continue. Stock markets have only been this richly valued twice before — in 1929 and 2000. Bulls hope strong corporate earnings and rising inflation can pull prices higher still. But pricing for perfection means even good results can be met with indifference.

L’Oreal illustrated this trend on Friday. The French cosmetics group stated that sales in the first quarter of the year rose 10.2 per cent. This was a better performance than expected. Yet the announcement sent shares down by around 2 per cent. Weak cosmetics sales were seen as a veiled warning that consumers emerging from lockdowns might not spend as freely as hoped.

Online white goods retailer AO World, a big winner from pandemic home upgrades, also offered a positive update this week. In the quarter that marked the end of its financial year, sales were £30m ahead of forecasts. But even upbeat commentary from boss John Roberts could not stop shares slipping 3 per cent.

Banks are not immune. Their stocks have outperformed the market by 7 per cent in Europe and 12 per cent in the US this year. But stellar Wall Street results were not enough to satisfy investors this week.

JPMorgan Chase, the biggest US bank, smashed expectations for the first quarter. Even adjusting for the release of large loan loss reserves, earnings per share beat expectations by 12 per cent because of higher investment banking revenues. Bank of America earnings also rose thanks to the release of loan loss reserves. Yet shares in both banks ended the week down. Goldman Sachs had to pull out its best quarterly performance since 2006 to hold investor interest.

On multiple metrics, stock valuations look steep. On price to book, banks are now back to the pre-crisis levels recorded at the start of 2020. Living up to the expectation implicit in such valuations is becoming increasingly hard.

Lex recommends the FT’s Due Diligence newsletter, a curated briefing on the world of mergers and acquisitions. Click here to sign up.

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Barclays criticised for underwriting US private prison deal




Barclays has attracted criticism for underwriting a bond offering by the US company CoreCivic to fund the building of two new private prisons, in a new dispute over Wall Street’s relationship with the controversial sector.

The UK-based bank said two years ago that it would stop financing private prison companies, but the commitment did not extend to helping them obtain financing from public and private markets.

About 30 activists and investors, among them managers at AllianceBernstein and Pax World Funds, have signed a letter opposing the $840m fundraising for two new prisons in Alabama, which was due to be priced on Thursday.

The signatories said the bond sale brings financial and reputational risk to those involved and urged “banks and investors to refuse to purchase securities . . . whose purpose is to perpetuate mass incarceration”.

Activists and investors who pay attention to environmental, social and governance issues have sought to cut off companies that profit from a US criminal justice system that disproportionately incarcerates people of colour. As well as raising ethical issues, many also say such financing may be a bad investment because legislators are increasingly calling for an end to the use of private players in the prison system.

While Barclays is not lending to CoreCivic, activists and investors attacked its decision to underwrite the deal, which is split between private placements and public issuance of taxable municipal bonds. The arrangement is “in direct conflict with statements made two years ago” when the bank announced it would no longer finance private prison operators, according to the letter.

Barclays said its commitment to not finance private prisons “remains in place”, adding it had worked alongside representatives from the state of Alabama to finance prisons “that will be leased and operated by the Alabama Department of Corrections for the entire term of the financing”.

CoreCivic said the Alabama facilities will be “managed and operated by the state — not CoreCivic. These are not private prisons. Frankly, we believe it is reckless and irresponsible that activists who claim to represent the interests of incarcerated people are in effect advocating for outdated facilities, less rehabilitation space, and potentially dangerous conditions for correctional staff and inmates alike.”

Barclays’ 2019 commitment to limit its work with private prison companies came as other banks, including Wells Fargo, JPMorgan Chase and Bank of America, also said they would stop financing the sector.

Critics said they were not sure why Barclays is differentiating between lending and underwriting.

“You’ve already taken the stance, the right stance, that private prisons and profiting from a legacy of slavery is bad,” said Renee Morgan, a social justice strategist with asset manager Adasina Social Capital, one of the signatories of the letter. “But then you’re finding this odd loophole in which to give a platform to a company to continue to do business.”

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Hedge funds post best start to year since before financial crisis




Hedge funds have navigated the GameStop short squeeze and the collapse of family office Archegos Capital to post their best first quarter of performance since before the global financial crisis.

Funds generated returns of just under 1 per cent last month to take gains in the first three months of the year to 4.8 per cent, the best first quarter since 2006, according to data group Eurekahedge. Recent data from HFR, meanwhile, show funds made 6.1 per cent in the first three months of the year, the strongest first-quarter gain since 2000.

Hedge fund managers, who often bet on rising and falling prices of individual securities rather than following broader indices, have profited this year from a rebound in the cheap, beaten-down so-called “value” stocks and areas of the credit market that many of them favour. Some have also been able to profit from bouts of volatility, such as the surge in GameStop shares, which turbocharged some of their holdings and provided opportunities to bet against overpriced stocks.

“We’re going into a market environment that is going to be more fertile for most active trading strategies, whereas for most of the past decade buying and holding the index was the best thing to do,” said Aaron Smith, founder of hedge fund Pecora Capital, whose Liquid Equity Alpha strategy has gained around 10.8 per cent this year.

The gains are a marked contrast to the first three months of 2020, when funds slumped by around 11.6 per cent as the onset of the pandemic sent equity and other risky markets tumbling. However, funds later recovered strongly to post their best year of returns since 2009.

This year, managers have been helped by a tailwind in stocks and, despite high-profile losses at Melvin Capital and family office Archegos Capital, have largely survived short bursts of market volatility.

It’s a “good market for active management”, said Pictet Wealth Management chief investment officer César Perez Ruiz, pointing to a fall in correlations between stocks. When stocks move in tandem, it makes it more difficult for money managers to pick winners and losers.

Among some of the biggest winners is technology specialist Lee Ainslie’s Maverick Capital, which late last year switched into value stocks. Maverick has also profited from a longstanding holding in SoftBank-backed ecommerce firm Coupang, which floated last month, and a timely position in GameStop. It has gained around 36 per cent. New York-based Senvest, which began buying GameStop shares in September, has gained 67 per cent.

Also profiting is Crispin Odey’s Odey European fund, which rose nearly 60 per cent, having lost around 30 per cent last year, according to numbers sent to investors.

Odey’s James Hanbury has gained 7.3 per cent in his LF Brook Absolute Return fund, helped by positions in stocks such as pub group JD Wetherspoon and Wagamama owner The Restaurant Group. Such stocks have been helped by the UK’s progress on the rollout of the coronavirus vaccine, which has raised hopes of an economic rebound.

“We continue to believe that growth and inflation will come through higher than expectations,” wrote Hanbury, whose fund is betting on value and cyclical stocks, in a letter to investors seen by the Financial Times.

Additional reporting by Katie Martin

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