Clyde Rossouw discusses the quality investing approach for the year ahead with Lindsay Williams.
Lindsay Williams: With me now is Clyde Rossouw, Co-Head of Quality at Investec Asset Management in Cape Town. We are going to talk about a piece that he sent me a couple of days ago called Seeking Greater Certainty in Uncertain Times. Clyde, yes, they are uncertain times and it must be very difficult for you to sort of filter out the uncertainty with the certainty when it comes to stock selection and your bottom-up approach.
Clyde Rossouw: Yes. Well, look, in many respects I think that people are definitely being hamstrung in terms of the ability to make investment decisions because they are caught up in concerns about a variety of different big picture issues and we certainly can start listing them, from Trump all the way through to trade tariffs and all the letters of the alphabet in-between.
What we really want to sort of remind people about is that life is still going, there are still companies that are doing things, people are still eking out an economic existence and, when you look at constructing a portfolio that will make money throughout these times, the financial evolution of certain businesses is still pretty robust and we would just want to encourage people to sometimes focus a little bit more on the fundamentals and a little bit less on the headlines.
Lindsay Williams: Yes, of course. You are speaking to somebody who is in the media and has been in the media for a long time so I seek out headlines in order to embellish my show if you like but, on the other hand, you have to delve down, ignore it all and get back to basics.
Clyde Rossouw: Yeah, I am not saying that people should stick their heads in the sand and ignore the macro concerns, of which there are many. Obviously, those ultimately will spill through to economic fundamentals such as the performance of the currencies or ultimately policies.
Look, at the end of the day, what we are saying is that, if you look at 2018, which in many respects started with much promise on international markets and then ended with a whimper and a little bit of a thud in terms of stock market performance, particularly with an unwind of the US, that reset that we have seen, even although it produced a negative return for global stocks, we have got businesses for which we think the fundamentals are well ahead of where the share prices are as we march on into 2019.
What we are saying is that that is when we get quite excited about the prospects for investments. It is the opposite that applies that concerns us. When share prices are marching on and the fundamentals are not necessarily matching that, that is when we certainly get concerned.
So we are focussing on businesses that have a reasonable amount of built-in growth that they can deliver, are not overly financially risky and ultimately have the ability to compound consistently and that hasn’t changed. That has been a journey we have been on for the last 11-12 years. The stocks we own have changed but the basic gist of what we do has not.
Lindsay Williams: You say in the piece that you sent me in bold letters: “The 4 quality attributes we seek have not changed and are particularly suitable for current uncertain market conditions”, which is what you just said. Maybe go through those 4, if you would, and just reiterate the foundation of your fund management system.
Clyde Rossouw: Yes, sure. So look, again we start with businesses that have very strong and consistent returns on capital. That is the first and the foremost fundamentally important attribute. If a company has a strong business model, it ultimately will produce returns and hence financial results which are consistent and much less sensitive to the overall cycle.
If you look at what underlies all of that, it is, firstly, the underlying, very strong competitive advantage. Without a competitive advantage, you won’t produce high returns on capital. The second very important component around our fund strategy is not owning businesses that are overly sensitive to the broader economy, of which there is evidence that it is decelerating, or overly reliant on stock prices. So financials, in general, are businesses that do require broader and strong markets in order to seek out their existence.
So our sensitivity from a financial perspective is very low and then the third important characteristic is healthy balance sheets. We don’t like companies that have too much financial leverage. We think at this stage of the economic cycle – in 2008 all the leverage was sitting in the consumer sector and the banks. So whilst the banks are healthier today globally, there is a lot of evidence that corporates are potentially over-leveraged so we don’t want to be invested in those.
Then, lastly, you are not going to get anywhere in life unless the company actually produces very strong cash flows and, more importantly, is incredibly disciplined as to what it does with those cash flows over time and we have found that investing on those 4 key characteristics has proven to be pretty successful over extended periods of time.
Lindsay Williams: Yes and, talking about discipline, you say “maintaining the valuation discipline is important, particularly in uncertain markets” and I get the feeling that you think 2019 is going to be maybe not as uncertain as 2018 but certainly will have its uncertain moments.
Clyde Rossouw: Yes. Look, the key question here that we always have to ask is: are the markets actually pricing in uncertainty or are they not? The difference between 2018 and 2019 is that, generally, there is a little bit more of a broader acceptance in terms of the way in which many shares have performed in the latter half of 2018 that actually leaves us to draw the conclusion that more of the sort of lousy environment, tough environment is actually now being reflected more broadly.
That, of course, doesn’t mean we are going to escape anytime soon but it does certainly mean that the balance of risk, it is not an undiscounted risk that is under-appreciated by markets. As I said, from a long-term investor’s perspective, you typically get a better balance around the ability to start investing to sow the seeds for the next stage of the stock market cycle in terms of returns. Whether that occurs or doesn’t occur, we again think that the businesses we own will produce and will produce the investment outcomes and the earnings results that we are looking for and, over time, it is very hard for the share price of a business to lag behind very strong economic fundamentals. That will produce a tremendous opportunity if that disconnect exists.
Lindsay Williams: Clyde, thank you very much for your insight. That is Clyde Rossouw, who is the Co-Head of Quality at Investec Asset Management based in Cape Town.
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