The future of value investing
Lee Spellman: Welcome and greetings on a beautiful day in New York City. Thank you for joining us. I'm Lee Spellman, Head of US Equity here at JPMorgan Asset Management. I am excited to be joined by Larry Playford, CIO of our Value Team and Portfolio Manager of Mid-Cap Value and Small-Cap Value.
Over the next hour, we hope to shed some light on what we are seeing in the market. To facilitate this discussion, I’m going to pose some questions to Larry.
It's hard to believe it's been three months since the COVID lockdown began. Our entire US Equity team has been working remotely (unintelligible). Larry and I have both been in New York City for the duration. As you know, our city has been the epicenter for both COVID and the protest against (unintelligible). I'm happy to report that the city is getting back to normal. We no longer hear ambulance sirens to my great relief.
And while you can't go to a restaurant or do a lot of things that we would call normal, the streets are full and incidence of the virus has plummeted. I just saw a few minutes ago that the US Open is going to proceed in late August, of course without fans. But it is going forward. And Larry himself has come back to the office this week.
So things are returning to normal. But when will we see normal in terms of the economy and the market? And we hope to shed some light on that.
So let's begin. First, let's start with Larry. Larry has been at JPMorgan now for 27 years. He's a graduate of Notre Dame, a big fan of baseball. But maybe, Larry, you can just start with telling us a little bit about how you got where you are today.
Larry Playford: Sure. Thank you, Lee.
As you mentioned, I’ve now started my 27th year with the firm. And just maybe running through a few numbers around that, that's 19 years of the last 27 I’ve been in the US equity business, 16 of those 19 years I’ve been either an analyst or a portfolio manager on our Mid-Cap Value Strategy, and for the last three years I’ve been head of the Value Team here.
And as I joined the firm as a young accountant in the Finance Department, I certainly would not have planned a career that would last either this long or put me on a path that would ultimately have me leading a team of value investors. And I think that was really possible due to the fact that here at JPMorgan, I’ve had the benefit of being surrounded by such smart and accomplished professionals throughout my entire career and I’ve been able to continue to learn from the people around me and evolve based on what I learned from them.
And really what keeps me here today and what keeps me thrilled to be a JPMorgan employee is the fact that we have that culture. We believe in our talent. We've got smart, intelligent, insightful people, and I come to work - or I guess I shouldn’t really use that phrase "come to work," right? We work together virtually and I learn from my colleagues and my peers and it's just a fascinating place to learn and grow and I hope to be able to do that for many years to come.
Lee Spellman: So just to get started about value, as we all know for most of the last many, many decades, value stocks have outperformed growth. But we've seen a sharp reversal of that trend over the past decades. And even post-COVID, growth has continued to outpace value. Every so often, like in the early part of this month, we see value roar back and there's been some signs of life.
So maybe, Larry, you can give us a little insight into what's been driving that and what you see going forward.
Larry Playford: Well, maybe I'll kind of walk backwards a little bit and walk forward to the point where we could talk about how value has been performing more recently. And when I think back over the last decade, what's known to everyone at this point is the fact that there's been this enormous divergence between growth and value. And more recently, you know, over the last two years but definitely in the last six months, there's been a lot of analysis and research applied to this notion of what's driving the gap between value and growth.
Now, normally I don’t approach things from a very macro basis or quantitative basis. But from a bottom-up fundamental basis, I have had suspicions as to what has been driving this. And we've tried to look at things a little more closely just given the size of the anomaly that's opened up. And fundamentally, the notion that I have for the last several years is that value has been earning some of its underperformance. A lot of the companies that we see that dominate the value indices have been performing quite poorly in terms of creating shareholder value.
So what we did recently was look at the entire universe, which I’ll define as the Russell 3000. And I’ve gone through and sorted the universe or ranked the universe in terms of their performance on what I would call "economic profit," sometimes referred to as "economic value-added." And this is really a notion of sort of fundamental business value creation. It’s a measure of who is deploying capital at rates of return above their cost to capital and who is increasing it and who is deploying capital at attractive rates. And what I found when I analyzed the entire universe using these metrics, so scoring companies based on the level of their returns as well as the direction that they’ve been driving those returns going forward.
And what I found sort of confirmed my bottom-up fundamental intuition which is the value side, particularly mid and small, has really been underperforming growth and large cap. So for example, the big dichotomy that’s emerged from the market is the weakest fundamentals as measured by economic profit, right, so this is not sales growth, this is not EPS growth; this is real fundamental economic value-added, small-cap value stock has just not been doing it in recent years.
Conversely, large-cap growth stocks, a lot of the stocks that are high profile, discussed on the front pages, CNBC daily, they really have been delivering the goods when it comes to economic profit. And there’s been this enormous performance disparity that’s then underpinning the valuation disparity that’s emerged between the two groups.
Lee Spellman: Has that come down however to sectors and the fact that value ends up with a lot of, you know, energy, industrials, financials and growth ends up with technology and healthcare?
Larry Playford: That’s a big part of it. Where we’ve seen a lot of that strong performance is in those sectors. Healthcare companies getting a payback on their research and development; tech companies getting payback on their software development efforts. And what we’ve seen where we’ve seen such strong performance in those sectors, the more traditional economic sectors, the more cyclical sectors including the financials have not been growing their economic profit at the similar rates. And what’s been interesting over the last three to five years has been the persistency of that phenomenon.
So if you look at a given point in time, typically if you find the bottom performers in terms of economic profit and then you look at them a year later, typically about 25% of them will successfully structure and improve the results and sort of migrate up and out of that poor performer category. And what we’ve seen in recent years is that success rate of turnaround has been falling and as low as 15% in recent years compared to the more historic average of about 20% to 25%. Likewise...
Lee Spellman: Why do you think this is?
Larry Playford: ...well, I think there’s been a fundamental economic issue that’s developed in recent years and it’s sort of below nominal GDP rates that we’ve been experiencing in recent years, coupled with low inflation and low interest rates. It hasn’t been providing a great backdrop for companies to d the heavy lifting they need to do in order to fix things. You know, sometimes when you’re going through a restructuring and you’re doing all that hard work about deciding what has to (unintelligible) to close or how to reconfigure your workforce, ultimately, sometimes it’s helpful to have a little bit of an economic tailwind to help sort of ignite that along and get you past those difficulties.
But I think what we’ve seen in sort of a sluggish, it hasn’t been bad but it hasn’t been good, in the sluggish nominal GDP zone we’ve been in for several years, with no inflation, right? So no good inflation; just sort of price is generally rising out of strong demand. And without rising interest rates that kind of help the financial sector get a good return on their assets. A lot of the ingredients that you typically see for value stocks to successful restructure and improve, it’s not that they’ve been absent but they haven’t been particularly strong.
And I think that’s probably the change that we’ll need in the outlook going forward to take value from just perhaps a more tactical rally like we’ve seen lately. So there is a large gap between valuations in the large-cap growth space and the small-cap value space and growth and value generally. And when optimism returns to the market, sometimes we get some very sharp tactical trading opportunities where value just outperforms because there’s big distance between it and growth and sometimes in very short period of time, the market is going to try to close that gap to a certain extent.
But to have a more prolong take, a more prolong period where value can really show leadership at the market, I think we’re going to need some combination of not just rising GDP but, you know, getting into nominal GDP rates at or a little above or under 2%, maybe seeing some benign inflation associated with that rising GDP and higher rates as well. And I think if you have that environment on a more sustainable basis, I think that provides a strong foundation for a more enduring value rally.
Now I’m not here to tell you that in the next GDP revival, that’s how it’s going to play out. I think a lot of people who are smarter than me have sort of been fooled by the lack of inflation and the lack of rising interest rates that we’ve had not just for the last couple of years but for the last five, six, seven years.
I do think at some point that is likely to change. But I’m not here to tell you today when that will change because at the end of the day, I’m just not sure of when that’s going to change.
So let me get to the point. I think that’s when you really open the door to a more enduring leadership from the value side.
Lee Spellman: Given that we don’t know the timing of when that might happen, maybe just step back for a moment and I think it’d be helpful for you to describe in terms of (philosophy) and why you focus specifically on mid cap.
Larry Playford: Well, the philosophy, that’s been in place for our strategies for the duration, has been the notion to invest in quality companies at a reasonable valuation.
Now how we define quality says a lot in terms of how this works over time. And typically to us, we’ve defied quality as a company with durable cash flows, high return on invested capital and strong management. And management really is a crucial factor in all of this and it’s sometimes a little qualitative in terms of how we need to assess management. But what we’re looking for is management teams that aside from operating a strong business, which I think is sort of the minimum requirement, that they have a very flexible approach to capital allocation which is defined by the notion that they want to deploy capital to increase intrinsic value per share.
And what I mean by that is if I think about the major capital allocation decisions that a management team can make other than just operating your business, you know, they can deploy capital into their business organically, right? They can invest in capital spending and R&D in their own business. They can acquire other businesses. They can pay dividends. They can buy back stocks. Or perhaps if they’ve used some debts to do acquisitions that they can allocate capital to reducing debt.
That series of decision, it’s a pretty finite and short list of major decisions that management teams can make. And what we want is management teams now take a flexible approach and an opportunistic approach. We’re trying to find the management teams that understand that there are times when you might want to acquire other businesses and there’s times where you want to buy back your own stock. Or there’s times where you may want to use leverage to acquire other business and there’re times where you could take the cash flow from your business and reduce some debt.
And we’ve always found historically that when you find that combination of a business that has a good cash flow, durable cash flow, those less cyclical typically than its peers and the market, and a management team that knows how to allocate that capital, you can really end up with a very long duration, self-fulfilling value creation path. And those are the kind of names when you find them that they can be in the portfolio not just for two or three years but for five years and ten years. And, you know, we’ve got a handful of names in the portfolio that have been there for 15 plus years. And the ones that can be in the portfolio that long are the ones that have this formula and this flexibility and this culture of capital allocation and enhancing intrinsic value per share.
And on the valuation side, when we find those companies, we’re really not looking to find them at deep value-type valuation. I mean, the market is usually fairly efficient, and though it’s a good company (unintelligible). But what we do look for is those opportunities to find high-quality companies when they’re reasonably valued.
And typically what that means is you have to be a little contrarian. There’s usually some shorter-term issues that the market is fixated on and we try to take advantage of that. And if we can find very good businesses at average prices, we’ve always felt that we’ll do a good job of generating consistent absolute returns over time. And if we do that well, we’ve probably got a good chance of generating consistent relative performance as well. And that’s been the goal all along.
And then you mentioned why mid-caps. When it comes to mid-caps, when the strategy began when my co-manager Jonathan Simon launched the strategy over 20 years ago, he didn’t explicitly set out to run a mid-cap strategy. What really happened was he found that mid-cap in general as a space had that great sweet spot between the large mega-cap that everyone follows that it’s hard to have incremental insight on when so many people are following, say, Exxon Mobil or Johnson & Johnson. Right? You have the sweet spot of strong, mature businesses yet they’re still small enough or less small that there’s opportunities to find companies that are less followed and where you have an opportunity to get to know management a little more directly and a little specifically and have more opportunities to talk to them and really understand how they think.
And I think that’s what really sort of led Jonathan and our team into this mid-cap space, finding that sweet spot where these are very mature, very successful companies, yet in terms of their overall prominence in the equity markets, they’re not so prominent that you don’t get access to management or that they’re over-followed or just such diverse platform businesses that it’s hard to have a specific insight into them.
Lee Spellman: We haven’t really talked about where you see the best opportunities right now.
Larry Playford: Some of the deepest value sectors that have emerged in the last two to three years unfortunately have been some of the sectors where we’ve always had very full exposure of the mid-cap strategy. And I’m talking about the financial sector and the consumer sector.
Now two very different things have been happening in those two sectors. All right? In the consumer sector, it’s just been harder and harder and harder to bricks-and-mortal retail to navigate the environment as sales have been moving online. Now there are examples of companies that have embraced what it’s called omnichannel strategies where, you know, someone like a Best Buy has been very good at having their customers be indifferent between how they order in terms of stores versus online, how they exchange things. But there’s still lots of work to be done in the sector. And COVID has only made that worse.
And that’s been the frustration that some of the companies where we see good cash flow and good balance sheets and managements have been working hard on restructuring for several years now. It just hasn’t paid off. But I suspect the companies that do have the good balance sheets and the cash flow to sustain them through this period ultimately will reach those critical success points in their turnaround. And as that happens on an individual company basis, I think there’s probably going to be some pretty strong stock performance around that.
Conversely in the financial sector, it really hasn’t been about online competition but it’s really been about the interest rate environment. And one thing that’s been disappointing about the sector more recently is the fact that we came into this environment thinking that the bank balance sheets are stronger now than they were going into this financial crisis 12 years ago and credit quality was higher.
And although the stocks have performed (as if that’s not) the case, we’ve done a lot of hard work in recent months sort re-underwriting our investment in all of our banks. And what we found is if we sort of calculate what a full significant credit cycle is going to look like for these companies over the next 12 months, what we find is their balance sheets can absorb the credit losses and that most of them, if not all of them, won’t even have to reduce their dividends along the way, which was very different from where we were in the global financial crisis when banks not only had to cut their dividends; they had to seek external capital.
We don’t see that happening this time around and I’m hopeful that as the market comes to see that the credit losses will be contained, that they can be absorbed by the balance sheets and that dividends will hold, I’m optimistic that the financial sector could finally show some leadership in the market.
So really financials and consumer I think are good opportunities. And then similar to that, in the REIT sector, a lot of deep value has emerged in some of the landlords to the consumer stocks and the retailers. And likewise I think that the ability of those companies to restructure to find new tenants has been underestimated and some of those stocks have gotten very cheap on their cash flow. And I suspect that concurrent to any enthusiasm returning to the consumer sector and concurrent with any successful turnaround in a consumer sector, you’re going to see some pretty significant turnarounds in the retail REITs. And I think that’s probably another area in the intermediate term which seems like a good opportunity out there.
Lee Spellman: You had said earlier that low GDP inflation and rates hurt most businesses. Wouldn’t low rate help businesses because debt is cheaper, therefore offsetting the lower growth?
Larry Playford: That’s been true. And unfortunately from a growth versus value perspective, I think some of those (growthier) names have really been able to capture the benefit of abundant capital where they’ve really been able to access capital and grow where the opportunities existed; whereas on the value side where the growth opportunities have been more challenged, it hasn’t been just enough to sort of take on debt and perhaps buy back your shares, although some companies have done that. You know, ultimately, companies need to grow and need to grow economic profit to really deliver shareholder value. And abundant and cheap capital can be very helpful to that. And I think the growth side and some of the success stories you see on the growth side have really been able to exploit that.
On the value side, companies really haven’t been able to exploit that other than to give them a good source of funds to buy back share. Companies have done that. Share buyback when your stock is cheap and trading below intrinsic value is a good thing and I think we’ve seen a lot of that on the value side.
So what’s been missing? And I think the missing ingredient on the value side has been strong performance in economic profit and successful restructuring and, you know, getting things going in the right direction. And although abundant and cheap credit is helpful, it’s not really sufficient for that to turn itself into market leadership.
Lee Spellman: Hey, you also mentioned earlier that assessing the management quality is essential to your investment process. Have you found any challenges in this period where everyone is working remotely to have the kind of connectivity and information you need from management team?
Larry Playford: You know, that’s actually a very interesting question. One thing that has surprised me in the work-from-home environment going beyond just the fact that how we were able to reposition our own workforce and keep our own connectivity together as a team and as an organization, what I didn’t anticipate is how proactive management teams are going to be in terms of reaching out to shareholders during this time. And I guess maybe I should have realized it early on but it’s easier than ever for management teams to meet with investors.
So typically, the way the process works of meeting with the management team is either we travel to them or they travel to us. And being based in New York City and being part of JPMorgan, we’ve always been fortunate that we are often on the travel plans of management teams of companies we invest in or we’d like to invest in in the future.
So as that activity went to zero, what we found was there are massive outreach from the investor relations department at the companies we invest in. We’ve been Zooming and having conference calls with management teams at a pace that I find unprecedented. We had a conference call with one of our long-term holdings this morning, now the CFO of Sherwin Williams. And, you know, as I went through my calendar over the last week, we probably have calls with a dozen companies.
So it’s actually been somewhat easier to maintain those dialogues with the companies. And I’m optimistic that as we go forward, that’s going to be easier to have connectivity with management teams than had been in the past.
Lee Spellman: So, Larry, I know that after many years of managing mid-cap values, two years ago, you launched a small-cap value strategy. What was the thinking behind that and what was the opportunity you saw?
Larry Playford: You know, I’ve always thought that any passionate value investor has a soft spot for small caps. And if you think back to the comments I made earlier in the call about mid-caps representing that sweet spot between having a good, stable, mature business yet not being sort of a mega-cap that is so diversified and so well followed that it’s hard to have insights. You can actually take that a lot further when you go down into the small-cap space.
There’re companies out there - I mean, you know, Russell 2000 Value Index has 1400 or so companies in it of all shapes and sizes, many of them have no formal Wall Street sell-side sponsorship in terms of analysts who cover them. And it’s just fascinating when you can stumble across the company that’s not well known, not well followed when we can look at it based on some of the same criteria we use in mid cap. So, you know, who’s getting a good return, who’s generating economic profit, who’s driving shareholder value, who’s allocating capital.
And sometimes we find these little gem companies. It’s always really been sort of a side area of interest that we’re fortunate to have the opportunity to start doing it officially. And we did so in an environment where small-cap values for many years had been underperforming the other major asset classes. So I think it set us up in a situation where there was value out there, there were cheap stocks out there. A lot of them are unfollowed and underappreciated.
Now, you know, maybe this is a broken clock, right, twice-a-day thing because we started the strategy and actually small-cap value as an asset class has been horrendous since we started it. I do remain committed to the notion that it’s going to recover and that, you know, potentially going to recover strong at some point in time. We’ve been fortunate that we’ve been fairly defensive since we launched it and we’ve held up fairly well relative to the universe. But really, I think people end up in small-cap value with the notion that you’re going to play some offense, not defense. And hopefully over time, the market will give us an opportunity to participate (unintelligible) absolute positive returns rather than strong relative negative returns.
Lee Spellman: And what’s your thinking about buybacks? Do you think that there is now some political pressure against companies buying back as much as they have in the past?
Larry Playford: I think the one that’s (unintelligible) to the political arena, it’s a bit of a sideshow. You know, at the end of the day, I don’t think the Federal Government is going to really be able to interfere with how companies allocate capital.
From a policy standpoint - and this is at the company level, not at the government level. From a policy standpoint, there is not one size fits all in terms of who should be buying back stock and whether or not it’s value creative. And this goes back to that flexibility point about capital allocation that we’re talking about earlier.
We expect management teams when their stock is trading below intrinsic value, now granted there’s a lot of art that goes into the notion of what your intrinsic value is, but companies who have strong balance sheets are generating cash and their equity is trading below intrinsic value per share, it is value creative to buy back those shares and I do encourage it in companies that are in that situation.
Now the reality is not every company is in that situation where perhaps a lot of companies feel they’re trading below their intrinsic value per share. But not all of those companies have strong balance sheets and strong cash flow to back it up. So, you know, I think mature companies with good cash flows and good balance sheets and where you can sort of readily ascertain that the stock is below intrinsic value, I think absolutely, stock buyback should be on the table.
I think unfortunately, a lot of companies - but most management teams always think their stock is too cheap. But a lot of them, if they don’t have good cash flow, they don’t have a good balance sheet, a lot of times they use leverage to do that, which that tends to come back to haunt you. And I think it’s time to be careful.
So I think to the extent that stock buybacks are controversial, whether it’s politically or in the financial world, I think it’s because people sometimes talk about them as if it’s a one size fits all as in everyone should buy back stock or no one should buy stock. And I think there’s a lot more nuance to it and I think it’s a very company specific analysis that should drive it.
Lee Spellman: Another question here is about supply chains and globalization. Will smaller and mid-cap stocks be disproportionately hurt relative to their larger-cap brethren if we do have more change in supply chains, moving more domestically, less globalization? How do you factor that into your thinking?
Larry Playford: Yes. You get into a lot of company by company nuance on something like that. But keep in mind, one of the things that I like about investing in mid-caps and now small caps is, overall, we’re talking about more straightforward, more domestically oriented companies who don’t necessarily have the massively complex global supply chain that you see in the large-cap space.
And that’s not to say that the average mid-cap company doesn’t have a global supply chain. Many of them do. But relative to their large-cap peers, there’s just a lot more pure domestic exposure. And to the extent that the supply chains go to either Mexico or China for low-cost advantage, it’s fairly simple, straightforward supply chain, not necessarily with the complexity of, you know, several intermediary stop points for goods that are refinished and repurposed and repackaged.
So I tend to be more optimistic that when there is some combination of trade wars or a retrenchment of global supply chain. I tend to be more comfortable that the small cap can actually - and mid-cap have a better chance of navigating that with less disruption. I don’t think this will have no disruption but because I think it’s a much more straightforward proposition for many of these companies.
Lee Spellman: Another question. This is an election year. How do you factor that into your thinking?
Larry Playford: We’ve always shied away from stocks with significant political outcomes required. And that’s not to say we don’t invest in sectors like healthcare where obviously, from a policy standpoint, the political process could play into it. And sure, you know, we can kind of run through each sector and say well, in the energy sector there’s proposed bans on fracking or (not) bans on fracking and, you know, we can kind of go through different sectors and point to different political risks. But overall, we tend to shy away from the more kind of binary outcomes of stocks that you would, you know, want to avoid or own if a particular candidate or party is in control.
I suspect that 2020 has been such a strange year at so many levels. And one thing that's been trending now is the fact that it's an election year. And for the most part, here we are on June 16, and we really haven't been talking about the election. I suspect that over the summer, that is going to have to change. The elections will come more into the forefront, and that's going to happen at the same time that, you know, a lot of the fiscal stimulus that we enacted, is going to start wearing off.
So the emergency supplemental, unemployment benefits, are set to expire, I believe, at the end of July. The amount of period that the PPP loans were designed to help small businesses get through, sort of wind down as you get through the summer into the fall. And then you're going to have an election on top of that.
I think what that means to me is it's probably going to get volatile, and it's probably going to be unpredictable in terms of whether or not the consensus shifts to there being more stimulus or less stimulus, whether these things get renewed or not. It's going to play out in unpredictable ways. We've always taken the approach, let's try not to be smarter than the market when it comes to political outcomes.
Let's try not to position the portfolio consciously because we think a particular candidate or party is going to be influential. And let’s stick to what we do know, which is try to find the good businesses that should win over the long run.
Lee Spellman: Well, we’re coming to a close, and Larry, I want to thank you very, very much for sharing your views with everyone. We hope you enjoyed today’s discussion and found it helpful. For more information on anything that was discussed, please reach out to your JPMorgan client advisor. Again, thank you for participating today.
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