Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Working in Equity Market-Neutral – A Q&A with ABACO Financials

ABACO Financials Fund is a market-neutral equity fund with a European bias dedicated to investing in the Financial sector. The portfolio of long/short positions is structured to generate absolute returns by capturing relative value within the sector while targeting low volatility. The return stream produced for their growing list of investors has a high proportion of alpha in it, and the returns have low correlation to markets and to most equity hedge funds. Given the significance of the finance sector to the market turmoil of 2008/9 and to the prospects of European economic recovery since, the fund has been interesting to follow, not least because of the excellent market letter the managers produce.

The three investment professionals in the team have different overlapping roles: Inigo Lecubarri comes from the sell-side and spends the majority of his time on research; Louis Rivera-Camino has a background in portfolio management and works across all aspects of running the portfolio, and the following Q&A was conducted with Martin Deurell whose primary responsibilities include trading and risk control for the fund. The interlocutor was Simon Kerr.

Q. You had a very good performance in 2008, an excellent 2009 for a market-neutral fund and somewhat disappointing 2010 to follow. What happened last year?

Out of financial funds we did okay, but we were up only 2% after fees, and we are very far from happy about that. There are a number of reasons why financial funds did not do as well as other long/short equity strategies last year, and the biggest of them was the impact of the macro environment.

The over-riding theme for financials in 2010 was definitely macro, and teams like the ones we have really concentrate on financials from the bottom-up. That is where our effort is concentrated - in building our deep understanding of the individual companies and the drivers of stock returns. Yes, we'd like to think that financial specialists like ourselves would have a better chance of understanding the impact of macro factors on the universe of stocks we follow, but that is not the same as being any better at forecasting the macro-environment.

Post fund launch in 2003 the biggest macro driver was EuroLand convergence – that lasted through to 2009 in various ways. Making money for a sector fund was mostly about the attractiveness of one stock versus another up until 2009 - and then it changed.

From the environment of 2008 onwards, only the funding issue remains the same in 2010 – so the issue for financials is not the cost of funding. The markets treated stocks the same whatever their cost of funding – they all went down without discrimination.

The second headwind we faced in 2010 was the lack of consistent, strong long-only flows and outflows in our sectors of the stockmarket. These flows are important for the well-informed investors (such as hedge funds, and prop capital) to position against and take advantage of. Investors in hedge funds correctly buy into the idea that their (hedge fund) managers are able to anticipate investing institutions moving into sectors and stocks like tracking elephants moving in a forest. But in 2010 the investing institutions didn't move – flows went into ETFs and indices (country selection) dominated. If other categories of investors buy a banking ETF to take exposures that doesn't help a fund like ours which is market-neutral, and needs differential returns within sectors to drive returns. We are starting to see signs of flows out of bond funds and into equity funds as an asset allocation switch, and if that persists at the retail, or institutional level, that is going to help us.

Q. Was there anything you could have done differently last year to take account of this macro dominance?

If I was being hyper-critical I would say that we didn't put enough effort into tracking the impacts of macro factors in real time - you know, looking at the CDS market and what they say about our stocks. I have traded options in the past, so I know that looking at the implications of CDS pricing is like a put option determining the pricing of the underlying equity. The CDS market says something about where a stock might trade, but the CDS is structured around extreme events, and in any event the CDS market is a lagging indicator. So yes the equity has tended to move in a 1:1 relationship with the CDS, but that type of relationship may be unique to the time we have just been through.

At this point it seems the analysts who follow the financials sector are putting a lot of emphasis on their own take of the macro environment. This could even be at an extreme. There is so much emphasis being put on the macro component that the macro may still drive the individual equities in the first half of 2011.

Q. Does this have any implications to how you shape your portfolio?

Well it doesn't mean that I want to take a directional net long posture to equities, or the equities of financial stocks. As a generalisation, exposure to equity in financials is less attractive than fixed income at this point.

I think you can look for a rights issue to be a trigger for individual stocks. From the time when banks raise new equity they seem to outperform – Deutsche Bank is a case in point. It has out-performed since it raised fresh equity capital. The capital-raising by Nordic banks certainly helped their stocks to perform, though admittedly the operating environment they faced was not as adverse as for banks in some of the other territories. There is going to be a lot of issuance of capital in financials – some big equity raisings are coming in the next few months because they have to happen.

Q. Is capital raising good or bad for the bank stocks then?

The capital raising helps in a couple of ways. In raising fresh capital the banks are taking positive steps to meet the tougher capital adequacy rules. Also when banks raise equity they take big write-offs – so the asset value of the remainder of the assets is perceived as a harder (more credible) number. That said a number of the banks with investment banking business are still tight on capital – Barclays, Deutsche Bank and the French (universal) banks – the Swiss banks are probably okay for capital.

There are cross currents in looking at investment banks. There are negative regulatory impacts for them – they have to raise fresh capital and/or cut the levels of leverage they employ. The margins in trading have to come down – not just outsourcing of trading, but the intermediation of exchanges in OTC will bring down margins through increased transparency. Where they do lending, the net interest income may be softer looking forward. But their commission income should be up, and the prospects for M&A are good so long as they don't get too competitive on fees. We have them in the Fund, but I don't have a strong view on them myself. I don't have to – my colleagues Inigo (Lecubarri) and Louis (Rivera-Camino) sponsor the investment holding-period positions in the investment banks into the Fund. I do trade them quite often, but as the trader of the team I can tap into the expertise of the others for a strong fundamental view.

Looking at universal banks with significant investment banking operations like Barclays is difficult – they have an investment banking operation as well as retail banking and an SME business. You can't look at your DCF model and say this is what Barclays Bank is worth. There are just so many parameters changing all the time, and such a balance sheet that you never quite know about the quality of assets. It is very difficult to pin down a risk/reward on a trade and say that this is worthwhile taking a position here, even doing peer group comparisons.

There are a lot of (sell-side) analysts working on investment banks, but they all seem to do the same thing. They want to understand how the business is doing in the next two quarters – but that only seems to be used to justify the current share price. And talking to management and reading Dealogic about issuance seems to be about as far as they go. Yes the deal flow is the gravy in the business model, but in the present environment in particular, investors have to understand the balance sheet. No -one pushes the management on the balance sheet, and management is reluctant to talk about it on a current basis.

Q. Given the American investment banks report quarterly, do they give you insight into the European banks, or they too much outside your scope?

For our scope of fund it is valid to look at Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs. Goldmans has proved to be a different animal than the others – it always bounces back. Their network amongst politicians is first class, and they deal for so many clients that they are right on top of what is happening in flows in sectors. So the trading record is outstanding for good reason, but then again proprietary trading will be wound down, and some top people there seem to be leaving. I have successfully traded GS shares last year, but I felt I was a child playing with fire in doing it, and I have less confidence in my risk taking there this year. In general we are not massive experts in trading things on that side of the pond.

Q. How do you work with the sell-side as an information source?

We use the sell-side analysts for generating and testing ideas on a theme, and for tactical level trading. The hedge fund world is not like private equity – so we don't have the luxury of fixing a fair value for a stock and waiting four years for that value to be realized. We have to deal with regular valuation and marking our P&L to market. That means we have to be more aware of what the market is doing to valuation in the shorter term, and what the market is thinking on a stock.

So we tap into what the sell-side comes up with for ideas – sometimes the brokers' analysts will highlight something that we have missed in our screening. Our role then is to filter what is a good idea and what is a bad idea, and do more work on them. Sometimes what you initially think of as a good long idea can turn into a short position once you have checked out the market positioning on a stock - if the idea reflects the consensus on a stock we might consider going the other way. So then it's a "Short" not a "Long" and we can investigate the timing of taking a position.

Q. So if you are not taking many recommendations what do you use the brokers' analysts for?

We think you have to know all the analysts in the sector to know where the consensus on a company is. They can tell you where "the market" is on a stock, analytically and in terms of market positioning (holdings). The brokerage analysts can plant a seed of an idea – something that could be developed. And if you can find a good analyst it is good to test our ideas with them – to bounce ideas off them. If you can find an analyst who takes the opposite view from you, that is also useful to an investor. You need to test your argument – if you are a bull you need to test out the case of a bearish analyst by talking through his thinking. So then you know whether it makes sense to go against him. That is very very useful for a sector specialist fund manager.

To give you an example in a tactical sense, when we are approaching a company's results announcement- say consensus is at one level and an analyst comes along with a forecast outside the consensus. We might look at it and say to ourselves that the non-consensus analyst is right and the consensus estimates are wrong. In that case we can go long, say, and when everyone upgrades their forecasts the stock will go up. Or maybe the nasty figures are already discounted, and again the stock will go up on the earnings release.

Q. How do you differentiate between the analysts?

Of course the longer you have been in the game the better you know which are the good, and which are the bad, amongst the sell-side analysts. Also with experience you can trust a certain analyst – I know he is good on that stock, and someone else is really good on that bank. To find the analyst that is the expert on the Street on a company is very powerful. If you know the one that has done the most work, that knows the company intimately from following them over a long period of time, it is worth a lot. You may be able to ignore the other analysts on the company. I admit that it is a rare thing, such confidence in an external analyst, where they are the clear number one or two in knowledge on a company. But it can have a good pay-off. It can put you as an investor in a psychological disposition where you can comfortably take bigger risk.

We are fortunate in that we have such an analyst working in our own team. Inigo has been the number one ranked analyst on Portugese and Spanish banks, and to some extent he can tell others about what is really going on! This gives us a genuine edge in some stocks compared to the market.

Q. Would you say there are differences between how a hedge fund would use a buy side analyst and a sell-side analyst?

There is a substantial difference between the buy-side and the sell-side analysts on the risk/reward for a view on a stock. The sell side analyst has to live with his recommendation for a lot longer period of time. We have the luxury on our side of being able to moderate our view, as expressed in our position size, as we go along.

Q. Your presentation shows you as having specific responsibility for risk control. Are you the one that has to place the stops on positions?

It is not just my input on this. I carry out the dealing for the Fund but my colleagues put their own ideas into the Fund, and they propose how wide the stops should be. I don't apply a blanket hard stop. What I prefer to do is to place the stop in proportion to the volatility of the stock. So a more highly volatile financial stock will have a wider stop on it than a stock which acts in a less volatile way.

Also it is not as straight-forward as it sounds - looking at one position in isolation. We have related positions in our portfolio, so we may have put on two (hedging) short positions against one long position. So the catalyst for action can't be one share price in isolation, even if the P&L on that may be negative – there could be a long position down 40% and the shorts are down 35%, for a net loss of 5%. So the trigger level of an 8% loss has not been reached and so the stop would not be effective even if the three stocks are each down more than 30%!

There is another factor in the frequency of taking losses - the size of the P&L of the whole Fund has an impact. When the fund is doing well, and the P&L is positive, it is natural that the balance sheet of the fund is higher than when we have had to take losses. So it is much easier to run the profitable positions, and not be compelled to close the losers when the whole fund has a positive P&L (for the year).

Investors in the fund should also appreciate that there are some exit tactics to be deployed. So even where there is a stop level, not the whole of the position is changed all at once. I prefer to sell, say, half a long position at a level and then wait to see how it reacts for the remainder.

Q. Thanks for your time, Martin. You have given us a good insight into how you work with the Street, and how you manage the volatility of your fund so well. Good luck with the alpha harvesting in 2011.


Terms: Management Fee: 1.5%, Performance Fee: 20%, Redemptions: Monthly, Lock Up: No

The interview was conducted on the 12th January 2011.

Another article on ABACO Financials Fund can be found here.

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