First Quarter Market Discussion
Modest returns in the major indices masked a volatile quarter caused by investors grappling for direction against a mixed economic backdrop.
The defensive mindset that took root in late 2015 dominated the first six weeks of the quarter as oil hit new lows and global economic prospects appeared weak. Widespread pessimism led to heavy selling, with nine of ten sectors in the Russell 2000® Value Index down. In response to concerns about tighter credit markets, balance sheets remained an area of focus and highly leveraged companies were hardest hit.
The trend abruptly reversed in mid-February, as shown, after a string of data came out that contradicted the negative outlook priced into equities. The more constructive tone benefited cyclical areas the most and was amplified by short sellers scrambling to cover positions in some of the hardest hit sectors.
A Tale of Two Halves
Source: FactSet Research Systems Inc., 1/4/2016 to 3/31/2016
Past performance does not guarantee future results.
Despite strong security selection in Consumer Discretionary and Utilities, the Fund lagged the Russell 2000® Value Index, returning -0.33% versus 1.70%. Holdings in Industrials and Materials underperformed on a relative basis, but the former held a top contributor. Allocation decisions were mostly additive: an overweight to Consumer Staples and underweight to Financials boosted performance. Limited exposure to Utilities detracted.
Energy swings. Energy holding Carbo Ceramics Inc. (CRR), a detractor, exemplifies the volatility that defined the quarter. After selling off in sympathy with the sector in January, the manufacturer of materials used in fracking rebounded sharply after reporting better than expected earnings. Shares got an additional boost as oil bounced and the company reported a significant customer had generated better results in the Utica shale using one of its new proppants. The strength faltered after a short seller published a note highlighting debt covenants that may need to be renegotiated. The stock was down on the report; however, the information included in the piece was already publicly known. We viewed the setback as an overreaction and purchased more shares on the dip.
We believe Carbo’s technology is superior and its products will be increasingly important when the sector recovers and drillers discover ways to maximize well pumping, thereby spreading fixed costs over a broader product offering.
Our Industrials holdings as a whole detracted, but the group contained a key contributor.
Labeled a winner. Brady Corp. (BRC) boosted results after reporting better than expected earnings on higher margins and improved guidance. The maker of safety labels and security products has been using free cash flow to pay down debt and benefited from cost cutting measures instituted in 2015.
Although management raised full-year guidance, there appears to be additional room for improvement. The consolidation and cost cutting undertaken last year should help the company continue to grow earnings even if sales are flat or slightly soft. Given its 3% dividend yield, 4% free cash flow yield, and that it is trading at 9x estimated 2017 earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization (EBITDA), Brady is attractively valued in our view. We believe it should continue to perform even if the economy softens.
Health check. The Portfolio’s Health Care holdings moderately lagged those in the Russell 2000® Value Index, and the group contained a key detractor. Invacare Corp. (IVC), a maker of health care products for home use, reported continued progress on its operational turnaround which drove the stock higher post earnings. However, the company subsequently issued a dilutive convertible debt offering in order to support new growth initiatives. The move was unanticipated by investors and resulted in selling pressure.
We continue to find the company attractive due to strong secular demand for home health care products. Invacare’s free cash flow should continue and its low debt levels are likely to help it withstand any unforeseen challenges.
We have taken volatility as an opportunity to upgrade quality in the portfolio by buying businesses that have idiosyncratic catalysts. Equity Commonwealth (EQC) is an example of a company we found attractive because of its unique positioning.
Traditionally, rich valuations and lackluster growth prospects have made it difficult for us to find compelling opportunities in the real estate investment trusts (REITs) space. Equity Commonwealth is an exception due to its value-oriented approach. The company owns primarily office space in Chicago, Philadelphia, Indianapolis, and Austin. The Trust has been selling low performing properties into what it considers an overvalued real estate market. The upshot is the company has been able to pay down debt and accumulate a large cash balance that can be used to payout dividends or buy properties later when real estate valuations recede from their current levels. We believe the company is a rare value in the REIT industry, trading at a 15% to 25% discount to our estimate of its intrinsic value.
Following where the research leads. Our search for steady, financially sound companies with solid growth prospects has led us to larger names. New additions this quarter had an average market cap of $2.1 billion versus the $1.2 billion weighted average market cap of the Fund.
Outlook and Positioning
Given a muddled global economic picture, it's conceivable volatility could persist for the next several months. While the push and pull of conflicting data may result in a stalemate for the direction of the indices, we believe it is part of the process of ushering in new market leadership. Some of the change may be starting to take shape as momentum stocks that enjoyed a strong run in 2014 and 2015 have lost steam and are now being outpaced by cyclically exposed areas of the market.
Against this backdrop, we remain committed to valuations and balance sheets. This dedication has resulted in a portfolio of names that have less debt, are larger, and are modestly more cyclical than in recent quarters. These names should perform well against various macro trends and benefit from strong idiosyncratic, company specific catalysts.
Thank you for the opportunity to manage your capital.