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Equity Perspectives

How Todd Jacobson, Lord Abbett Partner & Portfolio Manager, and Edward Allinson, Portfolio Manager, Lord Abbett International Equity, find under-researched and undervalued small cap stocks in all parts of the world

In an age of increasing globalization and wrenching volatility, it takes a “big toolbox” of tactics and experience to hammer out an effective investment strategy, especially when it comes to international small caps—an asset class that has become increasingly popular in recent years with both retail and institutional investors.

That’s the metaphor Todd Jacobson and Edward Allinson often use to describe their unique combination of skills, company, and country knowledge, with an average of more than 27 years of industry experience that allows them to spot investment opportunities across sectors and geographies. If they find a good idea in one part of the world, they try to find ways (and places) to play the same.

Before joining Lord Abbett 10 years ago (along with four other members of his team at Warburg Pincus), Jacobson managed funds that specialized in technology, Japan, and EAFE (an abbreviation that refers to the MSCI EAFE Index,1 which focuses on Europe, Australasia, and the Far East). Allinson, who joined Lord Abbett in 2005, also had experience managing an EAFE portfolio, as well as ACWI (an abbreviation that refers to the MSCI All Country World Index,2 which covers 44 countries in developed and developing markets alike), global, Pacific, Europe, and emerging markets funds. At different points in their careers, they each spent considerable time living and working in Asia. Jacobson lived in Japan and became especially knowledgeable about technology and industrial companies. Allinson lived in Hong Kong, an ideal venue to broaden his emerging market experience; he would later specialize in financial, energy, and business services companies. These experiences have enabled both men to identify growth opportunities and to recognize value in areas with little if any sell-side research coverage.

“We look at a variety of companies in small cap,” Jacobson said. “They may be best of breed, with a long track record, quality management, and strong niches they dominate. They may be younger companies with true growth potential—for example, in relatively new industries, such as solar, e-commerce, or other ways to play the Internet. Or simply overlooked companies, whose intrinsic value may have been underestimated by the market.”

“In either case, stock selection hinges on a tremendous amount of primary research in dozens of countries,” Allinson added. “We’re very proactive about building relationships with management, along with extensive industry contacts, whether it’s here in Jersey City, in their host country, at conferences, or over the phone. Overall, our team meets with more than 1,000 companies a year.”

Finding opportunities and recognizing value
If Jacobson and Allinson like a company’s leadership, industry position, and fundamentals, the key thing they look for is a catalyst that will unlock the perceived intrinsic value of the stock.

Take, for example, a French auto parts company that was once so far out of favor that no U.S. institutional investor would touch it for fear that it would suffer the same type of decline as that country’s auto manufacturers. But closer examination revealed that this wasn’t just a French auto parts company. Rather, it was a global enterprise that made lightweight plastic bumpers and fuel systems that were becoming the industry norm, given the secular trend toward stricter mileage standards. More important, the French company was a global leader in terms of quality, cost, and efficiencies.

“One of the reasons for investor apathy was that the company was in a heavy capital investment phase,” Allinson recalled. “It was building factories in Brazil and China to take advantage of large contracts with automakers, but wasn’t seeing higher sales yet, which was a big drag on the stock. We believed the company wasn’t being valued correctly because those sales were a certainty and because big deals like theirs typically don’t get broken. Once those sales came through, however, the company attracted more research coverage and more U.S. investors.”

Following the global financial revolution
Jacobson and Allinson navigated the aftermath of the global financial crisis by significantly underweighting the financial sector in Europe for many years. Instead, they invested in Indonesia and the Philippines, because those countries didn’t have debt problems and they have banks and real estate companies with strong growth cycles.

This is not to say there is no way to “play” the battered European financial sector. Perhaps the most notable opportunity was investing in the largest debt collector on the Continent. After all, beleaguered banks had all kinds of nonperforming loans on their books and were eager to get them off their balance sheets. This particular European company made its money by buying up the portfolios of bad debt that the banks were selling off, which were primarily credit card and telephone obligations (both landline and cellular). In an effort to extend that theme, the team also invested in the first and only listed bad debt purchaser in the United Kingdom, and a leader in its field.

“At first, we weren’t really sure about that business model,” Allinson said. “But we became a lot more comfortable after comparing notes with our U.S. counterparts, who had owned a similar company for years. The more we thought about the parallels, the more we focused on how European banks would have to recognize and spin off bad debt in order to recapitalize themselves.”

Playing retail’s digital fitness
When it comes to assessing investment opportunities in the retail sector, much depends on where a given company stands in relation to the Internet and its many manifestations. With the help of Lord Abbett research analyst Lovey Morse, Jacobson and Allinson have been able to avoid retailers that were unable to respond to such transformative technology. They would rather look at retailers that have been able to leverage their brands and merchandising via an increasingly digital strategy.

 Against that backdrop, Jacobson and Allinson have been long-time investors in an online emporium that enables leading fashion and design brands around the world to outsource their digital strategies and expand their distribution without spending a fortune on new technology platforms.

What makes this such an enduring investment theme? One reason is that few luxury brands have embraced online as a distribution channel. As a result, the growth potential is quite significant. Altagamma-McKinsey Observatory, for example, predicts more than $20 billion in global online luxury sales in 2016. While such a figure would translate to about 5% of the total market, Altagamma-McKinsey’s researchers also expect that more than half of total retail sales will likely be influenced by online that year.3

“Luxury brands have to treat their online channel as a seamless part of their overall channel strategy,” said Bain partner Claudia D’Arpizio. “[And they] find themselves having to adapt by bringing in the level of detailed customer insight [and scientific tools] that food or drink brands need to drive growth.”4

Benefiting from the U.S. and U.K. housing recovery
Jacobson and Allinson were fairly early in identifying international companies that stood to benefit from a turnaround in U.S. housing. One of the best examples was a power tool company in Hong Kong that does 35% of its sales with Home Depot, thanks to a combination of powerful brands and leading-edge technologies.

Another interest the two portfolio managers had in the U.S. housing recovery was lumber stocks in Canada. While orders from the United States help drive sales and profits, additional demand for Canadian lumber came from China, which had previously bought its lumber from Russia. “Chinese demand alone is the equivalent of 300,000 housing units,” Jacobson said.

 Jacobson and Allinson also had some success with an indirect beneficiary of the housing recovery in both the United States and United Kingdom: an equipment rental company that does a lot of business supplying civil works projects, such as roads and sewers that surround housing development. Aside from a stronger recovery than any of its peers, the company is benefiting from a significant restructuring at its biggest counterpart in the United States and has the potential to continue such growth for the next six to 12 months, Jacobson said.

Elsewhere in the U.K. housing recovery, Jacobson and Allinson’s strategy benefited from owning a house builder and a manufacturer of high-end kitchens.

Headhunters of the world—unite!
When it comes to deep-value plays, Allinson harkens back to the international small cap team’s first foray into the global staffing arena shortly after the 2008–09 financial crisis. Two of the largest firms had shrunk from large cap stocks to small cap stocks, but because they were industry leaders, their long-term upside potential still seemed attractive. As the global economy bounced back from recession, that investment thesis proved correct, and those two big headhunters became large caps again.

Since then, Jacobson and Allinson have been interested in three distinctly different staffing companies, assuming more and more corporations will outsource their recruiting functions and increasingly rely on temporary workers to lower their overhead. One of those staffing companies focuses on engineering and energy jobs, and has built a strong reputation for staffing large and small projects all over the globe. The second is a broad-based staffing firm. The third specializes in executive recruiting. The common denominator is a deep reservoir of industry contacts, logistical expertise, and country knowledge—exactly what major multinationals need to deploy skilled workers in remote locations when timing is critical.

“These three firms are all global, they’re all gaining market share, and they’re all enjoying a secular growth trend,” Allinson said.

Looking ahead
After cutting their emerging markets exposure in May 2013, Jacobson and Allinson recently spent more than two weeks in Asia prospecting for new investment opportunities, given how much valuations had corrected.

Indonesia, for example, still looked doubtful. With the country’s equities market down about 20% in 2013 (in U.S. dollars, according to Bloomberg), investors were still concerned about the macro outlook in the run-up to the presidential election in July. The central bank had raised interest rates five times. Higher borrowing costs made companies more cautious about expansion plans, and that was before the U.S. Federal Reserve’s decision to taper its monthly bond purchases.

U.S. monetary policy also affected stock prices in the Philippines, but with the economy there still booming thanks to sound fiscal policy and strong demographics, some stocks appeared to have been oversold, particularly companies the team had owned in the past.

 As for Japan, Jacobson remains very upbeat following aggressive expansionist monetary policies, even though key structural reforms remain elusive. “Corporate Japan did a very good job reworking its cost structure in recent years,” he said, “and when the yen rose above 100 yen to the U.S. dollar, its industrial sector became very competitive on a global basis.”

While Japan (as defined by the Topix5) was the best-performing market in Asia in 2013, it was still selling at 30% below its 2007 highs, compared with the United States (as defined by the S&P 500® Index6), which was selling 15% above its 2007 highs, and Europe (as defined by the EURO STOXX 50 Index7), which was selling 20% below, according to Bloomberg. As a result, Jacobson and Allinson returned from their latest trip with a particular interest in Japan’s export sector as well as information technology (IT) service companies whose clients are finally thinking of growth again and reinvesting in IT infrastructure.

“Japan is increasingly getting better,” Jacobson said. “You’re starting to see shortages of labor. Demand is picking up—wages, not so much yet. Real estate is a lot better. Clearly, there is a capex cycle, and we confirmed it’s broadening out to small and medium-size enterprises.”

All of which underscores his team’s ability to spot opportunities in all kinds of economic environments.

—Reported by Steve Govoni

International Small Cap Research in Action

Ask Todd Jacobson and Edward Allinson, Lord Abbett Portfolio Managers, and Lovey Morse, a Lord Abbett Research Analyst, about the benefits of extensive travel, and you'll likely hear how on-the-ground research has led to better stock picking. Consider the following examples:

  • Luxury store tours in Paris, Italy, and the United States pointed to a well-known company’s products and merchandising that have significant upside potential and which bolstered their confidence in the potential for margin improvement.
  • Visiting a shoe factory in Italy as well as talking to a U.S. department store buyer led to a decision to exit the luxury sector early in the financial crisis.
  • Visiting pastures in Inner Mongolia increased their understanding of dairy production and distribution in China. After getting an up-close look at how the cow-milking process (three different ways) gets to the final milk and infant formula product stage at two different factories, they avoided the Chinese dairy sector because of several contamination crises.
  • Understanding shoe manufacturing in Italy made the team more comfortable about purchasing shoemakers in Brazil and China. Visiting the Chinese company’s factory and showrooms in Shanghai was especially helpful.
  • Visiting an athletic footwear factory in Shenzen, China, after the 2008 Beijing Olympics revealed that there was a glut of supply in the distribution channel, so they avoided the stock.
  • Visiting a global beer company's brewery in China gave them confidence in the company's growth opportunity in that nation and its ability to post better profits.
  • Visiting a leading eyeglass factory and logistics center in Italy led them to buy stock in one of its competitors

 

1 The MSCI EAFE Index (Europe, Australasia, Far East) is a free float-adjusted market-capitalization index that is designed to measure the equity market performance of developed markets, excluding the United States and Canada. The MSCI EAFE Index consists of the following 21 developed market country indexes: Australia, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Singapore, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom.

2 The MSCI ACWI Index is a free float-adjusted market-capitalization-weighted index that is designed to measure the equity market performance of developed and emerging markets. The MSCI ACWI consists of 44 country indexes comprising 23 developed and 21 emerging market country indexes. The developed market country indexes included are: Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Singapore, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The emerging market country indexes included are: Brazil, Chile, China, Colombia, the Czech Republic, Egypt, Greece, Hungary, India, Indonesia, Korea, Malaysia, Mexico, Peru, the Philippines, Poland, Russia, South Africa, Taiwan, Thailand, and Turkey.
3 "2016 Personal Luxury Goods Digital Market Size Estimate," Digital Luxury Experience, Altagamma-McKinsey Observatory, Fondazione Altagamma and McKinsey & Company, September 17, 2012.
4 Claudia D'Arpizio, "Luxury Goods Worldwide Market Study, Fall 2013," Bain & Co., October 28, 2013.
5 The Topix, also known as the Tokyo Stock Price Index, is a capitalization-weighted index of all companies listed on the First Section of the Tokyo Stock Exchange. The index is supplemented by the subindexes of the 33 industry sectors.
6 The S&P 500® Index is widely regarded as the standard for measuring large cap U.S. stock market performance and includes a representative sample of leading companies in leading industries.
7 The EURO STOXX 50 Index, Europe's leading blue-chip index for the eurozone, provides a blue-chip representation of supersector leaders in the eurozone. The index covers 50 stocks from 12 eurozone countries.


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