An update from manager Hugh Young
In this podcast, investment manager Hugh Young joins us from Singapore to provide an update on recent events in Asia. We learn more about the underlying portfolio of this Trust as Hugh discusses recent changes and where he is seeing opportunities.
Recorded on Tuesday 28th July 2020.
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Interviewer Hello and welcome to the latest in the Aberdeen Standard Investment Trusts podcast series. With me today is Hugh Young, manager of the Aberdeen Standard Asia Focus Investment Trust. We're going to be talking about the ongoing fallout from COVID-19 and how he's managing the Trust in these uncertain times. Welcome Hugh. The last time we spoke we were in the early stages of the COVID-19 outbreak and the outlook was still very uncertain. Have you been able to build any clarity around both the economic and corporate outlook in the intervening couple of months?
Hugh: Well, I wish I could be clearer but of course, things are still quite uncertain. Asia has been dealing with COVID arguably much better than many other parts of the world. And COVID has been substantially under control in large economies such as China and smaller economies such as Singapore. Although we have seen second waves of COVID coming in Australia which has caused further lockdown, so I think at the moment it's very much a matter of reacting day by day to news on COVID. I think what has happened, and what has stabilized, is the way much businesses is done within Asia. So I think people have been quick to adapt to new circumstances, change business practices and employ novel practices where necessary. So that's stabilized, but the outlook for broader economic growth is still uncertain given COVID. And of course, we have some of the traditional issues cropping up again. So in recent weeks, we've had the renewal of tension on the US-China trade front, which has really been running sore for a couple of years. So as ever, life is not terribly certain - it never has been. But of course, we're still finding plenty to do and luckily plenty of value within the portfolio.
Interviewer Okay, so how would you kind of describe your current mood? Are you generally optimistic or pessimistic – where do you lie on that?
Hugh: Well, as a fund manager, I think one always borders on the pessimistic and is always looking out for the worst things that can possibly happen and trying to protect things on the downside. And it's certainly hard to be super optimistic about economic growth and this year economic growth is going to be very, very poor. I think to a large extent markets are discounting that and recognising that, so no one expects economic growth to be exciting this year. There are expectations and indeed, growth should pick up next year - there should be a rebound. Not necessarily a complete V-shaped rebound, but nonetheless still a strong rebound in economic growth and in earnings growth. But this year we're not expecting great shakes out of growth in either economies or indeed corporate earnings.
Interviewer And markets have obviously moved a long way. I mean, to the point where people are suggesting that they're looking rather over-optimistic. I mean, to what extent do you think they're adequately reflecting the risks?
Hugh: Yes, I think there's, in broad market terms, I think there is a degree of truth in that when you look at the major indices. Of course, if you dig down and look at the major indices, you'll see that they've really been fueled by the stock prices of a handful of companies and typically that’s the Amazon and Netflix of this world that have been powering the global indices. So as far as we're concerned, where we have a big hunting ground for opportunities among small caps, thousands of small cap within the Asian region. There's still the opportunities, but certainly I worry, looking at some of the major markets, that things have become a little stretched. But that’s largely among the larger cap companies, and very much focused on the internet.
Interviewer And as markets have become a little less volatile, have you made any changes to the portfolio?
Hugh: Yes, we have. Not huge changes, so the portfolio is still very much recognisable from when we last did a podcast. We've added sort of one new holding in Australia – an investment management company, we've been topping up a relatively new holding in Singapore of a hospital company, and various other companies we've been topping up - a financial company in India, for example, where the market’s been quite weak. Conversely, we've been continuing to tidy up in areas where we don't see that tremendous growth. So these are companies that might be in the financial sector. So conversely, having topped up a company in India in finance, we sold our holding in City Union Bank in India which has done well since we bought it. And we’ve been top-slicing various companies in Thailand, Hong Kong, and one in Sri Lanka.
Interviewer And looking at the top 10 holdings today, it's a real eclectic mix. We've got a precision toolmaker, a life sciences company, property company, convenience store chain. What binds them all?
Hugh: Yes, we do – and in a sense it’s been deliberate. We haven't put all our eggs in one basket. We spread our eggs, between countries and between sectors of the economy. And in fact our largest holding is to do with internet shopping which has done fabulously well in Taiwan. And really what binds them, is that in their fields, they're all typically market leaders. That might be a small market - so for example, in Sri Lanka, we have one of Sri Lanka's largest conglomerates who are involved in a variety of fields. But because Sri Lanka's a small country, it's also a small cap. And then we might have a highly specialist company involved in microscopes and the like in Korea, for example, but they're all leaders in their field. And the other thing that binds them is their strong balance sheet. So financial strength has been a key really since day one of Asia Focus all those years ago, because certainly when you're small cap, you never quite know when something goes wrong, and you don't want to be in the grip of the banks if something does go wrong. So that was one reason we've survived various crises quite well, given financial strength.
Interviewer Yes. And presumably that was important during this crisis as well.
Hugh: Absolutely, because certainly for some of our countries, and we do have a couple of hotel companies, about 4% of the portfolio also, which would have seen earnings just disappear. But both groups that we have are backed by a very solid parent, very strong balance sheets – they’re not developing, they're just running hotels. So they don't have huge capital expenditure demands, and they've got through it and they're now seeing business pick up again.
Interviewer And are there any areas where you're finding opportunities or looking around at the moment - either by country or by sector, that are sparking an interest?
Hugh: Funnily enough, I wouldn't say there's any particular area. Given price movements in markets and volatility in markets, suddenly something that you think is not of interest one day might be of great interest the next because of price movements accordingly. And then, of course we're always on the lookout for new investment opportunities. So that might be through initial public offerings, and also uncovering new stocks that not even we have heard of.
Interviewer And where is the trust on gearing at the moment?
Hugh: Oh, yes, that's an important point. Gearing has come down slightly. So we're give or take at about just under 10% geared on a net basis, which is a bit lower than we've been historically.
Interviewer And how are you feeling about the rest of the year? Do you believe earnings will bounce back or is it sector specific or really are we looking into 2021 before anything gets back to any kind of normality?
Hugh: I think general normality - yes, we're probably looking at 2021 for a return to normality. We are seeing, as we speak, a normalisation - so as I mentioned, companies having seen their business drop off the edge of a cliff in many areas. I mean, not all areas – again, a substantial amount of our portfolio has actually been a beneficiary of what's gone on. Certainly the newer companies, the tech companies and the like, even some of the retailers have been beneficiaries. So you’re going to see a mixed pattern, but certainly a better quarter coming ahead. So the bad quarter will have been the second quarter of this year, when the full effects were felt, and now you're seeing a steady improvement, but not a return to normality as yet. I think we have to wait until next year for that.
Interviewer And what about the major risks? I mean, obviously everyone's very minutely focused on coronavirus at the moment, but are there other things lurking in the background that might surprise markets should the coronavirus risks ebb?
Hugh: Yes. They're the broader risks that have been ever present and that we've dealt with since day one of the Trust’s existence. So they’re the broader economic risk of the resurgence of the China-US tension. We've even had India-China tension on the border. It hasn't affected the economies as yet, but again, issues such as geopolitical tension can always throw things off track. And then you have things peculiar to individual countries. It can be due, again, typically things to do with elections, and the like - changes, change of control, new regulations coming in, but these are the things that we've lived with for the last 25 odd years that the Trust has been going. So always things to worry about and we spend our lives worrying.
Interviewer Great. Okay, thank you Hugh for your time today and thank you to everyone for listening in. You can find out more information about the trust at www.asia-focus.co.uk. We're working to keep you updated throughout these tricky times. So please do look out for future updates.
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