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Robin Hepworth, EdenTree's Chief Investment Officer and manager of the Higher Income Fund, provides his insight into the lessons he has learned from 25 years of running the fund.

Lessons from my 25 years’ experience as a fund manager

Robin Hepworth Robin Hepworth Chief Investment Officer
Lessons from my 25 years’ experience as a fund manager
Opinion

Lessons from my 25 years’ experience as a fund manager

Robin Hepworth

Robin Hepworth
Chief Investment Officer

Two transformative forces have dominated my lengthy career in the investment industry: regulation and technology. Both have always been important prevailing factors, but the question is, how have they re-defined the role of an investment manager?

Technology has removed a good deal of the manual work for a professional investor, by hugely improving data consumption and analysis. I remember when first starting out as an investment analyst in 1986, I was tasked with updating a wall chart tracking movements in the markets, manually updating price sheets for our portfolios, and sending off company reports and accounts – all of which are now instantaneous.

TECH BENEFITS

This leaves portfolio managers with more time to look under the bonnet of a business –understanding its competitive edge and relationships with customers, employers and wider supply chain. It also allows us to spend more on the road engaging with our investee companies – seeing first hand their business models in action.

Meanwhile, the ever-increasing prevalence of regulation has been both a good and a bad thing. MiFID II and other regulatory initiatives have focused on protecting the small or individual investor, tackling bad behaviour and poor ethics, which many view as synonymous with the financial industry. 

However, having navigated my way through several of the most challenging periods in financial services history – from the Asian financial crisis in 1997 to the global financial crisis of 2008 – it’s clear that regulation has its limits. The greatest lesson for any aspiring fund manager is understanding the permanency of crises.

The reality is, no overarching piece of regulation has managed to halt the boom and bust nature of the financial markets. As an active fund manager, it’s important to appreciate that while crises can be immensely turbulent, they also present unique opportunities to drive long-term alpha generation.

IMPORTANCE OF INACTION 

Despite the landscape of investment changing drastically in the last 30 years, my investment philosophy has remained constant. I believe markets are efficient most of the time, and therefore often the best course of action is inaction. Investment is one of the few areas in life where the correlation between effort and reward is often negative. Hence, adopting a long-term view is imperative.

However, as a manager of a multi-asset fund, it is important to flex the asset allocation muscle of the fund over time, to adapt to changing market dynamics. The chart below illustrates how I have done this, shifting the Higher Income Fund’s asset allocation between equities, fixed interest and cash over the years.

During the 2008 global financial crisis, my bond allocation rose to around 70% of the fund, as at the time investment grade bonds appeared to offer outstanding value with yields of 8%. However, since then bond prices have risen significantly and consistently. Consequently, my reduction in exposure to bonds has gone hand-in-hand with their steady reduction in yields over the past decade. Though I have sympathy for the bond market’s more pessimistic view of the world, I nevertheless have reduced my bond weightings to 17% - the lowest in the fund’s 24-year history.

HARNESSING FLUX

So, what’s the rationale for my record low bond exposure? Inflation is the chief adversary of the fixed interest markets and I have concerns that inflationary pressures will continue to rise. These concerns are compounded by record high employment and wage growth levels in the UK, and indeed around most of the world. I believe current yields on 10-year gilts of 0.9% provide very little cushion against these inflationary threats. Given the current outlook, index linked gilt yields seem to me an accident waiting to happen. A 2068 0.125% linked gilt with a price of 262p on 25 May has a yield of -1.9% and if held until maturity, would guarantee real terms losses of over 50%.

I like to compare this to the biggest stock market bubble I have personally experienced – Japan in 1989, which rose over 230% in 5 years and traded on a PE of x85. If you had bought in at that peak and held until today, you would have lost 43% over the last 29 years – a terrible outcome but still considerably better than the guaranteed 52% loss over 50 years for the 2068 index linked gilt. Investors need to tread lightly, but I am still finding value in the fixed interest markets in certain niche areas, with Preference Shares and PIBs still looking attractive with yields of 5.5%.

Time has shown that global financial markets are constantly in a state of flux. The active manager’s remit is to navigate investors through the perpetual cycles of crises. This is best done by avoiding overblown markets while paying careful attention to areas of the market which the herd have decided to ignore.