Success is all about timing
Global equity funds are a logical choice for many MPF members, offering in principle the chance to diversify risk and see steady gains by capitalising on opportunities in markets around the world.
In practice, though, the results can disappoint. Even allowing for the volatility and other uncertainties caused by the fallout from the financial crisis, the brief for some fund managers is to follow an essentially passive strategy. They stick with stock picks that only reflect a standard industry index, or seek to bolster investor confidence with the maxim that markets rebound in the long term, so just waiting is therefore a viable approach.
Individual investors may well agree. On the other hand, anaemic returns and the repeated promise of a better tomorrow are liable to stir questions about strategy and performance, particularly when employee choice arrangement (ECA) for personal MPF contributions is introduced later this year.
For example, a fund may have sound historical reasons for maintaining a certain weighting of banks and financials. But even the non-expert investor building a nest egg for retirement would have reason to suspect such faith might be misplaced.
'We try to understand that people want us to protect against the downside - they don't like the pain of losing money - and give them the upside,' says Ross Youngman, chief executive of Sydney-based Five Oceans Asset Management. The firm has no involvement with Hong Kong's MPF scheme, but it does work with pension providers and was recently appointed to manage a global fund for Skandia Investment Group. As such, it serves as a useful reference point for other equity funds designed to identify international companies capable of achieving solid returns and consistent growth.
'We have done 7 per cent annualised outperformance over the last five years,' Youngman says. 'You need a different type of management for different environments. With current yields and valuations, equities are at quite an attractive point, but it can be difficult to persuade people of that with what has happened over the last few years.'
The fund's basic policy is to hold 60 to 80 stocks. The stated investment objective is to significantly outperform the MSCI world index over a rolling period of three to five years while delivering a positive return.
The fund's philosophy is to search out 'conviction' buys across various sectors and countries, which are then held for an average of three years.
All global equities come under consideration, excluding arms and tobacco companies, with the prime aim being to spot undervaluation, strong management and catalysts that will indicate when to buy or sell. This step-by-step process has led, for instance, to well-timed investments in Apple, Coach, Samsung Electronics, Swiss cement supplier Holcim, India's Tata Motors and Spanish retailer Inditex, best known for its Zara fashion brand.
On occasion, such calls mean deliberately going against market consensus. 'The best way to do this is to know our companies back to front,' Youngman says.
'We pay the right price and don't invest unless we have a strong view. And when we do see risk, we can mitigate the downside by utilising options, managing currencies and increasing cash.'
Without wishing to criticise, he draws a contrast with other fund managers who position clients' money in a mix of equities, irrespective of whether they think the market is cheap or expensive. There is also a tendency to use the MSCI index they are measured against as a crutch, with the assumption that matching it qualifies as success.
'There is nervousness in wandering too far from the benchmark in their portfolio construction,' Youngman says. 'In reality, the benchmark is just another portfolio of shares that creates a return. We are trying to offer something that is thoughtfully constructed, different and can do better than the index. Although we will always have an exposure to our preferred equities, we can also hold cash or increase hedging for capital protection purposes.'
In overall terms, he concedes that equity markets are now being held back predominantly by events and uncertainties in Europe. However, smart investors are still advised to have a portion of their savings in a broad-based global fund. The fact remains that many companies are well positioned, expertly run and have had significant earnings growth in the last four years with little associated share price movement.
'That creates an opportunity to make money,' Youngman says. 'Our exposure to European banks is minimal, but companies that are well positioned in, say, smartphone technology can benefit. There are winners and losers in such an environment and we continue to find businesses we like from a growth and valuation perspective.'