Semiconductors sell off
The semiconductor pull-back accelerated in March. Investor concerns centred on slowing demand for consumer electronics in the wake of economic pressures brought on by inflation and interest rate hikes. Severe lockdowns in China related to COVID also added to these fears.
Readers will recall that a few months ago we wrote extensively about how semiconductors are playing a burgeoning role for consumers and businesses. We also explained why this trend is likely to continue, driven by secular growth drivers such as Cloud, the Internet of Things and automotive (where silicon content will increase from virtually nothing to 20% of a premium car’s bill of materials (BOM) by 2030 – see illustration above). Despite the market’s fears, it is worth highlighting that for a majority of our semiconductor holdings, demand still far outstrips supply. This implies that over the short-term any reduction in consumer electronics demand is likely to be taken up by other, new verticals where demand looks set to double, and possibly double again. Given all this we think that the recent sell-off is overdone.
A very simple way to illustrate this point is to compare the forward Price-to-Earnings (PE) ratios of semiconductor companies to that of the broader market (S&P500). That is, how much are investors paying per dollar of a company’s earnings in twelve months time. We don’t use relative measures like this to drive investment decisions, but much of the market does, so at the very least it’s useful as a rough guide. Logically, investors should be willing to pay more for companies that are growing earnings faster, all else equal. But this isn’t the case when it comes to many of the key semiconductor companies underpinning much of the world’s disruption.
It is in times like this that our investment philosophy and process provide comfort. Our valuation methodology is informed by how the world is changing and the direction in which it is heading, typically a longer time horizon than that of the broader market. We firmly believe that the market will ‘capitulate’ on its negative semiconductor stance as key companies continue to deliver exceptional earnings results, evidencing their growing importance across many industries. It is this process that has produced favourable outcomes for clients over the almost eight years we have been managing the strategy.
Investment: How Russia and Ukraine affect the Fund
We don’t invest in Russian companies, and have dramatically reduced our holdings in Chinese companies in the past year, a position which has hardened since the overly friendly deal struck between the leaders of the two countries, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, during the Winter Olympics, and which preceded the invasion of the Ukraine by just four days.
Russia could have been lumped in with investment in the ’emerging markets’ asset class, but frankly, it never made the cut. Putin’s financial and political relationship with the oligarchs, the bedrock of the kleptocracy, made buying into Russian companies like search engine group Yandex opaque at best.
There were many other reasons as well. He has systematically cracked down on media freedom, jailed political opponents and passed legislation authorising the murder of enemies of the state outside Russia (symmetrical with the powers it had within Russia), which of course resulted in the radioactive poisoning of Putin critic Alexander Litvinenko in the sushi bar of London’s Millennium Hotel.
Had we ignored the geopolitics and invested in Russia – on the basis of low financial valuations of many companies – the outcome would have been negative given that the economy has been crippled by the sanctions now being applied by NATO countries and others.
China too has become increasingly difficult as an investment proposition. We first included companies in China because the political environment styled ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ had unshackled the economy and created the super-growth for companies such as Alibaba, which disrupted bricks-and-mortar retail, banking and transport. This also made a material difference to the lives of many Chinese people. Of course, there was always a measure of autocracy, but the balance that was struck allowed enough private enterprise for commerce to thrive and set China on a tear that lifted 850 million people out of rural poverty and into the middle class.
The most obvious marker that there was to be a change was the 2017 crackdown in Hong Kong by President Xi. The situation continued to deteriorate over the following years, and then Xi canned the float of Ant Financial and levied Alibaba with a US$15b fine – a ‘common prosperity’ payment. Later, China Inc nobbled the ride-sharing company Didi, until that moment a credible competitor to Uber.
At many points in the past five years there was a temptation to suggest the changes in China couldn’t get worse. But in October last year Xi upped the ante on Taiwan, flying 150+ fighter jet sorties over Taiwanese air space on the 100th anniversary of the birth of the Chinese Communism Party. The clear message: Taiwan must become part of China again. Sound like Russia’s approach to Ukraine?
It’s no surprise that the countries with the strongest innovation track records are also those with the most liberal political structures. Ever wonder why South Korea is such a technology powerhouse, while North Korea… isn’t? Or why Taiwan’s TSMC is the largest and most successful semiconductor manufacturer in the world, while China lags, or for that matter why there isn’t a Russian Apple? It isn’t that the folk aren’t as smart – more a case of where is the incentive to build a great company if it can be appropriated by the state and its mates?
Which is not to say that liberal democracies are motivated by altruism. The semiconductor industry built by William Shockley, then his employees at Fairchild and Andy Grove at Intel was underwritten by the US wish to dominate weaponry and space, requiring top grade guidance systems which required the latest silicon.
Geopolitics and our investment process
For Loftus Peak, as managers of the Fund, geopolitical matters such as these are expressed in the valuation process by the discount rates used to determine entry and exit prices. Companies listed in countries with autocratic political systems mostly attract higher discount rates. This results in the price targets we ascribe to companies operating in these countries being lower and so too the Fund’s overall exposure in terms of weighting to those countries. The outcome of this is an absence of holdings in Russia and a low weight to holdings in China, both of which have broadly worked.
Performance and portfolio positioning
An appreciating Australian dollar drove the weakness in absolute performance and the pullback in semis led to relative underperformance against the benchmark of -2.0% in March against our benchmark MSCI All Countries World Index (net, as expressed in AUD from Bloomberg). We believe the market has started to recognise the value of quality companies – those with robust business models, pricing power, strong balance sheets and cash flows. We expect this trend to continue as the macroeconomic environment begins filtering through to company earnings.
We recognise that during times of uncertainty – war, inflation, interest rate hikes – markets tend to focus on that which is directly in front of them (the next quarter, or two). However we take a longer-term view and gain comfort in the Fund’s positions knowing their growth is being driven by powerful secular trends that will continue for the next decade and that many of these quality companies are now trading at even more attractive prices. We took advantage of the market lows in March to increase our weighting to equities by around 5%, purchasing a number of quality companies that had been on our watch list but were previously precluded from the portfolio on the basis of valuation. Cash exposure at the end of March was 7.4%.
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