BlackRock North American Income Trust (BRNA) is a value-orientated income strategy, seeking to achieve a balance between capital growth and income yield. The trust offers investors strong income potential, not just through the revenues of its underlying holdings but also through the trust’s ability to pay income out of its capital and its use of option writing (outlined further in the Dividend section).
BRNA is run by a highly skilled team of senior portfolio managers – Tony DeSpirito, Franco Tapia and David Zhao – who have been managing the portfolio as a team since September 2017. They leverage BlackRock’s well-resourced US income & value team, with Franco and David leading the broader US analyst teams and Tony acting as CIO of US fundamental active equities. As we discuss in the Portfolio section, their process is one which focusses on value, income and income growth. BRNA’s portfolio is constructed in a barbell manner, allocating stocks to either stability or cyclical value buckets.
Since Tony DeSpirito assumed management responsibilities in August 2014, BRNA has returned an NAV performance of 104.1%, compared to the 98.8% of its benchmark and the 96.6% of its peers. However, the performance of BRNA has lagged that of its peers over the last year, with the market being increasingly driven by the growth sector, which BRNA actively avoids.
Despite its underperformance BRNA trades at a narrower discount than its income focused peers, a result of its superior income potential. While the managers feel the discount is a result of investors’ lack of appetite for US value stocks, they believe there are major tailwinds on the horizon which could support a value rally.
We believe BRNA offers investors something increasingly scarce: a disciplined, dedicated and consistent approach to US value investing. It is our view that the team are unwavering in their allocation to what they believe are the best value and income names in the US, something sorely needed in a market increasingly dominated by US growth strategies.
While BRNA’s performance has lagged over the last year, we believe it has delivered on its promises over the long run, being able to protect capital during periods of volatility or downturns while providing a superior dividend to its investors. This dividend is enhanced by the trust’s creative approach to income payouts, and its ability to both pay out of capital and write options gives it an edge over many other income-focussed trusts.
However, perhaps more attractive over the short term is the potential reversion of value’s underperformance, with BRNA being the most value-orientated trust in its AIC peer group. Outside of the factors we outline in the Performance section, we see near-term tailwinds supporting an economic recovery in the US. Namely, these are an increasing likelihood of economic stimulus under a Biden government, plus a renewed impetus to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic in the US. Both factors are likely to energise economic activity, which could be the catalyst for a value rally. Such a rally could also be supportive of a narrowing discount, as BRNA has been a victim of a broad aversion to value as an investment style.
|Experienced team of senior portfolio managers, supported by well-resourced analysts
||Use of option writing can reduce capital returns
|Superior income potential from underlying revenue and the ability to pay out of capital and write options
||If the growth-driven market continues, so will the underperformance of BRNA
|Case for a reversion in the outperformance of growth over value
||Narrow discount relative to its closest income and value focused peers
BlackRock North American Income Trust (BRNA) has the objective of providing an attractive and growing level of income return with capital appreciation over the long term, through investment in a diversified portfolio of primarily large-cap US equities. BRNA has an obvious value bias, not just as a result of its objective of income provision, but also as a result of its investment team’s philosophy. While the trust is largely invested in the US, it can allocate up to 25% in overseas equities. The trust inherits one of the longest-tenured US equity income strategies, with the underlying investment strategy having been launched in 1987. BRNA is also somewhat unique in the broader trust space, with its use of option writing to enhance its income generation (which we will cover in more detail in the Dividend section). BRNA is run by three highly experienced and senior portfolio managers (Tony DeSpirito, Franco Tapia and David Zhao), with Tony being the CIO for US fundamental active equities at BlackRock.
The team sit within the US fundamental active equities desk at BlackRock, which is in turn divided into three pillars. These pillars are: the US growth pillar, the sectoral pillar (divided between health sciences and technology opportunities) and the US income & value pillar (where the BRNA strategy resides). Each pillar has an exclusive team of investment analysts, focussing exclusively on companies within their remit. The US income & value pillar has a team of 17 dedicated income & value analysts, whose stock research is utilised by seven different strategies. The high level of resourcing, combined with the quantity and quality of the analysts, is a defining feature of BlackRock’s US equity strategies (of which BRNA is one). What we believe to be the most important aspect of this is that these analysts are exclusive in their coverage of income & value companies, rather than covering the region as a whole or being assigned to a specific sector – something not often seen in other asset managers. As an indication of the experience of BRNA’s portfolio managers, Tony DeSpirito leads the entire US fundamental active equities team, with Franco and David acting as co-directors of research.
While much of the investment framework the analysts use when assessing companies is proprietary to BlackRock, they tend to focus on the 500 largest US companies, identifying key qualities such as strong balance sheets, competitive resilience, management tenure and quality, and operational resilience. The quantity and quality of the analysts is key here, as a single analyst can take four to eight weeks to analyse a company and produce a 50- to 100-page report before presenting it to the wider team. The US income & value team have met c. 500 companies this year alone. Ultimately analysts will be able to assign a company not just an investment thesis and valuation, but also a comparable rating from 1 to 5. While there is some commonality in processes, the same analysis framework is not shared across each pillar, with the income & value analysts having distinct characteristics they look for.
Within the income & value pillar there are three themes which are most pertinent: value, income and income growth. Value refers to a favourable dislocation in the valuation a company is assigned by BlackRock and that which is assigned by the market, with each company having a clear catalysts for a future reversion in the valuation difference. The income criteria require companies to have a competitive level of current income, with a proven track record of progressive dividend payouts. Income growth requires companies to have the ability to ensure the growth of their dividend over the long term and across different market environments, something which is key to the resilience of companies. The underlying philosophy is driven by a belief that “attractively valued quality companies with histories of dividend growth can potentially deliver strong risk-adjusted returns over the long term”.
When constructing the BRNA portfolio, the team look to create a strategy which can have upside participation in bull markets but also intrinsic capital resilience, being able to outperform during periods of market volatility or bear markets and thus having a favourable risk–return profile. They believe that valuations can be driven by short-term factors, such as political events or emotional biases. However, over the long term valuations are predominantly driven by a company’s ability to generate income and consistently grow it. To that end the team place a larger weight on income growth compared to capital growth. Their general buy criteria are to find the highest-quality companies, i.e. those with balance sheets strong enough to survive bear markets, a viable thesis behind their dividend growth and the ability to be purchased at an attractive valuation. Stocks are sold when the investment thesis fundamentally changes, their growth/valuation potential is fully realised, or a more competitive opportunity presents itself.
The team follow a ‘barbell’ approach when constructing BRNA’s portfolio (which is currently allocated to 77 stocks), selecting companies from two distinct categories out of the pool identified by the analysts: cyclical value and stability. The cyclical value bucket captures companies with deeply discounted valuations, and which are often more sensitive to economic activity. This typically includes financial and energy names. Financials are currently the largest allocation in BRNA, at 24.8%. The team tend to look for large ‘money centre’ banks such as Bank of America and Wells Fargo over regional names, with the industry’s valuations relative to the market being close to their all-time lows. Energy is a much lower weighting within BRNA, with the team placing greatest emphasis on the highest-quality names, particularly those companies with strong balance sheets, quality assets and effective capital allocation. The team’s rationale behind the cyclical value bucket is one of recovery, foreseeing strong tailwinds as the market looks towards more sensitive names after an economic recovery (such as the one predicted to come post-COVID-19). The team have taken the opportunity to reduce their underweight to utilities since the emergence of COVID-19, having seen a divergence between the price of many utility companies – such as PPL – and their ability to generate long-term sustainable revenue.
The stability bucket includes slightly more expensive but higher-quality names with long-term sectoral trends underpinning their growth. This allocation often acts as a ballast to cyclical value exposure, allowing BRNA’s performance to be more resilient when the value style falls out of favour. While the stability bucket can include technology and healthcare names, they are not the expensive growth companies with which these sectors are often associated. The team are acutely aware of the ‘speculative froth’ which pervades the technology sector and inflates its valuations, yet they still believe there are many companies with reasonable valuations that do not fully reflect their quality and growth protentional, such as Cognizant Technology Solutions, their fourth-largest holding. Within healthcare the team see increasingly attractive trends which they can play on, such as ageing demographics and the fallout from COVID-19. Despite the growing demand for healthcare solutions, the team view the sector’s valuations as reasonable, and the current allocation is their largest overweight to the sector for the last three years. The team have increased the allocation to consumer staples, such as Coca-Cola, during the COVID-19 pandemic. In their view, the market is overreacting to the short-term impact of the pandemic (such as the fall in demand for soft drinks due to temporary cinema closings), which does not reflect Coca-Cola’s long-term prospects.
Top Ten holdings
% of portfolio
|Bank of America
|Cognizant Technology Solutions
|American International Group
Source: BlackRock, as at 31/10/2020
BRNA does have the ability to invest overseas, though it follows the same philosophy when purchasing foreign companies as it does with US ones. Outside of a small 0.4% allocation to Canada, the overseas weight is entirely in European stocks, with a total overseas allocation of 20% (Source: BlackRock, as at 30/11/2020). The team’s allocation to overseas companies has crept up over the last five years as valuations of the US market have become stretched relative to those of European peers. When purchasing non-US names, the team make a point not to overexpose themselves to regional European demand, preferring to purchase large multinational names or those with a high exposure to the US. Regardless of the region, the types of names and sectors which BRNA invests in are for the most part those associated with a dedicated value strategy, as shown by the trust’s overweight to financials. However, there are some atypical allocations to sectors which provide the sustainable growth needed to support a progressive income, such as the team’s allocation to select technology names.
When compared to its benchmark, the Russell 1000 Value Index, BRNA has some deviation in market cap and Morningstar super sectors (sensitive, defensive, cyclical), but its largest differences are to style characteristics, with BRNA having a significant bias to value. BRNA’s P/E ratio, arguably the most important metric when assessing value, is 17x, compared to the 21.6x of the index. The value exposure of BRNA, as determined by Morningstar, is 61%, compared to the 43% of the benchmark. Relative differences such as this may be reassuring to a value investor, as they indicate BRNA’s committal to the value thesis, and that it is resisting the drift towards outperforming growth stocks which has crept into other strategies. An income-seeking investor may also be pleased by BRNA’s multiples, with a price to free cash flow of 20.1x, superior to the 26.5x of the benchmark. Ratios like this can be important because high cash flow and earnings, relative to the price paid for companies, can indicate that the underlying companies’ fundamentals are strong enough to support dividend growth into the future. Outside of the income & value factors, BRNA typically invests in larger-cap names: the average market cap of the trust’s portfolio is $68bn, compared to $61bn for its benchmark.
Price ratio and style exposure
|Factor||brna||russell 1000 Value|
|12-month dividend yield||4.6||2.5|
Source: Morningstar, as at 30/11/2020
The trust is permitted to borrow up to 20% of its net assets, although in practice the managers only intend to use up to 10% when they perceive valuations are below long-term averages. We understand that the borrowing facility has not been exercised in recent years, and that the managers do not anticipate using it in the near term.
Since its launch on 23/10/2012, BRNA has often managed to produce performance comparable with that of its peer group, despite its focus on income and the relative outperformance of growth stocks over the last few years. Since its inception BRNA has generated an NAV return of 146.2%, compared to the 173.5% of its benchmark (the Russell 1000 Value Index) and the 170.8% weighted average of its peer group (the AIC North America sector). When compared to both its benchmark and its peer group, BRNA has the greatest allocation to the value factor, and the second-lowest allocation to growth, as well as the second-highest dividend yield. Given the dominance of growth stocks in the US, we are impressed by BRNA being the third-best performer within its peer group over five years, with an NAV return of 75.5% compared to the peer group’s 75%. This return profile is testament to the effectiveness of the strategy and its ability to overcome many of the stylistic headwinds working against it.
Performance since inception
The discrete annual performance of BRNA tells a similar story, with the trust often closely tracking its either its peer group or its benchmark but underperforming during growth-driven rallies. However, we believe BRNA has managed to deliver on its promise of capital protection during periods of volatility or downturns, such as in 2015 and 2018, when it outperformed both its benchmark and peer group. It should be noted that the Baillie Gifford US Growth Trust was launched in 2018, and since then has skewed the peer group further towards growth stocks, thus influencing its performance over the last year.
Discrete annual performance
The peer group’s increased growth bias does much to explain the recent underperformance of BRNA, with BRNA generating a one-year NAV return of 2.2%, compared to the 2% of its benchmark and the 17.9% of its peers. Over the last year the broader US market has been increasingly driven by expensive technology names, which BRNA actively avoids, leading to 2020 being the worst period of underperformance versus its peers since BRNA’s inception. Ironically, BRNA’s recent performance has been driven by its own technology and semiconductor holdings, which sit in its stability allocation. In fact, much of its performance this year has been driven by its stability bucket, fulfilling its role as a ballast during market downturns. That said, over the last month healthcare has been a major detractor to BRNA’s performance, though this is likely the result of stock-specific issues rather than sectoral ones, as it is mainly specific pharmaceutical holdings which have underperformed, rather than the sector as a whole.
Despite the last 12 months’ underperformance, the team are excited about the trust’s future prospects. The team are conscious of several key occurrences in the US equity market which point to an extreme bifurcation between growth and value stocks, one of which has the potential to revert in favour of value. There is currently a record concentration of market capitalisation in the five largest stocks, specifically the mega-cap tech names: Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Alphabet and Facebook. Such an occurrence warps the investment returns of the market towards growth and makes it overly sensitive to the fortunes of a handful of names, something which is not present in the value sector. Periods of high concentration have also preceded corrections in the market, such as prior to the collapse of the dotcom bubble.
While non-dividend-paying growth names have led the market this year, their performance has not been matched by strengthening fundamentals. As at 30/09/2020, the list of top contributors to the S&P 500 has been dominated by growth names which have seen a multiple expansion of 17.1%, implying the price increase has not been matched by an equal increase in earnings. In contrast, the top contributors to the Russell 1000 Value Index have only seen a multiple expansion of 3.8%, implying the price of value stocks is a better reflection of their earnings potential. Arguably the most important driver for a reversion of the growth-over-value trend is paradoxically the underperformance of the value sector, and the resulting dislocation of the associated companies’ valuations against growth. History has shown that periods of extreme valuation dislocations are often short lived, specifically when the forward P/E ratios of the cheapest stocks are more than two standard deviations below the market average, a situation which we are currently experiencing. The last time this occurred was in 2009, whereas by 2010 the trend had reversed and the difference between the two had fallen to less than one standard deviation, implying the average difference in valuations had halved in less than a year.
In 2018 the board announced a shift in dividend policy, allowing part of the dividend to be paid out from either capital or revenue reserves. Since the policy was implemented the dividend per share has substantially increased, with a most recent 2019 full-year dividend of 8p per share, in line with the prior year’s payment but up 62% from 2017, the last year a dividend was paid under the previous policy. For the most recent full-year (FY 2019) dividend, 62.5% was paid using underlying revenues, and 37.5% was paid using capital. BRNA has the second-highest dividend yield of its peer group, at 4.61%. It also has revenue reserve coverage of 0.69x for the last full-year dividend.
The trust has the ability to enhance its dividend through an option strategy, with the manager typically writing covered calls on selected holdings in the portfolio. A covered call functions by foregoing a holding’s upside beyond the call’s strike price, and in return receiving an upfront premium, the price paid for purchasing the option. This strategy can limit the potential upside of BRNA during bull markets, as any gains in the share price above the strike are paid to the holder of the call. Conversely, this strategy can enhance total returns when the implied market volatility is high – which leads to a larger premium received by BRNA – or during bear markets. Regardless of the market environment, the strategy can enhance income by paying out the premium they receive for writing an option. Currently the team have written options worth 18.2% of BRNA’s assets, £126.4m (Source: BlackRock, as at 31/10/2020).
Dividend and revenue per share
BRNA is run by three co-portfolio managers: Tony DeSpirito, Franco Tapia and David Zhao. Tony is the most senior investment professional within BlackRock’s US fundamental active equities desk, performing the role of chief investment officer and overseeing all three pillars of the desk. Tony is also the most experienced of the three managers, having managed the portfolio since August 2014, and often has the final say. The managers have a long-term history of working together, including at Pzena Investment Management before they joined BRNA. They believe this familiarity helps their investment decisions, enabling honest and open debate during the stock selection process. While all three portfolio managers run the equity dividend strategy, Tony is also the lead portfolio manager for BlackRock Focus Value Fund.
The managers are supported by 17 dedicated research analysts within BlackRock’s US income & value team. Franco and David serve as co-directors of research for the income & value pillar. In this capacity they function as player-coaches, including prioritising the research agenda, training the team’s analysts and modernising the research process (for example, through testing new tools), with a goal of continuous improvement across the whole team.
BRNA currently trades at a 6.4% discount. This is wider than the weighted average 2.4% discount of the investment trust peer group (the AIC North America sector), which contains both growth-focussed strategies and income & value ones. When compared to only the income & value strategies within the US sector, BRNA trades at a more comparable discount, compared to the 9.7% average of that subsection (Source: JPMorgan Cazenove, as at 10/12/2020).
As can be seen in the below graph, in late 2018 BRNA’s discount narrowed sharply with the announcement of the change in dividend policy. From that point onwards until March 2020, the trust traded at an average premium of 2%. However, with the impact of COVID-19 and the underperformance of value relative to growth, the trust has since traded at an almost continuous discount. This renewed discount has frustrated the managers. Like them, we believe that much of BRNA’s discount reflects the recent disdain for US value investing, hopefully something which could be alleviated by a post-COVID-19 recovery.
The board does have the ability to control the discount, with the authority to reissue up to 10% of the trust’s issued ordinary share capital and to buy back up to 14.99% (excluding any shares held in treasury). The authority to reissue and buy back shares expires at the conclusion of the 2020 annual meeting, and the resolution will be put to shareholders seeking a renewal of these powers. In the 2020 calendar year to date BRNA has repurchased 1.42 million shares, c. 1.8% of the 79.78 million currently in issue. Buybacks have been implemented more frequently during the latter part of the year, where the discount was around 6% (Source: BlackRock, JPMorgan Cazenove, as at 10/12/2020).
The ongoing charges figure (OCF) for the trust is 1.09% of net assets, higher than the AIC North America sector simple average of 0.91%. However, this average is depressed by the extraordinarily low OCF of 0.18% for JPMorgan American Investment Trust (JAM). If JAM is excluded, BRNA’s OCF is in line with the resulting AIC North America sector simple average of 1.05%. The management fee is 0.75% per annum, and the majority of charges (75%) are allocated to the capital account (Source: JPMorgan Cazenove, BlackRock, as at 10/12/2020).
The KID RIY figure for the trust is 1.4%, relative to the sector weighted average of 0.93%. Again, the sector’s figure is weighted lower by JAM, but it is also worth noting that calculation methodologies do vary between companies.
ESG is fully integrated into BlackRock’s investment process, with analysts incorporating both proprietary ESG analysis and ESG data provided by MSCI. Typically, 5–10% of an analyst’s research note will include ESG-related analysis. The team take the view that good ESG companies do not have their sustainable characteristics reflected in their premium. As a result, the analysts reward such companies with a greater growth premium, implying a higher expected return. ESG analysis is a stock-by-stock exercise, with an analyst assessing different factors for each company. For example, environmental and social issues are not hugely important to banks, with governance tending to dominate the ESG component of an analyst’s report. When it comes to interacting with companies, the managers rely on BlackRock’s investment stewardship team for ESG engagement, though the managers and analysts do provide their input and opinions on ESG issues.
Morningstar has assigned BRNA a sustainability rating of ‘low’ when compared to its broader US Large-Cap Blend Equity category. The Morningstar rating assesses the sustainability of underlying holdings of the portfolio (i.e. the output of the process), not the ESG process as an input. The low rating does not reflect the quality of ESG analysis done by analysts, and may instead be the result of BRNA’s investment process naturally biasing it towards poorly ESG-rated names, with the value sector potentially having more low-sustainability companies.