Mercantile

MRC has the lowest OCF in the UK All Companies sector and a strong track record...

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This is a non-independent marketing communication commissioned by Mercantile. The report has not been prepared in accordance with legal requirements designed to promote the independence of investment research and is not subject to any prohibition on the dealing ahead of the dissemination of investment research.

Mercantile

Summary

The Mercantile Investment Trust (MRC) looks to deliver long-term capital growth from a portfolio of UK medium-sized and smaller companies. Managed by Guy Anderson and Anthony Lynch, the trust typically consists of around 80 positions in various UK companies where the managers believe the wider market fails to sufficiently appreciate the long-term potential of the business.

As we discuss under Portfolio, MRC is very much focused on the UK mid-cap market, with Guy and Anthony believing lower levels of broker coverage offer structural advantages to active investors. The managers operate a disciplined investment process focusing on the characteristics and advantages of a business, how these are presently valued, and what the operational momentum of the business is. At present the managers believe that, amidst the ongoing economic challenges, there remain significant opportunities for a number of companies that are not being accurately reflected by their valuations.

Long-term returns have been strong, with a significant contribution over the previous ten financial years from stock-picking, as we discuss under Performance. The Discount has narrowed in recent weeks to c. 2.3% (as at 06/11/2020), as share prices caught up to NAV gains in recent months. More recent returns have remained strong, but the perceived sensitivity to political developments of UK mid caps has, in recent years, seen a degree of mean reversion in relative returns.

MRC shareholders benefit from economies of scale, with an OCF of only 0.44%. Despite MRC’s large size, the closed-ended structure helps Guy and Anthony to manage portfolio liquidity whilst continuing to look for the most attractive growth opportunities and to invest further down the market capitalisation spectrum.


Kepler View

The relative fortunes of the UK market, both in intra-market dynamics and relative to global peers, seem likely to hinge on the shape, velocity and rapidity of any ongoing global economic recovery (and market perceptions thereof). Recent fluctuations in the relative performance of UK financial assets seem suggestive to us that the market continues to regard the UK economy as relatively cyclically exposed to variations in global growth and trade data. The ongoing situation with Brexit negotiations is likely to add to this dynamic. More positive data or positive shifts in global market assumptions on the relative strengths of the UK economy could potentially drive a normalisation in global investor allocations to UK equities.

By further extension, the relative and absolute fortunes of MRC in the short term seem likely to remain tied to these variables. Positive sentiment increases would, we would expect, be likely to see additional upside capture. However, assumptions that the constituent companies are inherently more economically vulnerable than the broader market because of the mid-cap tilt could, in conjunction with gearing, cause downside beta too. Yet MRC appears to be tilted towards companies enjoying more structural drivers of operational growth. Irrespective of near-term dynamics, we think this offers long-term potential in a market offering compelling valuations, but investors should be prepared to accept near-term volatility.

Bull Bear
Strong long-term returns boosted by stock-picking Near-term returns likely to remain strongly impacted by external factors
Large and liquid trust, with attendant low management fees
Gearing can exacerbate downside (as well as amplify upside)
Experienced team with significant depth of analytical resources
Discount is narrower than has been the historic norm

Portfolio

The Mercantile Investment Trust (MRC) focusses on investment in mid- and small-cap companies in the UK, looking to build a diversified portfolio of around 80 holdings (currently it has around 75). It has the objective of long-term capital growth from a portfolio of UK mid- and small-cap stocks, and an investment policy to emphasise capital growth and achieve dividend growth. MRC enjoys considerable economies of scale, with gross assets of c. £1.9bn (as at 19/10/2020), yet the closed-ended structure affords the managers the flexibility to continue to invest in the more illiquid small- and mid-cap areas of the market.

MRC’s portfolio is typically dominated by FTSE 250 companies, with a typical split between FTSE 100/Mid 250/small-cap indices of c. 5–15%/70–90%/5–15% respectively. The impact of the weighting to mid caps can be seen in returns, with MRC exhibiting an R² to the FTSE 250 over the previous ten years of c. 90% compared to just c. 59% for the FTSE All-Share. At present MRC holds c. 19%/77%/2%/2% in the FTSE 100/250/small-cap/AIM indices respectively (as at 30/09/2020).

This tilt to holding predominantly mid-caps is designed to be essentially structural, though there will be some variation depending on the opportunity set identified by the managers, and reflects the managers’ belief that lower levels of broker coverage in mid- and small-cap companies offer greater opportunities for active managers. FTSE 100 positions, which will typically have far more depth of broker coverage (and thus are less likely in their view to have pricing inefficiencies), tend to be ‘winners’ that the team have opted to run and retain as they are promoted to the large-cap index. The managers, Guy Anderson and Anthony Lynch, will not buy companies which are already constituent members of the FTSE 100 Index. Guy and Anthony are supported by an analytical team including six UK SMID-cap specialists.

The investment process focusses on identifying companies with a blend of three key characteristics: Quality, Valuation, and Momentum. These are very much set in the context of relative evaluations compared to industry peers, but also in an absolute sense where the managers feel the market has failed to appreciate operational developments and changing dynamics at a company. Meetings with company management are considered important in this regard, helping to understand, evaluate and assess different company managements’ business strategies and the likely impact on their competitive position.

Quality considerations have clearly been important in recent months, with balance sheet strength and resilience of business models remaining key factors amidst a very drastic economic contraction. Guy and Anthony note there is a divergence amidst both soft, leading economic indicators and trailing hard data, with significant economic uncertainty remaining. However, they note that UK valuations at the market level seemingly reflect this to a greater degree than their international counterparts, with the cyclically adjusted price/earnings ratio (CAPE) at or around the lowest level since c. 2000, and substantially below that of the US and European markets. The use of CAPE at the market level reflects the desire of the managers to try to understand what a more normalised operating environment is likely to ultimately represent for different companies.

In this context, the team have been balancing the portfolio between companies that they believe offer resilience and have significant flexibility to adapt to the current environment, and where negative scenarios are overly priced into the stock. Whilst sector allocations are an output of the bottom-up stock-picking process, the focus on companies which can thrive and benefit from the current environment can somewhat be seen by overweight allocations to sectors such as software & computer services, and from stock selection within retailers, for example.

MRC: Sector allocation relative to benchmark

Source: JPMorgan

Resilience and, indeed, the ability to thrive from the current economic and social environment, and to benefit from structural trends catalysed by the policy response to the COVID-19 pandemic, can be seen in holdings such as the largest allocation Computacenter. Although a long-standing holding (having been introduced to MRC in 2017), Computacenter has gradually increased as a proportion of MRC throughout 2020. This has partially been a result of strong performance, with the stock up over 40% year to date (as at 19/10/2020), but also as a result of Guy and Anthony maintaining their holding level and recognising the positive operational momentum the company was enjoying even as the share price suffered in the relatively indiscriminate sell- off seen in late Q1 2020. The company in particular has benefitted from increased moves to encourage ‘working from home’, and ultimately guided market expectations significantly higher on expected earnings in September 2020.

Although the managers note that retail spending in the UK has rebounded rapidly, they note that there remains inherent uncertainty about the outlook for a retail sector which in any event has been generally acknowledged to face structural headwinds. Despite this, MRC’s portfolio remains overweight the retail sector, but much of this exposure is in companies enjoying strong growth in their online presence and which are well placed to grow market share. Companies such as Pets At Home and Dunelm were, in any event, leading companies in their retail subsectors prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, but had been developing and expanding their online footprint. Online sales have proven to be strong drivers of sales growth for both companies in recent months, and should allow them to continue to take market share organically. In addition, the strong balance sheet positions of both Pets At Home and Dunelm leave both operationally robust, whilst the possibility of inorganic expansion remains on the table.

When we look at the top ten holdings for MRC now, and when we last reviewed the trust at the start of 2020, we can see a slightly increased concentration in the largest positions but also a more equitable distribution across them. This reflects both the managers’ optimism on some of the opportunities available and their cognisance of the likely disparate fortunes of different sectors of the economy going forward, but also the inherent uncertainty that the pandemic has engendered. Thus, there has been a desire to tilt slightly more towards the team’s ‘best ideas’, whilst natural changes in weighting from relative performance have seen somewhat larger positions in companies perceived as ‘COVID winners’. Nonetheless, the team continue to hold exposure to other opportunities in sectors perceived as being challenged by the current environment, such as travel and leisure, where they perceive longer-term value opportunities. There is also a desire to ensure that each individual idea remains constrained from a risk contribution basis against the possibility of ‘black swan’ events.

MRC: Top ten holdings

As at 31/12/2019


As at 30/09/2020

Holding

%


Holding

%

Intermediate Capital Group

4.2


Computacenter

3.3

Bellway

3.9


Games Workshop

3.3

SSP

2.3


Bellway

3.1

Games Workshop

2.3


Softcat

2.9

AVEVA

2.2


Dunelm Group

2.6

Countryside

2.2


Intermediate Capital Group

2.6

National Express

2.1


Polymetal

2.4

WHSmith

2.1


Countryside

2.4

Softcat

2.0


Spirax Sarco

2.3

Derwent London

2.0


Electrocomponents

2.2

Total

25.3


Total

27.1

Source: JPMorgan

Although there is perhaps a trend within the largest holdings towards ‘COVID winners’, largely reflecting relative performance, holdings such as Polymetal should also in the managers’ view serve as portfolio diversifiers. Polymetal is a gold miner, and returns will clearly be impacted by fluctuations in the underlying bullion price. However, Guy notes that the management team have consistently met production targets whilst sustaining production at all-in cash costs significantly below the current gold price (and notably lower than the industry average).

As noted above, the stock-picking process considers quality, valuation and momentum factors. Quality considerations blend a mixture of quantitative and qualitative inputs, seeking to understand a company’s competitive position within its industry, the efficiency of capital allocation decisions by the management team and the ability to consistently convert this to profitability. Although quantitative analysis can provide many of these details, a qualitative assessment providing context is an important input to the process. For example, the team seek to separate out and understand organic growth in revenues against growth that has been brought into the business by, for example, acquisitions. This process is not prescriptive, however, but reflective of the desire for the team to ensure capital is being allocated efficiently by company managements.

Similarly, valuation considerations are not a quantitative trawl for the lowliest-valued companies in the market, but instead an attempt to assess whether the market is correctly identifying and valuing a company’s outlook. Typically this is undertaken by assessing the level of free cash flow generated by a company, and how this compares to the share price. This is undertaken in both a relative and absolute sense, seeking to understand how the market values the prospects of a company relative to its peers and how the outlook for the company is perceived in general.

Momentum considerations are the final input to the stock analysis process, seeking to understand the operational dynamics of a business. This again derives in part from assessments of efficient usage of capital, which can catalyse improving relative and absolute fortunes for a business, but can also consider exogenous factors such as economic developments. We have covered the process of portfolio construction and the input of these considerations in greater detail in our previous research note.

Risk analytics remain an important consideration, with Guy and Anthony seeking to understand macroeconomic or factor risks they may be incurring indirectly as a result of the stock-picking process. These analytics remain primarily a tool for understanding, as opposed to guiding, the portfolio’s characteristics. Having previously gradually increased their exposure to UK domestic economic revenue generation to a level slightly above the benchmark equivalent, Guy and Anthony have maintained this even as sentiment to the UK market has lagged that of international peers.

MRC: Sources of revenue generation versus benchmark


Source: JPMorgan

Gearing

MRC currently (as at 19/10/2020) has net gearing of c. 9.9%. Guy and Anthony are flexible in utilising gearing, and will tactically adjust the level of gearing deployed based upon a mixture of their perceptions of the market-level opportunity and the depth and degree of stock-specific opportunities they are identifying. They have been gradually increasing gearing levels in the face of the market decline (though some of this will reflect a mechanical increase in the gearing ratio as NAV fell). The trust has long-term (fixed) gearing through two debentures, a £3.85m perpetual debenture and a £175m debenture repayable in February 2030. The perpetual debenture pays interest of 4.25% a year whilst the £175m debenture pays interest of 6.12% a year, giving a weighted average cost of c. 6.08%. These debentures currently amount to c. 10.7% of net assets (as at 14/10/2020), indicating the managers are holding c. 0.9% of NAV in cash at this time.

The board expects the managers to operate a policy of holding gearing within a range of 10% net cash to 20% net geared. The managers are relatively active in altering the cash weightings and use this method to manage the trust’s net exposure.

Returns

Over the ten years to 14/10/2020 MRC has delivered NAV and share price returns of c. 157.7% and c. 170.7% respectively. This represents significant outperformance of the Morningstar UK All Companies peer group, which has generated unweighted average NAV and share price returns of c. 72.7% and c. 76.4% respectively. It also represents significant outperformance of the FTSE All-Share and FTSE 250 indices, as represented by the Xtrackers FTSE All-Share and Xtrackers FTSE 250 ETFs respectively, which have returned c. 55.6% and c. 107.2% over the same period.

MRC: Cumulative returns versus peers and indices


Source: Morningstar

Stripping out the effects of gearing and costs and looking solely at stock selection and sector allocations, these have been strongly positive cumulative contributors over the previous ten financial years, whilst gearing has been of cumulative net benefit. MRC’s financial years run from 31 January, and we can see in the graph below the cumulative contribution of stock selection and sector allocation on returns relative to the benchmark since 31/01/2010. With the transition of the lead management of MRC in 2016, contributions from stock selection and sector allocation have notably picked up. Whilst the basic investment process remained underpinned by the same considerations as previously, following Guy’s assumption of full lead managerial responsibilities this process has been more formalised and strictly implemented at the portfolio level.

MRC: Cumulative contribution of stock selection and sector allocation


Source: JPMorgan

The current calendar year, 2020, has proven more challenging in an absolute sense. However, stock selection and sector allocations (active decisions) have seemingly thus far been beneficial, with MRC outperforming both year to date and over 12 months. Over the 12 months to 14/10/2020, MRC delivered NAV and share price returns of c. -3.5% and c. -4.7% respectively, whilst the Morningstar peer group delivered average NAV and share price returns of c. -7.9% and c. -8.6% respectively. Over this same period, the FTSE All-Share and FTSE 250 have returned c. -13.8% and c. -8.4% respectively, and the mid-cap bias of MRC will have positively contributed to relative returns. Although gearing will have detracted from returns as the market turned down, the decision to position the trust with a tilt towards ‘structural winners’ from the policy response to the COVID-19 pandemic has benefitted relative returns in the subsequent recovery.

MRC: 12-month cumulative returns versus peers and indices


Source: Morningstar

Of potential interest on a relative outlook is that there is something of a reversionary basis to relative returns when we look at subsequent returns relative to risk-adjusted returns. In the graph below, we have inverted the rolling 12-month information ratio of MRC’s NAV relative to the FTSE All-Share (so the blue line below the zero level on the left-hand scale represents positive risk-adjusted returns over the prior 12 months). We have compared this with the relative returns MRC has realised over the subsequent 12 months (as per the right-hand scale).

Some things of interest stand out to us from this. The information ratio has been consistently positive over much of this period, with c. 70% of readings positive. Relative returns have been fairly consistently strong, though there have been more challenging periods. In 2014/15, this was a result of challenges from certain stock positions which disappointed, whilst a bullish tilt towards the UK domestic economy was a challenge in much of 2017.

We would attribute the reversionary pattern witnessed below to increasingly capricious flows into perceived ‘risk on’ and ‘risk off’ attitudes to UK allocations amidst the political news flow of recent years. With MRC very much a mid-cap-focused trust, its NAV has retained sensitivity to this through a perceived greater correlation amongst this segment of the market to domestic UK economic activity. Given the continued fraught global economic situation and ongoing uncertainty around the UK’s future trading arrangements, we think an element of this pattern is likely to remain in play for the near future but would expect this effect to dissipate over the longer term.

MRC NAV: Inverted information ratio and subsequent 12-month returns relative to FTSE All-Share

Source: Morningstar

Dividend

MRC currently yields c. 3.4% on a historic basis (as at 14/10/2020). The investment objective of the trust is to grow capital, but consistent dividend generation has been a feature of MRC. Dividends are paid quarterly, with interim dividends in June, September and December, and a final dividend in April. Historically, the final dividend has tended to be significantly in excess of the interims.

Over the past five financial years (financial year 2015 to financial year 2020) dividend growth has been comfortably in excess of inflation, with annualised growth of c. 10% per annum, though the first two interim dividends in the current financial year (2021) have thus far been flat compared with the same period in FY 2020.

Revenue returns have consistently been in excess of dividends, allowing the board to accrue a revenue reserve which, at the last half-yearly report, equated to c. 1.2x the FY 2020 dividend. Given the extremely challenging environment for dividend generation in the UK market seen thus far in the current calendar year, we would expect this to have been depleted further to maintain distributions, with MRC’s revenue return per share falling to c. 1.4p per share in the six months to 31/07/2020. Previously, in the challenging environment immediately post-2008, the board proved willing to use revenue reserves to support the dividend. MRC’s board has commented that it intends to ensure that the FY 2021 total dividend is at least in line with the FY 2020 dividend.

MRC: Dividends and revenue returns per share

Source: JPMorgan


Management

Mercantile Investment Trust (MRC) is managed by lead manager Guy Anderson, who has been with JPMorgan since 2012, joining (at the time) long-term manager Martin Hudson. He is supported by Anthony Lynch and the wider UK SMID-cap team at JPMorgan.

Lead management of the trust has been gradually transferred to Guy, with Martin leaving in Q4 2019 after 25 years of involvement in managing the trust. Guy assumed lead-managerial responsibilities in 2016. Guy has extensive experience in, and specialises in, the UK mid- and small-cap market. He is also a member of the JPMorgan Asset Management International Behavioural Finance Team, with recourse to significant analytical resources.

Discount

MRC currently trades on a discount of c. 2.3% (as at 06/11/2020). Having narrowed significantly over the latter half of 2019 as share price returns outpaced NAV growth, general market risk aversion seems to have been a contributory factor to the discount again widening over much of 2020 to levels more in keeping with historic norms. As investors have turned more bullish on global stocks again in recent weeks, the discount has once again narrowed.

A combination of five notifiable shareholders held c. 46.4% of the total voting rights as at the end of the previous financial year (31/01/2020). None of these shareholders have declared a transaction subsequently. With the directors of the trust also net buyers of shares over this period, a widening of the discount over summer 2020 seemingly reflected a deterioration in sentiment amongst smaller shareholders.

However, we would note that this actually seems more reflective of a lack of buying pressure as opposed to significant selling pressure. MRC had seen notable NAV gains between April and October 2020, but share price returns had sharply lagged. We witness a similar pattern in the JPMorgan Mid Cap Investment Trust (JMF). Recent weeks have started to see the discount narrow again on a relatively static NAV. We would posit that moves in the discount at this time likely reflect, in part, continued fluctuations in investor sentiment towards UK stocks as a broad-brush group, as opposed to reflecting market sentiment towards MRC itself. Over the long term we would expect this effect to diminish and trust-specific considerations to prove more important, but for now we believe we likely remain in an environment where sentiment towards MRC shares is predominately driven by wider political and economic developments.

The board has the ability to repurchase up to 14.99% of shares to help address any imbalances between supply and demand for shares in the market. However, the board has not yet repurchased any shares in the current financial year (i.e. since 01/02/2020). We would suggest this is likely a reflection of the substantial ongoing market and discount volatility, and of the relatively short interlude in time since the trust was trading at or above NAV. The board was more active in the previous financial year, repurchasing just under 970,000 shares at a weighted average discount of c. 13%.

In 2018 the board was granted authority to conduct a 10:1 stock split, with the aim of further improving liquidity in MRC shares and ultimately helping to narrow the discount. Daily average trading volumes over the past 12 months have been greater than the average over the previous five years but it is hard, given the extraordinary trading conditions of the past 12 months, to draw any conclusions on the efficacy of the stock split in assisting this.

MRC: Discount/Premium


Source: Morningstar

Charges

MRC presently has an OCF of c. 0.44% (Source: JPMorgan Cazenove), with shareholders benefitting from the economies of scale available to the large pool of assets, which help keep costs notably below the sector average of c. 0.61%. This OCF is calculated using the average daily cum-income net assets over the previous financial year. This explains why the OCF is inclusive of the management fee of 0.45% of market cap, and yet lower. No performance fee is charged. The KID RIY figure is 1.43%, in excess of the sector average of 1.17%; this is likely representative of the above-average turnover ratio within the portfolio, with associated costs. We would caution that calculation methodologies can vary.

ESG

MRC is managed by JPMorgan Asset Management (JPMAM). JPMAM is a signatory to the United Nations Principles of Responsible Investment, and is therefore committed to the six principles encased therein, which aim to incorporate ESG criteria into investment processes and to promote ESG disclosure.

The MRC team are able to draw on ESG specialists from within the wider JPMAM team who are tasked with running ongoing assessments of how companies deal with ESG risks and issues.

Fund History

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