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Alice Rigby
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Updated 24 Feb 2023
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Disclosure – Non-Independent Marketing Communication

This is a non-independent marketing communication commissioned by Downing Strategic Micro-Cap. 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.

The world of investing has been turned on its head over the last 18 months. Despite many declaring that the growth vs. value debate was over, decade-old orthodoxies about the indomitable strength of growth companies came apart as inflation plunged revenue forecasts downwards.

Companies previously trading at valuations of 40-50x earnings have seen dramatic deratings, and fund returns have tumbled as a result. But, while 2022 was not a vintage year for any group of fund managers, some investors fared better than others.

While there is no straightforward categorisation of growth vs. value stocks, looking at the MSCI World indices provides some useful insight. Over the course of 2022, the MSCI World Value Index outperformed its Growth counterpart by some 23%. Although this outperformance has begun to close the gap between the two, their valuations remain significantly off their long-term means, suggesting that the value resurgence may not have run its course.

Regardless of outlook, this medium-term trend has demonstrated the value of maintaining some style factor diversification, and investors have taken heed – according to Morningstar, US ETF investors allocated more than three times as much to large-value funds than their growth peers in 2022.

Despite the relative favourability of value in 2022, one area of the value universe remains underappreciated. Small-cap value is often particularly underrepresented in portfolios. This is not especially new; despite smaller companies outperforming their larger peers over the long term, retail investors have tended to shy away from the sector. However, with key information inefficiencies at play, and the potential for M&A in an environment where larger companies struggle to produce organic growth, the sector is worth considering.

When contemplating a smaller companies investment, discernment is key. The sector can host the kind of growthy early-stage disruptors that flounder in a market when cash is less free-flowing. Some smaller businesses are also more exposed to a recession, with poor balance sheets meaning there is little cushioning against falling revenues. To identify which companies are genuinely underappreciated by the market, the managers of Downing Strategic Micro-Cap (DSM) apply a carefully considered lens.

The trust’s lead manager, Judith Mackenzie, and her co-manager, Nick Hawthorn, look for companies at the smallest end of the capitalisation spectrum, where little to no analyst coverage exists. They typically seek out businesses that have encountered a problem (real or overplayed) that can be rectified or overcome over time. The valuations these companies sit on will usually only reflect their downside potential, without realising the significant upside potential on the other side.

Judith and Nick are confident in the possibility of an upward rerating for their investee companies as they typically have healthy balance sheets and a clear strategic direction. Their resilience was already tested through the COVID-19 pandemic and, as many have recently refinanced, the managers believe that they are well-positioned for the rising rate, inflationary environment we find ourselves in.

The other aspect of micro-cap value investing that differentiates it from large-cap or even mid-cap value is that companies typically have a much smaller shareholder base, meaning that shareholders with a larger holding can be influential in the kind of decision making which can fuel a rerating over time. Downing has deep experience in small-cap private equity and venture capital, meaning the managers and the business are equipped with the skills and knowledge to identify and effect change. With a 5-7 year investment horizon, Judith and Nick are willing to wait to see value come through.

Together, the trust’s focus on valuations and on the smallest listed companies in the UK means that it is highly differentiated from its AIC Smaller Companies sector peers – and from the equity exposure of most investors. As such, it offers clear diversification against the typical equity allocation in UK portfolios.

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