An update from manager James Thom
In this podcast, investment manager James Thom discusses the recovery in Asian economies and how the Trust is positioning for this new environment.
Recorded on 25 March 2021.
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Interviewer: Hello, and welcome to the latest in the Aberdeen Standard Investment Trusts podcast series. With me today is James Thom from the Aberdeen New Dawn Trust. We'll be talking about the recovery in Asian economies and how he's positioning the fund in this new environment. Welcome, James, I wonder if we can start by looking at the big picture across Asia – are you finding that economic recovery is in full swing there?
James: It is looking very encouraging. I think Asia is now clearly benefiting from the way in which it handled the pandemic through the course of last year. And an economic growth is racing back. And if you think about the two big kind of economic engines in the region, even last year, China managed to eke out 2% GDP growth, and that momentum is kind of continuing through to this year. India was pretty hard hit by the pandemic, but it has seen a remarkable rebound with case numbers now down substantially in the fourth quarter and into this year. And that has allowed the economy there to open up far quicker, I think, than anyone had expected. And across the region, you know, they're certainly not totally out of the woods. So some of the countries are still struggling and growth is still not there. But overall, I think the picture is pretty encouraging.
Interviewer: And there was speculation ahead of time about what the recovery might look like. Are there really noticeable characteristics about the recovery - any areas that have been particularly weak or particularly strong and any surprises?
James: I'm not sure, it's been sort of particularly surprising in the way in which it's playing out. So as you would expect, the sectors that were hardest hit by the pandemic are those that are now sort of coming back most strongly. So if you think you know, anything sort of consumer discretionary related, you know, we're seeing quite good growth come back there, whether it's, you know, auto sales, or retail, restaurants, those sorts of things. Maybe the bit that has arguably been a little surprising has been the sudden rebound in the kind of commodities area. So, metals and mining and oil and gas has come back quite strongly on the expectations that economies are going to continue opening up and demand is going to come back. So we're seeing that play out. And meanwhile those sectors that were kind of seen as beneficiaries, through the pandemic, have continued to perform pretty strongly. And that almost feels now like a bit of a sort of structural improvement. So if you think about the internet sector, ecommerce, the tech space, we’re still seeing very good performance there.
Interviewer: And what do you see as the big risks today? Is it still a revival in outbreaks of the virus? Or are there other things emerging that you're looking at just as closely?
James: The number one risk is still very much the pandemic and another wave. And, you know, as much as I said we've seen a dramatic drop in case numbers in India just in the last couple of weeks, we've seen, unfortunately, numbers pick up again. So still fear and concern there. We'll have to see how that plays out. Obviously, the vaccine developments are key here and India is now rolling that out much more quickly than it than it had been initially. So yes, vaccine and the virus still front and centre of the risk register, if you like. I think the one that's kind of reared its head that wasn't there previously, is now concerns about inflation and rising rates. We've seen the sort of yield curve pick up a bit. And so concerns that maybe Asia is on the cusp of another so called taper tantrum. If you think back to 2013, when the Fed sort of changed course in terms of monetary policy. I don't think we're there yet. And I think Asia is in pretty good shape, actually. But certainly, there's quite a bit of thought now going in to what this all means for Asian markets and economies. And then the third one would just be, you know, the continued concerns around geopolitics and relations in particular between the US and China and how that's going to unfold under the new White House administration.
Interviewer: If we could turn to the fund now, and the fund’s quality focus certainly helped during the pandemic. Have you shifted the focus at all as the economy recovers, perhaps moved into more cyclical areas?
James: Yes, a little. I mean, I would say that the focus on quality hasn't changed. So you know, I think there is no substitute for quality, particularly in Asian markets, where there are sort of risks to the downside. So we're still very much focused on quality companies. But yes, from a sort of sectoral standpoint, we have rotated a little to reflect that the opening up of economies and the growth that we're seeing coming back in some of these more cyclical sectors, as you said, and in the commodity space, as well. So, so yes, we've kind of reflected that a little bit in the portfolio in recent weeks and quarters.
Interviewer: And anything else you'd say about the current theme running through the portfolio and trust positioning?
James: So I would say I mean, overall, the portfolio remains a well diversified portfolio. So whilst we have still probably a third of the portfolio in China, and we're still positive on the China growth story, we have substantial positions across North Asian economies and markets, in India and in Southeast Asia. From a sector standpoint, we've got quite a significant exposure to the tech sector, as I said, that had been kind of resilient through the pandemic, but we've seen it continue to perform very strongly. So I think we're still positive on the outlook there, both on the internet sort of side of that sector and on the sort of tech hardware side where growth remains very robust. But otherwise, I think, you know, thematically, probably the new, or the newest theme that we've been thinking about and positioning around somewhat is the sort of shift to a greener economy and renewable energy and a move to electric vehicles, and all these things, which is, as we're seeing across the globe, you know, in Asia is gathering real momentum. And there's some great companies in this part of the world that we have the opportunity to invest in.
Interviewer: And what about the longer term themes in Asia that have sort of been recurring over the past decade or so - things like infrastructure and the growth in the middle class and urbanisation? Has the pandemic changed any of those at all?
James: My sense is, is not. I think those you know, those remain very real, long term structural growth drivers for the region. Asia is still in need of significant infrastructure build out - urbanisation is still a very real phenomenon, you know, maybe less so in somewhere like China today, given the huge progress they've made there. But if you look to a market like India, urbanisation is still very real and very much happening. And there's still a huge paucity of sort of housing, for example. So demand for infrastructure service providers, cement companies, paint companies, you know, we're seeing very good growth still in many markets there on that theme. And, the rise of the Asian middle class is continuing and continuing to drive growth and aspirational consumption. And we have quite a number of stocks in the portfolio that are a play on that still very kind of resilient themes.
Interviewer: Asia is has been quite resilient over the past year, particularly in China. Is that reflected in higher valuations for Asian companies? Or are you really seeing sort of valuations on a par between both kind of relative to their history and relative to the rest of the world?
James: So valuations have run up a bit. The markets have performed well and continue to perform well. Earnings are catching up but there has been a rewriting in valuation multiples. And I think it's fair to say certain parts of the market do look a bit frothy at the moment. And we are seeing quite a lot of new IPOs and issuances taking advantage of that. But overall, if you kind of chart valuations relative to their long term history, they're a little bit above that long term average, but not, you know, materially so, so they don't look overly stretched. And I think the key is that we see the earnings growth come through to support those multiples. So that's, I guess, the sort of the risk to this. But notwithstanding that, I would argue that Asia still looks pretty attractive, versus global equity markets, and certainly versus US markets. With the region trading on a still very wide discount versus those markets. I think there's the relative attractiveness is very much that still.
Interviewer: And you mentioned earlier that you have around 1/3 of the portfolio in China. Is that focused on any particular kind of stock or are there things that China is doing particularly well?
James: Well, it seems to be doing a lot of things very well. And there are multiple themes to our exposure in China in the portfolio. One is very clearly the internet sector. So one of our core holdings remains Tencent and that is still seeing very strong growth. And there are multiple drivers there, you know, everything from gaming revenues to online advertising, to FinTech now, so that remains a fascinating and highly innovative space with a lot of growth opportunity. As I mentioned, you know, that rising middle class, that's still very much a real trend in China, and the aspirational consumption that comes with that. So we have two or three holdings that are at play on that theme. We've got a couple of holdings in the healthcare sector. And again, China's been quite innovative, particularly in the biotech space. And I mentioned, renewable energy, obviously, China's just made this key pledge to be carbon neutral by 2060, which is a long way off, but the amount of investment and capital expenditure that we think that shift is going to require will be huge. And therefore we're seeing a lot of growth and investment into some of the China companies. And that's reflected in the portfolio as well.
Interviewer: And you mentioned the new US administration. Obviously, it was quite a tetchy relationship under the previous administration. But do you have any geopolitical concerns about China? And if so, how do you manage that in the portfolio?
James: So I think those concerns are still there. Yes, there's been a change in administration. And, you know, the hope is that we'll have a slightly more diplomatic relationship now. Less confrontational, but I think that the tensions aren't going to go away. And there is sort of broad based support for them politically on both sides of the house in the US. So I think and, you know, notably, in the first few months of the administration, Biden has not rolled back any of the sort of key sanctions, if you like, that have been placed on China under the prior administration. So there's been no relaxation, we're waiting to see whether there'll be a further escalation - my sense is that there could well be. So you have to be kind of alive to those risks, I think we, for our part, tend to focus on the companies and ensure that we're in the best quality companies that can sort of withstand any turbulence. But also, you know, when you look at our exposure, in China, a lot of it is kind of domestic focus. So we don't have a lot in companies that are kind of trade dependent or export dependent, or are sort of more politically sensitive, if you like. We tend to kind of shy away from those and I think that helps insulate us in the portfolio overall from some of the sort of real volatility here.
Interviewer: Okay. And I wonder if we could just wrap up by talking a little bit about what the last 12 months has done to the long term argument for Asia. And, you know, whether that's still kind of firmly in place, whether it's actually potentially got stronger?
James: Yes, I think I mean, there is an argument to be made here that Asia, well, if it doesn't emerge stronger in absolute terms, I think it may very well emerge stronger relative to the rest of the world. If you think about the sort of strength of the economies in Asia, in contrast to much of the developed or Western world. Asia, given the way that they've handled the pandemic, they have pumped stimulus into the economies to support them through this tough period, but not to the same level or extent that we've seen in western economies. As a consequence, they're much less indebted, and will emerge in a far stronger position from this as a consequence. And Asian central banks have largely pursued orthodox monetary policy since the global financial crisis going back a number of years now, so they still have no monetary policy levers at their disposal to keep stimulating the economy should they need to. And as I've already commented, Asia is racing back into growth and remains the fastest growing part of the world. And that will also continue to position it very well. And, you know, all of those long term structural drivers that we've talked about already, I think remain intact, coupled with the huge innovation that we continue to see in this in this part of the world and that's only accelerating - so I remain as positive on the region as I ever was, if not more so.
Interviewer: Great. Okay, thank you so much, James, for those insights. And thank you to our listeners for tuning in. Please check into the website, which is www.newdawn-trust.co.uk for any more information, and please do look out for our future episodes.
This podcast is provided for general information only, and assumes a certain level of knowledge of financial markets. It is provided for information purposes only and should not be considered as an offer, investment recommendation or solicitation to deal in any of the investments or products mentioned herein and does not constitute investment research. The views in this podcast are those of the contributors at the time of publication, and do not necessarily reflect those of Aberdeen Standard Investments. The value of investments and the income from them can go down as well as up and investors may get back less than the amount invested. Past performance is not a guide to future returns, return projections or estimates and provides no guarantee of future results.
An update from manager James Thom
In this podcast, investment manager James Thom discusses the Trust's annual results and changes to the portfolio's positioning over the last year. He also provides an update on economic recovery in Asia and explores the outlook for 2021.
Recorded on 12 December 2020.
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Interviewer: Hello and welcome to the latest Aberdeen Standard Investment Trusts podcast. Today I'm talking to James Thom, manager of the Aberdeen New Dawn Investment Trust. And we'll be discussing the Trust's results along with the outlook for the trust portfolio as we head into 2021. Welcome, James. And so let's start by looking at the results. And can you give us some top level messages that investors should be taking away from this year's performance?
James: Yes, I mean, it's been a remarkable six months, all things considered, with markets in Asia up surprisingly strongly over over six months, despite all the economic and financial turmoil that's resulted from the covid 19 pandemic. And really, it's been driven by a gradual reopening up of the economies. Here post lockdown, and large parts of the region getting the virus under control. And of course, there's been significant stimulus as well, both fiscal and monetary. And against that backdrop, the trust has managed to keep pace and actually slightly outperform the overall market for the six month period. And really, I think that's just a testament to the quality and resilience of the portfolio's holdings, and our bottom up stock selection process. And really, that's come to the fore, most notably in in some of the North Asian markets. So in countries like Taiwan, South Korea, and China, that's where we've seen some of the strongest returns in the portfolio. And from a sector standpoint, we've seen very strong performance in the tech sector be that internet or the hardware sector and in the healthcare sector. So I think that that's all contributed to the performance over this period. And coupled with the fact that we have really just doubled down on our focus on quality. So where we had any question mark on conviction on a stock investment thesis and the ability for a company to weather the storm. We weeded that out and really just focused on the best quality names in the region. And that has worked nicely for the trust.
Interviewer: And it's obviously been a very unusual year and the situation has been very fluid in terms of repositioning the portfolio, what have you generally been pleased that you did and is there anything you wish you'd done differently?
James: Hindsight is a wonderful thing, isn't it? Something we would love to have done was pulled back more aggressively than we did in in the stocks and sectors that have been impacted the most by the pandemic. But overall, in general, I think I'm pleased to say with how the portfolio has weathered this very dramatic period. So the quality of the stocks now has held up are focused on strong balance sheet. Companies with experienced management teams, strong market positions, these are the sorts of companies that have weathered this the best. So, that's been encouraging. And I think when you look at the performance of the trust, there's been a nice alignment over this time period between where our conviction lies from a stock perspective. And those, larger higher conviction positions, many of them that sort of top 10 holdings in the portfolio, driving a lot of the returns over this period. So that's, that's been good. And we were responsive to the pandemic and thinking about which sectors and which countries were going to be impacted the most by this. And we did react and call back to markets that were struggling to get control of the virus, like India, or some sectors that have been particularly in past like financials, of course, in retrospect we should have done more. But I'm pleased that we did that. And I think the final point I would just make here is that where there was a lot of volatility in markets, and we were able to take opportunity of some of that weakness in particular to buy either stocks that we own already, and to buy more at those prices or to initiate new stocks in the portfolio at attractive valuations.
Interviewer: Okay, and what does the fund positioning look like today, I mean, is it quite different to a year ago, or have you got the same kind of themes running through it?
James: So the underlying approach remains the same. Still very much a focus on quality stocks and identifying and holding those long term compounders. So that that hasn't changed. And it remains a very high quality portfolio. And it remains a nicely diversified portfolio, which I think is important during uncertain times like these, having said that, responding to the volatility that I that I was talking about a minute ago, we have managed to add quite a number of new stocks to the portfolio. So we've seen our exposure to China increase a bit over this period. And in contrast, we've pulled back somewhat in India and Southeast Asia, we've increased the exposure and found quite a number of new holdings, interestingly, down in Australia and New Zealand, which is part of the broader trust mandate within the Asia Pacific ex Japan mandate, and we saw quite abrupt share price corrections in the early part of the period. And that was a value opportunity, if you like to buy some names there. So we now have more in in those markets. We've got more in the technology sector, right across, internet hardware software, and also more in the healthcare sector as well. Many of these stocks have been actually beneficiaries of pandemic, interestingly.
Interviewer: Right. What about looking at Asian markets in general? I mean, it looks like Asia has come out of this first. Do you believe that economic recovery is reasonably well established? Are you confident going into 2021?
James: So yes, it does feel reasonably well established. But at the same time, it still feels a little fragile. So as with everywhere, the region is still prone to second, third or even fourth waves of the virus. And we've seen that in certain markets. But certainly relative to the rest of the world. I agree. I think Asia is looking comparatively in pretty good shape. And it is growing. Amazingly, if you think about what the what the region has been through, but China this year is forecast to grow a little over 2% increase in GDP growth terms. Taiwan should post just positive growth, Vietnam as well. And that's quite a stark contrast really to many parts of the rest of the world where we've seen very steep declines in GDP growth. So the region isnt out of the woods yet. And there's still quite a lot of restrictions in place, of course. I think relatively speaking, Asia is looking in fairly good shape.
Interviewer: And your latest update, you said that country and sector divergences could become more pronounced as Asia progresses through the economic recovery. I wonder if you could talk about that, and why you think that's the case?
James: Yes, I mean, I think this is a really interesting topic. And it's not obviously not as relevant to Asia. But you know, the question of whether COVID, and the pandemic, will have a lasting kind of structural impact on on economies and sectors and companies. And we're all trying to work out or work through that and decipher what it all means. And I think the answer is probably it does. And we're already seeing certain sectors, emerge as winners and others as sort of casualties if you like. So I think we've definitely seen the pandemic as a sort of catalyst for that shift from offline to online with Internet companies, benefiting. We've seen IT services companies, which is a large industry out here, has benefited from clients, increasingly moving towards cloud based solutions and needing help to implement that. We've seen diversification of supply chains, with multinationals wanting to have more than just, one supplier and not be quite so dependent on China, for example. And we've seen companies respond, as well in delivering cost reductions, but also just moving things to digital ways of working, which has increased efficiencies as well. So I think there are winners and losers. And we're still trying to work through what all this means. But I think the other interesting point here is just how Asia emerges relative to the rest of the world. And I think Asian growth is coming back. There will be less debt in Asia versus other parts of the world, interest rates, yes, there's been stimulus, but there's still room to cut. And I and I do wonder whether, relatively speaking, Asia emerges from there, compared to much of the rest of the world from this crisis.
Interviewer: And presumably, some of the themes that have driven Asia. To this point, the longer term themes like urbanisation and wealth management and new increasing middle class, presumably, those are all still kind of firmly in place. I mean, how are you playing those in the portfolio?
James: Yes, they are. And we are, well positioned to play many of those long term structural themes. So you mentioned urbanisation where we have quite a big exposure to cement companies, which are obviously involved in the construction of housing and so on infrastructure. Quite a big exposure to the financial services sector, which is a play on rising wealth levels and demand for basic sort of financial products, and so forth. But we've also been given quite a lot of thought to newer trends and themes, and how we should position around those. So we're seeing a lot happening here in the sort of tech sector, you know, very strong growth, still in demand to kind of high cloud computing, data centres, cloud solutions, and everything into 5G and artificial intelligence. Asian companies are leading the charge. And in that area, in many cases, particularly in the semiconductor space we've got a big exposure to that in the portfolio, the internet sector, we're well positioned there. And a big push more recently, on to all things green related and, you know, the drives for electric vehicles and so forth. And again, we're well positioned, owning some of the electric vehicle battery makers, for example, in the portfolio.
Interviewer: And what about the outcome of the US election? It could a change of administration make any difference to Asian markets?
James: I think on balance, the Biden victory, and the prospects of the Biden White House is, is on the margin positive for Asia. Obviously, the one of the big sources of uncertainty over the last couple, more than a couple of years now has been relations between the US and China and the trade war. And obviously, that's morphed into a broader set of issues. And I think it's been the style and approach that Donald Trump has adopted in dealing with China. That's fueled a lot of the uncertainty for the markets. And the expectation is that while these pressures or intentions aren't going to recede or go away, There is pretty broad bipartisan support, I think, for these measures in the US, our expectation is that Biden, and his administration will be a little bit more predictable, a little bit more diplomatic, a bit more multilateral, in their approach to dealing with China, which I think will help. And I expect, also that we're seeing some US dollar weakness on the back of the election outcome, if that remains in place. Generally, that's positive for capital flows into Asia and emerging markets as well. So I think, on the margin, this is this is a positive outcome for the region.
Interviewer: Okay. And so as we put a rather dismal 2020, behind us, are you reasonably hopeful for a better 2021?
James: Yeah, no one wants to repeat 2020. And I think that's not certainly what we're expecting, obviously, as I said, the region does remain, you know, prone to further waves of the virus. But I think now with the vaccines on the horizon, and the generally good job that Asia has done in bringing the virus under control, that looks considerably more promising and optimistic. And as I say, that is driving a recovery in growth in this part of the world, economies are getting back on their feet. And that is being feeding down through corporate earnings. And the market is expecting and forecasting quite a considerable rebound in earnings growth for next year. And when you contrast that with valuations, yes, the markets recovered quite strongly this year. But still, overall, valuations don't look overly demanding. And certainly relative to global equities, I think Asian equities look pretty attractively valued. So I think all of that combines to a quite optimistic outlook as a base case for next year.
Interviewer: Okay, great. Thank you so much, James. Let's hope for less eventful 2021. And thank you to our listeners for tuning in. And please check into the website, which is www.newdawn-trust.co.uk And please do look out for future episodes.
This podcast is provided for general information only and assumes a certain level of knowledge of financial markets. It is provided for information purposes only and should not be considered as an offer investment recommendation or solicitation to deal in any of the investments of products mentioned herein and does not constitute investment research. The views in this podcast are those of the contributors at the time of publication and do not necessarily reflect those of Aberdeen Standard Investments. The value of investments and the income from them can go down as well as up, and investors may get back less than the amount invested. Past performance is not a guide to future returns. Return projections are estimates and provide no guarantee of future results.
A global outlook podcast
In this podcast we are joined by Aberdeen Standard Investments economist Luke Bartholomew as well as James Thom, manager of Aberdeen New Dawn Investment Trust, Bruce Stout, manager of Murray International Trust and Ben Ritchie, co-manager of Dunedin Income Growth Investment Trust.
Luke gives his thoughts on the extraordinary twelve months we've just witnessed, while our respective investment managers engage in some crystal ball gazing on what we might expect in 2021.
Podcasts from Aberdeen Standard Investment Trusts - invest in good company.
Interviewer: Hello. Welcome to the latest in the Aberdeen Standard Investment Trusts podcast series that we have for our panel today, our economist Luke Bartholomew will be giving his thoughts on the extraordinary 12 months we've just witnessed, while fund managers, Ben Ritchie, Bruce Stout and James Thom will be doing some crystal ball gazing on what we can expect in 2021. Welcome everybody. And now, Luke, turning to you first, nobody needs reminding that it's been a very unusual year. And I wonder if you can talk us through some of the highlights and low lights?
Luke: Sure. I think you're right, that it's been what to say at the very least unusual year. It's one of those years where all the cliches that we use often in this industry, extraordinary historical unprecedented for one. Absolutely true and on the nose. And in that context, I don't think it is too difficult to think of some lowlights; the absolutely astonishing collapse in economic activity that we saw in the first half of the year 25% or so contraction. In the UK, for example, one has to go back hundreds of years of economic history to find something comparable. And of course, you know, that economic costs really significantly understates the true welfare costs ,not just the public health consequences, and the tragic loss of life, but also the shutting down of opportunities for so many people. The fact that people weren't able to go out and live their normal lives, the huge increase in unemployment that we saw in the US less so in the UK, and the rest of Europe as different policies were put in place. But yeah, I think the economic costs were just absolutely astronomical. And really, as I say, I mean, truly are cliche inducing. So I mean, I think there are some positives, and if not positive, then at least things to give one some hope. First of all, how well policymakers came together in late March, early April, when it looked like not only were we facing a public health crisis, but also perhaps the financial market crisis, monetary and fiscal policymakers were able to largely avert that. And on the whole they have put in place policies that have supported cash flow and income through this extraordinary business. Now, no doubt there will be some long term consequences from that, but they have certainly diminished some of the short term costs that we might have faced. And then the most obvious highlight, I suppose, is the good news that we've had on the vaccine evidence, that if enough capital and human engineering, it is deployed in one direction, and we are capable of quite extraordinary things. And it looks like as we speak today, that there is light at the end of the tunnel as it comes to the vaccine. And I think perhaps that does speak positively, for our ability to solve user problems as well.
Interviewer: And with potential normality ahead, do you still think that the pandemic will permanently change some aspects of the global economy?
Luke: Yes, I are expecting the economy to end up being permanently smaller than it otherwise would have been. So there is some permanent loss of economic activity. And I don't think that's too difficult to understand in terms of the psychological scarring, which leads to reduced savings, reduced investment in various bits of sort of stranded capital that have come out from this crisis that are no longer quite as economically viable as though as they once were, the fact that a whole bunch of investment streams are probably not going to go ahead over the last year in a way that they otherwise would have done weighing on future growth. The scarring to the labor market that we might see from the periods of unemployment and inactivity. But beyond that, I think it's also possible to see other structural changes as well. It's hard to believe that we would have gone through this, and it won't have changes in some fundamental ways. The most obvious, I guess, is working from home, I suspect we'll be doing a fair bit more of that in the future. Perhaps our travel patterns will change, perhaps where we live and why we live in those places. Those will also change as well, particularly if we do end up working from home much more. And I guess the great imponderable from all of this is to what extent the capacity that we’ve shown to make great sacrifices when necessary , to have extraordinary innovation for the state to mobilise resources, whether that speaks to our capacity to deal with problems, like climate change, and what it might mean about how we go about tackling that in the future.
Interviewer: Yeah, and what about a final verdict on the health of the global economy today? Are you reasonably optimistic looking into 2021?
Luke: So I think right now, the way we frame it is, second wave versus the vaccine for the short term outlook is once again, looking pretty dark. I think the UK and Europe are only now only going to avoid a technical recession of two quarters of negative growth, it looks like key for this year is going to be a quite large contraction. And then next year, we're only expecting a very modest growth. But after that, I think for the second half of next year, we could find ourselves growing quite robustly. One of the things that we learned this summer is that when lockdown restrictions are lifted, in the short term, you get a pretty large boost from growth. And as lockdown measures get wound down in the second half of next year, the vaccine allows us to return to some kind of quote, unquote, normality, that is a period where we could see quite rapid growth and potentially a return to something like the old normal, but I suppose one final cautionary thought to end on is let's remember what that normal is that we're going back to it was already a world of pretty disappointing, sluggish growth, a world of quite low inflation with central bankers and other policymakers struggling to get the targets consistent inflation, and a world of very, very low interest rates. And to the extent to which we are going back to, quote unquote, normal. I think that is the normal we are going back to.
Interviewer: Okay, that's great. Thank you, Luke. If we could turn to you now, Bruce, and ask the same question. How optimistic Are you looking out over the next 12 months?
Bruce: Well it's always difficult to predict, isn't it? and optimism is not something I think that familiar to the average Scottish psyche. So I'll try and be realistic rather than optimistic with what we've got in front of us. And, I mean, undoubtedly, this has been an extraordinary period. I can't remember one in living memory, who has life and livelihoods and health and wealth, were all threatened at the same time. I suspects as we've heard before, that, for many nations and individuals, life will be a bit awkward, and we have changed, I guess. And for investors, that means an unfamiliar landscape, I suppose relative to the past, which may ultimately unfold. However, I think, as always, it be very presumptuous to extrapolate the events and investment teams of this year, because it was so unusual, as some sort of new normal because for many the new normal, is less about choice, just simply a reality. So I think as the world returns to something like it was before, then, I suppose we are quite optimistic, because we've seen such a gulf between a narrow number of stocks and themes that have performed this year, and particularly in e-commerce and technology. But on the other side of that, people totally ignoring things like oil and gas and commodities, and transport, tourism, etc. As if we're never going to need those again, really all sorts of cyclical assets and you can add to that Emerging markets and Asia as well. So there's a huge still a huge valuation gap between a small number of businesses that have done well and a large number of good quality companies that have lagged, and that valuation gap looks quite interesting for next year.
Interviewer: And so while the pandemic has reshaped the prospect for individual industries, you think that might have been overdone, a bit, that actually it is not it's not going to be as profound a change as markets have, have presumed?
Bruce: Yes I mean, we've gone and been very, very active this year. And looking at all the businesses that we own. When I see all the businesses, it's a concentrated portfolio, Murray International is only 50 companies, but we wanted to look at them, again, with a sort of fresh pair of eyes in light of what's been happening to see if things have really changed, because, I mean, there's a lot of talk about spare capacity out there. But a lot of the spare capacity may be obsolete capacity. Now, we don't know in which case, and some companies that do have good production services may be in a very advantageous position to raise prices and rebuild the balance sheets to ensure for, for some businesses like long haul travel, and the impact that it has on jet engines, or high street retailing, maybe the whole cash versus cashless society has changed. But for a lot of other businesses, they will go back to some semblance of normality, because they add essential services and commodities for people in their lives. So it's towards those types of growth companies that we're looking at the moment because I think that's where the best opportunities are, particularly we see in Asia and emerging markets, because if there's one thing that that looks as if it's going to evolve from this, there's going to be a legacy of huge public sector debt, particularly in the developed world. And that has to be paid off over a long period of time, which will have implications for taxation on both the individual level and the corporate level, and just a general constraint on growth. Whereas, particularly in Asia, in the developing world, we don't have the same fiscal imbalances, there's much more flexibility to still have fiscal policy. And there will be such a legacy as far as we can see. So that is a change, but it's a positive change for those areas.
Interviewer: And you mentioned a couple there, but I wonder if you could just talk a bit about the key themes running through the portfolio as we move next year?
Bruce: There are one or two key themes. I think the issue that that we've had this year is a real concentration of markets, particularly in technology and e-commerce. And, as markets have got narrower and narrower, there has been less focus on diversification and that that is one of the themes of Murray International we have over 25 different countries and about 60 different businesses. So it is a very diversified International Trust, that gives us a broad exposure for capital growth and for income growth. But also, the other main theme is that we are mainly focused on Asia and the Emerging Markets world with over 50% of the portfolio in Asia and the Emerging Markets world because that's where we feel going forward the best relative growth opportunities are. So the next five to 10 years at least, plus also remember that there will be a big legacy from the pandemic this year in terms of huge public sector debt that's been racked up in the developed world. And it has to be paid for, I guess, in higher taxes, both for individuals and for corporations at some point. So there is a drag for growth prospects in the developed world that just isn't there in Asia and emerging markets to the same extent. So that tailwind should be beneficial as well, as we go forward.
Interviewer: Great. Okay. Thank you, Bruce. And, James, coming to you, though, as Bruce mentioned, that Asia appear to have emerged stronger from the pandemic. I wonder if you could give your verdict on Asia's response and the economic recovery, you've seen since?
James: Yes, I'd largely agree with Bruce, although it does feel a little premature, perhaps delivering a verdict at this stage, because it's still, you know, we're still very much in the midst of the pandemic, and, and working our way through it. But having said that, I think, absolutely, Asia has done in general a commendable job, I think in the way in which they responded to the pandemic and managed their way through it. So much so now that we have several countries out here that will post positive GDP growth this year. So despite the very large hit to GDP in the first quarter, and first half of the year, given the their ability to contain the virus, we're now seeing economic activity recover quite quickly. And in particular, in China, the big economy here, but also Taiwan, Vietnam, I think are all due to deliver positive growth this year, which is quite a stark contrast to much of the rest of the world, and I think is a testament to the really very rapid and focused response that these countries had to containing the pandemic, locking down the borders, implementing an effective track and trace capability and obviously supporting economies with the stimulus when needed. So I think, overall, it is looking certainly relative to the rest of the world, pretty encouraging. Here, obviously, there remains the risk of second or even third wave. And we are continuing to see that and it's by no means a panacea. There are several countries here that are still battling through that that's the first wave, India stands out in particular, as a country that has seen very significant numbers of cases. But even there, fortunately, we're now seeing case numbers peak, and hopefully, it will continue to trend down those play that kind of second wave risk does remain.
Interviewer: Okay, and how are you positioning the Aberdeen New Dawn Investment Trust for the year ahead?
James: Well, the focus as ever remains on quality companies. So whilst growth is recovering, it is still pretty turbulent and an uncertain environment out there. So it feels prudent still to be invested in market leading companies with strong balance sheets and experienced management teams. So that's very much the focus overall. Having said that, we continue to think about the structural kind of growth themes and stories out here. And despite all the doom and gloom, I think there remain many of these kind of structural growth trends here in in Asia as Bruce was alluding to. So you have continued rising wealth levels and urbanisation and all of that is thriving demands, basic products and services, as it has for decades already. And I think that will continue but there are a lot of other kind of newer, faster moving trends, where Asia is playing a kind of key role. So the tech sector is one and we've got in Aberdeen New Dawn a substantial waiting. They're both in the kind of hardware side of the sector. So semiconductors, for example, where we're seeing multiple new drivers emerging for demand there, whether it's continued demand for high powered computing, data centres, cloud services, 5G, artificial intelligence, I mean, it really is a whole range of new drivers there. So I think that remains an attractive long term story. We're continuing to see substantial innovation in the internet sector. And with many of the Asian companies leading the way there, I think there's plenty going on there and COVID, as it has for much of the rest of the world has been a catalyst for that sector. We continue to see that transition from offline to online. But then I think also, you know, in the green economy, there's plenty going on here in Asia, whether it's the shift to electric vehicles, or to renewable energy. And many of the countries here are coming up with quite ambitious targets. So I think that's providing interesting investment opportunities for a slightly longer term investment horizon.
Interviewer: And what extent would you say that the pandemic has fundamentally reshaped the outlook for Asian companies? Or do you believe like Bruce that this has gone too far, at times that people have been assuming a new normal? And perhaps it's not going to be that different after all?
James: Yes, it's so difficult really to have a clear view, at this point in time, in my personal opinion on working from home, my feeling is that we shouldn't yet be writing the obituary of office space and commercial real estate just yet. And I suspect tourism and travel will eventually rebound, though, admittedly, it may not get back to pre-COVID levels. But I think, that aside, certainly there are changes happening, as a consequence of this we have talked about the internet companies already and that has been a catalyst to moving consumption online. I think that that's very real and is permanent. We've got a number of IT services companies in that part of the world, and they're seeing their corporate clients, increasing their efforts to digitise processes and shift things to the cloud. And companies themselves, I think, are increasingly doing this, you know, we see it across the region, in an effort to, I guess, they've been forced to go to digital ways of working, but have found in many cases, that's a relatively effective way of working and cost efficient, were working. So it's been quite big cost reductions happening as a consequence of this. So I think there are, you know, a number of changes that, arguably could be positive for Asian companies. And we'll have to see how permanent those proved to be. But I think many of them will be structural.
Interviewer: Great. Okay. Thank you, James. Ben, let's turn to you now The Dunedin Income Growth Investment Trust invests across both the UK and Europe, perhaps Europe, can you see a better year ahead the stock markets in the region? And if so, you know, any particular hotspots, either regionally or sectorally?
Ben: Given everything that's happened in 2020, looking at the pan European index it is actually not too bad to be down mid single digit percentage. I think, given everything that's happened is a reasonable results. The UK has been a little bit weaker than that, overall. But I think given the ginormous economic impact that we saw earlier in the year from COVID, I think to have ended up with that outcome is reasonably okay. I think looking into next year, as Luke was sort of painting the picture, really, there's a combination of sort of near term economic weakness, which is likely to feed into some pressure on companies. But then you've got a combination of expected rebound, as we move into the second half of the year, perhaps into the second quarter. And then you've got the the rollout of of the vaccines, which I guess should support further growth. And I think that's the sort of environment where we would probably expect that investors will look through the near term weakness and look out to perhaps the more optimistic picture for economic growth, and certainly when you look at what consensus is expecting from an earnings perspective, then, you are probably looking for somewhere between 35 and 45% earnings growth next year, you know, that's probably likely to be supportive for the outlook for equities as well. Although, when you think about this year, we saw that 38% decline in Europe, and a bit more in the UK. And markets have not taken that too terribly overall. So we'll have to see that imbalance. But I think certainly, next year, looks like it might be a little bit better. But I think following on from what Bruce was saying, it's always hard to say how these things will develop really at the market level.
Interviewer: And I mean, the region has had valuations on it’s side. Is that still the case, are the valuations still pretty competitive compared with its global peers?
Ben: Yeah, I mean, I think they are. But I would always caution against reading too much into that. I mean, I think, you know, Europe as a market has been cheap for most of the last 20 years. So I'm not sure that's the new thing. And it's also generally been a bit of a disappointing place for investors at a global level, you know, the UK has been on a fairly significant discount to most other markets since Brexit, and again, that hasn't necessarily helped its performance. So I think it'll really comes back down to what we think companies can deliver, in terms of earnings and cash growth. And also the starting prices which we're paying for those businesses, so we still see plenty of opportunities at the company level across Europe and the UK. But we wouldn't be making a big play of the fact that the overall markets and necessarily cheaper than other ones in the world, because I also think when you actually look at details, there is some reasonable reasons why the UK might be cheaper, they have nothing to do with Brexit, but have a lot to do with big chunks of the index being in sectors, which traditionally always have relatively low valuation like banks or oil companies or mining, when you look at them on a PE basis. So you know, I think, optimistic at the company level, but we would be cautious a little bit on using valuation as the primary reason to be enthusiastic about those markets.
Interviewer: Okay, and how are you positioning the Dunedin Income Growth Trust for the year ahead?
Ben: So see, one of the things we've really focused on over the last couple of years is not putting all of our eggs in one particular outcome basket. So to go back to 2019, one of the things that we did there, as we approached the deadlines around Brexit deals, was not really having any great insight into how that would play out was just to make sure that we were quite balanced in terms of our positioning, to make sure that we had good domestic UK exposure, which is prosper in the case of a deal, but also have some good overseas companies, which continue to generate good returns, if we were to see a reasonable outcome. And I think we've tried to take that kind of approach where if we don't know, then why take in a big bets, either way. And I think that's much the same, really, as we look out into 2021. And we look at that, for the last few weeks, we've had the US presidential elections, we've had the development of vaccines, through both of those quite big events we managed to keep relative pace with what's been going on in the market, despite having proven to be pretty resilient for most of this year. So we see that as a sort of some degree of a good outturn in terms of positioning. And I think if we look into the year ahead, we want to be both resilient in tough market conditions, if we do see sentiment turned down for whatever reason, or the economy, not deliver what people expect. But equally, you know, we want to be able to participate in any available growth opportunities that might be there. So, you know, perhaps the segment where we might lag the most would be if we really do see the very, very distressed companies in the market perform incredibly strongly in 2021, that probably won't be particularly helpful for us. But otherwise, I think we feel pretty good about our outlook. And we put an interesting portfolio with a range of different companies operating in different economies, different geographies, different economic drivers. And I think that overall leaves us feeling quite confident that we're well positioned with a good bunch of companies, you know, almost regardless of what comes out of some sort of macro-economic or strategic political perspective.
Interviewer: Great. Okay. Thank you, Ben. And thank you everyone for those insights today. And thank you to our listeners for tuning in. And let's hope for a less eventful 2021. You can find out more about the full range of Aberdeen Standard Investment Trusts www.invtrusts.co.uk and please do look out for future podcasts.
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