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Merchants' Gergel: We spend lots of our time trying to avoid value traps

Simon Gergel tells Dave Baxter how he has been trying to capitalise on mispricings while remaining defensive
Merchants' Gergel: We spend lots of our time trying to avoid value traps
  • Merchants Trust had a strong November but did not fare so well earlier this year
  • What its managers have done and how the trust's holdings have changed this year

Investment trust shares are often hit disproportionately hard in market sell-offs but, equally, they can do particularly well when markets are on the up – as happened in November. When vaccine news propelled the FTSE 100 index to its greatest monthly gain in 30 years many investment trusts made even greater share price gains. These included UK equity income fund Merchants Trust (MRCH), whose share total return of 24.3 per cent for the month to 30 November put it well ahead of both the FTSE All-Share and FTSE 100 indices.

However, 2020 has not been plain sailing for this trust. Its value bias – among other factors – mean that it has faltered more generally, and made a share price total return loss of nearly 13 per cent over the 12 months to the end of November. 

Despite this, its investment team has stuck to its target of generating a high and rising income with a good total return. Simon Gergel, the trust’s manager, notes that a focus on good yields in the medium term has added some portfolio continuity, meaning no fire sale of holdings that suspended or cut their dividends.

“We look at companies with good yields in line with the market in the next 18 months – not just today,” he explains. “The reason for that, almost exemplified by this crisis, is companies can cut dividends. We’re not forced to sell just because [a company] has cut its dividend.”

The trust will receive a “significantly lower” income from its holdings this year due to dividend cuts, according to its board. But the board has also vowed to use its revenue reserves to cover any shortfalls. Merchants was recently trading on a 6.5 per cent yield.

Mr Gergel, like many investors, also expects a return to dividend payments in selected sectors and has not deviated from the portfolio’s slight value bias. But a challenging 2020 has inevitably forced some changes.

 

2020 changes

The trust's asset allocation has changed this year, with Mr Gergel making it more defensive while also trying to capitalise on “anomalies” and mispricings in the market. This has involved taking money out of some cyclical names, for example, the coronavirus outbreak prompted Mr Gergel and his team to call time on positions in Prudential (PRU) and Sirius Real Estate (SRE). They also remain wary about companies with uncertain business models in post-pandemic life.

“We held  Informa (INF), which runs trade shows and exhibitions,” he says. “[But] there’s a question mark, long term, about whether people will still go to trade shows. Companies might send people to a trade show but they won’t send 10 – they might send five. Where we have companies with a question mark, unless we’re confident they’re very cheap, we’ve been looking to get out. So we sold Informa.”

This caution extends elsewhere. In a year when share price tumbles have meant that some weak companies trade on high dividend yields, Mr Gergel notes that much of his team’s time has been spent “trying to avoid value traps”. They never buy holdings purely for income, but instead seek solid businesses that look under priced. Doing this has led them back to a variety of high-profile UK names this year, and they have a preference for businesses that look resilient and defensive. They added Next (NXT) amid the retail slowdown earlier this year, with a view that online sales have become “a dominant part of the profits”. 

And Mr Gergel believes that Next will pay dividends in the future.

He also bought Vodafone (VOD) and BT (BT.A), stocks he had not held for around half a decade and previously viewed as value traps. Mr Gergel argues that sector consolidation, politicians now acknowledging the importance of fibre optic cables and broadband, and the possibility of lighter regulation have changed this sector's outlook.

“Having been under huge pressure from competition and regulation, the sector might have more benign regulation and competition, and looks cheaper,” he explains. “They have defined earning streams – customers stay with them unless they leave. It’s not like a retailer where you have zero sales unless someone comes to your store or website.”

Mr Gergel and his team have also topped up a position in Imperial Brands (IMB). They believe that prices in the tobacco sector have grown more attractive in the past 18 months. They also added to National Grid (NG.) and SSE (SSE) in the belief these are “resilient businesses and monopolies”, even if some regulatory pressures remain.

They have favoured housebuilders but grown cautious on debt heavy businesses, prompting a move out of Vistry (VTY) and into Bellway (BWY). And they hold DFS Furniture (DFS)  a pandemic-oriented play.

“We like things associated with house building,” he says. “People have sat on their sofas a lot and might realise they’re not that comfortable any more. We want businesses that are defendable against the internet: it’s hard to sell sofas on the internet [as] people want to touch them, but also you need people to deliver them.”

 

Simon Gergel CV

Simon Gergel is chief investment officer for UK Equities at Allianz Global Investors, which runs Merchants Trust. He joined the company in April 2006 from HSBC Halbis Partners, where he was head of institutional UK equities. Before this, Mr Gergel was an executive director at Phillips & Drew Fund Management, where he spent 14 years as a portfolio manager.

Mr Gergel graduated from Cambridge University in 1987 with an MA (Hons) Cantab in Mathematics.