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Tap emerging UK growth with BlackRock Smallers

A fund that tries to find the UK's hidden gems in the small-cap universe
Tap emerging UK growth with BlackRock Smallers
  • Diversified portfolio that should do well as the economy opens up
  • Could benefit from a rise in M&A
  • Recently underperformed its peers

The UK stock market has been a disappointment for years, but with a vaccination roll-out among the best in the world, and the possibility of the UK attracting more foreign investment now the Brexit transition period has ended, there are reasons to be optimistic that Britain might outdo expectations if reopening the economy goes to plan.

The UK has performed poorly partly because it has high exposure to older industries such as oil and gas, banking and mining and little exposure to high-growth technology companies. But if you look down the market cap scale there are, it seems, attractive investment options.  

“I’d say the UK is one of the few areas of value remaining in global markets, alongside Japan, so certainly not an area investors should ignore or give up on,” says Rob Morgan, pension and investment analyst at Charles Stanley. However, the next 12-month consensus earnings for the Numis Smaller Companies Index + AIM ex Investment Companies is currently negative, highlighting the number of troubled companies out there and the importance of skilled stock picking.   

UK smaller companies funds have performed better than their peers, both over the past year and over the long term. Over the year to 18 February, investment trusts in the Association of Investment Companies UK Smaller Companies sector returned an average of 8 per cent, compared with a 2 per cent drop for the UK All Companies sector. And over the last 65 years, UK small caps, as measured by the Numis Smaller Companies Index + AIM ex Investment Companies, have outperformed the FTSE All-Share by about 4 per cent a year, according to BlackRock's analysis of data from Datastream.

The investment trust structure is particularly good for smaller company funds, given the sometimes limited liquidity of small-cap stocks. Within the UK smaller companies investment trust sector, BlackRock has a well-respected team and two investment trusts; BlackRock Smaller Companies Trust (BRSC) and BlackRock Throgmorton Trust (THRG). Both are in the top five performers in terms of net asset value (NAV) returns over the past five years, according to Winterflood data. 

Both trusts have access to BlackRock’s UK emerging companies research team, which undertakes about 700 meetings a year to spot under-researched companies with the best growth potential. The two trusts used to have the same manager, Mike Prentis, who handed the reins of BlackRock Throgmorton to Dan Whitestone in 2018, while Roland Arnold took over the management of BlackRock Smaller Companies in 2019, having been at the firm for two decades. 

A key difference between the two is the size of company they invest in. While four of the top 10 holdings in the trusts cross over, Throgmorton tends to hold larger companies, with 65 per cent of the portfolio having a market capitalisation of over £1bn at the end of November. The average market cap for companies in BlackRock Smaller Companies, meanwhile, is about half that of its sister fund at £600m, according to Morgan. 

BlackRock Throgmorton has had better performance, particularly over the past year. Whitestone benefited over the crisis from taking short positions. The trust also has high gearing, which was over 20 per cent on 18 February. While Whitestone has been extremely successful, we, like Morgan, currently prefer BlackRock Smaller Companies, a member of the IC Top 100 Funds list, because the managers may be able to add more value further down the market cap spectrum. On 18 January it traded at a discount to of 4.4 per cent to NAV, making it better priced than BlackRock Throgmorton, which traded at a 2.2 per cent premium. BlackRock Smaller Companies also has significantly less gearing at 6 per cent, no short positions and no performance fee.

Fund positioning 

BlackRock Smaller Companies may not have performed as well against its peers in the past six months as it has over the longer term, but its net assets have risen 6 per cent – in line with its benchmark, Numis Smaller Companies ex Investment Companies. Arnold says he aims to find the ‘hidden gems’ within the small cap universe, investing in high-quality growth companies that are able to shape their own futures regardless of the wider economic environment.

The trust’s largest sector allocation is industrials at 26.7 per cent, ahead of 23.7 per cent for its benchmark. The trust’s second-largest sector allocation is financials at 18.4 per cent – broadly in line with the benchmark. Technology and Healthcare make up 9.9 per cent and 6.4 per cent of assets, respectively.  

The trust had sharp losses in last year's sell-off owing to relatively high exposure to the UK domestic economy, through both consumer and travel and leisure companies. But Arnold believes a number of his holdings are poised to benefit when the economy opens up. In his latest interim report he gives pub groups Youngs (YNGA) and Fuller Smith & Turner (FSTA) as examples of companies that have dealt with the challenges of the pandemic well, and should see their competitive positions enhanced after lockdown. Arnold also purchased new holdings in City Pub Group (CPC) and JD Wetherspoons (JDW) last year, when he believed they had become very attractively priced.

Shares in UK housebuilder Vistry (VTY), flexible office provider Workspace (WKP) and exhibition firm Hyve (HYVE) have also been detractors to performance, but Arnold believes all are in a strong position to benefit from a recovery. The trust does not provide a full list of its holdings, but the latest half yearly report showed its largest 20 holdings made up 34 per cent of the fund, so individual company risk is reasonably low.   

On the more positive side, the trust also holds a number of the stock market’s favourite names. YouGov (YOU), Watches of Switzerland (WOSG) and drug development service firm Ergomed (ERGO) were its top top three holdings at the end of December, with Impax Asset Management (IPX) also in the top 10, whose share price has doubled over the past year along with the rise in interest in sustainable investing.  

The increase in takeover activity for small-cap companies, notably from private equity and overseas bidders, could prove a boon to performance this year. Cloud communications software specialist Imimobile (IMO) and smart meter installation and asset owner Calisen (CLSN) are two examples of companies whose share prices soared toward the end of last year following takeover bids.

The outlook in the UK is still very uncertain, as new strains of the virus threaten vaccine efficacy. Smaller companies can be more financially vulnerable than the market stalwarts, and the trust is only suitable for investors with a high risk tolerance and a long-term investment horizon. This trust has not had the best performance in the sector, but it has a large portfolio of resilient companies that looks well positioned for a gradual opening of the economy. Buy.  

 

Fund information

Fund name and tickerBlackRock Smaller Companies Trust (BRSC)  
Price1740pGearing6%
AIC sectorUK smaller companiesNAV1819.5p
Fund typeInvestment trustPrice discount to NAV-4.40%
Market cap£850mOngoing charge*0.74%
No of holdings**116Yield1.90%
Manager start date2019More detailsblackrock.com
Source: Winterflood, *AIC, 18 Feb 21 **Morningstar   
    
Performance (%)
Fund/benchmark1-year total return3-year cumulative total return5-year cumulative total return
BlackRock Smaller Companies share price036128
BlackRock Smaller Companies NAV632110
FTSE Small Cap ex ICs81457
NSCI ex ICs31454
    
Source: Winterflood 18 Feb 21   
    
Top 10 holdings (%)   
Company% of net assets  
YouGov2.4  
Watches of Switzerland2.4  
Ergomad1.9  
Treatt1.9  
Grafton1.9  
Stock Sprits1.8  
Impax Asset Management 1.8  
Integrafin1.8  
IG Design1.8  
Calisen1.7  
Source: BlackRock, Dec 20   
    
Sector allocations (%)% of net assets  
Industrials26.8  
Financials18.4  
Consumer services16.1  
Consumer goods12.9  
Technology9.9  
Health care6.4  
Basic materials5.7  
Oil and gas1.7  
Telecommunications1.1  
Materials1.0  
Total   
    
Source: BlackRock, Dec 20