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How to pick an asset manager

‘With a significant governance budget there are a few gems to be found.’

JOHANNESBURG – There are a handful of gems to be found when searching for an active manager, but it can require a lot of ongoing work.

This is the view of Duane Gilbert, head of manager research at multi-manager Sygnia. Sygnia uses a “core and satellite approach” in their portfolios where index trackers form “the backbone” and selective active managers are used as “satellite components”.

Gilbert says they don’t believe that active management, per se, is the best approach. 

“We believe that there are gems out there and it takes a lot of work to find those gems,” he says.” 

But how does one separate the wheat from the chaff?

Gilbert says it is important to understand what you want from your active managers and that small, nimble managers often have an advantage. Fund managers with a relatively small pool of assets under management can change their portfolios quickly without moving the market and have a much larger toolset at their disposal.

He says the size is often the enemy of performance as large portfolios potentially limit the manager’s ability to take bets.

For example, a manager managing R4 billion of South African equities wanting to take a 4% position in healthcare retailer Clicks (with a market cap of R22 billion) in his portfolio, would only need to buy 0.7% of the company’s shares in issue, whereas a manager managing R400 billion in South African equities would have to hold 70% of the company to take the same position.

Gilbert says large managers’ portfolios are difficult to restructure quickly without moving the market, so the managers may need to implement changes well in advance if they want to avoid missing the turning point (for example with the call on resource stocks).

You also need to decide how active you want your managers to be and how much they should be allowed to deviate from the benchmark, he says. Many managers have a large index component to their portfolios, which may give investors greater confidence that the manager will not get it too wrong, but Gilbert believes that the gems to look for are non-benchmark-cognisant managers who ideally have an absolute return mind-set.

“Their fees are often higher, but you are not paying them to track the index. You are paying them for alpha [outperformance] – for the intellectual capital,” he says.

You should look for managers that have a strong focus on capital preservation and risk management throughout the cycle, he says.

You want your active managers to protect capital when markets are volatile. This requires a different focus to simply trying to beat the index. After a sustained bull market these managers can be difficult to identify. Simple, repeatable investment processes are important.

Gilbert says he prefers experienced fund managers who ultimately take responsibility for performance, but are supported by robust teams as well as good track records.

“Do not be fixated on the asset management company’s brand, but focus on the people who actually drive performance,” he says.

Track records should also be considered through different cycles. He prefers managers who have seen several cycles.

Gilbert says it is also important to have strong diversification of investment ideas within the portfolio. Diversification also applies to philosophies and styles.

“I like managers who are able to adapt to changing market dynamics. One must acknowledge that people make mistakes and I like to see managers that have learned from their mistakes,” he says.

Nowadays, it is also important for a manager to have a good global perspective.

“You can’t ignore the influence of foreigner investors in our market,” he says. 

A lot of locally listed stocks and bonds have a high percentage of foreign ownership and it is important to understand the implications thereof. “For example, if the US Federal Reserve decides to hike interest rates it could trigger an exodus of foreign investment. Stocks with the highest foreign ownership are most at risk,” he says. 

Gilbert says it is also vital to determine whether the manager is doing what he claims to do and if his portfolio reflects that. 

“I’ve seen it many times – managers say one thing and do another thing,” he says. 

If managers do invest their own money in their portfolios, it does “align interests”, although it should not be a prerequisite, Gilbert says.

“Active management can add value. But it requires a lot of work to find the gems. Investors who cannot put in this effort are better served with passive investment options.” 

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Given the repetition, daily frequency and prominent placement of these articles related to Sygnia, they look a lot like paid for advertorials. If so, surely Moneyweb should be a little more honest in their disclosure.

I agree, with you Conroy. They sound very fee intensive anyways, I’d rather invest my money myself. Using something like or just buy the big cap stocks all the funds buy anyways.

Great article. Although, I would have loved some more detail on the actual process.

This sounds very reasonable to me but what chance does a lone investor have to do this kind of indepth analysis. and the EasyStockpicker tip just sounds like a plug to me. That’s the problem about these comments – too many vested interests.

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