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Why the value shift favours Europe

John Bennett, Fund Manager of Janus Henderson European Focus Trust, shares his outlook for 2017. He sees the potential for a continued sector rotation as the key factor for European equity investors next year. While he maintains an overall positive outlook, John acknowledges that currency, politics and the chance of deflation are all risks to this view.  

What lessons have you learned from 2016?

Markets are one long enduring learning curve. If a fund manager thinks they have nothing left to learn, then they’re finished, because the market loves to humble. And I think 2016 has been a humbling year for a lot of managers. One or two of our peer group have said exactly the same, that this has been the toughest year I have known. One of the factors that has made it so tough has been the rotation – it’s been a traders’ market. The rotation has been violent because of positioning. The big lesson I learned in 2016 is ‘maybe you didn’t look at positioning enough’. First we had the rally in energy, then mining; two areas that many people had found easy to avoid for a number of years. And more recently in the US we had ‘the big one’, and thankfully this we did manage to be on the right side of. It’s unusual for us to like the banking sector, but we managed to pre-position for that. And that was through applying the lesson we learned about positioning.

What are the key themes likely to shape the markets in which you invest in 2017?

I think the key influences going into 2017 will be whether we’re right on equities moving from a growth to value market on a global basis. Growth stocks are those companies whose earnings are expected to grow faster than the broader market, whereas value stocks are those the fund manager believes are trading below their intrinsic worth. It’s been a one-way growth market since the financial crisis – you haven’t wanted to be in value. I’m not a great fan of those labels (growth versus value), as these things are in the eye of the beholder. But I do think that we are running out of road on quantitative easing (QE) – central bankers know this – and that will shape markets. I therefore believe we have touched the lows on bond yields globally, and the valuation high water-mark for bond proxies (defensive, low volatility, high yielding equities that mirror bond-like characteristics) – stocks that have been ‘oh-so-comfortable’ to be in. In October and November it became very uncomfortable to be in those stocks, and I think this is a move that has only just begun. To be right on that, I’ve got to be right on one thing; that deflation doesn’t win, and that therefore bond yields have got further to go up (or certainly not going down). However if deflation does win, and bond yields go further down, I will be wrong on being in value stocks; you would’ve wanted growth. But growth has been the last decade; I believe value will be the next.

What are your highest conviction positions moving towards the new year?

I think if you have ‘high conviction’ at the end of 2016 you’re a strange person, or you’ve got a stronger constitution than I have. I’ve always said, be aware of the fund manager who’s got high conviction on everything at all times – that’s quite a dangerous beast in my view. A dose of humility and neurosis is always welcome.

So, I go into 2017 shaken by some of the events of 2016. But where I do have conviction is in the view that we are moving from a growth to a value market. One of the reasons I don’t describe my view as ‘high conviction’ is not just because of the events of 2016 and how tough it has been for active managers, but because the most important sector as we move into 2017 is something I have not liked for the past decade – financials.

What should investors expect from your asset class and your portfolio(s) going forward?

There’s a whole interplay of things. I think currency is important. If we get a strong dollar it is usually good for European equities, and less good for emerging market equities. If I’m right that we’re moving from a growth to value market, I think this can knock on the head US equity outperformance versus other parts of the world. The value markets of the world are more Europe and Japan than they are the US, just by the nature of indices. So I think there might be an asset allocation shift to come. The thing that holds me back from having ‘high conviction’ is that the political upheavals that we’ve seen – Brexit, Trump – are moving now to Europe, and that will be a whole lot trickier as it’s not one nation, it’s a currency bloc. I think you could easily see the wobbles come back on the periphery in the form of the euro, and that political risk holds me back from saying that relative to the US, Europe is now a ‘buy’. But, we will get through that political risk, and that is what might create the opportunity to buy Europe. European equities have seen big outflows this last year, and this gives me much more optimism. I was not that positive on markets going into 2016; I’m much more so for 2017.

What are the main risks?

In pure market direction terms, if the US raises interest rates and the market doesn’t like it and falls, say 10%, then Europe isn’t going up.

Beta traditionally measures the outsized reaction of a stock relative to its market, so a high beta – where it’s greater than one - would point to a stock that outperforms its market on the way up, but conversely underperforms on the way down. Europe is effectively quite a high beta play on the US, especially on the way down. That would be the near-term risk to direction. The other is the Chinese renminbi devaluation, which is ongoing and not getting air time. If that comes back to centre page, that could be a risk to market direction.

The risk to Europe experiencing a change in market leadership is bond yields going to new lows i.e. the deflation argument keeps winning. That would knock on the head any renaissance of value.

John Bennett is Director of European Equities at Janus Henderson Global Investors and manages £9.4bn across a number of European mandates. 

He constructs his portfolios utilising a blend of top-down analysis - which observes macro-economic factors and over-arching sector trends - and bottom-up stock-picking. 

When it comes to selecting his investments John is a style agnostic, which means he doesn’t pin his flag to the mast and invest with any one style at any period of time, for example growth which looks for companies with above average levels of earnings growth, or value which looks for companies that the market has intrinsically undervalued. 

He also runs a focused list, meaning his portfolio will generally contain between 50 and 60 companies, and will buy all sizes of businesses but mainly focuses on mid and large. 

Before investing in an investment trust referred to in this document, you should satisfy yourself as to its suitability and the risks involved, you may wish to consult a financial adviser.
The value of an investment and the income from it can fall as well as rise and you may not get back the amount originally invested.
Nothing in this document is intended to or should be construed as advice.  This document is not a recommendation to sell or purchase any investment. It does not form part of any contract for the sale or purchase of any investment.
Issued in the UK by Janus Henderson Investment Funds Limited (reg. no. 2678531), incorporated and registered in England and Wales with registered office at 201 Bishopsgate, London EC2M 3AE, and authorised and regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority to provide investment products and services. 
 
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"Labour are as pro-Brexit as the Tories": what do Sinn Fein's MPs really want from Westminster?

Its seven MPs are much less sympathetic to Corbyn's party than popularly imagined, and won't ever take their seats.

Should the Conservative minority government fall, what is Jeremy Corbyn’s route to power? The counterfactual as popularly understood goes like this: Corbyn would pick up the phone to his old pal Gerry Adams and convince Sinn Fein’s seven MPs to abandon the habit of a century and take their seats.

There are countless reasons why this would never happen, most of them obvious. One is more surprising. Despite Corbyn’s longstanding links with the republican cause, the Labour party is not all that popular among a new intake, which is preoccupied with one thing above all else: Brexit.

No wonder. Sinn Fein’s long game is an all-Ireland one, and the party believe the UK’s departure from the EU will hasten reunification. In the meantime, however, its priority is a Brexit deal that gives Northern Ireland – where 56 per cent of voters backed remain – designated status within the EU.

Pioneered by the moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party as an antidote to Brexit, designated status would allow the six counties in the North to continue to enjoy the EU’s four freedoms. But the idea is anathema to unionists and the UK government, and Sinn Fein sees little evidence that the Westminster establishment will make it work – not even Labour.

“They are as pro-Brexit as the Conservatives are,” says Mid Ulster MP Francie Molloy. “We’re anti-Brexit. We want to see the right of the people in the North who voted to remain in Europe respected.”

Simmering resentment over what the party perceives to have been broken promises on Tony Blair’s part – especially over legal protection for the Irish language, a key stumbling block obstructing the resumption of power-sharing – makes the already implausible deal even less likely.

“The Irish language act was something that Blair agreed to,” says Molloy. “So when people talk about us taking our seats, they don’t realise we would be backing a Labour government that wouldn’t be living up to its commitments either, and would be just as pro-Brexit as the Conservatives are."

That criticism may well surprise a lay audience whose working assumption is that Adams and Corbyn work hand in glove. But it is perhaps the best illustration of Sinn Fein’s parliamentary priorities: its seven MPs will not in any circumstances take their seats but use their Westminster presence to lobby ministers and MPs of all stripes while running constituency offices at home (they are unsalaried, but claim expenses).

Crucially, its MPs believe abstentionism strengthens, rather than weakens their negotiating hand: by their logic other parties need not and do not fear them given the fact they do not have voting power.

They will use their leverage to agitate for special status above all else. “Special status is the biggest issue that we are lobbying for,” says Molloy. “We feel that is the best way of securing and retaining EU membership. But if we get a referendum on Irish unity and the people vote for that, then the North will automatically join the EU.”

But that wasn’t always the received wisdom. That assurance was in fact secured by Mark Durkan, the former deputy first minister and SDLP MP beaten by Sinn Fein last week, after an exchange with Brexit secretary David Davis at the leaving the EU select committee. The defeat of the three SDLP MPs – two of them by Sinn Fein – means there will be no Irish nationalist voice in the commons while Brexit is negotiated.

Surely that’s bad news for Northern Irish voters? “I don’t think it is,” says Molloy. “The fact we took two seats off the SDLP this time proves abstentionism works. It shows they didn’t deliver by attending. We have a mandate for abstentionism. The people have now rejected attendance at Westminster, and rejected Westminster itself. We’ve never been tempted to take our seats at all. It is very important we live by our mandate.”

If they did, however, they would cut the Conservatives’ and Democratic Unionist Party’s working majority from 13 to a much more precarious six. But Molloy believes any alliance will be a fundamentally weak one and that all his party need do is wait. “I think it’ll be short-lived,” he says. “Every past arrangement between the British government and unionist parties has always ended in tears.”

But if the DUP get its way – the party has signed a confidence and supply deal which delivers extra cash for Northern Ireland – then it need not. Arlene Foster has spoken of her party’s desire to secure a good deal for the entire country. Unsurprisingly, however, Sinn Fein does not buy the conciliatory rhetoric.

“They’ve never really tried to get a good deal for everybody,” says Michelle Gildernew, who won the hyper-marginal of Fermanagh and South Tyrone back from the Ulster Unionists last week. “The assembly and executive [which Sinn Fein and the DUP ran together] weren’t working for a lot of groups – whether that was the LGBT community, the Irish language community, or women...they might say they’re going to work for everybody, but we’ll judge them by their actions, not their words.”

Molloy agrees, and expresses concern that local politicians won’t be able to scrutinise new spending. “The executive needs to be up and running to implement that, and to ensure a fair distribution. If there’s new money coming into the North, we welcome that, but it has to be done through the executive.”

On current evidence, the call for local ministers to scrutinise the Conservatives’ deal with the DUP is wishful thinking – Northern Ireland has been without an executive since February, when the late Martin McGuinness resigned as deputy first minister and triggered a snap election.

The talks since have been defined by intransigence and sluggishness. James Brokenshire, the Northern Ireland secretary, has had to postpone the talks deadline on four separate occasions, and has been criticised by nationalists for his perceived closeness to the DUP.

The final deadline for the restoration of an executive is 29 June 2017. Sinn Fein has called for Brokenshire to recuse himself in favour of a neutral chair. “His hands are tied now, completely,” says Molloy. “The Conservative party were always questionable on where they stood – they’ve always been unionists. The issue now is whether they can act neutrally as a guarantor to the Good Friday Agreement.”

He believes that question is already settled. “Legally, they have to act to ensure that nothing happens to damage that agreement – but we’ve already breached it through Brexit. There was no consultation. The people of the North voted to remain and it hasn’t been recognised. It totally undermines the consent principle.”

Just how they and Brokenshire interpret that principle – the part of the Good Friday Agreement that specifies the constitutional status of the North can only change by consent of its people – will be key to whether they can achieve their ultimate goal: Irish unity.

Molloy and Gildernew say the fact that 11 of Northern Ireland’s 18 constituencies voted to remain in the EU is enough for Brokenshire to call one within the next five years (though polling consistently shows that a clear majority of the province’s electorate, including a substantial minority of nationalists, would vote to stay in the UK). They are confident they can win, though, failing that, Molloy envisages it as the first in several referenda on unification.

But beneath the optimism lies the knowledge that the British government are unlikely to heed their calls. And, willingly absent from the Westminster chamber, they say the UK government’s discussions about Brexit are illegitimate. They see their real powerbase as elsewhere: in Dublin’s Dail Eireann, where Sinn Fein is the third largest party, and the chancelleries of Europe.

“That’s where most of the negotiation will actually happen,” says Molloy. “The EU27 will make the decisions. They won’t be made in Westminster, because the British have already set out what they’re doing: they’re leaving.”

But with seven MPs already lobbying ministers and a united Ireland unlikely to happen in the immediate future, Sinn Fein itself won’t be disappearing anytime soon.

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

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