Dale Robertson: why Europe is a great place to be a stock picker

Merryn talks to Dale Robertson of the Chelverton European Select Fund about the opportunities available to investors in European companies – especially in small and micro-cap stocks.

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Merryn Somerset Webb: Hello and welcome to the MoneyWeek magazine podcast. I am Merryn Somerset Webb, editor-in-chief of the magazine. Thank you for joining us today. Today, I have with me Dale Robertson, who is the co-manager of the… I find this a very hard word to say, Dale. I don’t know if this is just me, but Chelverton.

Dale Robertson: Chelverton, with an L.

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Merryn: I think it is something about the H and the L that makes it kind of hard but, anyway, co-manager of the Chelverton European Select Fund. That is not a criticism of the name, by the way. It’s a great name. I just find it quite difficult to say.

Now, this is a relatively new fund launched in 2018, so has been going for about three years but it has got rather a good record, an annualised return of over 17% over those three years, so at 62%, up 53% in the last year, and the fund has also been growing very fast.

And, we’re always interested at MoneyWeek at encouraging people to look at funds in the early part of their growth because performance tends to be much better and that looks like it is the case here. So, thank you very much for joining us.

Dale: Thank you, Merryn, for having me. Delighted to be here.

Merryn: Excellent. It would be awful if you weren’t. Let’s start by talking about why you launched a Europe fund in 2018. Why Europe then and why Europe now?

Dale: Well, Europe is a great place to be a stock picker. There is just such huge variety within Europe. There are so many different countries, so many different cultures, so many different specialisms, sectors, subsectors. There are large parts of Europe which are overlooked and I hope we’re going to go on and talk about that because there are a lot of mispricings at the small end of the European market cap spectrum.

You can get value and you can get growth into the same portfolio we believe. So, I think you can construct a really interesting portfolio in Europe which gives you really interesting long-term structural growth dynamics which are not beholden to the macro concerns that people tend to have about Europe, politics, sclerotic growth, another French government intervention into the corporate sector.

If you scratch below the surface there are a lot of really exciting things happening in Europe but you have to be prepared to roll up your sleeves and get down into, in particular, small and micro-caps. Just for clarity, the fund itself is Europe ex-UK. It is all-cap. We like the flexibility to go anywhere in the market cap spectrum but we expect to add most of our value and returns in the small and mid-cap part of the market.

Right now, for example, very roughly speaking, we’ve got 30% in large-cap, 20% in mid and 50% of the fund in small-cap. We think the fund can be a one-stop-shop for people’s European exposure, accepting that there will be this small and mid-cap bias over the long-term.

Merryn: Let’s just step back a bit.

Dale: Sure.

Merryn: So, the impetus for starting the fund is nothing to do with the macro environment?

Dale: No. I think that’s right. I’ve been investing in Europe for quite a number of years and selling Europe on a macro, top-down is actually quite tough. There’s a bunch of reasons for that. The demographics aren’t quite as good as Asia or the US.

It tends to deliver lower GDP growth. You have political cycles. You’ve got one monetary policy and then a whole bunch of different fiscal policies. You’ve got a mismatch of economic management.

So, there’s a lot of things you could be worried about in Europe but that really does disguise the fact that there is a lot of really interesting things happening. But, as I say, you do have to prepare to roll up your sleeves and get into the smaller end of the market cap spectrum.

It’s about variety and growth and because Europe tends to be overlooked from an asset allocation point of view you tend to have lower starting valuations and oftentimes that is merited.

We’re going to come on and talk about examples, of course, but there’s a lot of good examples of companies that have the same growth dynamics and the same financial productivity metrics as many larger cap or US-listed companies but they are just much, much cheaper.

Merryn: It is interesting. The first thing we always do these days is compare to America. We look at everything through the lens of valuations in America.

Dale: That’s right, yes.

Merryn: You could also look at it the other way round and say, well, American valuations are completely insane by any historical standard, so we really should put that to one side and stop comparing to America and say on an absolute level are the valuations in any particular area we’re looking at low? And, I think you could argue fairly easily that in fact European valuations aren’t low either relative to historical levels. In fact, in many areas they’re hitting new records.

Dale: If you look at the aggregate, Merryn, I think that’s right but you have to be aware of the structure of the European market before you think about the aggregate valuation. This is not really scientific but we tend to think of Europe in three different parts of the market and the first part is what we’d term high quality growth.

Europe is very good at a number of different things. It is very good at consumer goods. The biggest companies in Europe are L'Oréal, which is haircare and personal care products, it is LVMH, which is luxury goods, it is ASML, which is one of the largest semiconductor capital equipment companies. So, there are a lot of very, very good companies in Europe.

They are super companies. We have no issue with the companies, their growth prospects, what they’ve delivered, it is just the valuation that people have paid for them is way too high. When you look at the structure of the European market, it is these high quality growth companies that have driven the aggregate valuations high.

That is the first segment and that’s not where we’re playing. Occasionally, we will have an opportunity in there but not very often. The second segment of the market, this is maybe not the right term but it’s corporate dinosaurs. You’ve got a whole bunch of companies which are in telecoms, utilities, energy, financial sector, which are either government-owned, government owns stakes in them or they’re government influenced, government regulated.

They tend to be capital intensive and they tend to have leveraged balance sheets and they have problems becoming efficient because of the influence of the government in them and Europe does have a quite high preponderance of companies like that. Again, we can find the odd idea in here but, again, that’s not where we play

I’ve listened to some of your podcasts in recent weeks. They’ve been very good and I know part of your questioning to some of the participants have been about value and deep value, and if you’re constructing a deep value portfolio in Europe, this is where you’d be.

You’d end up with a portfolio which looks like those characteristics I just mentioned. To me, you can make money there but actually the best place to look is in the very, very long tail of companies in Europe which is at the small end of the market. We reckon we’ve got probably over 3,000 companies we can invest in and over 2,000 of them are small-caps.

There are a couple of points I’d like to make here. Chelverton, as an organisation, has made its name, if you like, for belief in the small-cap effect. We have constructed a strong small-cap bias through all the funds that we manage.

Merryn: You better talk us through the small-cap effect as you see it. Lots of our readers are investors but we do have some readers who aren’t necessarily experienced investors.

Dale: Sure. The small-cap effect is relatively simply which is that a could small one should outperform a good large one. It just really means because they are smaller, they have much more room to grow. We have a number of companies. We’ve got the 60-odd stocks in our portfolio, 30-35 in small-cap and a lot of the companies we hold down here, we’d expect them to double their sales over three, five, seven years and the same cannot be said of the much larger companies.

This is just the idea that smaller companies can grow quicker but, also, the other part of this is that there are more inefficiencies in this part of the market. It is not just me saying a small company will outperform a large company as a glib one-liner. There is quite a lot of empirical support to this over a very long period of time, not just in Europe of course, across all sectors.

But, this has been exaggerated by regulation and by MiFID II. What happened when MiFID II came along is that research budgets across the sales side who were producing all the research were slashed and so a lot of the coverage of those companies fell away.

What that means is there a lot of companies, we tend to think in euros, sub-€1.0 billion, sub-€500 million market cap companies where there is little or no research coverage. This is creating inefficiencies, mispricings and that is the really exciting opportunity for us.

Merryn: So, how do you manage the research then? You have quite a small team, so how are you covering all these thousands and thousands of companies across Europe?

Dale: This would have been a lot more difficult to do 25 years ago but technology has allowed us to create these tools, which means we can interrogate a universe very quickly, looking for the criteria, the types of things that we look for.

We are pretty fundamental. We look at cash flows. We spend a lot of time looking at quality, integrity, long-term sustainability of companies, cash flows but when you’re when you’re starting off with a universe of 3,000 companies, you start off with some high level of screening tools and you can do with very easily if you look at their proportion of free cashflow or companies translating from cash.

So, you start off with a big universe. You can narrow it down but we did this on day one. All the heavy lifting was done before we launched the fund. Our basic belief is and I’ve worked in different environments over the years as an individual.

Gareth Rudd is the Co-Manager of the fund. We both regard ourselves as analysts, first and foremost, and portfolio managers second because we spend so much of our time analysing companies and we get pretty in-depth on the cash flows of the companies we invest in.

I think Gareth is quite fond of using the term private equity-light, in terms of our approach. Our fundamental focus is on a company’s ability to generate what we call free cash flow and free cash flow is quite simple. It’s a bit like disposable income on a personal level.

So, it is what you have left over to do the good stuff with at the end of the month and, at a corporate level, if a company has got good free cash flow, it allows them to pay dividends and it allows them to reinvest in long-term growth opportunities. So, we’re very focused on free cash flows and we think it is poorly done by the market.

Merryn: Sorry to interrupt. I’m not supposed to interrupt but I am interrupting. But, you’re not focused on dividends. You say the free cash flow gives companies the ability to pay dividends but the yield on the fund is very low, so it is clearly not one of your priorities.

Dale: We’re agnostic as to how our companies spend their free cash flow. This is not a fund that should be considered for income but having said that I think the net dividend yield, it is still settling down post-COVID obviously but it is going to be somewhere between 1.5-2.0%. This is not really a fund to think about for income.

What we spend our time doing is looking at how our companies allocate that free cash flow. If a company has got a lot of growth potential, we’d obviously be expecting them to reinvest in that growth potential and therefore pay out lower dividends and vice versa.

We will invest in companies where a large part of the investment case is 5-6% dividend yield because we think that sensible. To have a few stocks like that in the portfolio is sensible for diversification reasons.

So, that’s the approach. Stylistically, I think I mentioned this at the very start. We look for value and growth. We think that the market has done the great job in pigeonholing managers. You’re a growth manager or you’re a growth fund or a value manager with a value fund.

We are sort of with Warren Buffett on this. Warren Buffett poo-poos the way the world has been cut up in this way and his quote ,which I won’t get exactly right but it is something like if you are calculating the value of a company, you need to incorporate the growth of that company.

We completely agree with that. What we’re trying to find is a blend of value and growth. Specifically, we look for cheap cash flows from a company and we also look for faster growth than the market. A good company for us will be on a free cash flow yield above the market.

You mentioned absolute valuations earlier. In Europe, the market overall is in a free cash flow yield of 3.5%, give or take. Our portfolio is in a free cash flow yield of about 6%. So, we have got significantly cheaper cash flows than the market.

We look at companies that are growing faster than the market. The growth at the moment, the three-year sales growth of the European Index overall is about 6-7%, boosted by this year and the COVID bounceback and our fund has got three-year sales growth of about 9%. So, we do think you can find a blend of value and growth, cheaper cash flows and better long-term growth prospects by digging down.

Merryn: All right. Well, let’s talk about some of the companies in the portfolio then. I know that you’re small-cap based but when I look at the top ten, which I’ve got here, a couple of them look pretty big. Unilever, right at the top.

Dale: Yes, yes, yes. We’re unapologetic about that.

Merryn: Go on then. Be unapologetic about it. Tell us about it.

Dale: Absolutely. Our objective is to have a balanced, diversified exposure to Europe. I mentioned we’ve got this unconstrained approach and there can and will be times. We expect to add most of our value in small and mid-caps but there will be times when large-caps fall out of favour and they look cheap and that is where we are with a few of the large-caps.

You’ll see in our top ten we’ve got Unilever, we’ve got Novartis and one or two others. Unilever shares are trading at the same price they were five years ago. We believe the company has made progress over the five years. It might have started on too high a valuation but right now it is on a 5-6% free cash flow yield.

It is not our favourite metric but in P/E terms that is probably about 18%. You’ve got very good emerging market exposure, good pricing power, which is pretty important at the moment because of inflation and it has just been left behind because the market has got excited about all the stuff which is bouncing back from the COVID lows.

We will invest to give the fund balanced diversification in large-caps when they fall out of favour. But, if we are to talk about stock ideas and some of the exciting clusters, if you like, that are in the fund, I do want to mention technology and technology exposure because one of the things that people beat Europe up about is lack of technology exposure.

If you want technology exposure, you go to the US and you buy Amazon, Facebook, et al, or you used to be able to go to China and buy Baidu, Tencent until the Chinese government started clamping down on those organisations.

Then, Europe is squeezed out in the middle. It has got one or two very good large-cap technology companies like ASML, I mentioned, SAP, which is enterprise software. We don’t particularly like the valuations of those companies but we do think you can find a lot of really interesting technology exposure at the small cap end of Europe which is overlooked.

We had a brilliant example, actually, just last week with a small German company. Gareth met them at a conference a couple of weeks ago. He arranged a follow-up call, so we spent an hour and a half on the phone with one of the two co-founders of this company.

Merryn: Interruption... Did they come up in your screenings, this company? You say you met them at a conference. Does that mean it was the first sign of them?

Dale: No, they didn’t.

Merryn: So, they didn’t come up in your models.

Dale: They didn’t come up in the screens. Screens only really get you so far. That’s the reality of it.

Merryn: So, you screen but then you’ve got to get out and about to conferences and talk to people and get on the phone and travel to really find this stuff?

Dale: Absolutely, yes.

Merryn: Sorry. Back to meeting them at a conference.

Dale: I would say that is especially true at the small-cap end of the spectrum. It is less true the large-cap end of the spectrum. This company is called Serviceware. It’s a German software company. It produces software which analyses the efficiency of companies’ IT spending.

It is quite a niche but it is growing at 15-20%, top line growth of 15-20%. Its market cap is about 150-160 million. I’m thinking in euros here. And, it has got one peer. It has one peer in America which is confusingly called ServiceNow, which is 120 billion market cap. It has got 5.0 billion of sales, so it is on 20x sales and this company is on 1.5 times sales.

This company don’t have the same margin structure yet because they’re less mature but there’s no reason that this company over the next three to five years can’t deliver a mature software company margin, which is 20-30%.

If they do that, we could certainly argue your point earlier, it was entirely valid, that 20x sales is probably completely wrong but 1.5 times sales is also completely wrong in the other direction.

We find a lot of examples like this and we spoke to co-founder. The two co-founders own just over 50% of this company and they said, look, we IPOed three years ago and two of the three banks which were covering us dropped coverage, took their investment banking fees and just kind of ran away.

The sell-side company, which is doing research on Serviceware, they produce something twice a year. It’s a one-pager which covers the company’s earnings and the company’s earnings is not where the value is here. It is in the potential long-term cash flows. So, it is just an example of the under-research and the opportunity at this end of the market cap spectrum.

That is one example that came up recently but we have got 25% of our fund in the IT services sector, so technology services. These are companies, they’re staffed by IT consultants. They are writing software.

They are going into their clients, helping them with digitalisation, helping with managing all their big data, inverted commas, problems and opportunities, helping them figure out how to use AI to their best benefit, helping them with the Internet of Things. They’re technology consultants and they are software and hardware agnostic, so they will sell whatever the best solution is for the client.

IT budgets are growing up and up and up and it is reinforced by COVID, of course. So, we think people want to get technology exposure but it is very difficult to get good value technology exposure. As I say, it is 25% of the fund. We’ve got 16 or 17 companies in there, right across Europe, all with different sector specialisms and different software, hardware blend of what they provide.

Merryn: Can we have an example of a favourite stock in the sector?

Dale: Of course. We’ve got a whole bunch.

Merryn: Just one. Maybe two.

Dale: Yes. I’m going to give you two or three.

Merryn: Go on. Give us two or three.

Dale: I stood up at a conference, I don’t know when it was. It dates this a little bit. I was asked for one stock pick and I gave them Nokia as a stock pick and this was at a time when Nokia had just missed the switch to clamshell phones, remember that, 20 years ago, and Nokia was a complete disastrous investment after that. Ever since I’ve been asked for individual stock picks, I usually caveat it with two or three in case one goes wrong.

Merryn: Good call.

Dale: In this sector I would highlight Bouvet. Bouvet is a small Norwegian IT service company. They work very closely with the Norwegian government and they work with the energy sector and it grows its revenues pretty much year in, year out, 10-12%. There is a bit of margin expansion, so you have got good cash flow growth.

It does not do acquisitions, so it pays pretty healthy dividends. This one has got growth and about a 3.5-4.0% dividend yield. This is, obviously, Norwegian krone. So, it is a super wee company. Its staff turnover is very low, which is something we look for in all these consultancy companies because people management is so important. Wages are going up and we want our companies to have a stable, motivated workforce.

So, Bouvet I would certainly highlight. There are a couple of French companies run by really interesting entrepreneurs. Sword and Infotel would be two I would highlight. Sword, it is not a mini-tech conglomerate. Yes, it probably is. It has got five or six different areas. One, probably their most profitable area, they produce compliance software which is a rapidly growing area. It’s probably growing at 15-20%.

Merryn: I think we might need a brief explanation of what you mean by compliance software.

Dale: It’s software which helps the compliance departments of banks monitor all the regulatory risk which they have within their organisation. It’s been an increasing area and the banks need external software, external help to help them comply with the various regulations. Yes, sorry about that jargon.

This is a really interestingly run company. It is about 300 million market cap. Its CEO is a chap called Jacques Mottard and he has been very, very good at managing his assets. He has sold and bought assets very well.

At the start of this year he had probably 20-30% of his market cap in cash and he decided there was nothing he wanted to buy, so he paid a 14% dividend yield. It is quite a quirky situation but very good long-term growth dynamics.

I want to digress slightly to make a more structural point before I come back to the other example, Infotel, but one of the things which we do in our process is that we like to co-invest alongside motivated owners, be that CEOs, be that family, be that supervisory board membership, chairmen.

It is just a long time experience of investing in Europe that you want to be co-investing alongside people who have got skin in the game. So, we always invest in small companies where we’re co-investing with someone.

Free cash is really important to us, so the capital allocation of that free cash flow is really important and we think if you are co-investing alongside motivated long-term owners, it should help you in the long-term. You’ll find us talking like that all the time when we talks about companies.

The next one, Infotel. Again, it’s French and it was set up by two guys who are now in their 60s, 30-40 years ago. Again, it is technology services to their clients. Their clients would be large-cap French corporate world.

They work with Peugeot, with Renault, with BNP Paribas, with Air France and many years ago they would have helped them set up their websites and then they would help them develop their apps. Now, their work encroaches into lots of different parts of their organisations so, again, these guys grow at 7-8-9% top line per annum.

They generate a lot of cash. It is an asset-light business, so it has got a very good cash return on investment. I think there market cap is about the same, funnily enough, about 300 million, but they have a lot of cash on the balance sheet as well.

You would look at that one on a P/E and my guess is the headline P/E would 20x but because it has got about a third of its market cap in cash, really you’ve got to strip that out, so it’s probably on 13-14x or in language we prefer, it’s a 7% free cash flow yield which is really very attractive.

At some point these guys will pass over the reins and you might find you get corporate event at some point in time, way down the line. So, these are good companies to be co-invested with the managers. We think long-term.

Merryn: Now, if you’ve got some of these smaller companies in your top ten holdings, what is the maximum percentage of a company you’re prepared to hold. Apart from anything else, your assets under management are growing very fast.

Dale: Yes. We’ve got an informal glass ceiling of about 4-5% ownership of company. Some of the biggest opportunities we see are in micro-caps, a sub-500 million market cap and some of them are sub-200 and they are pretty small companies.

We have to do extra due diligence on the cash flows. Well, not extra, we do this as a matter of course. The cash flows, the balance sheet strength is very important to us and the co-investment alongside management is really important.

A lot of the companies that we are invested in, we expect to be invested with them for five or ten years basically. What got us on to this IT services sector many years ago is when we launched the fund we had a position in Capgemini, which is one of the large-cap IT consultants.

We liked the dynamics of that and we started looking around for other ideas. I ended up going to Helsinki for a day and spend five hours with this company could Siili Solutions. It is this really small company. One hundred-and-something million market cap.

It was really, really interesting because it basically gave us our investment case for the sector because when I spoke to IT consultations about the work they were doing, they said, look, if you’re an IT consultant in Capgemini or Accenture you’re a very small cog in a big wheel. You get lost in these enormous great IT projects, outsourcing projects.

Whereas, at Siili, this little company, they were working with the German car OEMs and they’re designing what they call the cockpit which to you and I is the dashboard of the car. So, they’re designing the hardware for the next generation of electric vehicles for these cars.

That is really leading edge, really interesting work but you would not get that in one of the larger consultancies. So, we built our IT exposure up by, as you mentioned earlier, going out to see these companies asking them, look, when you lose staff who do you lose them to?

They say, oh, there’s a company down the road. So, we go and speak to them and that’s how we’ve built up our exposure there, just by digging around basically and being inquisitive.

Merryn: This all sounds really interesting, sounds exciting. We can feel your enthusiasm for it all.

Dale: But?

Merryn: But, what makes you nervous right now? What keeps you up at night? I know you say you don’t worry about macro stuff but inflation, rising interest rates, central bank policy mistake. What is it? What keeps you up at night?

Dale: Well, all of that could keep us at night.

Merryn: But, it doesn’t?

Dale: Let’s step back for a minute. We have 70% of the fund in small and mid-caps and of course small and mid-caps are going to go through cycles. The observation that I hope is coming over is that the opportunity we see at the small cap is structural.

There is mispricing at this end of the market and, even if the small caps do go through a cycle, I can see the point in the management of the fund where rather than have 30% in large, we have a lot less and a lot more small-cap if we’re offered that opportunity.

Small-caps will go through cycles and what do we really mean by that? Well, we mean good small-caps get caught up in a downdraft of a selloff. Of course, that can happen and what brings that about? Inflation and interest rates are two of the most obvious candidates.

But, when we think about inflation, there’s a couple of levels to be thinking about it. The strength and the breadth of the anecdotes that we get from our companies about inflation suggest that it is pretty real.

I’ve alluded to it, we’re not macroeconomic specialists here but it does feel that there’s a lot of inflation in the pipe and that’s right across our portfolio. Our approach is twofold. What we spend time doing is making sure that our companies are able to pass on price inflation, so at least that is protecting their margins. So, that’s a bottom-up level of analysis.

The company, Bouvet, I mentioned earlier, a Norwegian company, they said wage inflation – because there is a shortage of IT consultants around in many countries in Europe – wage inflation is now running at 4%.

They said, look, we will be able to pass it on to our clients but we can’t do that until 1st January when we review their contracts and, by the way, they will pass on more than the 4%. So, they do have pricing power, they are able to pass it on but there might be a little bit of a time lag.

But, I think your question really was a bigger picture one about inflation. If inflation takes hold then that obviously changes the structural narrative that we’ve seen for the last decade, if not longer and in practical terms what that means is inflation goes up, the yield curve goes up, interest rates go up and the discount rate, which people use to value the cash flows of high growth companies, should punish those companies.

So, the high growth companies I mentioned right across the world but in my area of expertise in Europe look very vulnerable but, for us, I mentioned that the fund has a 6% free cash flow yield. We are not going to be completely insulated from that, of course, but we do feel valuation discipline.

We’re two pretty tight-fisted Scotsmen, basically. Valuation discipline is in our DNA and whilst we may get a hit from something which has gone on elsewhere, we do feel that the valuation should protect us in a relative sense.

There are lots of things you could be cautious about and cite as reasons for caution but what gets us excited, gets us out of bed is stock picking and we still keep finding lots of good ideas. The valuation of the fund, you mentioned very kindly that the fund has done reasonably well recently but if you look at the valuation of our fund 12 months ago it was on a 6% free cash flow yield.

Today, it’s on a 6% free cash flow yield despite having gone up a lot in the interim which means that we’re able to recycle from more expensive companies into cheaper companies and that, to me, is the most encouraging thing and probably the most encouraging message I can give.

Merryn: Brilliant. I think we’re all pleased to take that message. Dale, we’ll have to leave it there. Thank you so much for joining us today. We hugely appreciate it and I hope you’ll come on again at some point.

Dale: Yes. We’re delighted. Thanks. Thanks for having me.

Merryn: And, thank you, everyone, very much for listening. You can, of course, find more from us at moneyweek.com, where you can sign up for our daily newsletter, Money Morning, and of course you can follow us on Twitter @MoneyWeek. You can follow me on Twitter @MerrynSW. Dale, can we follow you on Twitter?

Dale: No. I’m afraid you can’t.

Merryn: No, we can’t. We get that answer a lot these days. There’s an awful lot of people who cannot be followed on Twitter and otherwise, of course, please do leave a review for the podcast on your podcast provider of choice if you enjoyed the podcast. Thank you very much and we will talk to you again next week. Thanks, Dale.