Hedge Fund Picks at Sohn 2020 Show Perils of Covid Investing

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To say investing is tricky during the pandemic would be an understatement. And so it has proved for many hedge-fund managers since last year’s Sohn Investment Conference in Hong Kong.

Among those who made investment calls at the September event, Quintessential Capital Management’s Gabriel Grego was a winner after vouching for Japan’s Sun Corp., which owns an Israeli cybersecurity firm that’s going public via one of the trends of the times: a SPAC. Asia Research & Capital Management’s Alp Ercil cashed in on a rally in lower-rated investment-grade bonds issued by U.S. energy companies that were sold off in the March 2020 rout.

Read a TOPLive blog on the 2021 event

Meanwhile, some bearish bets have flopped, as stock markets continue to rise on the back of unprecedented global economic stimulus. Anatole Investment Management’s George Yang made a short call against Zara parent Inditex SA, only to see the stock soar. Egerton Capital’s Jay Huck expected similar declines from Arista Networks Inc., which benefited from the migration to cloud computing.

The coronavirus is still taking a toll even as vaccines are rolled out in many markets. Eurizon Asset Management’s Sean Debow touted India’s rising consumer, only to see the tragic wave of Covid-19 cases there disrupt spending.

As hedge fund managers gather again for this year’s conference on Thursday, held virtually for a second year in a row, here’s a look back on some of last year’s picks. And to put things in context, the S&P 500 index has climbed 21% since the previous event on Sept. 9.

Gabriel Grego, Quintessential Capital Management

The call: Sun, a Japanese company with a majority stake in Israeli cybersecurity provider Cellebrite, was a buy thanks to its high cash, low debt, proprietary technology and friendliness toward activist investors.

Did it pay off? Yes. Sun has gained more than 50% since last year’s conference, thanks in part to Cellebrite’s plan to go public via a special purpose acquisition vehicle. Grego said he bought in at around 1,400 yen a share and its intrinsic value is about 7,000 yen, more than double the current price. Much depends on how much Cellebrite stock Sun will keep after the listing and what the pachinko parts maker does with the windfall. But he says Sun could herald a gentler brand of shareholder activism in Japan. “It’s perhaps less smart to go through a very confrontational way like you do, say, in the U.S.”

Alp Ercil, Asia Research & Capital Management

The call: Lower-rated, longer-duration U.S. investment-grade bonds could gain as much as 30%, should spreads narrow to pre-Covid levels, the founder of the Hong Kong-based distressed-asset manager said. At the time of last year’s conference, unprecedented central bank stimulus had driven significant spread compression for A-rated U.S. corporate debt following a March rout. The same hadn’t yet happened for lower-rated paper.

Did it pay off? Yes. ARCM bought a basket of such debt maturing beyond 2045, issued by U.S. energy companies Apache Corp., Energy Transfer LP, Hess Corp., MPLX LP and Plains All American Pipeline LP. Their spreads have narrowed 120 basis points to 170 basis points since last year’s conference, giving the basket a roughly 27% return, said people with knowledge of the matter. ARCM has largely exited those positions, the people added.

Nancy Yang, CloudAlpha Capital

The call: KE Holdings has what it takes to become the dominant player in the housing technology market, Yang said. She estimated the Chinese real estate platform could be worth $136 billion in three years and $200 billion long term. China’s housing market was getting more challenging as it went through structural changes, and KE could benefit as intermediaries play a meaningful role, she said.

Did it pay off? Initially. The stock surged 67% to a Feb. 22 high but has since given back most of the gains, and is up about 10% since last year’s conference. The investment thesis for the company and KE’s competitiveness remain unchanged, CloudAlpha said in a statement. It attributed the recent retreat to “change in the macro environment and market risk appetites in recent months,” without elaborating.

Seth Fischer, Oasis Management

The call: Hazama Ando Corp. was one of the most compelling opportunities in Japan, said Fischer, who urged the civil engineering company to spend some cash to buy back shares and improve its return on equity. Loaded with cash, it was “financially ridiculous” but not a value trap, he said. It has a backlog of high-margin infrastructure projects, steady income and a good balance sheet.

Did it pay off? Yes. Hazama Ando announced in November a plan to repurchase 9.3% of its shares for 10 billion yen. That was just shy of the 10% Oasis pressed it to buy back in May 2020. The builder’s shares have gained 20% since last year’s conference.

Sean Debow, Eurizon Asset Management

The call: India’s rural consumers adding wealth and adopting big-city consumption trends like natural health therapies were a driver for Debow, chief executive officer at Eurizon Asset Management in Asia. He touted six stocks including including Hindustan Unilever Ltd., Britannia Industries Ltd. and Dabur India Ltd., betting they would benefit from the country’s rising middle class.

Did it pay off? Partly. Some consumer stocks have shown resilience even as Covid-19’s spread through India wreaked havoc on spending habits. Hindustan Unilever and Dabur India have climbed at least 9% since September, though they trail the benchmark Sensex’s 31% gain, while food and beverage-maker Britannia fell about 5%.

George Yang, Anatole Investment Management

The call: Shares of Inditex, the parent company of Zara, could fall as much as 60%. The fast-fashion retailer was becoming a legacy player, cannibalized by online, data-driven rivals, especially in China.

Did it pay off? No. Inditex has surged about 40% since Sept. 9, as flexible purchasing agreements helped the world’s largest clothing chain operator adapt to changes in demand. While the pandemic forced it to shut some stores temporarily, it expanded selling online. Yang is sticking to his conviction, saying Inditex was riding high as investors piled into companies that could benefit from the economy reopening theme. “Its fundamentals are unimpressive and eventually getting much worse,” said Yang.

Jay Huck, Egerton Capital

The call: Huck said cloud networking provider Arista Networks was far too reliant on Microsoft Corp. and Facebook Inc., with both choosing open source systems that could slash its service revenue. That, combined with rising competition and an unsustainable multiple, led Egerton to set a target price of $150, he added.

Did it pay off? No. Arista’s shares have climbed more than 50% since September to over double Huck’s target price. Employees across industries around the world were forced to work from home thanks to Covid-19, leading to surging demand for Arista’s equipment and services as cloud computing providers added capacity. Revenue jumped to a record last quarter.

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