Monthly Commentary

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November 2020

 

Market review

Global equity markets rebounded strongly in November, with the MSCI All Country World gaining 8.9% while the S&P 500 and DJ Euro Stoxx 600 gained 7.5% and 13.3% respectively (all returns in sterling terms). This represented the strongest November return for the S&P 500 in its history. Rising COVID-19 cases and deaths in the US, national lockdowns across much of western Europe and the ongoing impasse in Washington over the next round of fiscal stimulus were more than offset by a market-friendly US election result (a likely gridlocked Congress) and, most importantly, positive vaccine indications, which give hope for a strong economic recovery in 2021. Value, cyclical and small-cap stocks led the market higher. The small-cap Russell 2000 Index returned 14.8% (its best calendar month return in history), while the large cap Russell 1000 Index increased 8.3%.

The US economy continues to recover, although the magnitude of its rebound appears to be moderating, impeded by a new wave of coronavirus cases. The ISM Manufacturing PMI fell from 59.3 in October (a two-year high) to 57.5 in November, while the Non-Manufacturing PMI fell from 56.6 to 55.9 (modestly below forecasts of 56), pointing to the sixth straight month of expansion in the services sector but the lowest growth since May. Non-farm payrolls increased by 245,000 in November, below consensus at 460,000, while the unemployment rate ticked down to 6.7% from 6.9% in October. The Federal Reserve (Fed) meeting was overshadowed by the presidential election, but the FOMC left the Fed funds rate unchanged at 0-0.25% in November and participants indicated they expect to keep interest rates at near zero levels until 2024. Fed Chair Jerome Powell said the pace of asset purchases remained appropriate for the current situation but added that the voting committee discussed options should more accommodation be required. The trade-weighted dollar index declined 2.3% during the month, while the US 10-year bond yield remained relatively stable in the context of the contested election and positive vaccine news. Once again, Powell called for more fiscal stimulus, but the political gridlock in Washington continues.

The S&P 500 posted the largest earnings beat on record as Q3 earnings declined 9% y/y versus -22% y/y expected, in part because of conservative earlier guidance. Although Democrat President-elect Joe Biden led President Trump 306 to 232 in terms of electoral college votes, the outcome remains contested on the grounds of alleged widespread voting fraud. However, this last-ditched effort to frustrate the electoral outcome feels more like early campaigning for the 2024 election than something more ominous with Trump/Republican protests remaining entirely peaceful. For now, this uncertainty remains outweighed by the prospect of a gridlocked Congress, making widespread changes to corporate tax rates and game-changing Big Tech antitrust regulation less likely. That said, the Senate race remains incomplete with run-off races scheduled for early January representing a latent risk (should the Republicans lose both contested seats) to this, so far, market-friendly election outcome.

Uncertainty on Capitol Hill continued to weigh on ongoing fiscal support. Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell said a stimulus package should be passed by the end of the year but advocated a ‘skinny’ deal, below the $908bn plan put forward by a bipartisan group of lawmakers. Meanwhile Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and the Federal Reserve exposed a rare public rift when Mnuchin declined to extend several emergency lending programs put in place to repair credit markets convulsed by the coronavirus pandemic in March. However, markets were buoyed by news that President-elect Joe Biden intends to nominate Janet Yellen as Treasury Secretary, who recently stressed the urgent need for “extraordinary fiscal support”. Partisan wrangling will continue but the Fed and the Treasury should find their outlooks and interests more closely aligned in 2021. 

In Europe, several governments (including those in Germany, France and the UK) reimposed stricter lockdowns in response to a surge in COVID-19 infections, hospitalisations and deaths. This weighed on economic activity, but less so than during the first round of lockdowns in the spring. The Eurozone Services PMI dropped from 46.9 in October to 41.3 in November (versus 12 in April), while the Manufacturing PMI was more resilient at 53.8 (versus 33.4 in April), with Germany benefiting from a rebound in exports to China and the US. New coronavirus infections have rolled over in major parts of Europe already, which will hopefully lead to a further easing of restrictions. Furthermore, the most dire outcomes of a second wave (higher mortality rates, persistently high R numbers, potential virus mutations) look unlikely to come to pass. Most importantly, investors look willing, for now, to look through the second lockdown as we get closer to mass deliveries of highly effective vaccines from Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna and AstraZeneca/University of Oxford.

Technology review

The technology sector experienced a strong rally in November, the Dow Jones Global Technology Index advancing 6.2% (in sterling terms), but failed to keep up with the broader equity markets as investors rotated forcefully away from year-to-date ‘winners’ following the announcement of Pfizer’s vaccine data. The move from momentum into value on the day of the Pfizer news represented a 10 standard deviation event, per JP Morgan. The equal-weighted S&P 500 outperformed its market cap-weighted peer by 300bps on the day – the highest dispersion ever recorded. This violent rotation reflected both the unexpectedly high degree of efficacy for Pfizer’s vaccine (>90% versus >50% required for FDA emergency use authorization) and the stretched positioning of investors following a strong growth bounce post-election.

The rotation was also evident within the technology sector. Year-to-date ‘winners’ trailed during the month, the NASDAQ Internet Index and Bloomberg Americas Software Index rising 6.2% and 5.1% respectively. In contrast, the most cyclical groups rallied hard epitomised by the Philadelphia Semiconductor Index (SOX) rallying by 15.1%. Even within technology subsectors, the rotation was apparent; within the internet sector leaders such as Amazon (+1.1%) and Netflix (flat) significantly underperformed ‘reopening’-exposed names such as Uber (+44.1%) and TripAdvisor (+32.4%).

The off-season reporting companies provided further positive datapoints on the ongoing strength of the digital economy. In software, Zoom Video Communications delivered another very strong earnings report as revenues grew 367% y/y, with the APAC and EMEA regions growing at an even faster pace of 629% y/y. Customer growth moderated but remains in hyper-growth territory as 63,500 customers, with more than 10 employees added during the quarter, an increase of 485% y/y. Operating margins of 37% were strong while gross margins continued to face the headwind of a greater mix of free usage, particularly in education, and the higher utilisation of public cloud services to support this volume. Despite the strong results, the magnitude of the beat fell below those achieved in the past two quarters and the stock declined post-earnings. We retain a position here because while we expect the valuation multiple to compress, we believe the company will continue to beat expectations and has plenty of room to further monetise its customer base, including free/small business users through a combination of OnZoom, Zoom Rooms and Zoom Phone. 

In semiconductors, NVIDIA produced strong results as both gaming and datacentre performance beat expectations. A new quarterly gaming revenue record was achieved as its new RTX 3000 GPUs experienced overwhelming demand. Datacentre growth (+77% y/y excluding Mellanox acquisition) was driven by both its new A100 processors alongside record shipments of T4 processors for inference. Forward guidance for datacentre was lower than expectations but impacted by manufacturing and supply chain constraints. This led to a muted post-results share price reaction.

In the internet subsector, Tencent continues to benefit from COVID-19 trends as revenues and operating profit were above expectations. Strong gaming results were accompanied by a slightly lower than expected online advertising performance. Game revenues grew 42% y/y driven by sustained mobile game strength at 61% y/y through flagship titles Honour of Kings and Peacekeeper Elite. Mobile game ARPU increased sequentially, a promising sign as the normalisation of COVID-19 trends continue. Online advertising grew 16% y/y with strength seen in the education and ecommerce verticals. Weakness remains in certain verticals that declined during the COVID-19 pandemic, such as financial services and consumer staples.

Chinese internet companies all faced selling pressure following the 10 November announcement by the (China) State Administration for Market Regulation of draft guidelines on anti-monopoly rules. The draft rules aim to promote fair competition, innovation and regulatory oversight to ensure healthy industry development. The initial draft guidelines have a focus on transaction-based platforms and hence practices within e-commerce platforms. The final outcome will remain fluid but will likely act as a regulatory overhang in a similar manner to that faced by the large US internet companies. Following the announcement, we reduced our exposure to both Alibaba and Tencent, but we retain both stocks because we believe valuations remain attractive relative to future growth prospects.

In early December, Salesforce announced it had agreed to buy Slack* in a software mega-deal valued at $27.7bn. The deal will be funded by a combination of cash and stock and is the company’s largest acquisition at almost twice the size of its deal to buy Tableau last year. It is the first major deal that is at least partly driven by companies betting that the changes in the workplace over 2020 will outlast the pandemic. We reduced our position in Salesforce following the deal.

Following the recent high-profile acquisition of Xilinx by Advanced Micro Devices, M&A activity within the semiconductor sector continues as Globalwafers* announced it is in advanced talks to acquire Siltronic* in a €3.75bn deal. Several high-profile tech unicorns also filed to go public at the end of November. Airbnb, Roblox and DoorDash have all become household names in the markets in which they operate, and their listings represent a vote of confidence in the importance of public markets as a source of growth capital.

Outlook

The positive vaccine data from Pfizer, Moderna and Astra Zeneca has supported expectations for a return to some degree of normalcy next year. For now, the next few months will remain challenging as further restrictions and lockdown measures will almost certainly be required to curtail the spread of the virus, especially with further resurgence likely after US Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. The eventual return of economic activity should, however, provide a tailwind to a global economic recovery into 2021 and many economists are expecting that the global economy can surpass its pre-COVID-19 peak at some point next year. Encouragingly, vaccine rollouts have started, with the UK among the first to approve and distribute the Pfizer product) but the whole world is watching and every statistic (especially efficacy, safety, uptake and length of immunity) will be closely scrutinised. 

Global markets are also likely to enjoy the robust fiscal and monetary support that has supported them so effectively this year and currently high levels of consumer saving (and low levels of consumer debt) could easily provide upside risk to consumption and growth. There is also a possibility that the combination of robust demand and still-tight supply chains could drive higher inflation next year (against some easy comps), but many policymakers remain more concerned about the spectre of deflation, as is implicitly recognized within the Fed’s new Average Inflation Targeting framework.

No sector has been left untouched by the impact of COVID-19, and we hear repeatedly from our companies that the inevitable digital transformation of the industries they serve has been pulled forward by the crisis. The impact has been striking in its breadth and the opportunity remarkably nascent in many industries – 70% of American hospitals still post and fax patient records. Second-order effects are likely to be even more significant in the longer term. Some expect a “great reshuffling” in the property market, where the pandemic has spurred a desire for many to change where they live combined with an increasing ability to do so as work-from-home (WFH) practices become more common.

One thoughtful CEO who has long-supported WFH bemoaned the fact that hitherto this had been a competitive advantage when recruiting technology talent which was now being eroded. If anything, the current crisis has highlighted many of the benefits of a digitally-supported world – the flexibility, agility and scalability that companies which harness new technologies can capture, and the higher efficiency and productivity that accrues to users. We hope that policymakers (and society) will recognise and support the positive impact of technological adoption on tackling the wide array of problems humanity faces, from climate change to financial inclusion.

While we believe the fundamental outlook for our sector remains robust, we continue to adopt a more guarded approach to portfolio construction and have reduced exposure to ultra-high-growth stocks, particularly those that appear to be being chased ever higher by retail and momentum investors. This has constrained our relative performance versus some of our more aggressive peers, but our experience tells us it is the prudent strategy for now. That said, we still like the broader software sector and see many less high-profile stocks with strong growth prospects and reasonable valuations. We have also retained a portion of the Trust in ultra-high-growth companies (such as Zoom Video Communications, Peloton Interactive, Tesla and Crowdstrike), but only those delivering rapid growth – 50% revenue growth –  where we believe growth will be sustained and where there remains significant scope to beat consensus estimates next year.  

Although we do not believe in value investing in a sector that is not mean reverting (cheap technology stocks are often cheap for a reason) a short-term cyclical rebound appears likely as the global economy reopens (assuming it does eventually as vaccines are rolled out). We also see some potential for valuation compression of high-growth stocks during this period. As such, as mentioned last month, we are likely to retain our more balanced approach to portfolio construction and continue to recycle profits from expensive subgroups (and much of our available cash/liquidity) into areas where a stronger economy may augment already strong secular tailwinds, such as electric vehicle (EV)/automotive, industrial automation and online travel-related stocks.

Following Q3 earnings season, the team has been locked down in many virtual technology conferences and meetings. Between us, we have probably seen 100+ companies at these events during recent weeks. From a fundamental perspective these were very reassuring, with solid near-term demand trends and what appears to be very reasonable/achievable expectations for next year (even more so in the event of a strong economic recovery).  As an aside, the virtual events ran seamlessly – a pertinent reminder of what technology has enabled during the lockdown and how it has ameliorated the impact of this prolonged and painful crisis.

While stock markets should continue to grind higher, supported by a strengthening economic outlook, we are likely to also experience bouts of short-term volatility potentially tied to Brexit, COVID-19, vaccines as well as political and regulatory news flow. However, the bigger picture remains exciting with the pace of innovation accelerating, particularly in emerging fields like artificial intelligence. One need look no further than the speed with which multiple COVID-19 vaccines have been developed as well as news last week, that Google’s DeepMind has cracked one of biology’s greatest challenges – predicting how proteins fold into 3D structures – in order to appreciate this accelerated pace of change, the potential disruption that lies ahead for many industries and the significant investment opportunities that remain for technology investors in the years ahead.

Ben Rogoff

*Not held in the Trust

Disclaimer

Important Information: This document is provided for the sole use of the intended recipient and is not a financial promotion. It shall not and does not constitute an offer or solicitation of an offer to make an investment into any Fund or Company managed by Polar Capital. It may not be reproduced in any form without the express permission of Polar Capital and is not intended for private investors. This document is only made available to professional clients and eligible counterparties. The law restricts distribution of this document in certain jurisdictions; therefore, it is the responsibility of the reader to inform themselves about and observe any such restrictions. It is the responsibility of any person/s in possession of this document to inform themselves of, and to observe, all applicable laws and regulations of any relevant jurisdiction. Polar Capital Technology Trust plc is an investment company with investment trust status and as such its ordinary shares are excluded from the FCA’s (Financial Conduct Authority’s) restrictions which apply to non-mainstream investment products. The Company conducts its affairs and intends to continue to do so for the foreseeable future so that the exclusion continues to apply. It is not designed to contain information material to an investor’s decision to invest in Polar Capital Technology Trust plc, an Alternative Investment Fund under the Alternative Investment Fund Managers Directive 2011/61/EU (“AIFMD”) managed by Polar Capital LLP the appointed Alternative Investment Manager. In relation to each member state of the EEA (each a “Member State”) which has implemented the AIFMD, this document may only be distributed and shares may only be offered or placed in a Member State to the extent that (1) the Fund is permitted to be marketed to professional investors in the relevant Member State in accordance with AIFMD; or (2) this document may otherwise be lawfully distributed and the shares may otherwise be lawfully offered or placed in that Member State (including at the initiative of the investor). As at the date of this document, the Fund has not been approved, notified or registered in accordance with the AIFMD for marketing to professional investors in any member state of the EEA. However, such approval may be sought or such notification or registration may be made in the future. Therefore this document is only transmitted to an investor in an EEA Member State at such investor’s own initiative. SUCH INFORMATION, INCLUDING RELEVANT RISK FACTORS, IS CONTAINED IN THE COMPANY’S OFFER DOCUMENT WHICH MUST BE READ BY ANY PROSPECTIVE INVESTOR.

Statements/Opinions/Views: All opinions and estimates constitute the best judgment of Polar Capital as of the date hereof, but are subject to change without notice, and do not necessarily represent the views of Polar Capital. This material does not constitute legal or accounting advice; readers should contact their legal and accounting professionals for such information. All sources are Polar Capital unless otherwise stated.

Third-party Data: Some information contained herein has been obtained from third party sources and has not been independently verified by Polar Capital. Neither Polar Capital nor any other party involved in or related to compiling, computing or creating the data makes any express or implied warranties or representations with respect to such data (or the results to be obtained by the use thereof), and all such parties hereby expressly disclaim all warranties of originality, accuracy, completeness, merchantability or fitness for a particular purpose with respect to any data contained herein. 

Holdings:  Portfolio data is “as at” the date indicated and should not be relied upon as a complete or current listing of the holdings (or top holdings) of the Company. The holdings may represent only a small percentage of the aggregate portfolio holdings, are subject to change without notice, and may not represent current or future portfolio composition. Information on particular holdings may be withheld if it is in the Company’s best interest to do so. It should not be assumed that recommendations made in future will be profitable or will equal performance of the securities in this document.  A list of all recommendations made within the immediately preceding 12 months is available upon request.  This document is not a recommendation to purchase or sell any particular security.  It is designed to provide updated information to professional investors to enable them to monitor the Company.

Benchmarks: The following benchmark index is used: Dow Jones Global Technology Index (Total Return). This benchmark is generally considered to be representative of the Technology Equity universe. This benchmark is a broad-based index which is used for comparative/illustrative purposes only and has been selected as it is well known and is easily recognizable by investors. Please refer to www.djindexes.com for further information on this index. Comparisons to benchmarks have limitations as benchmarks volatility and other material characteristics that may differ from the Company. Security holdings, industry weightings and asset allocation made for the Company may differ significantly from the benchmark. Accordingly, investment results and volatility of the Company may differ from those of the benchmark. The indices noted in this document are unmanaged, are unavailable for direct investment, and are not subject to management fees, transaction costs or other types of expenses that the Company may incur. The performance of the indices reflects reinvestment of dividends and, where applicable, capital gain distributions. Therefore, investors should carefully consider these limitations and differences when evaluating the comparative benchmark data performance. Information regarding indices is included merely to show general trends in the periods indicated, it is not intended to imply that the Company was similar to the indices in composition or risk.

Regulatory Status: Polar Capital LLP is a limited liability partnership number OC314700. It is authorised and regulated by the UK Financial Conduct Authority (“FCA”) and is registered as an investment adviser with the US Securities & Exchange Commission (“SEC”). A list of members is open to inspection at the registered office, 16 Palace Street, London, SW1E 5JD. FCA authorised and regulated Investment Managers are expected to write to investors in funds they manage with details of any side letters they have entered into. The FCA considers a side letter to be an arrangement known to the Investment Manager which can reasonably be expected to provide one investor with more materially favourable rights, than those afforded to other investors. These rights may, for example, include enhanced redemption rights, capacity commitments or the provision of portfolio transparency information which are not generally available. The Company and the Investment Manager are not aware of, or party to, any such arrangement whereby an investor has any preferential redemption rights. However, in exceptional circumstances, such as where an investor seeds a new fund or expresses a wish to invest in the Company over time, certain investors have been or may be provided with portfolio transparency information and/or capacity commitments which are not generally available. Investors who have any questions concerning side letters or related arrangements should contact the Polar Capital Desk at the Registrar on 0800 876 6889. The Company is prepared to instruct the custodian of the Company, upon request, to make available to investors portfolio custody position balance reports monthly in arrears.

Information Subject to Change: The information contained herein is subject to change, without notice, at the discretion of Polar Capital and Polar Capital does not undertake to revise or update this information in any way.

Forecasts: References to future returns are not promises or estimates of actual returns Polar Capital may achieve. Forecasts contained herein are for illustrative purposes only and does not constitute advice or a recommendation. Forecasts are based upon subjective estimates and assumptions about circumstances and events that have not and may not take place. 

Performance/Investment Process/Risk: Performance is shown net of fees and expenses and includes the reinvestment of dividends and capital gain distributions. Factors affecting the Company’s performance may include changes in market conditions (including currency risk) and interest rates and in response to other economic, political, or financial developments. The Company’s investment policy allows for it to enter into derivatives contracts. Leverage may be generated through the use of such financial instruments and investors must be aware that the use of derivatives may expose the Company to greater risks, including, but not limited to, unanticipated market developments and risks of illiquidity, and is not suitable for all investors. Those in possession of this document must read the Company’s Investment Policy and Annual Report for further information on the use of derivatives.  Past performance is not a guide to or indicative of future results. Future returns are not guaranteed and a loss of principal may occur. Investments are not insured by the FDIC (or any other state or federal agency), or guaranteed by any bank, and may lose value. No investment process or strategy is free of risk and there is no guarantee that the investment process or strategy described herein will be profitable.

Allocations: The strategy allocation percentages set forth in this document are estimates and actual percentages may vary from time-to-time. The types of investments presented herein will not always have the same comparable risks and returns. Please see the private placement memorandum or prospectus for a description of the investment allocations as well as the risks associated therewith. Please note that the Company may elect to invest assets in different investment sectors from those depicted herein, which may entail additional and/or different risks. Performance of the Company is dependent on the Investment Manager’s ability to identify and access appropriate investments, and balance assets to maximize return to the Company while minimizing its risk. The actual investments in the Company may or may not be the same or in the same proportion as those shown herein. 

Country Specific disclaimers: The Company has not been and will not be registered under the U.S. Investment Company Act of 1940, as amended (the "Investment Company Act") and the holders of its shares will not be entitled to the benefits of the Investment Company Act. In addition, the offer and sale of the Securities have not been, and will not be, registered under the U.S. Securities Act of 1933, as amended (the "Securities Act"). No Securities may be offered or sold or otherwise transacted within the United States or to, or for the account or benefit of U.S. Persons (as defined in Regulation S of the Securities Act). In connection with the transaction referred to in this document the shares of the Company will be offered and sold only outside the United States to, and for the account or benefit of non U.S. Persons in "offshore- transactions" within the meaning of, and in reliance on the exemption from registration provided by Regulation S under the Securities Act. No money, securities or other consideration is being solicited and, if sent in response to the information contained herein, will not be accepted. Any failure to comply with the above restrictions may constitute a violation of such securities laws.

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Important Legal Information

Launched in 1996, Polar Capital Technology Trust plc (“PCT”) has grown to become a leading European investor with a multi-cycle track record. Managed by a team of dedicated technology specialists, the PCT aims to maximise long-term capital growth by investing in a diversified portfolio of technology companies from around the world. The managers’ core belief in rigorous fundamental analysis, and being unconstrained by not following a benchmark, enables PCT to deliver global equity market outperformance through exposure to a universe of over 3,000 companies.

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