Monthly Commentary

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September 2019

Market Review

September saw global equities stabilise following weakness in August. The MSCI All Country World increased 0.9%, while the S&P 500 gained 0.7% and the DJ Euro Stoxx 1.8%, all in sterling terms. 

Oil prices were unusually volatile during the month – Brent Crude experienced a 15% ‘round trip’ – following a drone attack on Saudi Arabian oil facilities which initially reduced the kingdom’s daily production by half. Fortunately, oil production rebounded far quicker than expected, with three quarters of the lost production back online before month end, although speculation over Iran’s involvement and a potential retaliation weighed on sentiment.   

Macroeconomic data continued to deteriorate in September with the previous safe havens, both the services sector globally and US economy, experiencing signs of a slowdown. The services sector has until now been remarkably resilient (in an almost universal fashion globally) in the face of deteriorating manufacturing activity. Services PMI readings in Germany and France, however, declined more than expected. As bellwethers for Europe this is a concerning sign and it will be important to watch if this is the start of a downward trend. The European Manufacturing PMI also fell to 45.7, a near seven-year low and a worrying trend, exacerbated by both trade war and Brexit fears. Unfortunately, there seems to have been very limited progress with Brexit negotiations, and a no-deal outcome could provide an unwelcome shock if it were to occur. 

China Manufacturing PMI remained in contraction territory for the fifth consecutive month, but there were was an improvement month-on-month (m/m) to 49.8 and there was a positive reading from the Caixin manufacturing PMI, at 51.4, which suggests that recent stimulus efforts have led to some level of stabilisation.

Most notable was the US ISM manufacturing index decline to 47.8, the lowest reading since June 2009, which suggests the trade war is beginning to bite. The impact has been felt in some key electoral states, which may make the Trump Administration more open to a compromise deal. US/China trade optimism did improve at the beginning of the month, as both sides appeared to make small concessions, but talks faltered again towards the end of September. The launch of an impeachment enquiry into President Trump by the Democrats also hurt sentiment, adding to the prevailing political uncertainty. Beyond month end, the addition of Hikvision (the leading provider of security systems/facial recognition technology in China and one of the largest players globally) and a number of other Chinese parties to the US banned entities list, as well as China’s decision to block NBA (basketball) coverage suggests significant compromises will be needed on both sides to reach a deal.

Central banks continued to play their part in ameliorating the softening global economy. The September US Federal Reserve (Fed) FOMC meeting was in line with expectations; the Fed Fund rate was cut by 25bps. However, the accompanying dot plot forecasts highlighted a divided committee. While the median dot shows no further cuts in 2019 or 2020, several participants favoured one more 25bps cut this year (although an almost equal number were placed above the current rate). In Europe, the ECB meeting saw measures that included a 10bps cut to the headline rate (to -0.5%) and a restart of its QE programme of bond purchases set at €20bn per month. The open-ended nature of this QE counterbalanced any potential disappointment over the lower-than-anticipated level of monthly bond purchases. For now, it appears the Fed put is back in play with central banks’ interests well aligned with equity investors.

Technology Review

The technology sector modestly trailed the broader market during September, the Dow Jones Global Technology Index gaining 0.6% (in sterling terms). Relative performance was negatively impacted by the broader market rotation from growth/momentum into value, as a perceived easing in US/China trade war tensions drove outperformance in cyclical sectors such as semiconductors, while internet and software underperformed. 

The internet sector was notably weak during the month, the NASDAQ Internet Index declining 3.3%. Uber Technologies and Lyft* sold off as California legislators approved law AB5 which will force ride-share companies to treat drivers as employees rather than contract workers, which could raise costs by as much as 35% according to Morgan Stanley. Netflix was also weak after its CEO acknowledged that competition was intensifying, with Apple and Disney launching their direct-to-consumer platforms in November. Facebook struggled due to increased regulatory scrutiny, as the Department of Justice announced plans to open an antitrust investigation after prodding from the US Attorney General. Google will also face an investigation from 48 states into its dominance of internet search and advertising, while Amazon denied accusations that they had made algorithm changes to boost sales of more profitable in-house items as they prepare to face a Federal Trade Commission investigation into whether they are abusing their market position. While we continue to hold significant positions in Google and Facebook, we are underweight both versus the benchmark and we have recently reduced Facebook and Amazon, in part due to regulatory risk.

Chinese internet names such as Alibaba Group Holding and Tencent had avoided being directly impacted by the trade war until reports during the month that the White House was debating ways to limit Chinese access to US capital. While action is not thought to be imminent, the Trump Administration is said to be considering restricting US investment in Chinese companies or, less likely, delisting them altogether from US stock exchanges. As such, we took the decision to err on the side of caution and reduced our exposure to both.

The software sector also struggled in September, the Bloomberg World Software Index declining 0.7%. Beneath the surface, high-growth software stocks experienced a much more severe correction due to the growth/momentum-to-value rotation and lacklustre results from both Zscaler* and Slack*. Slack, which provides cloud-based team collaboration software, missed billings expectations, raising concerns about competition from the Microsoft Teams product. Smartsheets (sold in August due to valuation) also delivered a smaller billing beat than in previous quarters driving the stock lower. Even Zoom* which posted 96% y/y revenue growth and raised guidance fell 17% during the month.

The lack of appetite for long-duration stocks during the period was likely influenced by adverse developments in the private/IPO market. Two high-profile offerings – SmileDirect* and Peloton* – both broke their IPO price. More important was the failed IPO of WeWork*. Investors showed little interest in the capital-intensive and heavily loss-making business model, presaging the ousting of the CEO and announced job cuts designed to reduce cash burn. According to reports, WeWork needed to complete its IPO in order to access bank loans required in order to expand and as such this was a significant blow. It also dented the credibility of Softbank’s Vision Fund which is likely to write down the value of its investment. To us, this was a timely reminder (not that UK investors needed one) of the dangers of holding private or illiquid investments, particularly in daily-traded investment vehicles. This has become an increasingly popular trend in recent years but one we have intentionally avoided in favour of maintaining a highly liquid portfolio of holdings. Unfortunately, many other high growth stocks and several of our holdings were caught up in the malaise including Coupa Software, Zendesk, RingCentral, Hubspot, Pinterest and Everbridge despite seemingly robust fundamentals.

In contrast, semiconductor stocks outperformed during the month, the Philadelphia Semiconductor (SOX) Index gaining 3.8%. Sentiment benefitted from improved trade optimism, memory price stabilisation and management commentary from the likes of Broadcom* that demand was stabilising. The SOX index almost made a new all-time high before pulling back at the end of the month, after trade rhetoric soured again. We have already had four quarters of inventory adjustment, but demand remains weak and inventory levels remain elevated, so the timing of the recovery remains unclear and geared to the global economic outlook.

Semiconductor stocks (as well as Apple itself) benefitted from a positive reception to the launch of the iPhone 11 during the month. Against a backdrop of modest expectations, the product was well received with lower price points ($699), materially longer battery life and a unique triple camera module which differentiates it aesthetically from earlier models. If our own experience with the new phone is anything to go by, it is a more significant upgrade than in recent years and units may well surprise to the upside (expectations were low given next year is expected to see the introduction of 5G devices). Furthermore, the phone is expected to have an attractive bill of materials due to component reuse and memory price weakness, potentially also aiding margins. We increased our Apple equity position before and after the event.

Outlook

To quote the Cornerstone Macroeconomics team: “With the expansion already a record 11 years old, fears of a recession are increasing, as reflected in the news count (stories mentioning ’US recession’). But there have been several recession scares this cycle, and after each one, the fears faded. We believe that will happen again, as we move into 2020”. They go on to note “expansions don’t die of old age, the culprit is always a combination of rising rates and economic excesses” and that the “current pause is refreshing. It’s lowering interest rates and further dampening economic excesses”. 

We concur with this view, although we acknowledge that the US/China trade war, attempts to impeach the US president, US elections and Brexit negotiations will play a significant role in the global growth outlook for 2020. Equally, while there is considerable uncertainty ahead, we could see an outcome where recession is avoided and markets climb the so-called ‘wall of worry’  given that investors appear conservatively positioned.

Trade negotiations are clearly entering an important phase and markets are likely to remain volatile and sensitive to this. With the US manufacturing sector contracting, the possibility of a US recession has clearly increased. It is therefore likely the US negotiating stance softens soon with the 2020 election around the corner. That said, President Trump is likely to maintain his bombastic anti- China (and to a lesser extent Europe) rhetoric for now at least, because it is so popular with his electoral base. In part, this stance is also working because he is inflicting pain elsewhere and in turn driving an increasingly dovish stance and further interest rate cuts from the Federal Reserve. It seems likely he hopes to have lower rates, a trade truce of some sort (even an interim deal) and perhaps further US stimulus in place ahead of the election – the only issue is that the timeframe for progress is narrowing and impeachment efforts are unhelpful.

It is worth noting that, while President Trump may be impeached in the House, it would take 20 Republicans to vote with the Democrats to secure the necessary two-thirds of the Senate. This means it is unlikely that anything material will transpire before the 2020 election. However, the President’s recent move to withdraw US forces and seemingly abandon Kurdish allies in northern Syria to the Turkish army has drawn the ire of Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell while Senator Lindsey Graham called the impulsive decision taken against the advice of the Pentagon and the State Department “irresponsible”. 

The inquiry has also seen Senator Elizabeth Warren take the lead in national polls of the 2020 Democratic primary for the first time, with a 29% share, as Joe Biden fell back to 26% and Bernie Sanders now a distant third following recent health problems. The market has, to date,  largely shrugged off the risk posed by her progressive platform but should Warren emerge as the candidate, and/or look likely to win the White House in 2020, we would expect to meaningfully reduce exposure to Facebook and Google who appear to be among the highest profile regulatory targets. Meanwhile, we continue to monitor the regulatory backdrop in Europe. Margrethe Vestager, who has previously taken a hard-line approach to US internet companies, was appointed to another five-year term as European Commissioner of Competition and given expanded powers over EU digital policy. The impact of this appointment is likely to be contained with Trump at the helm, but a Democrat President would likely share some of Vestager’s views.  

Market resilience in the face of weakening economic data and adverse political developments is best explained by the fact that trade war resolution would probably still see Trump returned for a second term. While this remains his card to play (and one cannot help think he is waiting to play it once US interest rates have reached their nadir), recent trade headlines have been largely negative with the US blacklisting more Chinese companies, apparently due to human rights abuses in Xinjang, while China scrapped plans to broadcast two pre-season NBA games following comments by the manager of the Houston Rockets who tweeted support of ongoing Hong Kong protests. That said, trade talks between the US and the Chinese remain and could yet surprise to the upside. 

Overshadowed by US developments, Brexit risk also remains elevated with the 31 October deadline looming. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s plan to break the impasse with the EU appears to have hit a brick wall and the most likely outcome now looks like an extension request, which is only likely to be approved if tied to a commitment to a general election or second referendum.

Refocusing on technology stocks, the sector has clearly been impacted by the growth-to-value rotation, with many individual high growth stocks falling significantly. We have conservatively started to add back to selected positions we reduced earlier on valuation grounds. We have also increased exposure to Apple which we think may surprise to the upside due to a better than expected iPhone refresh with investors likely to want to own the stock into the 5G product cycle next year. Near term, we expect ongoing volatility over the coming weeks both due to political and trade developments, but also due to the pre-announcements ahead of Q3’s earnings season when news flow tends to have a negative skew. As such, we have retained above-average cash levels and continue to hold modest amounts of out of the money NDX put options to reduce the natural excess beta of the portfolio that comes with our growth-centric approach. Given we do not see meaningful US recession risk next year, we would use any weakness over coming weeks (especially if software valuations continue to compress) to become more fully invested. We will likely keep some put option exposure to reduce underperformance if we are caught off guard by a significant deterioration in the outlook or an external shock. For now, beyond regulatory headwinds we feel the secular tailwinds for most of our holdings and core themes remain robust.

* not held

Ben Rogoff

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 World 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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The securities of Polar Capital Technology Trust referred to on this website (the "Securities") have not been and will not be registered under the US Securities Act of 1933, as amended (the "Securities Act") and may not be offered or sold in or into the United States or to, or for the account or benefit of, US persons (as defined in Regulation S under the Securities Act) absent registration under the Securities Act or pursuant to an applicable exemption from, or in a transaction not subject to, the registration requirements of the Securities Act and in compliance with any applicable securities laws of any state or other jurisdiction of the United States. Polar Capital Technology Trust will not be registered under the U.S. Investment Company Act of 1940, as amended, and investors in the Securities will not be entitled to the protections of that Act.

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Please remember that past performance of an investment is not necessarily a guide to future performance. The value of an investment and the income from it can fall as well as rise as a result of market and currency fluctuations and you may not get back the amount originally invested. The market value of the shares of Polar Capital Technology Trust may not reflect the underlying net asset value of the investments held by Polar Capital Technology Trust. Polar Capital Technology Trust is able to borrow to raise further funds for investment purposes if the fund manager and the board of directors consider that it may be commercially advantageous to do so. This is generally described as “gearing”. An investment trust which has made investments as a result of gearing may have a more volatile share price as a result; gearing can increase shareholder returns in rising markets but conversely can increase the extent to which the value of the funds attributable to shareholders decreases in falling markets. Tax assumptions may change if the law changes, and the value of tax relief (if any) will depend upon your individual circumstances. Investors should consult their own tax advisers in order to understand any applicable tax consequences.

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