Categorizing Companies by Lifecycle: A Better Mousetrap for Alpha in Global Equities

Author:
Rob Hinchliffe, CFA

Rob Hinchliffe, CFA

Portfolio Manager, Head of Global Sector Cluster Research

Categorizing Companies by Lifecycle: A Better Mousetrap for Alpha in Global Equities
Capital at Risk

All investments involve risk. The value of your investment and the income from it will fluctuate and a loss of capital may occur.

Active management exists because some investors want to generate better returns than the overall market: alpha, in other words, rather than just beta. In exchange for this opportunity, investors frequently submit to greater risk, inconsistent returns, and portfolio characteristics that differ from the reference benchmark. 

PineBridge Investments focuses on alpha, but at a similar level of risk to the benchmark.  Our alpha tools are designed to consistently seek excess returns from stock selection without adding tracking error or other market risk and have been tested across widely varying market conditions1. And our global platform is structured to facilitate collaboration among analysts working in different regions and capitalization ranges to identify potential investment opportunities wherever they may exist.

One of the most important tools is our Lifecycle Categorization Research (LCR) framework, which we use to evaluate a company based on its maturity and cyclicality. We view this longstanding framework (it has existed at our firm for over two decades) as a “better mousetrap” than the standard approach of thinking about companies based on GICS-assigned sectors. What makes us think our system is better, at least for our purposes? As portfolio managers wholly focused on deriving active risk from stock-specific sources, we simply think it gives us a more fine-tuned instrument for picking up on and isolating the mispricing opportunities that arise as companies evolve through time. To illustrate how this worked over the last three years (as of 31 May 2023) for the PineBridge Global Focus Equity Fund, for example, the Fund featured an annual excess return of 4.9% (net of fees) that placed it in the top first percentile of Morningstar’s universe of 1,501 global large cap core equity managers2. Stock selection drove nearly all the alpha and each LCR category was a positive contributor.

A Clearer Signal – Stock Selection Effect for Global Focus Equity

Thinking-Outside-the-Boxes-Charts-3

Source: PineBridge and FactSet, as of 31 March 2023. Represents performance attribution information for the PineBridge Global Focus Equity Fund (the “Fund”), which is a sub-fund of PineBridge Global Funds, an Irish domiciled UCITS umbrella fund, authorised and regulated by the Central Bank of Ireland. The Fund’s inception date is 7 January 1999 with the current portfolio manager commencing on 1 January 2016. There can be no assurance that any of the above allocations will remain in the portfolio at the time this information is presented. Diversification does not ensure against loss in any market. Benchmarks are used for illustrative purposes only - it is not possible to invest directly in an index. Past performance is not indicative of future results.

Apples to apples

To determine whether a stock is a good investment, every investor needs a sound basis for comparison. Because the global stock universe encompasses some 58,000 names, many investors start by categorizing them into sectors and industry or sub-industry groupings. In this way, they aim to create smaller subsets of companies with similar characteristics and risk profiles that can help highlight whether a company’s current and future earnings potential is being priced attractively by the market, or not.

And the approach makes a lot of sense… some of the time. For illustrative purposes and not an indication of whether we own or will own these stocks, take Ford, Toyota, and GM3. They all fit together naturally enough in the automobile industry group of the Consumer Discretionary sector. Each operates under roughly similar capital structures, growth drivers, and sets of expectations that play into how the market values their earnings and earnings potential. But then what to make of a company like Tesla, another automobile industry constituent valued using almost a diametrically different set of expectations? Or take the adjacent Consumer Discretionary retail industry group. Are Target and The Home Depot really the best comparators for a company like Lululemon, or Amazon for that matter?

Unfortunately, such awkward and misaligned comparisons are an all-too-common result of sector- and industry-based analysis. That’s why we created a system for grouping companies into more homogenous categories based on a company’s position in its lifecycle and its overall sensitivity to the economic cycle. We have six categories in our taxonomy, each with its own criteria, valuation method, and return requirement. In classifying a cyclical company, for example, we’ll first normalize its revenue and earnings to smooth out the “lumps” across the economic cycle. We then assess its underlying growth trend to determine whether it is presently a High Cyclical Growth or Mature Cyclical company: the faster it is growing through the cycle, the likelier we are to categorize it as the former and value it using a higher multiple to reflect those higher future-state earnings estimates. In contrast, a company with a stable revenue and margin outlook is more likely to be a Mature Stable company. A company in this category will be valued against the market, peers, and its own history – and given its better visibility, require less return potential than a High Stable Growth company to be an attractive investment.

pinebridge_graphic_gic-sectors

For illustrative purposes only. Any views represent the opinion of the investment manager and are subject to change.

Once the categories are set, we can then start comparing like companies to like companies. This is where mispricing opportunities start to emerge that (to our benefit) are often missed by investors using the standard GICS groupings. A US industrial automation company, for instance, that appears expensive relative to other Industrials may look quite a bit more reasonably priced when viewed instead across the sectors against other Mature Stable companies with similarly healthy levels of profitability and steady (if unspectacular) growth.

Moving left

As the name implies, Lifecycle is about movement, and the opportunity to anticipate and capture changes in a business as it evolves over time. We don’t need a company to change lifecycle categories to be a good investment. But if it is going to move, we want it to move left in the diagram below, transitioning from a more mature business back toward a more robust stage of growth. In such instances, we expect its valuation to re-rate higher as the market gains visibility into the new lifecycle stage.

Lifecycle Categories

pinebridge_graphic_lifescycle

For illustrative purposes only. Any views represent the opinion of the investment manager and are subject to change.

For illustrative purposes, Microsoft4 is an interesting case to examine here. Through the course of its history, the company has run the entire LCR gamut from Exceptional Growth (A) to Mature Stable (D3) and back to High Stable Growth (B). In its early years in the early to mid-1980s, we likely would have categorized Microsoft as an A stock. We would have assessed its likelihood of success, evaluated its funding sources, required a high return potential to justify the risks, and used a standard discounted cash flow model for valuation. A decade later, the company became a B stock as revenue grew and its outlook became more stable. Continued steady (and accelerating) growth along with expanding margins are textbook B-stock traits that would have attracted the PineBridge equity team and allowed us to lower our return requirements and look beyond the earnings multiple at which the stock was trading given its steadier footing and improved revenue and earnings visibility.  However, by the aughts, the company had begun shifting back to the right and became a D3 company as the revenue and earnings compounded annual growth rate (CAGR) downshifted below 10%. The forward-looking nature of LCR ideally would have anticipated this change well before it occurred. Ditto the emergence of its cloud business 15 years later that foretold yet another shift – this one back to the leftward part of the LCR curve.

The companies we keep (and the risks we don’t)

Stock selection is our only alpha source. To keep it that way, in addition to our portfolio of high-quality, high-conviction investments, we seek to mitigate all other risks, including the psychological risks of exiting holdings early as a natural reaction to portfolio excess return volatility or exiting too late due to overconfidence. 

We control these risks by limiting the active exposure of the portfolio to LCR categories, since investment styles that roughly correlate with a company’s growth rate (i.e., “growth” vs. “value”) are some of the biggest sources of market risk in equity portfolios. (See “Global Equities: Thinking Outside the (Style) Box for More Sustained Alpha.”) A recent case in point was the dramatic shift in style leadership in 2022, which saw growth stocks, after years of outperformance, plummet by three times as much as those categorized as value shares. Of course, controlling for LCR categories means the LCR characteristics of the benchmark must also be known. So, our global equity team maps the benchmark’s alignment to our LCR categories twice per year.  

This risk management discipline contributes to a surprisingly low tracking error given our portfolios’ generally high active share. For example, the PineBridge Global Focus Equity Fund has a tracking error since inception (7 January 1999) of just 4.4%, as of 31 March 2023 (some active managers range as high as 7% or more). It also maintains a portfolio beta of roughly 1 and yet boasts an active share of 93% from inception to 31 March 2023. This unique juxtaposition of high conviction and low tracking error and market risk is a direct product of the organic and differentiated way that LCR allows the portfolio team to home in on the business operations risks specific to each holding while controlling for the style, interest rate, currency, and other market risks around which the team has far less conviction. Focusing and diversifying risks this way also helps to limit relative volatility, which improves our ability to own investments over the medium to long term, consistent with the time frame over which we anticipate alpha from each investment will develop.

Finally, the precision of LCR for risk management alleviates the need to own positions whose primary role is risk management. This frees the portfolio management team to invest in a wider range of companies and results in an even more differentiated portfolio. Of interest to note, as of the first quarter of 2023, six of the PineBridge Global Focus Equity Fund's top 10 holdings weren't even among the top 300 positions of its benchmark.

Footnotes

1 Past performance is not indicative of future results.

2 Source: Morningstar, as of 31 May 2023. Reference class: Y. The peer group is the Morningstar Global Large Cap Core Equity Universe, which in the 3-year period had 1,501 members. Performance is calculated net of fees on NAV to NAV in USD with dividends reinvested. The benchmark for the Fund is the MSCI All-Country World (ACWI) Daily Total Return (Net) Index. Past performance is not indicative of future results.

3 For illustrative purposes only. Information provided should not be construed as a recommendation to buy or sell a security. There is no indication given that the securities shown were purchased, sold or recommended in any portfolio. Any views are the opinion of the Investment Manager and are subject to change.

4 For illustrative purposes only. The selected case study has been chosen by PineBridge to illustrate the investment process. It is not necessarily representative or indicative of all investments made in the existing strategy or fund. Information provided about a portfolio company is intended to be illustrative, and should not be used as an indication of current or future performance of any security, investment, or portfolio company. Prospective investors should be aware that these summaries are selective by nature, do not include all of the transactions made by the Manager's investment team on behalf of the composite and are not necessarily representative or indicative of all of the investments in the portfolio for any period. Past performance is not indicative of future results.

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Taiwan: PineBridge Investments Management Taiwan Ltd. Is licensed and regulated by Securities and Futures Bureau of Taiwan (SFB). In Taiwan, this material may not be suitable to investors and is not reviewed or endorsed by the SFB.

United Kingdom: This material is issued by PineBridge Investments Europe Limited, licensed and regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority. In the UK this communication is a financial promotion solely intended for professional clients as defined in the FCA Handbook and has been approved by PineBridge Investments Europe Limited. Should you like to request a different classification, please contact your PineBridge representative. In the UK, this material may also be issued by PineBridge Benson Elliot LLP, registered in England (company number OC317119) with its registered address at 50 Hans Crescent, London, SW1X 0NA. PineBridge Benson Elliot LLP is authorised and regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority. 

Uruguay: The sale of the securities qualifies as a private placement pursuant to section 2 of Uruguayan law 18.627. The issuer represents and agrees that it has not offered or sold, and will not offer or sell, any securities to the public in Uruguay, except in circumstances which do not constitute a public offering or distribution under Uruguayan laws and regulations. The securities are not and will not be registered with the Central Bank of Uruguay to be publicly offered in Uruguay. The securities correspond to investment funds that are not investment funds regulated by Uruguayan law 16,774 dated 27 September 1996, as amended.Where applicable, the Manager may determine to terminate any arrangements made for marketing the Shares in one or more jurisdictions in accordance with the AIFM Directive and UCITS Directive respectively, as may be amended from time to time.Investors and potential investors can obtain a summary of investor rights and information on access to collective redress mechanisms at www.pinebridge.com/investorrights.Last updated 04 January 2022.

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