e-fundresearch: Ms. Catherine Wood, you are the Chief Investment Officer of AllianceBernstein Thematic Portfolios. Since when are your responsible for the fund management?
Wood: I have managed AllianceBernstein’s Thematic investment services for nearly a decade. As part of my role, I have been responsible for the AllianceBernstein Global Thematic Research Portfolio Luxembourg Fund since inception in its current form in September 2009. In addition, I manage the firm’s Global Thematic portfolios for institutional clients in segregated accounts and US Thematic services.
e-fundresearch: Which benchmark do you adhere to?
Wood: The Global Thematic service is managed to the MSCI All Country World Index and the US Thematic Research service is managed against the S&P 500 index.
e-fundresearch: Are you also responsible for other funds at the moment?
e-fundresearch: What is the total volume that you manage in all your funds?
Wood: Our Global and US Thematic portfolios had assets under management of over $5 billion, as of September 30, 2010.
e-fundresearch: Regarding the performance: which performance did you achieve since the beginning of the year and in the years 2003-2008? Absolutely and relatively to the relevant benchmark?
Wood: In 2010 through October 31, our Global Thematic Research Portfolio Lux Fund rose 9.98% in absolute terms. This represents a premium of 2.61% to the benchmark over the same period. The Lux fund did not exist in the 2003-2008 period.
Our US Thematic Research portfolio for institutional clients is our longest running thematic service. During 2003-2008, this fund underperformed its benchmark by 4.8%. However, this period was particularly affected by end-point sensitivity. In 2009 it outperformed by 19.6%, and in the year-to-date (through October 2010), the fund beat its benchmark by 5.1%. Since 2001, our US Thematic portfolios have outperformed 95% of the time on a rolling five-year basis (19 out of 20 five-year periods).
e-fundresearch: How content are you with your own performance in the last years and this year?
Wood: We are extremely pleased with our performance during the last two years, in which we have demonstrated our ability to outperform in both up and down markets, despite challenging conditions. During the extremely difficult markets of 2006 and 2008, I was not satisfied with our performance. In 2006, our research detected imminent troubles in US real estate, and we subsequently reduced the risk in the portfolio prematurely, while the bubble was still inflating. But we outperformed strongly in 2007 due to actions we took the previous year. In 2008, we shifted into cyclicals as the crisis was evolving, understanding and alerting our clients that the portfolio would suffer until the market turned. Overall, we feel that our long-term track record—as demonstrated by rolling five-year returns—confirms our skill at delivering premium returns through a thorough thematic investing process.
e-fundresearch: How are you able to deliver added value for your investors with your performance?
Wood: Our thematic investing approach is based on a combination of top-down analysis and fundamental research. Top-down research gives us a deeper understanding of long-term secular themes, which can drive the market outlook for industries, while economic analysis helps us assess the forces that fuel short-term cyclical trends. These trends are then explored through bottom-up research aimed at identifying the most attractive investment candidates—those with compelling earnings growth prospects and valuations. The combination of these two research views unearths investment opportunities with the potential to add substantial value. We rely strongly on AllianceBernstein’s deep in-house resources for guidance, including dedicated economists and specialist teams that focus on transformational change and early stage innovation.
Based on a synthesis of these complex views, members of our Global Thematic Research team apply their vast experience to construct a portfolio. Each team member brings a unique focus to the group—the most senior members include leaders of AllianceBernstein’s economic, thematic, quantitative, and fundamental efforts. Our team includes seven senior investment professionals with an average of 19 years investment experience, including nine years at the firm. It’s uncommon in our industry to combine a top-down research with a fundamental approach. We believe this gives us a competitive edge in building portfolios with long-term outperformance potential.
e-fundresearch: How long have you been a fund manager already?
Wood: I joined AllianceBernstein in 2001 from Tupelo Capital Management where I was a general partner, co-managing global equity-oriented portfolios. Before that, I worked for Jennison Associates as a director, portfolio manager (investing in both US and international securities) and chief economist, and during my 18 years at the firm held positions including equity research analyst. I started my career as an assistant economist at Capital Research in 1977. In total, I have 34 years of experience in the industry.
e-fundresearch: What were your biggest successes and your biggest disappointments in your career as fund manager?
Wood: Our strong outperformance in 2009 following the crisis was particularly gratifying to me, as we had moved strongly into cyclicals against conventional wisdom. However, it was also disappointing that we had entered cyclicals a bit too early, and performance had suffered as a result in 2008.
In addition, my team has spearheaded investments in the Web 2.0 theme, involving the shift away from distributed computing, back toward centralized computing. This move has already delivered strong alpha to our portfolios and the theme is still evolving. Our Web 2.0 holdings have outperformed the tech sector by over 20% so far in 2010.
e-fundresearch: What kind of capital market situation do we have at the moment? How do you act in this environment?
Wood: Although we remain vigilant for signs that underlying conditions have begun to worsen once again, in our view, most evidence suggests that the global economic recovery is on a solid footing. Global Purchasing Managers’ Indices point to a robust manufacturing rebound, while job losses in the US and much of the developed world have stabilized.
Currently, investors around the world are too focused on risks associated with disinflation (prices increasing but at a slower rate) and deleveraging (e.g. taking down risks by buying short-term fixed income). We also think markets are not paying enough attention to the potential consequences of rising inflation. With interest rates so low, we think consumers and businesses will soon start to act in anticipation of higher prices in the future. In our view, this outlook is relevant globally, for both consumers and companies, following 30 years of disinflation.
We think one of the main risks on capital markets is that inflation will exceed expectations. Our portfolios reflects this concern by including thematic stocks with higher valuations and higher growth prospects, alongside more attractively valued stocks, with inflation hedges in the energy and commodity space.
Against this background, our research continues to point to a stronger economic recovery over the next year than current consensus estimates, led by massive inventory restocking, emerging market consumption, and industrial investment. The following big issues will play a big role on the course of the unfolding recovery:
• The European Bailout—The European Central Bank’s decision to buy European government debt underlines the risk to the Euro and many other currencies as governments print money to pay their debt—raising the longer-term risk of inflation. We are hedging inflation risk through positions in commodities, and are closely monitoring widening spreads in some countries (e.g. Ireland).
• Emerging vs Developed Markets—Despite persistent worries about global growth, we feel this perspective is biased to the developed world. Emerging economies represent about 30% of global GDP, and their share of the world economy is steadily growing. In developed economies, possible tax increases may stifle US growth, while Europe’s government spending cuts (rather than raising taxes) may actually help prompt economic growth.
• The US Dollar—We think the US dollar’s weakness will continue for three main reasons: First US economic growth is likely to be outpaced by other countries. Second, we expect non-US central banks will begin to raise interest rates. Third, US fiscal policy will probably remain extremely loose. In addition, the Federal Reserve’s latest quantitative easing plan (QE2) will probably suppress US interest rates in comparison with other regions.
e-fundresearch: What objectives do you have till the end of the year and in the mid term for the upcoming 3 to 5 years?
Wood: Our objective is always to bolster our track record by delivering solid outperformance in markets that will continue to present substantial challenges. This will further demonstrate the benefits of focusing on transformational trends when markets are being driven by short-term fears. We will pursue this goal by continuing to study the disruptive, global forces that are cutting across industries and sectors, and investing in stocks that are both key enablers or beneficiaries of those themes, and undervalued relative to our longer term forecasts.
e-fundresearch: Do you model yourself on someone? Any ideals?
Wood: My role models include several legendary investors with whom I’ve had the privilege to work during my 34 years in the industry. They include Sig Segalas and Bob Keiter at Jennison Associates; Al Harrison and Jane Gould at AllianceBernstein; and Howard Schow at Capital Group (now at Primecap). All of these people are “classical” investors, who essentially adopted a thematic focus and a long-term horizon to pick well managed companies that are positioned to capitalize on disruptive changes and thereby are likely to enjoy superior returns. Their investing philosophies shaped my thinking, and allowed me to develop my own investment processes to effectively implement the vision. Art Laffer, my college mentor, has been the biggest influence on my economic thinking, which is another important plank in our investing process and contributor to our performance.
e-fundresearch: What motivates you in your job?
Wood: I´ve always felt privileged that clients entrust us to learn and express our views on how the world works and will work in the future. We are putting together a mosaic, piece by piece, synthesizing a variety of research from both inside and outside the firm, in a constant search for disruptive forces that will trigger transformational change. I love the intensity and the fast pace at which we assimilate information, transform it into knowledge, insight and perspectives, which are translated into investment decisions. I can’t think of a more dynamic and intellectually stimulating career, and there is no greater reward than adding to clients’ returns as we discover new thematic insights.
e-fundresearch: What else do you want to achieve or do you have any further aims as a fund manager?
Wood: I would like to help move the contemporary investment world away from benchmark sensitivity that currently dominates the industry and back toward “classical” investing. This would be a move back to the future, to the way the great investors who taught me invest. I’m confident that the continued success of our Global Thematic portfolios will help us reinforce our credentials as an industry-leading investment house in thematic investing/
e-fundresearch: What other profession would you have taken interest in, apart from becoming a fund manager?
Wood: In my free time, I sing with a contemporary Christian composers and musicians. Had I not embarked upon my investment career, I would have liked to improve my musical skills and pursue a career in professional contemporary Christian singing.
e-fundresearch: Thank you for the interview!