From the November 2010 issue of Investment Advisor • Subscribe!

November 1, 2010

Wide Open (Investment) Spaces

Tulsa, Okla.-based Capital Advisors believes clients win in the long run by not losing - and not losing has been very good for their growth fund

Little surprise they’re overlooked, given their location. No offense to the citizens of this red state stalwart, but we don’t often hear of the New York-San Francisco-Tulsa financial triangle.

Which suits Keith Goddard just fine. “Location, location, location” may be important in real estate, but not so much in portfolio management. The manager of Tulsa, Okla.-based Capital Advisors Growth Fund outperformed the S&P 500 by 12.82% for the last bear market period from Oct. 9, 2007 (the peak) to March 9, 2009 (the low), due in large part to his, and co-manager Channing Smith’s, defensive strategy.

The pre-interview marketing swag we received actually does a nice job of spelling it out.

“Some investors feel good when the market goes up 200 points and their mutual fund increases accordingly. But if you are like most investors, you realize that with every market zig comes a zag. And zags can be painful. That’s why some equity funds are designed to lessen the pain of those zags. These funds protect against steep drops in the market while still allowing upside participation for a much smoother (and less painful) ride over the long term.”

The 32-year-old Capital Advisors manages approximately $800 million in assets, with a core offering in separate account stock and bond portfolios. Even though the Growth fund is only 10 years old, the firm has been executing the strategy since its founding.

Among some of the accolades it’s received recently: Morningstar ranks the fund in the top 20% of all equity funds for its performance during bear market months over the last five years ending May 31; Morningstar rates the fund with five stars for three years and four stars for five years; and Lipper rates the fund a five (best measure) in its category for capital preservation.

“In the broadest terms, we are trying to provide a risk-managed offering in the large-cap growth category,” Goddard explains. “To the extent that somebody looks at the top 10 holdings in the fund, they will likely recognize a lot of the names as being similar to other growth funds. But I believe that the processes for risk management we overlay into the overall strategy do create something different.”

So risk management comes first? Not exactly, according to Goddard.

“I don’t know that I would say it comes first, but I would say that it is so integral to the stock selection process that it’s just part of the fabric of the fund. The risk management filter is included in every investment decision that we make.”

The filter to which he refers comes from a stock selection process overlaid with their macro view of the market. This macro-market view is formed through three primary risk filters, which he says are purely objective and quantitative. The first is valuation, where they use long-term, cyclically-adjusted 10-year-average P/E ratios for the stock market to determine where it resides (expensive, medium, cheap quartiles). The second risk filter is momentum, where they use moving averages with major indexes to determine objectively, “Are we in an up trend? Are we in a downtrend?”

The third is credit spreads, which they use to monitor risk.

“Credit spreads, moving averages, evaluation,” Goddard says. “We literally quantify it for our clients with a speedometer and we quantify where we perceive the macro environment to be fitting in from a risk perspective. We use that information to tilt the design of the portfolio either more aggressively or more conservatively with the types of stocks that we populate in the portfolio.”

The fund’s sell trigger relies on their risk management process. If they see signs they need to tilt the portfolio more conservatively, they may lighten or eliminate a selection of more aggressive stocks in the portfolio and replace them with more conservative stocks, or vice versa. Other reasons they sell are the reasons anyone sells; the stock reaches its target or they want to make room for a different idea.

“Every individual security we keep is categorized as one of three things,” Goddard says. “They are a stable earner, an accelerated grower or an emerging franchise. Those categories are assigned not so much around beta as around where each company is in its business life cycle.”

He cites Pepsi, Proctor & Gamble and Wal-Mart as examples of stable earners, because of the range of variability in their results quarter to quarter and their range of expectations among analysts is very narrow.

Accelerated growers (obviously) grow more rapidly. He notes no company can grow at 25% forever—more risk is taken and there is more volatility. There is more variance in the expectations.

“Those are great stocks when the market is doing well, when those companies are beating expectations, but they kill you when the opposite occurs. Emerging franchises are the most aggressive category we have. These are companies applying new ways of attacking an industry. Nobody knows what they are worth. So it’s a game of trying to be less wrong than the consensus about what the future holds for that industry.”

So how is the portfolio tilted now?

“It’s right down the middle,” he says. “We believe that you win in the long run by not losing. If we can tie or even modestly lag the overall market, or our peer group, during real spikes, but yet really kick butt when the market is doing lousy, we’re going to come out ahead in the long run.”

And talk about kicking butt. Morningstar gives rankings for bear market performance, of which the fund is in the top 20%. There performance in the 2008 down market was in the top 2% of their peer group.

“If you look at why we are ahead of the market in the last three and five years versus peers, it’s not because of how we did during the good quarters, it’s because of how we did during the bad quarters.”

With Tulsa not exactly a financial hub, we thought Goddard would travel quite a bit when performing due diligence. We were surprised to find this isn’t the case.
“We don’t visit companies very often. I wouldn’t say it never happens, but it is very uncommon. We do talk to management over the phone fairly regularly. But frankly, we feel like we can stay more objective if we don’t visit the company. I’ve never been on a company tour where I didn’t walk away thinking what a cool place. They show you what they want you to see.”

When asked where they’re currently finding alpha, Goddard responds with an explanation of the fund’s barbell strategy. He sees value in classic blue chip companies, the stable earners previously described such as Johnson & Johnson, Wal-Mart, Proctor & Gamble and Pepsi, which is one end of the barbell. On the other end of the barbell, the one that’s generating growth and excitement, they like companies participating in growth and expansion of the mobile internet.

“Connective devices all over the world, in our opinion, is the single most important growth trend happening out there. Apple, Google and Qualcomm need to be in a growth portfolio. On the service side, we have Vodafone and AT&T. Those kind of cross both worlds. They are high-dividend, low-P/E stocks, but they also stand to grow with wireless communications. The less obvious names include Broadcom and Marvel Technology.”    

John Sullivan can be reached at jsullivan@investmentadvisor.com.

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