Benjamin Segal brings a background to his job as portfolio manager for Neuberger Berman International/Investor Fund (NBISX) that is nothing if not international. He grew up in Great Britain, worked as a sales analyst in Asia for Lehman Brothers, got his MBA from Wharton, did some management consulting in South Africa, then some financial work in London before coming back to the States to join Neuberger in 1998.
Launched in 1994, the fund was given a five-star overall rating by Standard & Poor’s, which considers it a global equity fund, in April of this year. For Morningstar, the category is Foreign Small/Mid Growth and the rating is three stars.
No matter how you classify it, the performance of the fund has been strong, with results dramatically outpacing both the S&P/Citigroup BMI World Ex-U.S. Index and the fund’s own benchmark, the MSCI EAFE Index.
Tell me about the philosophy behind the Neuberger Berman International/Investor Fund. We’re a bottom-up product with a bottom-up portfolio. I’m not an economist. In fact, Neuberger doesn’t even have an economist on staff, so we don’t make any strategic calls on currencies or countries or interest rates or anything else. We look to buy the best companies we can.
By “best companies,” I mean those trading at discounted valuations in the world outside the United States. We pay pretty strict attention to valuation, but we also look for high-quality companies that are rarely in the deep-value end of the spectrum. We tend to be blend or core or somewhere in the middle of the growth/value continuum, and we’re very much all cap. We will buy companies and are invested in companies at all ends of the market cap spectrum. I define us as quality-at-a-reasonable-price, all-cap managers.
That definition gives you a pretty broad spectrum of companies to choose from. How do you narrow it down? We’re looking for high-quality companies with really strong business franchises that consistently result in strong returns–returns on capital, returns on equity–that are significantly above their cost of capital. How do they do that? Either by exploiting a sustainable low-cost position or by having a portfolio of brands or a strategy or a management structure that other people are unable to replicate. Or they can do it by dominating a niche business to such a degree that they exhibit monopoly-type characteristics. We want high-returning businesses with strong margins, strong management teams, and elements of growth.
We’re running screens for earnings growth. We’re running screens for returns on capital. We’re running screens for profit margins. We’re talking to management teams and consultants all the time to find the sustainably high-quality companies in the world outside the United States.
Those are the sorts of companies that we think have a place in the portfolio at some price–not at any price, at some price. Then the question becomes at what price are they attractive enough both from a quality perspective and from a valuation perspective to be included in the portfolio? If we think they’re worth $80/share and they’re trading at $100/share, we’re going to watch that company. We’re going to pay close attention to it and when it comes down in price, we will look to initiate a position.
So the first step is to identify those companies. The second is to value them, and then to make sure that we buy them and own them at discounted valuations. Obviously we’ll sell them when the valuations become overextended.
When looking at the fund’s portfolio, it becomes obvious that the biggest holdings are European companies. What’s the reason for that? There are two reasons. One is that Europe is the largest component of the MSCI EAFE (Morgan Stanley Capital International Europe Australasia Far East) Index, so our universe of investable companies is dominated by Europe. If you look at the EAFE, roughly 70% of is composed of European companies, with roughly 50% in continental Europe and 20% in the U.K. Another 20% of the index is Japan, while the remaining 10% is other stuff–Australia, Singapore, Hong Kong, etc. So if 70% of our investment universe is in Europe, it’s not surprising that the majority of our largest weightings are going to be in Europe.
The second reason is that a lot of people have talked about the recovery in Japan and how great the investment opportunities are there, [but] we find a shortage of high-quality, high-returning, well-managed businesses in Japan. When we do find them, they’re often trading at very high valuations. The strict discipline we stick to doesn’t produce a tremendous number of ideas in the Japanese market, which explains why even though Japan is 20% of the index it’s not 20% [of the portfolio], and two out of the top ten holdings aren’t Japanese. The economy isn’t in great shape in our view, the valuations aren’t compelling, and the [larger] companies themselves aren’t of sufficiently high quality to be included in the portfolio in any significant way. Most of our Japanese holdings are smaller holdings that we like, but we’re not as enthusiastic about them as we are some of the European and Canadian holdings.
While we’re on the subject of Asia, there’s been a lot of talk in the last year or so about the growth of China and India. Where do they fit into your plans? China and India are part of the emerging markets. We focus on developed markets and we cap our emerging markets holdings at 10% of the portfolio. Where we find opportunities we will invest with them, but we consider that investors ask us to concentrate on the developed markets relative to the EAFE Index. Having said that, we do like the Chinese and to some extent the Indian story. We’re exposed to companies that are selling significant amounts of product [in the Chinese market]. One of our largest holdings is a company called TPV Technology, which is based in Hong Kong, is regulated by the Hong Kong securities authority, and is managed by Hong Kong Chinese, but all of its operations, assets, and businesses are in mainland China, taking advantage of China as a low-cost manufacturing hub.
Getting investment exposure to a country like China goes along a spectrum. One end is just to be 100% invested in a Chinese company, but we are not sufficiently comfortable with the accounting and regulatory transparency in the Chinese market to expose our investors to that. The next step is to find a company that is substantially deriving business into and out of China, but quoted in Hong Kong or somewhere else. That’s how we’re invested with TPV Technology. The least sensitive way is to be invested in companies that are doing substantial business there, and we’ve got a couple of those also.
Since the fund is based in the U.S., but your investments are in international companies, what does the relative strength or weakness of the dollar do to your strategy? For many years, a strong dollar and weak international currencies were a major headwind for international returns, but in the last couple of years that seems to have reversed. We’re not economists and we don’t look at these things in any detail, but if I’m pinned down, I tend to think that the combination of fiscal and trade deficits in the U.S. is likely to mean a continued weaker dollar. Clearly international investors benefit from that.