Have you looked at clients’ allocations to the financial sector lately? As the equity and bond markets digest years of mortgage and structured securities-related exuberance, investors may wish to pay close attention to allocations in the financial sector, or at least know what they own–directly or indirectly. For the past several years, financials, which are so tied to the U.S. economy and investing benchmarks, have been difficult to avoid.
There are some mutual funds that generally do not invest in the financial sector because of religious reasons; paying or earning interest is prohibited under Islamic religious principles, as are investing in alcohol, gambling, and pornography. Principles aside, it is hard to argue with the consistent, long-term performance achieved by Nicholas Kaiser, president of Bellingham, Washington-based Saturna Capital, and portfolio manager of the no-load $560 million Amana Growth Fund (AMAGX), and $250 million Amana Income Fund (AMANX). Both funds are compliant with Sharia, or Islamic religious law; “Amana” in Arabic means trust (there’s no relation to the appliance manufacturer).
Amana Growth has earned five-year annualized total returns of 21.56%, and Amana Income returned 20.32%, versus 14.64% for the Standard & Poor’s 500 for the period ending July 20. S&P gives both funds its overall five-star ranking.
How is investing according to Islamic principles different?
It’s significantly different because of the restrictions that we have from investing according to Islamic guidance. Probably the best way to think about that is this week when interest-related stocks–finance companies, banks–have had a rough week.
None of that affects us because we have companies that are really out of anything that has to do with interest. That’s our biggest actual screen: banking–companies that make money from lending money are our biggest prohibition.
Does that include other financial-related companies–mutual fund companies, brokerage companies, insurance companies?
We have to look at each one. We have a screen that says no more than 5% of their revenues can come from ‘haram’ or prohibited activities. Brokerage companies actually make a lot of money from margin interest, sometimes 40% of their revenues can come from [it], so that’s clearly out. Insurance companies often make a lot of money from bond operations, so those are out. Some companies might not have those kinds of revenues [though they are] in those industries, and that would be allowed, so we have to look at each company, but in general, no banks, no insurance companies, no brokerages; any company that’s using a lot of leverage, basically.
And that’s on a lending basis or on an interest-earning basis?
I was talking to a couple of scholars and one said, “You know, Nick, I’d really like to see your portfolio not have any companies with any outstanding debt.” And I said, “Well I just happened to screen the S&P 500 for that and there are 36 companies that have no debt.” Companies like Microsoft, for instance. He said, “Well, that would be good, that would be the kind of company that you should get.” And the other scholar said, “Well you know, companies that have a lot of cash, they tend to earn interest on those deposits.” And I said, “Well, yes, and that will eliminate those 36, because Microsoft has a lot of cash.” So, that got us down to zero. So you have to think about this, and talk about it. It’s not an absolute prohibition because in American business it’s impossible not to have interest. We say: “Is that their primary business? Are they in the business of making money from money?”
[In] Microsoft’s case, their business is software and hardware development, computers. The fact that they’ve amassed a lot of cash–it’s not a business, they’re not planning to make money on the interest and tell everybody how rich they are from the interest earnings. They do have the cash and they use it for corporate purposes such as a takeover or buying something new–that’s totally okay because that’s just part of their regular business activities, and Microsoft does buy other companies.
But if it’s something in their primary business…let’s take a retail company: Target. We had Target in the portfolio, and then we found that they were selling lots of wine, and starting up another business of selling wines in some of their stores. So we had to sell that, because alcohol is one of the things we don’t do; revenues from activities such as gambling, pornography–those kinds of things are also prohibited. That keeps us out of many hotel chains, which [may have] casinos as part of their business. We screen about 5,000 stocks and about half of those fail. (For more on how Islamic scholars help guide Kaiser in the investment process, see the Web Extra at www.investmentadvisor.com.)
The lack of banking, and firms that lend or earn interest from lending, in the portfolio has been a happy coincidence.
It may clearly be part of the reason why we’ve been outperforming for the last several years. Generally in the financial sector of the market, when interest rates have been rising it squeezes the margins for those that are operating in the interest world–let’s say banks. We don’t have those, and interest rates have generally been rising over the past several years and that has probably helped our performance relative to other funds.
What’s your investment process for the Amana funds?
We have a universe of 5,000 companies that we screen through, and about 2,500 companies pass the screen. We’re value investors at Saturna Capital so we basically look for solid earnings. In the Growth Fund we look for more growth, obviously.
In Amana Income we’re interested in a solid dividend. Amana Income is the hardest one to invest because dividend companies tend to employ a lot of debt. The mature companies like utilities may have a lot of financial constructions on their balance sheets that keep us out of them, so it’s harder to find qualifying companies, which means we do things like cyclicals, [which] have been a big part of our success there; companies that may be a little riskier because of that. We do have some utilities, we have healthcare, which are the bigger pharma-type companies. Transportation companies would pay a dividend and qualify. Then we just look for solid growth, really, growing earnings that we think would continue from solid business.
What else are you looking for in a company?
We’re really looking at the history, the record. I think a lot of investors tend to buy the story; we tend to look more at what they own and how it’s done, so past history more than future story. Enron was a company that did qualify in the Income Fund, twice, back in the ’90s, but when their debt levels got to be higher we sold them, so we actually made a profit, twice, in Enron. Even though they were lying about the financials, we still got out of them because we could see that the debt was getting to be too high.
Saved by the [investing] principles?