Retail investors buy and sell securities for various reasons, many of which are based on either fear or greed, and that can creat inefficiencies that make for fantastic investment opportunities for the astute investor. According to Patrick Galley, chief investment officer and co-portfolio manager of Chicago-based boutique investment firm RiverNorth Capital’s RiverNorth Core Opportunity Fund (RNCOX), there is no better asset class through which one can capture those opportunities that are the result of fear and greed than closed-end funds.
Owned primarily by retail investors, the world of closed-end funds (there are about 800 of them with $200 billion in assets, Galley says), whose shares trade mostly on the New York Stock Exchange, offer a unique way to generate alpha, because they trade at either a discount or a premium to their net asset value (NAV). “They’re one of the few investment vehicles where it’s possible to know what they’re worth versus their share price, or what an investor is prepared to pay for them,” says Galley, a veteran of the closed-end fund space.
Since inception in 2006, RNCOX has capitalized on the discounts at which closed-end funds are trading. In the mutual fund space, the fund is unique as an open-ended, pure-play vehicle investing in closed-end funds that have the potential for discount narrowing, and as a result, RiverNorth is one of the largest closed-end fund investors in the country.
“We believe the discounts at which closed-end funds are trading are very measurable because they tell us what investors are thinking. If we like the discount and if we like the asset class, there’s clear alpha for us when the investments come back to the asset class,” Galley says.
Of Junk and Equity
In the last quarter of 2008, for example, high-yield-bond closed-end funds made for extremely attractive investments because they were trading at substantial discounts to their NAVs. “The world was falling apart, so everyone was selling high yield, and we love that, because people were selling for irrational reasons and we were buying for fundamental reasons,” Galley says.
Similarly, equity closed-end funds were trading at wide discounts to their NAVs in 2009 as investors, fearful of the equity markets, poured their money into fixed-income vehicles. This dynamic also created some opportunities for RNCOX, which had a more long-term, fundamental view on equities as an asset class.
Galley and RNCOX’s co-portfolio manager, Steven O’Neill, employ a balanced strategy with a tactical overlay, splitting their $350 million portfolio 60%/40% between equities and fixed income, generally moving away from asset classes that are expensive toward those that are cheap or offer fair value. They do this by investing in closed-end funds that are trading at a discount to generate alpha. As discounts on particular closed-end funds narrow, the duo trim their exposure to those funds and deploy the cash elsewhere, always keeping in mind their broader asset allocation parameters.
Galley and O’Neill also invest in some exchange-traded funds (ETFs) to provide beta.
“It’s very important to understand that we’re not investing 100% in closed-end funds,” Galley says. “We try to be flexible in that we believe a closed-end fund is the best way to generate alpha through the narrowing of discounts, but if the discounts widen, then we will invest in ETFs.”
Rather than making huge bets in order to generate additional return, RiverNorth tries to judge what asset classes are expensive and goes towards those that are cheap or fair value, using both closed-end funds and, to a lesser degree, ETFs to implement that strategy, Galley says. The potential for the discounts to narrow in closed-end funds is the core of the team’s investment strategy, but absolute discount levels are not the only indicator they follow: “While a fund trading at a 15% discount sounds great, there might be a better opportunity at a more narrow discount,” Galley says.
As such, RiverNorth spends a lot of time and effort performing rigorous fundamental analysis–both qualitative and quantitative–of the closed-end funds in which RNCOX is considering investing. The team uses proprietary statistical models to compare various discount levels and also digs deep into the closed-end funds they’re interested in, Galley says, so that they can get a strong handle on the discounts at which those funds are trading as well as into the various factors that are driving investor behavior. This kind of analysis enables the investment team to base their decision on whether to invest or not in a particular vehicle on more than its absolute discount.
Of Shareholder Activism