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Large Cap Equity Manager of the Year: Columbia Threadneedle Investments

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What You Need to Know

  • Guy Pope of Columbia Threadneedle takes the Large Cap Equity category honors.
  • Portfolio success starts with looking for stocks in bottom third of 52-week trading range, he says.

Guy Pope

Title: Senior Portfolio Manager

Years with present firm: 28

Years in financial services: 28

Investment/asset class focus: Large Cap U.S. Equity

Asset management firm: Columbia Threadneedle Investments

Firm headquarters: Boston

Year firm founded: 1985

Number of employees: 2,000

AUM as of March 31, 2021: $564 billion

Pessimism is the key to success at the Columbia Contrarian Core SMA. The actively managed fund, which won the Envestnet/Investment Advisor 2021 award for Best Large Cap Equity fund manager, topping 90 peers, had a 23.1% return in 2020, beating the Russell 1000 index by 2.1 percentage points.

What Guy Pope, head portfolio manager of the fund, means by “pessimism” is that they are looking for stocks trading in the bottom third of the 52-week range high. Most people get excited when CNBC talks about stocks hitting 52-week highs, “[and] optimism is fine, but that’s not where we want to start,” he says.

With his team, Harvey Liu, Nick Smith and Michael Welter — and a support group of fundamental analysts, industry experts and quantitative pros — Pope defines those pessimistic stocks by looking through a prism. For example, if a stock starts at $100 and after several events drops to $50, that’s when they get interested. It’s also been “de-risked,” Pope says, noting that it doesn’t have much further to fall.

“That’s not always true, but sometimes it’s the case,” Pope explains. “We do careful, fundamental bottom-up [research] where we reach out to the company. From [here] we do our stock selection process.”

On average, the fund owns 60 to 80 stocks. “It’s not a concentrated portfolio, but may be slightly more concentrated than the average core manager out there,” he explains.

When a team member finds a stock that is of interest, they apply a “three-alpha approach,” Pope says. First, they contact the company, “engage” with management and “collect all the available public information out there,” he says. The second source of alpha is the fundamental research that comes from the equity analysts. Finally, there is the quantitative team that uses a multi-factor model on how the stock is rated.

“After we utilize all three sources of alpha, we will come to an independent conclusion or investment thesis,” he says. That falls into one of three categories: market efficiency, thesis still to be determined and investment merit. This final one is when the names finally make it into the portfolio, Pope adds.

The portfolio has 60% to 80% turnover per year; when the market is more volatile, the turnover goes up. Pope says an advantage to their contrarian approach is that it makes them wait. “A lot of times people are just reacting to the news flow. …. I like [our process] because it makes us wait for a better entry point, a cheaper entry point,” he explains.

Pope calls 2020 a “fascinating year,” in which they started hearing in January about the “virus in Asia and we got a little concerned and started to trim some stocks that were relying on Asian consumers, but the market shrugged it off very quickly,” he recalls. At first they wondered if they had made a mistake, but then in February the market went into its “waterfall decline.”

Having been a portfolio manager for 28 years, Pope says he’s built up “mental models” for markets, but “there is no page in the playbook for any portfolio manager on how to deal with a pandemic.”

The senior portfolio manager said the downdraft of the market was so severe that their indicators eventually “looked very similar to past corrections, where at a certain point you have to turn from being defensive to being opportunistic. It made us think back to [the] fourth quarter of 2008, the summer of 2011 and December of 2018.”

That meant leaning into a correction, “and when you are leaning into a correction, you want to make sure you’re buying stocks that can outperform on a market rebound versus everything,” he explains.

Pope explains his team also did well because of the “two phases to last year. The first three quarters, growth [stocks] outperformed [due to the] Fed taking rates to zero and saying they would keep them there awhile.”

Also, FANG stocks, such as Amazon and Netflix, benefited from the pandemic. In the fourth quarter, however, value stocks did better. When the firm’s research pointed to a faster vaccine development, they added value stocks to the portfolio, which “helped us outperform [too] in the fourth quarter,” he adds.