Some six and half years on from the onset of the global financial crisis, it’s not just Irish eyes that are smiling. With St. Patrick’s Day festivities in full swing, Ian Ormiston, manager of the Old Mutual Europe (ex UK) Smaller Companies Fund, celebrates the investment opportunities that abound the Emerald Isle.
For the last 20 years Ireland has been a source of alpha for us. It is interesting that across those two decades Ireland has arguably seen the wildest fluctuations in its fortunes among European countries and yet we have been consistently able to find companies that have delivered returns to our investors. The reason for this is that we focus on the micro, not the macro, and look to quality businesses with strong management teams to deliver returns to our investors.
If we think of the Irish story over this period it has been constantly evolving. We started with the macro domestic growth story of the Celtic tiger, through the debt fuelled property development binge culminating in 2008 with the collapse of the banks, to the austerity dominated recession post financial crisis and now back to strong domestic growth and international expansion.
Layered on top of the economic cycles we have seen exaggerated market cycles which have provided even greater return opportunities. To capture these returns, one has had to seize a variety of growth drivers. At the time of the tiger, you could buy upstart smaller companies like Ryanair, CRH and Kerry Group who quickly outgrew their small, albeit fast growing domestic market to become multinational leaders in their sectors. During the bubble investors were largely passengers unless they chose to back the banks heavily, but growth and outperformance was available through companies like DCC, UDG Healthcare, Greencore and Grafton, all of whom eventually shifted their main listings to London reflecting the shifting emphasis of their operations. The bust and the austerity that followed saw all stocks becoming far too cheap and several of the companies that I have already mentioned enjoyed the benefits of a survivors party as many of their competitors withered or disappeared.
Which brings us to today. Irish GDP grew by 4.8% in 2014 which is phenomenal by any standards, but is in stark contrast to the stagnation in the rest of the eurozone. Within the Old Mutual Europe (Ex UK) Smaller Companies Fund the most direct exposure to the recovery in the domestic economy is through real estate investment trust Hibernia, which has rapidly built up a portfolio of high quality, high yielding, and predominantly commercial property assets. Elsewhere in the portfolio we are approaching the end of the road for our investment in Smurfit Kappa as excellent execution of strategy by management has converted a debt-riddled basket case at the bottom of the cycle to a highly-rated international mid cap now. Where opportunity still abounds is in secular growth stories like Kingspan, which should see sales and margins augmented by the cycle, and Origin which is all about increased penetration and market share gains in the agronomy sector.
So as the Irish celebrate St. Patrick’s Day we should congratulate them for surviving austerity and thriving now. We should also raise a toast to a small country with a disproportionately large number of quality businesses and hope that they will continue to deliver returns to us in the years to come.