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Is there investment opportunity in the UK?

A closer look at fund and share prospects for the UK stock market

Important - This information isn’t personal advice. If you’re unsure if investing is right for you please speak to an adviser. Unlike the security offered by cash, all investments and their income can fall as well as rise in value, so you could get back less than you invest. Past performance isn't a guide to the future.

Nicholas Hyett
Equity Research Lead

A recent study by Cazenove found several reasons to think the UK stock market is good value.

Global fund managers are “underweight” in the UK, meaning they hold less UK shares than their benchmarks would suggest they should. That in turn means UK shares, on average, trade on a lower valuation than global rivals. Dividend yields on UK listed companies are also close to a historic high compared to global peers.

However, that doesn't mean investors should be indiscriminate when looking at the UK market. Nor should it be thought of as a market that can only offer higher dividends. There are hidden gems out there waiting to be found.

This article isn't personal advice. If you're not sure whether an investment is right for you, ask for advice. Investments rise and fall in value, so you could get back less than you invest.

Why small can be special

The UK stock market is well known for exposure to commodities and financial services – together accounting for something like 45% of the market. That's down to giants like HSBC, Shell and Rio Tinto – some of the largest companies in their field in the world.

Giants like these have all the advantage of scale. They can often be more efficient, can price their products more competitively and diversify away risks by trading in multiple markets. However, being a giant also means you're subject to the law of large numbers.

Companies cannot grow faster than the market they operate in forever. And the larger the company, the harder it is to grow at a market beating rate. A company with £5m of sales needs only an extra £500,000 to grow at 10% this year. A company like Rio Tinto, which reported revenues of $44.6bn last year, would need to sell an extra $4,600,000,000 of product to achieve the same level of growth.

This is one reason smaller companies have tended to outperform larger companies over the long term.

The graph below shows ten-year returns for the FTSE 100, which includes the UK's hundred largest listed businesses, and the FTSE 250 which includes the next 250 largest. The index focussed on the UK's mid-sized companies has generally done better – although as the period in the late 80s shows, you can't rely on that trend to continue forever.

Subsequent ten-year total returns - FTSE 100 and FTSE 250

Scroll across to see the full chart.

Past performance isn't a guide to future returns. Source: Refinitiv, correct as at 30/08/2021.

31/08/2016 to 31/08/2017 31/08/2017 to 31/08/2018 31/08/2018 to 31/08/2019 31/08/2019 to 31/08/2020 31/08/2020 to 31/08/2021
FTSE 100 14.0% 4.1% 1.4% -14.3% 23.6%
FTSE 250 14.9% 7.3% -3.4% -6.2% 38.2%

Past performance isn't a guide to future returns. Source: Refinitiv, 31/08/2021.

A guide to finding gems

Of course, smaller companies also come with more risks.

Fewer shares in circulation mean more volatile share prices and a higher chance companies become overvalued. Lots of small companies also lack the resources to weather economic downturns – especially if they rely on only a few customers.

For these reasons, and many others, looking for hidden gems among smaller companies is no small challenge. Companies need to have great growth potential but be reasonably valued, have the financial resources to weather a downturn but be confident enough to invest in future growth.

For this reason, it's perhaps in uncovering hidden gems at the smaller end of the market that fund managers deliver the best value for investors. A good fund manager has the potential to far outperform the market – although a poor manager could deliver very disappointing returns.

This series looks to highlight some way you can go about uncovering hidden gems in the UK – whether that's through a fund or even through some individual companies.

Sophie Lund-Yates
Senior Equity Analyst

We can’t blame you for thinking growth opportunities tend to come from abroad. Big hitters from across the pond tend to get a lot of the limelight.

It’s important to hold a diversified range of investments, so we’re not suggesting you should ignore overseas stocks. But the UK has some exciting prospects of its own. In fact, we think there are hidden gems lurking in our home market.

Companies with real growth potential tend to be smaller in size than the companies found in the FTSE100 index. And they can be names you might recognise, but that doesn’t mean they’re not a 'hidden’ gem. We think there are examples of potential growth stocks being wrongly dismissed because of negative assumptions about their wider sector or business model.

Investing in individual companies isn’t right for everyone – it’s higher risk as your investment is dependent on the fate of that company. If a company fails, you risk losing your whole investment. You should make sure you understand the companies you’re investing in, their specific risks, and make sure any shares you own are held as part of a diversified portfolio. Investments will rise and fall in value, so you could get back less than you invest. Yields are variable and not a reliable indicator of future income.

This article isn’t personal advice. If you’re not sure if an investment is right for you, seek advice.

London Metric

Image of a worker moving boxes in a warehouse

You probably haven’t heard of London Metric. But you’ve definitely heard of its customers.

The group is a large-scale corporate landlord. It specialises in buying and renting out retail and logistics space, generating income from the rent it collects.

One of the things we like most is its high-quality tenants. These include Amazon, Clipper logistics, Tesco, Primark and Eddie Stobart. These more resilient customers mean despite headwinds, net rental income rose 3.1% on a like-for-like basis last year – pre-pandemic this rose 23.6% to £115.9m.

Rents tend to be long-term agreements, meaning income is more reliable than for other businesses. The average lease length stands at 11.4 years. A large part of that is because the group has exposure to in-demand assets, with 41% of its occupiers coming from logistics, online retail, manufacturing and packaging customers last year.

These tend to have specialised requirements. They’re also an important area of growth too – the pandemic has accelerated the shift to online shopping – these assets are only going to become more in-demand. That’s behind the group’s plan to shrink its exposure to traditional retail, and it recently spent £35.4m on new logistics and grocery assets.

In theory, this should help continue the group’s good record of growing net asset value per share (NAV) – an important measure for Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITS) like London Metric. Remember past performance isn’t a guide to the future, though.

The group‘s also shown it’s adept at spotting undervalued assets and turning them around for profit. That’s slightly different to some other REITs, who buy or build large-scale space with plans to hold it forever.

Chart showing London Metric's total property return growth

Scroll across to see the full chart.

Source: London Metric 2021 annual report.

It’s also important to consider debt. London Metric’s loan to value (LTV) ratio stood at 32.3% at the last count, which is well within a sensible range.

London Metric has a reliable, high calibre revenue stream, with real growth opportunity as it pivots more towards urban logistics. That underpins the 3.6% prospective yield, although nothing’s guaranteed.

But the market has taken note of these strengths, with the price-to-earnings ratio of 25.7 – 21.2% ahead of the ten-year average. That’s not unreasonable in our view, but it does increase the risk of ups and downs.

Wizz Air

Image of planes docking in an airport from above

When planes were grounded, the scars left behind ran deep, and won’t simply fade once jet engines fire up again.

Airlines have very high fixed costs, so the damage to profits and cashflow have been fairly universal across the industry. Wizz made a loss of €482m last year. It will take a while for the group to fully recover, especially with travel patterns still so hard to predict.

We think Wizz has some real potential though.

Unlike more familiar short-haul airlines, Wizz has a near monopoly on a lot of its routes. It operates across most of Europe, with a specific focus on Eastern Europe – especially, Poland, Romania and its native Hungary. A recent foray into the Middle East also offers huge potential for growth, as low-cost options in the area are few and far between.

Wizz is able to keep ticket costs so low, partly because it flies into less desirable airports, which charge lower departure fees. When your unique selling point is being the cheapest option, travellers don’t tend to mind this. It also means competitors are less likely to try and jostle for your slot on the runway.

Charging super low prices also means there’s more scope for ancillary revenue – upselling to you and me. The group made more money from these services (think extra baggage allowance, seat booking fees and food), than it did on ticket revenue last year. At €413.3m, these were almost 27% higher in fact.

Being a low-cost carrier should help hold the group up if the economy worsens. As alternative European holiday spots gather popularity, Wizz should stand to benefit too.

Chart showing Wizz Air revenue split

Scroll across to see the full chart.

Source: Wizz Air 2021 annual report.

Wizz also leases rather than owns most of its aircraft. This gives the group more flexibility. Among other financial benefits, it means as and when new technology comes in, and/or aircraft need replacing, the fleet can be upgraded with a much lower upfront cost.

All airlines are cyclical, their fortunes go up and down with the economy. Investors will need to be prepared for a bumpy ride. That’s especially true as it’s almost impossible to predict when travel volumes will get back to normal.

That said, the group expected to fly 90%-100% of its pre-pandemic capacity over the summer, which, if true, will have made it the first major European airline to do so.

The balance sheet is carrying a bit more debt than we’d like, at €1.7bn. That isn’t setting any alarms off, but it’s important travel volumes keep climbing or that could become more of an issue.

We think Wizz is one of the best placed airlines in the sector. It has significant competitive advantages, a nimble operating model and real growth opportunities. But investors should be prepared to take a long-term view given the amount of uncertainty lingering over the industry.

WH Smith

Image of passengers outside airport shops

You might be wondering why we consider WH Smith to be a hidden gem. We all know it.

But that doesn’t mean you’ve given the investment case enough consideration. A lot of people might assume WH Smith has weak prospects given falling high street footfall.

But WH Smith’s main money-maker is its travel business, not the high street. It has almost 1,200 shops in 30 countries, mostly in airports. And those travel locations are a lot more resilient. Travellers aren’t interested in scouring the best deal, they want convenience and will stomach the prices put in front of them. That’s a winning recipe for margins.

Pre-pandemic, the travel division made almost twice the amount of profit as the high street shops, at £117m. Clearly, travel has been seriously affected because of the pandemic, so the picture isn’t quite so rosy, and the division made a loss of £33m in 2020.

The pace at which traffic will return to normal levels is hard to predict, but we still think the business is well placed to thrive as terminals and train stations re-open.

We won’t sugar coat the challenges in the high street business. Revenue was falling, and profit stagnating, before the pandemic. The group openly discusses the threat from online competitors, discount shops and supermarkets. But the group is doing a number of things to try and relieve this pressure.

It’s increasingly introducing third party services to a lot of its shops – like post offices. That makes its shops more of a destination, but also increases cross-selling.

The other strategic prong is a strong focus on flexibility. The average lease length on a WH Smith high street shop is two and a half years. That’s incredibly short. If a store isn’t profitable, the lease simply isn’t renewed. A willingness to grasp the nettle and quickly close unprofitable stores is a testament to management. Around 25 stores are due to close this year.

Chart showing WH Smith operating profit

Scroll across to see the full chart.

Source: Refinitiv, accessed 10/09/21. Years 2021, 2022 and 2023 are estimates.

A close attention to costs helps underpin a prospective dividend yield of 1.6%. Remember no dividend is guaranteed though, and WH Smith could decide to prioritise spending elsewhere if recovery doesn’t go to plan.

The lack of profits at the moment means WH Smith is hard to value using our preferred metric – the price-to-earnings ratio. Looking at projected sales instead, the shares have a price-to-sales ratio of 1.5, broadly in line with the ten-year average.

We think WH Smith’s strong travel business, and flexible approach to its high street stores means it has potential, not necessarily reflected by the market. Remember though, nothing is guaranteed – that’s especially true at the moment, given the huge changes in retail.

Unless otherwise stated estimates, including prospective yields, are a consensus of analyst forecasts provided by Refinitiv. These estimates are not a reliable indicator of future performance. Yields are variable and not guaranteed. Investments rise and fall in value so investors could make a loss.

This article is not advice or a recommendation to buy, sell or hold any investment. No view is given on the present or future value or price of any investment, and investors should form their own view on any proposed investment. This article has not been prepared in accordance with legal requirements designed to promote the independence of investment research and is considered a marketing communication. Non-independent research is not subject to FCA rules prohibiting dealing ahead of research, however HL has put controls in place (including dealing restrictions, physical and information barriers) to manage potential conflicts of interest presented by such dealing. Please see our full non-independent research disclosure for more information.

Dominic Rowles
Investment Analyst

Small and medium-sized companies are often under-researched, and this creates lots of opportunities for investors to uncover hidden gems. But they’re far from the only game in town. The UK is also home to lots of international giants, selling their products and services across the globe.

We think this makes the UK a rich hunting ground for investors. If you don’t have the time or knowledge to build a portfolio of companies for yourself, you could invest in a fund managed by a professional stock picker.

We look at three funds with outstanding performance potential below. Each has the flexibility to invest across the UK stock market, wherever the managers find the best opportunities.

Investing in these funds isn’t right for everyone. Investors should only invest if the fund’s objectives are aligned with their own, and there’s a specific need for the type of investment being made. Investors should understand the specific risks of a fund before they invest, and make sure any new investment forms part of a diversified portfolio.

This article isn’t personal advice or a recommendation to invest. All investments can fall as well as rise in value, so you could get back less than you invest. If you’re not sure an investment is right for you, ask for financial advice.

Each of the funds mentioned below invest in smaller companies, which adds risk.

Liontrust UK Growth

Image of a scientist inspecting samples in a lab

Anthony Cross and Julian Fosh think the secret to successful investing is to find the few companies with an 'economic advantage' – a sustainable edge over the competition that will help them earn above-average profits for the long term.

The managers believe the hardest economic advantages to copy are intellectual property, like patents and trademarks, strong distribution channels and lots of repeat business.

A company needs to have at least one of these attributes if it's going to be considered for the fund. Other less powerful, but nonetheless important strengths, include franchises and licenses, good customer relationships and a great company culture.

The fund’s recently invested in business telecoms provider Gamma Communications. The managers think the company has all three of the core strengths that their Economic Advantage process looks for.

Over a number of years, the company’s developed market-leading cloud communications technology, which it distributes through an established network of partners. And most of its income is earned on recurring monthly contracts.

The fund’s done well over the long term. Since Cross and Fosh took control and started applying the Economic Advantage investment process in March 2009, it’s turned an investment of £10,000 into £45,387*. The broader UK stock market returned £32,496 over the same time period. Remember though, past performance isn’t a guide to the future.

This fund holds shares in Hargreaves Lansdown plc. It can also invest in derivatives, which adds risk.

Scroll across to see the full table.

31/08/2016 to 31/08/2017 31/08/2017 to 31/08/2018 31/08/2018 to 31/08/2019 31/08/2019 to 31/08/2020 31/08/2020 to 31/08/2021
Liontrust UK Growth 10.6% 11.9% 1.7% -8.8% 23.6%
FTSE All-Share 14.3% 4.7% 0.4% -12.6% 26.9%

Past performance isn’t a guide to the future. Source: *Lipper IM, to 31/08/2021.

Fidelity Special Situations

Image of london traffic through a busy shopping district

Alex Wright invests in companies often ignored by other investors. Maybe they've missed a profit target, or the management team made some unpopular decisions. Either way, the company must be on the road to recovery. A company can recover in a variety of ways, like introducing a new product line, expanding into new areas or hiring a new management team.

As the company improves, its share price should rise as other investors begin to recognise the change. As the price rises, Wright aims to gradually take profits and move on to the next unloved opportunity. It's an investment style known as 'value' investing. Of course, not every company will recover, and some could fail altogether.

The fund performed exceptionally well over the past year, although this is a short time period. The manager’s value-focused investment style returned to favour, following several years of weaker returns. Past performance isn’t a guide to the future.

This demonstrates the value of maintaining a diversified portfolio. We believe the fund has the potential to do well over the long run, although there are no guarantees. Investors should note the fund’s flexibility to invest in derivatives adds risk.

Scroll across to see the full table.

31/08/2016 to 31/08/2017 31/08/2017 to 31/08/2018 31/08/2018 to 31/08/2019 31/08/2019 to 31/08/2020 31/08/2020 to 31/08/2021
Fidelity Special Situations 17.3% 8.4% -5.7% -18.8% 45.8%
FTSE All-Share 14.3% 4.7% 0.4% -12.6% 26.9%

Past performance isn’t a guide to the future. Source: Lipper IM, to 31/08/2021.

Find out more about Fidelity Special Situations

View factsheet, including charges

Key Investor Information

How to invest

Majedie UK Equity

Image of a sunset skyline across skyscraper buildings in Canary Wharf in London

The team behind the LF Majedie UK Equity fund uses a flexible approach. Each manager is free to invest according to their own strengths and investment styles, which are carefully blended.

That means the fund invests in more established businesses that have grown profits consistently over time, as well as those overlooked by other investors but are capable of recovery.

The team uses a range of tools when coming up with investment ideas, including in-house systems and technical models perfected through decades of experience.

They regularly meet with company management too, probing them to glean insights that aren't available through the report and accounts. The team also spends time thinking about how economic changes can impact their investments, and this is built into their analysis.

The managers recently participated in the Initial Public Offering (IPO) of online furnishings and homeware retailer Made.com. As we emerge from the pandemic and the outlook of the economy gets brighter, the managers think companies like Made.com will benefit from people spending more.

The company’s online business model also differentiates it from competitors. It means the business is more scalable and allows it to be more innovative. For instance, the company uses algorithms to estimate how popular certain products will be, and this helps reduce delivery times.

The fund's performed well over the long term, outperforming the broader UK stock market, although past performance isn’t a guide to the future.

Our analysis suggests the managers' ability to select companies with outstanding prospects has boosted performance, regardless of what size they are or sector they're in.

This fund holds shares in Hargreaves Lansdown plc.

Scroll across to see the full table.

31/08/2016 to 31/08/2017 31/08/2017 to 31/08/2018 31/08/2018 to 31/08/2019 31/08/2019 to 31/08/2020 31/08/2020 to 31/08/2021
LF Majedie UK Equity 15.9% 2.1% -5.7% -9.1% 28.7%
FTSE All-Share 14.3% 4.7% 0.4% -12.6% 26.9%

Past performance isn’t a guide to the future. Source: Lipper IM, to 31/08/2021.