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Witan Investment Trust: July 2022 update

Lead Investment Analyst Kate Marshall shares our analysis on the manager, process, culture, ESG integration, cost and performance of Witan Investment Trust.

Important notes

This article isn’t personal advice. If you’re not sure whether an investment is right for you please seek advice. If you choose to invest the value of your investment will rise and fall, so you could get back less than you put in.

  • The trust uses a multi-manager approach to investing in companies across the globe
  • It has successfully increased its dividend for 47 years, although this is not a guarantee of future income
  • Performance is strong over the longer term but has been weaker recently due to a focus on growth-focused managers

How it fits in a portfolio

Witan Investment Trust aims for income and investment growth over the long term by investing in companies around the globe. The managers use a multi-manager approach, which means they invest in portfolios run by other fund managers and provide exposure to a mix of investment styles. Shares listed on stock exchanges are the key focus for this trust, but a small portion invests in other assets such as property, fixed income, and higher-risk small and private companies. It could be used as a building block for a more adventurous portfolio or to provide broader global diversification.

Investors in closed-ended funds should be aware the trust can trade at a discount or premium to Net Asset Value (NAV).

Manager

The trust is managed by the Witan Executive team. Andrew Bell has been the trust’s CEO since 2010 and is responsible for the overall management of the trust. Bell has over 30 years’ investment experience and was previously Head of Research at Rensburg Sheppards. Alongside his duties at Witan, he is a Non-executive Director of The Diverse Income Trust plc.

Bell works closely with James Hart. He was appointed as Witan’s Investment Director in April 2015 and previously worked as a portfolio manager at Cayenne Asset Management. He also has experience with emerging markets, investment research and fund manager selection.

The Executive team works closely with Witan’s board to help decide which managers to invest with.

Process

The trust invests with a variety of fund managers, each with their own investment approach. To identify potential candidates, Bell and Hart use both quantitative (number crunching) and qualitative (such as meeting fund managers) analysis and use the board’s large network of contacts. Bell and Hart are responsible for conducting this research. They then present what they believe to be the best candidates to the board, which ultimately has the final say on which managers make it into the trust.

Chosen managers must possess several key traits such as strong intellectual rigour and a deep understanding of their portfolio. The board’s extensive investment experience makes them well placed to judge fund managers on these factors. Typically, these managers construct high conviction portfolios using a clear and disciplined process. The companies they invest in tend to have sustainable long-term cash flows, the ability to grow faster than the market anticipates, or be undervalued.

These managers are blended to create a well-diversified portfolio. Most of the trust, around 75%, is invested in 6 ‘Core’ funds, 5 of which take a global approach. The exception is Derek Stuart from Artemis who invests solely in the UK. The remainder of the trust, around 25%, is invested in ‘Specialist’ funds which provide exposure to more niche areas such as higher-risk emerging markets, climate change and life sciences.

Bell and Hart don’t impose restrictions on the managers as this could interfere with their process, but they don’t allow them to borrow money to invest or use hedging techniques. Investments in any one manager won’t usually exceed 20% of the trust’s assets.

Around 40% of the trust is currently invested in North America, which is much lower than the global stock market average. 20% is invested in the UK, 17% in Europe, and a further 9% in Asia and Japan. The trust is balanced across a range of sectors, including industrials, technology, consumer staples and healthcare.

New managers were last added to the Core of the trust in August 2020. These included two global managers – WCM Investment Management and Jennison Associates – that focus on high-quality growth companies. The managers have continued to add to these since their initial investment, and reduced investments in value-focused managers – those that focus on lowly valued or out-of-favour businesses.

In the ‘Specialist’ part of the trust, the managers have invested with GQG, which runs an emerging markets strategy, and the GMO Climate Change fund. They also invest in other direct holdings, including private equity and other investment trusts focused on areas such as biotechnology, commodities, and real estate. This portion of the trust has the potential to provide differentiated returns from the rest of the portfolio.

While the underlying managers can’t use gearing (borrowing to invest), the trust itself can. This can amplify returns but also increase losses which adds risk. The managers can use derivatives to help them invest, which if used also adds risk.

Please note the trust currently holds shares in Hargreaves Lansdown PLC.

Culture

Witan was founded over a hundred years ago in 1909. It was set up initially to manage the estate of the first Lord Faringdon. From 1934 its investments were managed by Henderson Administration, but in 2004 it became self-managed and changed to its present ‘multi-manager’ strategy. It has since continued to evolve and gradually moved away from being more UK-centric to a more global approach.

ESG integration

In February 2020 the trust signed up to the UN Principles for Responsible Investment (UN PRI), which commits large investors to six principles regarding environmental, social and governance (ESG) matters. All the trust’s underlying managers are also signatories. Witan is also a signatory to the net zero asset managers initiative, which is a commitment to be net zero by 2050. Over time, the team wants to see all underlying managers commit to the same initiative.

The managers have heightened their focus on ESG integration in recent years, with Hart taking the lead on building this out. For example, they now have an annual ESG due diligence meeting with all underlying managers and discuss any ESG issues in the portfolio, the stewardship structure of the underlying companies and any company engagement, amongst other things. They have committed to only investing in companies that are sustainable from an ESG perspective by 2030 – Hart is in the process of developing a framework to assess this.

Importantly, this trust will not become a negatively screened portfolio by applying exclusions to entire sectors. This is because the managers believe there are benefits to investing in companies that are changing for good.

Cost

The trust’s current ongoing charge is 0.73%. This includes an annual management charge and a performance fee which can reduce investors’ returns. If held in a SIPP or ISA the HL platform fee of 0.45% (capped at £200 for a SIPP and £45 for an ISA) per annum also applies. Our platform fee doesn’t apply if held in a Fund and Share Account.

Investors should refer to the latest annual reports and accounts and Key Investor Information for details of the risks and charging structure.

Performance

Over the past 10 years, the trust has grown 187.51%* compared with 164.11% for the average trust in the AIC Investment Trust Global sector. That said, the trust has been through a few tough periods in recent years, and past performance isn’t a guide to future returns.

Witan has changed its benchmark several times under Bell’s management. The most recent change at the start of 2020 saw the benchmark move to a more global approach, and the UK portion was reduced. The managers were slow to transition the trust in line with the benchmark though, and this hurt performance as the US market continued to perform well against the UK market, which was weaker. The trust also had more invested in companies that could benefit from economic expansion, but these were hurt by the Covid-19 outbreak and the economic damage it caused.

The trust has also lagged its benchmark since the end of 2021, due to its tilt to the growth investment style. Higher inflation and rising interest rates have put pressure on growth investing, as this erodes the value of cashflows expected to be generated further out in the future. On the other hand, value-focused trusts, which invest in lowly-valued or recovering businesses, have performed better.

More broadly the team looks for funds run by managers focused on companies with sustainable growth in earnings, and opportunistically will be looking for value opportunities. They believe this could lead to good long-term returns, though there are no guarantees.

The trust has an impressive income track record and has increased its dividend to shareholders for 47 consecutive years. At the time of writing the trust trades at a discount to NAV of 9.15% and yields 2.71%, although remember yields are variable and not guaranteed or a reliable indicator of future income.

Annual percentage growth

Jun 17 – Jun 18 Jun 18 – Jun 19 Jun 19 – Jun 20 Jun 20 – Jun 21 Jun 21 – Jun 22
Witan Investment Trust PLC 10.92% 0.65% -11.60% 34.69% -12.58%
AIC Investment Trust - Global 15.84% 5.79% -1.33% 28.12% -16.61%

Past performance is not a guide to the future. Source: *Lipper IM to 30/06/2022.

Find out more about Witan Investment Trust including charges

Witan Investment Trust Key Investor Information

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    Important notes

    This article isn’t personal advice. If you’re not sure whether an investment is right for you please seek advice. If you choose to invest the value of your investment will rise and fall, so you could get back less than you put in.

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