Financial regulators like to say that past investment performance is no clear indicator of future performance. Yet, we investors often look to the past to glean an indication of what future market conditions may be like. There are often patterns that can be exploited or traps that may be avoided. As we head into 2024, however, the past may not provide the usual useful insights.
From a macro perspective, central banks’ experimentation with quantitative easing—which provided relatively benign market conditions since the global financial crisis—is being unwound and this “quantitative tightening” is new territory for policymakers and investors. At the same time, we seem to be nearing a peak in monetary tightening and inflation appears to be in retreat, but the end game for this particular battle remains opaque. Recent market actions suggest a turning point is approaching but, when it comes to timing key events, markets can often be wrong.
Geopolitics also offers few signs of stability. The peace dividend that has prevailed for several decades has abruptly ended, with ongoing developments in the Middle East being the latest addition to broader uncertainty. Added to that, a series of national elections in 2024—culminating with a possible second presidential term for Donald Trump in the US – will ensure further drama unfolds.
With all of this in mind, investors will need to adjust their expectations, and portfolios, to account for higher for longer interest rates, the challenges of slower economic growth and stickier inflation, and a testing geopolitical environment. So, in this sea of uncertainty, where can we find a stable port in which to anchor with confidence? For us, we like companies which are able to grow, attain and sustain superior returns on invested capital, and have key quality pillars in place – franchise, management, balance sheet and valuation). We believe these will be the best candidates for capturing longer-term alpha.
While companies all have differing underlying fundamentals, there are also common pathways, which are often driven by structural requirements and are therefore less dependent on macro cycles, that we can leverage over the long term. These include the following:
The emergence of artificial intelligence (AI) was a dominant market force in 2023. We were initially hesitant about joining this particular party, but our subsequent research has led us to reappraise this position. While we still believe AI contains an element of hype, it has the potential to transform technology for the next generation. It is too early to define the long-term winners from the new business models and use cases being inspired by AI, but there are market leaders already benefiting from the rapid adoption of this new technology that fit our investment criteria.
Enablers of the energy transition
There is a need to reduce humankind’s reliance on fossil fuels and create cleaner alternatives through renewable sources of energy, but this transition is not straightforward. Increased spending is needed to sustain existing energy production at the same time as mitigating carbon missions. While there is a fruitful pool of investment opportunities on both sides of this equation, the transition is heavily reliant on fiscal spending and political support could prove to be fickle.
Normalisation and structural growth in global travel
The travel industry is still in the process of recovering from pandemic-imposed restrictions, with countries at differing stages of normalisation. Yet, when you look at the core consumers of travel, demand remains robust. This is particularly true for younger generations, who place greater value on “experiences”. Furthermore, a new travel cohort is emerging from developing countries where rising gross domestic product per capita means more people will be able to afford to travel in the future.
Providers and enablers of healthcare efficiency
With an ageing population, providing sufficient and efficient healthcare, as well as reducing the cost of such services, will be one of the world’s most important challenges going forward. In our view, this demographic test will—and has been—a great hunting ground for investment ideas as healthcare companies innovate to deliver much-needed solutions. That said, some subindustries within the healthcare sector have underperformed of late as a consequence of the pandemic pulling demand forward and creating ongoing staff shortages.