Distinguished Speaker Series: Rupal Bhansali, Ariel Investments

Rupal Bhansali was the featured guest speaker at CFA Society Chicago’s March Distinguished Speaker Series luncheon held at the Chicago Club. Bhansali is chief investment officer and portfolio manager of Ariel Capital Management’s international and global equity strategies. Her presentation was called The Power of Non-Consensus Investing.

Bhansali began with two examples of non-consensus thinking: the micro-lending phenomenon that has helped eradicate poverty in places like India and the rise of Silicon Valley business model that was radically different from what was conventionally accepted. These examples highlighted that non-consensus thinking can be applied to a variety of situations and disciplines, including investment management. Also, this type of non-consensus thinking can drive alpha in investment portfolios. Considering the non-consensus aspect of your research is a great way to determine if there may be alpha.

The aim of institutional asset management is to be correct – correct in your assumptions, correct on your earnings estimates, correct with rates of growth. The problem with being correct is that it gets you to the same place as other good investors. A research analyst that is correct along with the rest of the institutional market is not necessarily rewarded. Fundamental research is about finding alpha, which in most cases is akin to proving everyone else wrong. Being correct and non-consensus provides rewards. The question then is how to be behaviorally different but remain analytically sound?

Bhansali provided an example of applying non-consensus thinking to the investment prospects of a global tire company. The consensus view of this company (and tire industry) was that tires were a conventional part of a car, low tech in terms of manufacture (it is just rubber and steel bands right?), and that the market is driven by new car sales. That view seemed reasonable, certainly a consensus view at the time. She then offered a non-consensus view. Is the manufacture of a tire a simple process that can be copied by a competitor? Turns out no, tire manufacturing is an involved process that cannot be easily reverse engineered. Do consumers consider tires interchangeable? No – they have brand affiliation. The consumer also cares about safety, fuel economy, and performance, which provides the company a value proposition. What drives this market is miles driven, not new car sales. A sector and business that was consensus branded as a low tech, interchangeable auto part, turned out to be a high tech, branded, mission critical good. If you had a non-consensus view on this market/brand, outsized returns were made.

A second example of a non-consensus investment view was provided on the mobile phone market. There was a time when BlackBerry and Nokia were market darlings. In part, these views were based on advanced technology, great user experience, superior growth, and competitive product advantage. The market took those factors to be insurmountable barriers. In fact these companies suffered from an eroding advantage where their products were surpassed by other brands. Apple seized the opportunity to displace these companies with a better product and user experience, offering the market exceptional growth of its own – for a time. Bhansali remarked that the consensus view on Apple has been positive for too long. Apple also suffers from many of the factors that doomed Blackberry and Nokia: alternative options and equivalent user experience for a cheaper price. She also noted that the iPhone is the dominate driver of revenue for Apple. If iPhone sales falter, Apple returns will suffer.

Bhansali’s last example of consensus/non-consensus thinking was particularly pertinent to the audience. Currently passive management is the go to option for investors. It is consensus – low entry cost, simple, easy, a no-brainer decision, while active management exhibits high costs, might have hidden risks, and is an active decision. Seems like there is no hope for active management given this view. Passive management and ETFs are winning and the outlook for active management is bleak. However, what would a non-consensus view of this subject consider? Although passive management is low cost, it is not low risk. Passive management has come of age in a prolonged bull market. It has not been stressed in a recessionary, or bear market. What might occur when large passive funds try to liquidate at the same time? For starters, the bid/ask spread will widen – a crowded trade is a risky trade. The scale that helps keep the cost of passive management low also exposes it to be too big to liquidate. A non-consensus view of active management might consider that the ease of ETF investing doesn’t equal being right, that real active management pays for itself when true active management is identified with active share, fundamental research, and management that has skin in the game.

The audience then offered some questions to Bhansali:

Q: If you believe that alpha is everywhere then the universe of securities is huge, how do you screen down to a manageable amount of securities?
A: Start from a rejection perspective not a selection perspective. Good securities will be the residual.

Q: In your portfolio what type of downside protection do you use or recommend?
A: I do not use derivatives as they are too short term in nature, and one must get the timing and thesis right for them to be effective. Protection can be obtained via investment ideas – using securities that have low correlation with the portfolio.

Q: What makes a great research analyst?
A: Bhansali noted that although it less common today, that being a generalist was helpful to her evolution as a research analyst. She also advised that a good analyst should follow multiple sectors, and always examine the counterfactual – understand what will cause a company to underperform as much as you understand the factors of outperformance.

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