Auxier Focus Fund returned 1.79% in the second quarter 2011, while Standard & Poor's 500 stock Index (S&P) gained 0.10%. For the first six months the Fund was up 8.44%, briskly outpacing the S&P's 6.02%. The Fund also has outperformed the market by 102 percentage points cumulatively since inception in July 1999. We strive to match good markets and to excel materially in challenging, declining periods. Negative macroeconomic headlines continue to overshadow positive underlying corporate performance. The financial media's and public's obsession with the "unknowable" has created opportunities to buy high-quality international franchises at attractive prices.
Many contributors to the Fund's second quarter performance were businesses that improved from the "hopelessly out of favor" to merely unpopular. The Fund benefited from gains in downtrodden health insurers like WellPoint (WLP) and UnitedHealth (UNH); education companies Apollo (APOL) and ITT Educational (ESI); medical device companies Johnson & Johnson (JNJ), Medtronic (MDT), and Zimmer (ZMH), plus credit card processors Visa (V) and MasterCard (MA). These were a few industries in which proposed excessive regulation drove down price points to compelling levels a year ago. As the worst case failed to materialize and political compromise was reached, these stocks were revalued meaningfully higher. Others showing strong operational performance include Precision Castparts (PCP), McDonald's (MCD), Weight Watchers (WT), Nike (NKE) and Phillip Morris (PM). It is so important in today's environment of austerity to search harder for exceptional buys. Going forward, an investor can't depend on government stimulus or rising markets to bail out poor investment selections. We are putting added emphasis on businesses with high free cash flow and low or no mandatory capital spending.
Balance Sheet versus Inventory Slowdowns
Downturns resulting from extreme levels of borrowed money can be classified as "balance sheet" recessions, as contrasted with those driven by inventory adjustments. Recoveries following a balance sheet crisis like the one starting in 2008 tend to be choppy and shorter in duration (2-3 years) versus 5-7 years with an inventory recession. Easy money policies have stalled the traditional engines of recovery—housing and autos. As a result, the Fund has been more heavily weighted in companies that sell lower ticket necessity items and are thus less vulnerable to a slowdown. Advancing global austerity increases the appeal of powerful branded franchises that can self-finance expansion in new emerging markets. Greg Page, the CEO of Cargill, recently commented, "No matter where we do business in 66 countries we see per capita incomes rising and consumers electing to spend more on meat, milk, eggs and confection."
"Facts are facts even in the height of emotion" -- Bernard Baruch
Gloom, fear and uncertainty are friends of fundamental, long-term investors. Remember, Carlos Slim, arguably the most successful investor on the planet today, made his mark buying good businesses in Mexico AFTER Mexico's debt default in 1982. Recent negative news and partisan debate are obscuring some positives. Among them: growth in free markets, transparency and the peace dividend from winding down the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. In monitoring hundreds of stocks, we are amazed how customer-focused companies like McDonald's deftly adapt to face challenges, innovate and continue to build value for shareholders, employees and communities. Many investors think a government bond issued at rock-bottom interest rates is safer than an exceptionally well-run business with a rock solid balance sheet. But that perception may prove to be very expensive in terms of lower purchasing power over the next several years...
Beware of Commodities' Long Bull Run
The commodity boom now exceeds both the housing and tech bubbles in duration (114 and 113 months) and looks vulnerable as China and other emerging markets raise interest rates to combat inflation. The rapid buildup of credit in China between 2009 and 2010 exceeded the credit expansions that preceded the most recent housing bubble in the United States and the Japanese property bubble in the late 1980s. Historically, quality stocks have bottomed as commodities speculation has reached fever levels. Another trend that looks very toppy is so-called high frequency exchange trading tied to mathematical formulas. Over the long run, when markets are free to function, they tend to be virtuous and eventually punish bad behavior. You can violate the laws of economics for only so long before paying the price of permanent capital loss.
Why Risk Management Matters
I was saddened when Borders recently declared bankruptcy. Talk about ironic: our knowledge-based economy is liquidating the second largest bookstore chain. Who would have thought traditional newspapers would be risky. Or Eastman Kodak (EK)? Such are the casualties of the Digital Age. This underscores the need for meticulous research and capital allocation rooted in fact-finding, fundamentals, price and value. In today's competitive global economy, appraising and pricing risk correctly has never been more important. We saw the devastating results in the misperceptions of "safe" housing investments. Government bonds and commodities may not be as safe as portrayed. The lesson: any class of investment, when flooded with supply, can become risky. To enjoy the long-term fruits of compounding, the importance of a diligent chief risk officer can't be underestimated. As Warren Buffett commented at his annual meeting, "My role as chief risk officer is too important to be left to a committee."
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