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Holly LaFon
Holly LaFon
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Keeley Mid Cap Dividend Value Fund 2nd-Quarter Shareholder Commentary

Discussion of markets and holdings

August 02, 2019 | About:

To Our Shareholders:

For the quarter ended June 30, 2019, the Keeley Mid Cap Dividend Value Fund’s net asset value (“NAV”) per Class A share rose 1.90% compared with a 3.19% gain for the Russell Mid Cap Value Index (RMCV). Year-to-date, the Fund is up 15.83% compared with a 18.02% gain for the benchmark.

Commentary

The market, as measured by the S&P 500 was up 17.4% through the first six months and 3.8% in the second quarter. While the second quarter gain was modest compared to the first quarter, the ending tally obscures the significant ups and downs we saw within the quarter.

The second quarter started off by maintaining the strong momentum it held exiting the first quarter and produced a 3.9% gain in April. That trend halted and reversed as April gave way to May. May saw the market take back all of April’s gains and a little more with a 6.6% decline. Just like the trend reversed when we changed the month in May, it did so again in June. June saw the market leap ahead by 6.9% to finish the quarter strong. The Russell Midcap index followed a similar up-down-up pattern.

So what drove the intra-quarter volatility? It is hard to be too certain, but we think that the continuing uncertainty regarding US trade policy and concerns about the impact this uncertainty is having on the global economy likely account for the ups and downs. A quarter or two ago, we would have added interest rate trends to this list, but we think that question has mostly been answered, at least for now. As we write this, the consensus view has developed that the Fed will cut rates at the end of July with potentially more on tap as the year progresses. This seems reasonable as an insurance cut.

The open questions around trade and the economy have been the bigger drivers recently. As it appears that Washington is making progress toward resolving our trade disputes with China and other countries, the market has tended to rally. When a solution seems further away, the market falters. In April, the market rallied as administration officials made a steady stream of proclamations that suggested that they were making progress. Despite positive messages, President Trump proposed additional tariffs on $300 billion of Chinese goods in early April. Markets reacted negatively to this development. Toward the end of the month, the President also threatened Mexico with new tariffs to try to gain assistance in fighting illegal immigration into the US.

June brought positive developments on trade as the tariffs on Mexico were shelved after it deployed troops to try to control its southern borders more effectively. In addition, the tone from the administration softened during June as the G20 meeting approached. At that meeting, President Trump and China’s President Xi agreed to a cease-fire in the year-old trade war to give the two countries a chance to reach a long-term agreement. We’ll see how things develop over the next several months, but it does not appear that we will get the quick resolution to this dispute that we had expected a few quarters ago.

While the de-escalation of trade tensions is a positive, the uncertainty has taken a toll on business confidence around the world. When we look at measures of business in a wide number of countries, we see it has deteriorated in all of them (USA, China, France, Germany, Italy, Australia and Japan). What remains to be seen is how these measures trend if we continue to get progress in trade negotiations. Are the slowdowns we are seeing just pauses to assess a developing situation? Or is it the beginning of something worse? Our inclination is that it is the former, but our level of confidence in this view is less than it was at the beginning of the year.

Portfolio Results

The Mid Cap Dividend Value Fund lagged in the quarter. This was discouraging in light of the fact that the Fund had two companies acquired during the quarter at significant premiums. This was offset by weak performance in some of the interest-sensitive sectors where our bias has been to own companies that would benefit from rising interest rates. With rates unlikely to go higher, at least in the near-term, we are reducing that tilt.

When we disaggregate relative performance into its components of Sector Allocation and Stock Selection, Stock Selection once again dominated and accounted for almost all the shortfall in relative performance. The Selection impact was positive in two sectors, neutral in two more, and negative in the other seven. The highlight was strong performance from the Fund’s Information Technology stocks, while Utilities, Financials, and Consumer Discretionary lagged the most.

Gains in the Technology sector were fueled by the acquisition of two of the Fund’s holdings: Cypress Semiconductor and Total System Services. These two stocks were also the two largest contributors to Fund performance so we will discuss them further below.

Materials was the other sector where Fund performance was materially better than that of the index. This was mostly driven by good stock gains in Vulcan Materials. Franco-Nevada, a more recent addition to the portfolio, also helped a little. The company invests in royalty streams from mining and oil production companies. We used the weakness in gold earlier in the year to add the stock to the portfolio and have been pleased so far.

The Utilities sector was the largest detector for the Fund during Q2. The weakness was concentrated in two stocks: NRG Energy and National Fuel Gas. Both stocks tend to be more sensitive to energy prices than the average utility. NRG is an independent power producer and sells some of its power based on electricity prices that can fluctuate. National Fuel, a natural gas distribution company, has significant natural gas production and pipeline businesses. Falling prices for natural gas can hurt its stock.

Financials, one of the leading sectors for the benchmark in the quarter, was the second biggest relative detractor for the Fund. The Fund’s life insurance stocks performed very well with double-digit gains in Ameriprise, Voya, and Lincoln National. Sector performance was held back, however, by holdings in asset-sensitive banks such as BOK Financial and Synovus Financial as well as trading firm Virtu Financial which performs better in periods of volatility.

The Fund’s investments in the Consumer Discretionary sector lagged the sector overall. While most of the underperformance can be attributed to Foot Locker (which we discuss below), Extended Stay America and Brunswick Corporation also held back performance. The former fell on the perception of delays in the company’s plans to split into two separate public companies while the latter was victim both to tariffs and to poor weather which delayed the boating season.

Industrials was the strongest sector in the Russell Midcap Value index and we failed to keep up in the sector despite performance that was better than the overall index. This was mostly due to double-digit declines in GrafTech and AO Smith. The former fell on weakness in steel prices while the latter fell on controversy related to its China operations.

The top three contributors in the quarter were:

Cypress Semiconductor (NASDAQ:CY)(CY - $22.24 – NASDAQ) is a maker of semiconductors used in three distinct market segments: Internet of Things (IoT), high performance memory, and Universal Serial Bus connectors (USB). The company has done a nice job over the last several years expanding into new market segments, streamlining its cost structure, and rolling out new products. This has shown up in better financial results, but not as much in the stock. During the quarter, the hard work of the company and the patience of investors was rewarded when the company received a $23.85 all cash offer from Infineon.

Total System Services (NYSE:TSS)(TSS - $128.27 – NYSE) is a leading processor of credit and debit card transactions for both banks and merchants. TSS has been a long-time holding within the Keeley dividend funds as it was originally owned in the Keeley Small Cap Dividend Value Fund when it launched in late-2009. Through growth in electronic payments, marketshare gains, and strategic acquisitions, the company grew substantially. These efforts are being capped off (or more accurately continued under a different banner) through its acquisition for stock by Global Payments (GPN – NYSE). We are kind of sorry to see this one go.

Air Lease Corporation (NYSE:AL)(AL - $41.34 – NYSE) is one of the leading lessors of commercial aircraft. Because this type of financing is more common in countries with less developed capital markets and banking systems, 95% of Air Leases carrier customers are outside the US. This tends to make Air Lease’s stock more sensitive to sentiment about global trade and the stability of emerging markets. The improving sentiment on global trade probably heled the stock in the quarter. In addition, Air Lease reported better than expected first quarter earnings despite some disruption from the inability of Boeing and Airbus to deliver aircraft on schedule. It remains an inexpensive stock with much of its near-term growth to come from as aircraft it has already leased out are delivered.

The three largest detractors in the quarter were:

Foot Locker (NYSE:FL)(FL - $41.92 – NYSE) is leading athletic shoe and apparel retailer. The company’s stock fell this past quarter after posting disappointing first-quarter earnings, reducing full-year earnings guidance, and issuing below-consensus same-store sales guidance for the second quarter. Foot Locker also bought back little stock in the first quarter, which pressured earnings, as share buybacks are part of its earnings growth algorithm. Despite its less-than-stellar earnings release, Foot Locker has several quarters ahead with easy same-store sales comparisons. Also, the company reaffirmed its guidance of mid-single-digit same-store sales growth for the full year. Furthermore, the turnaround at Nike, which is Foot Locker’s most important partner, continues to progress nicely. Shares remain inexpensive, particularly given the strong longer-term targets that management issued at the March 28 analyst day.

NRG Energy (NYSE:NRG)(NRG - $35.12 – NYSE) is an independent producer of electricity with a portfolio of 44 Gigawatts (GW) of conventional generation as well as a seller of retail energy in deregulated markets. The stock underperformed in the quarter despite reporting solid results that exceeded analyst estimates across the board. The stock was hit on concerns about power prices in the Texas market which is being partially fueled by NRG restarting its Gregory Plant. Management continues to express confidence in the attractiveness of the Texas market and the near-term fundamental outlook by reaffirming full year guidance. The company continues to be aggressive buying back stock completing $500 million of the $1 billion share repurchase program announced on the 4th quarter call.

SM Energy (NYSE:SM)(SM - $12.52 – NYSE) is an oil and gas exploration company with its primary operations centered in the Permian basin. While Q1 production results were in line with expectations, SM reported Q1 capex that was greater than analyst estimates which suggested some degradation in the economics of its operations. This was perceived negatively despite the company warning analysts that 60% of its capex budget would be spent in the first half of the year. The decline in oil prices in May and early June also led to a broad industry pullback in E&P stocks. This was more severe in companies with high financial leverage like SM. Recently, SM preannounced better than expected production for Q2 and we believe it has a credible path to generating free cash flow next year. If we are right, its current valuation is too low.

Conclusion

In conclusion, thank you for your investment in the KEELEY Mid Cap Dividend Value Fund. We will continue to work hard to justify your confidence and trust.

About the author:

Holly LaFon
I'm a financial journalist with a Master of Science in journalism from Medill at Northwestern University.

Visit Holly LaFon's Website


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