Davis Opportunity Fund
Update from Portfolio Managers
Annual Review 2023
Update from Portfolio Managers
Annual Review 2023
In 2022, for the first time in nearly half a century, investors faced the combination of declining stock, bond and real estate prices in conjunction with significantly rising fuel, food and energy prices. In addition to this financial one-two punch, the geopolitical landscape darkened in February, when Russia launched a full-scale attack on Ukraine, the biggest mobilization of troops in Europe since 1945. Finally, relations between the United States and China—our largest creditor, supplier and customer— deteriorated sharply. Against such a backdrop, fear and pessimism unsurprisingly dominated markets, headlines and dinner table conversations.
What a change from a year ago when stocks were near all-time highs, interest rates at all-time lows, and speculation, greed and euphoria dominated. The financial press and social media trumpeted hot IPOs (initial public offerings), “Unicorns” (private companies with a valuation greater than $1 billion), SPACs (special-purpose acquisition companies), Crypto (cryptocurrencies), ICOs (initial coin offerings) and NFTs (non-fungible tokens).
While the switch from greed and euphoria to fear and pessimism has been sudden and dramatic, it is not unexpected. One year ago, in the midst of the speculative frenzy, we wrote
“…we believe that speculative growth has become overvalued and presents risk not just in terms of relative underperformance, but also of absolute losses.…Although predicting timing is never easy, we believe this game is already into extra innings and that the inevitable reversion might be imminent.”
In 2022, the game finally and definitively ended.
Although this about face may feel painful and volatile, we view it as an overdue return to economic reality. With a portfolio of resilient companies valued on economic fundamentals rather than speculative hype, we welcome this change. For much of the last decade, we have held fast to our long-term investment approach and valuation discipline even though it was out of fashion. As the bubble continues to deflate, our focus on durable businesses with proven growth and low valuations should return to the forefront of investors’ minds. This return to reality leaves us in a strong position to continue building wealth for our shareholders and make up for ground lost in the frenzy of recent years.
Decade of Distortion
To understand why we are well positioned for the reality of the next decade, we must first review the distortions of the past decade. The foundation of this distortion was the artificial suppression of interest rates. Pushing down interest rates became a matter of national policy—first in response to the great financial crisis of 2008–2009 and then the COVID-19 crisis in 2020–2021. Unfortunately, we believe policymakers pushed rates down too low for too long, which created massive distortions in financial markets and the economy.
To comprehend just how extreme this period was, think of interest rates as the price charged for using someone else’s money or capital. As Figure 1 shows, throughout all of recorded human history, users of capital—whether individuals, corporations or governments—have always had to pay providers of capital—be they lenders, creditors or investors—for use of their funds. Only twice in all of history have short-term rates approached zero: the 1930s and the period since 2009; and never have long-term rates been lower than they were in the past decade.
By reducing the cost of money almost to zero, these artificially low interest rates fueled high leverage, provided cheap capital for speculative business models, led to absurdly high valuations for remote potential earnings and provided easy funding for companies that promised to disrupt whole sectors of the economy. In short, this environment rewarded just the sort of business models we tend to avoid as too risky or too overvalued. For more than a decade, market returns were driven by market darlings trading at ever-higher valuations.
In fact, as you can see in Figure 2, during the recent bubble, a record-breaking 73 companies in the S&P 500 Index traded at more than 10 times sales— an indication of excess never before seen in stock market history.
While this distorted environment inflated the value of speculative growth companies, it also led to the undervaluation of many businesses with characteristics central to our long-term investment discipline—such as conservative balance sheets, proven long-term business models, a return-on-capital mindset and expense discipline. Furthermore, with rates near zero, earnings of financial firms that rely on interest income—such as banks and insurers—were thwarted, and current cash flow and dividends became undervalued relative to future promises.
During this decade of distortion, the durable and resilient economic fundamentals of our portfolio companies fell dramatically out of fashion. This fall from favor was reflected in the companies' declining valuation relative to the market, despite their sound fundamentals.
Warren Buffett famously observed that in the short term the market is a voting machine, reflecting popularity and fashion. Whereas in the long term, it is a weighing machine measuring changes in economic value. Figure 3 indicates that, after a decade of durable growth and falling valuation, Davis Opportunity Fund’s select portfolio companies currently trade at only 10.4 times forward earnings, a steep discount to the broader market.
This rare combination is the primary reason we welcome the bursting of the bubble created by the artificially low interest rates of the past decade, and why we believe we are so well positioned for the decade to come.
Importantly, businesses with decent past records might be expected to trade at low valuations if they face secular challenges or a bleak future. We might think of such businesses as 10-year-old racehorses, in that their good past performance is not an indication of a bright future. In the case of the companies in Davis Opportunity Fund, we believe the opposite is true and that they will, in aggregate, earn significantly more in the years ahead.
Review of Holdings
Investors Have Significantly Undervalued the Banking Sector
Bearing in mind John Train’s comment that “investing is the art of the specific,” we’ll spend the remainder of this letter briefly sharing our investment rationale for some of the fund’s holdings so our investors can better understand our conviction. While each description will necessarily be brief, high level and significantly abridged, our goal is to illustrate the durability, resiliency and attractive valuation of the companies that make up the fund, and give some sense of why we believe that, unlike aging racehorses, their impressive past is prologue. The following illustrative holdings represent a good cross section of some of the major investment themes that we see playing out over the next decade.
A major theme rests on our belief that since the great financial crisis of 2008–2009, investors have undervalued the banking sector significantly. This undervaluation stems from the scars and memories of that crisis and a failure to appreciate that subsequent changes have made the best banks far safer than they were in 2008. The combination of more capital, better management, rising dividends and extremely low valuations make banks among the most attractive sectors of the market today. We own a number of high quality and storied financials in the fund, including Capital One.
Capital One is well known as the tenth-largest bank in the U.S., the fourth-largest credit card issuer and the second-largest auto finance company. Beginning in 2005, it acquired a large network of bank branches (755 locations in the Mid-Atlantic region) that provide a stable base of reliable, core deposits as they move towards building a national digital bank. So, why do we think Capital One will continue to grow? First, at its heart, Capital One is really a fintech company disguised as a bank. From its beginning (with no brand and no branches) in the late 1980s, they have used data science to attract customers (first through direct mail, then advertising and now the internet) with targeted offers that better serve their financial needs.
Capital One is still led by its extraordinary founder Rich Fairbank who finished first in his class at Stanford Business School and has paid himself zero salary since 1997. Under his leadership, Capital One has developed a contrarian, data-driven culture, been tested through many recessions, including the 2008–2009 financial crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic and the annual stress tests implemented by the Federal Reserve—challenges that assure Capital One can withstand an economic downturn even worse than the financial crisis. The stress test, for example, envisions 10% unemployment, 40% decline in commercial real estate prices, nearly 30% decline in residential real estate values, 55% decline in the stock market and more than a 3.5% decline in gross domestic product (GDP). Above all, as illustrated in Figure 4, although earnings in any given quarter or year can be lumpy, Capital One has compounded its tangible book value per share at 11.5% through the great financial crisis, COVID and the latest economic downturn. Trading at less than book value, we see no reason why this record should not continue for years to come.
We never like to end a discussion about a specific company without mentioning the risks we monitor. Capital One is in a strong position to weather most of the risks that generally affect banks— including interest rates, credit costs, regulatory changes, liquidity and capital. Although we are certain that credit costs will rise, this increase is already reflected in our models and is hardly unexpected. Instead, for this incredibly well-run bank, we think the most salient risks are 1) the inevitable but not imminent management transition from the company’s founder, and 2) the longer-term risk that a tech company, most likely Apple, could manage to disrupt the economics of the credit card industry. We monitor these risks closely, and in the meantime consider Capital One—which is really a growth company that happens to be in the banking business—one of the most attractively valued companies in the portfolio.
The next stalwarts in the portfolio reflect our determination to combine the best attributes of so-called growth and so-called value investments by seeking out companies that might be called “growing value” in the case of Berkshire Hathaway, or “undervalued growth” in the case of Applied Materials.
Through its conglomerate structure, Berkshire Hathaway owns many businesses—including utilities, insurers, and industrials—that investors tend to associate with value investing. However, Berkshire Hathaway's holding company structure allows the capital generated in slower-growth businesses to be redeployed in thoughtful acquisitions and astute investments that have allowed the whole to grow faster than the sum of its parts. Because generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP) require realized gains and losses, as well as unrealized changes in securities prices, to flow through the income statement, reported earnings are an unreliable indicator of the company’s steady growth in intrinsic value. By capturing the long-term growth in investments per share and the earnings per share (EPS) of Berkshire Hathaway’s operating businesses, Figure 5 paints a truer picture of this stalwart holding’s durable growth.
In terms of conventional risks, Berkshire is built to weather almost any conceivable financial (and literal) storm. While there is a risk that the company’s stock price may decline precipitously should Warren Buffett ever step down (or worse!), we do not consider such price declines a fundamental risk, especially given the company’s substantial liquidity and willingness to buy in shares when they are undervalued. Instead, we consider the most important risk to be the degradation of the company’s outstanding and unconventional corporate culture should successor managers be tempted to pursue the sort of financial engineering advocated by Wall Street banks, activists and other short-term investors at the expense of long-term shareholder value. We do not see any indication of this risk on the horizon but will stay active and vigilant should it ever arise.
If Berkshire represents “growing value” then Applied Materials might be said to represent “undervalued growth.” Founded more than a half century ago, Applied Materials has grown to be the largest supplier of manufacturing tools, services and software to the semiconductor industry. Holding more than 15,000 patents, Applied has become the irreplaceable supplier to the critical global growth industry, semiconductors. Because this company’s earnings can be uneven, shortsighted investors often label this company as “cyclical” and assign it a relatively low valuation.
We disagree and, having perused more than 50 years of data, conclude that Applied is unquestionably a growth company trading at a value price. Figure 6 shows the two sustainable drivers of this growth. The green bars indicate that semiconductor manufacturers have grown industry revenue at 7.5% over the last decade, more than three times the growth of the U.S. economy over this same decade. The gold line indicates that the percentage of this revenue that the industry commits to capital spending has gradually risen from roughly 20% to 30%. Putting these two trends together, it should come as no surprise that Applied has grown revenue at a rate of 11%, and operating income at more than 19% over this same time period.
In the near term, the impact of the chip industry’s post-pandemic inventory correction, which could reduce equipment demand, may more than offset the benefit of recent supply chain issues that limited Applied Materials’ ability to meet customer demand. Longer term, geopolitical tensions between China and the U.S. are driving investment in potentially redundant chip production globally, while at the same time the U.S. and her allies are restricting export of leading-edge production tools into China. Even though the near term is frustratingly veiled in uncertainty, the recent shortages and trade restrictions have firmly established that access to chip-production technology is essential to every major industrial economy. Given this, we see more opportunity than risk and estimate that Applied Materials could sell at about 10 times what the company could be earning three-to-five years from now.
As both a “blue chip of tomorrow” and a company languishing under “headline risk,” our investment in Meta reflects these two investment themes. With more than three billion daily users across its three platforms (Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp), Meta has more users than almost any company in history. Despite this success, Meta currently languishes under a cloud of skepticism concerning two issues: competition from other services, such as TikTok, and significantly increased spending both on artificial intelligence (AI) and speculative new ventures including virtual reality and augmented reality (often referred to as the metaverse).
Starting with competition, despite the drumbeat of negative headlines, which leads most investors to assume that Facebook’s core businesses are shrinking, Figure 7 shows continued growth in the number of users on their core service, including Facebook (green bars), as well as the company’s entire family of applications.
The gold line in Figure 7 shows Meta’s ad revenue per user up more than 30% since 2019 but down from last year’s peak. While we find this decline concerning, it is hardly surprising given the slowing economy and time needed for Facebook to adjust to changes made by Apple—somewhat disingenuously in the name of privacy—that reduced the efficacy of some of Meta’s advertising while favoring Apple. We highlight this decline as a risk but believe it will prove temporary. We think that Meta’s growing user base as well as the continued growth in the amount of time users are spending on these platforms is a far more important indicator of Meta’s relevance and value.
In decades of analyzing the technology industry, we’ve experienced two major shifts in computing platforms: first from the mainframe computer to the personal desktop computer (PC) in the 1980s and 1990s; and second from the PC to handheld devices and smartphones—beginning with the Blackberry in the 1990s followed by the iPhone and Android systems around 2007. With each evolution, the companies who drove the change—from IBM to Microsoft and Intel, and from these to Apple and Google—created enormous value.
Based on this history, it seems probable both that the current smartphone platform will not be the last, and that huge value will accrue to the company(ies) that lead the transition to a new form and platform. In considering the possibilities, it seems plausible that some combination of virtual and/or augmented reality will eventually replace the little rectangular boxes and tiny screens that we all stare at for hours per day.
Given Meta’s great success in acquiring and/or building three of the largest social networks in history, we think the company has earned the right to invest a certain percentage of current profits into this potential opportunity. We would even go further to say that, in general, we are encouraged when proven managements are willing to sacrifice short-term profits to better position the company for long-term growth. If these investments don’t pay off, we have every confidence, that Meta will cut spending to increase profits. If they do pay off, the profit potential is exponentially more. Given that the company is trading at a reasonable valuation even after making these investments and at a single-digit multiple excluding them, we consider the metaverse spending to be a free option with improbable but enormous upside.
As for other risks, we consider ongoing regulation manageable but remain especially focused on both the number and engagement of users. Should either of these variables turn negative, we will reconsider the holding. However, down more than 65% from its high, we believe that all of the risks are more than discounted and have added to our holding of Meta.
If space allowed, we would happily continue this exercise for the other 38 holdings that make up Davis Opportunity Fund as all reflect some combination of the durable growth prospects and discounted valuations of the companies presented above. However, we hope this deeper dive into the investment rationale of our largest positions offers a better understanding of why, despite falling prices and negative headlines, we welcome the end of a decade of distortion and look forward to the decade ahead.
2022 represented a complete change in market fundamentals and sentiment as we moved from a time of record-low interest rates, speculative bubbles and market highs to a period of inflation, recession and a bear market. Although painful, this transformation represents a long overdue return to normalcy after a decade in which suppression of interest rates inflated asset prices, rewarded speculation and devalued economic fundamentals. During that stretch, especially the past five years, our focus on durability, resiliency and valuation left us out of the hottest areas of the market, and though we grew the value of the assets entrusted to our stewardship, we significantly lagged the S&P 1500 Index.
So why are we convinced that now is an excellent time to invest in Davis Opportunity Fund? Because our focus on durability, resilience and valuation, which has long been out of fashion has prepared our portfolio to weather the bear market, a recession and the return of inflation. While the market has not yet rewarded us for this discipline, the strength, performance and competitive position of the select businesses we own, such as the four discussed above, gives us confidence that this is just a matter of time. If a picture is worth a thousand words, Figure 8 says it all. The combination of resiliency and growth at an almost 40% discount to the averages is a value investor’s dream.
During the past decade, as the floodwaters rose around us, we built an ark to ride out the storm. In the years ahead, we expect that our values of discipline and patience will be rewarded.
Above all, we never forget that we are stewards of our shareholders’ savings and that our most important job is growing the value of the funds entrusted to us. With more than $2 billion of our own money invested alongside clients, we are on this journey together and our conviction in our portfolio of carefully selected companies is more than just words.8 Given that 85% of all funds are overseen by managers who have less than $1 million invested in tandem with their clients, our alignment with shareholders is an uncommon advantage. While we do not welcome the pessimism and fear that have characterized our world recently, we are well prepared for it and, more importantly well positioned for the future. Thank you for the trust you have placed in us.
This report includes candid statements and observations regarding investment strategies, individual securities, and economic and market conditions; however, there is no guarantee that these statements, opinions or forecasts will prove to be correct. These comments may also include the expression of opinions that are speculative in nature and should not be relied on as statements of fact.
Davis Advisors is committed to communicating with our investment partners as candidly as possible because we believe our investors benefit from understanding our investment philosophy and approach. Our views and opinions include “forward-looking statements” which may or may not be accurate over the long term. Forward-looking statements can be identified by words like “believe,” “expect,” “anticipate,” or similar expressions. You should not place undue reliance on forward-looking statements, which are current as of the date of this report. We disclaim any obligation to update or alter any forward-looking statements, whether as a result of new information, future events, or otherwise. While we believe we have a reasonable basis for our appraisals and we have confidence in our opinions, actual results may differ materially from those we anticipate.
Objective and Risks. The investment objective of Davis Opportunity Fund is long-term growth of capital. There can be no assurance that the Fund will achieve its objective. Some important risks of an investment in the Fund are: stock market risk: stock markets have periods of rising prices and periods of falling prices, including sharp declines; common stock risk: an adverse event may have a negative impact on a company and could result in a decline in the price of its common stock; foreign country risk: foreign companies may be subject to greater risk as foreign economies may not be as strong or diversified. As of 12/31/22, the Fund had approximately 16.0% of net assets invested in foreign companies; headline risk: the Fund may invest in a company when the company becomes the center of controversy. The company’s stock may never recover or may become worthless; large-capitalization companies risk: companies with $10 billion or more in market capitalization generally experience slower rates of growth in earnings per share than do mid- and small-capitalization companies; mid- and small-capitalization companies risk: companies with less than $10 billion in market capitalization typically have more limited product lines, markets and financial resources than larger companies, and may trade less frequently and in more limited volume; manager risk: poor security selection may cause the Fund to underperform relevant benchmarks; depositary receipts risk: depositary receipts involve higher expenses and may trade at a discount (or premium) to the underlying security; emerging market risk: securities of issuers in emerging and developing markets may present risks not found in more mature markets; fees and expenses risk: the Fund may not earn enough through income and capital appreciation to offset the operating expenses of the Fund; and foreign currency risk: the change in value of a foreign currency against the U.S. dollar will result in a change in the U.S. dollar value of securities denominated in that foreign currency. See the prospectus for a complete description of the principal risks.
The information provided in this material should not be considered a recommendation to buy, sell or hold any particular security. As of 12/31/22, the top ten holdings of Davis Opportunity Fund were: Cigna, 7.93%; Wells Fargo, 6.50%; Viatris, 5.87%; Quest Diagnostics, 5.84%; Owens Corning, 5.20%; UnitedHealth Group, 4.69%; Teck Resources, 4.56%; U.S. Bancorp, 4.52%; Capital One Financial, 4.36%; and Markel, 3.59%.
Davis Funds has adopted a Portfolio Holdings Disclosure policy that governs the release of non-public portfolio holding information. This policy is described in the prospectus. Holding percentages are subject to change. Click here or call 800-279-0279 for the most current public portfolio holdings information.
A special purpose acquisition company (SPAC) is a company without commercial operations and is formed strictly to raise capital through and initial public offering (IPO) for the purpose of acquiring or merging with an existing company.
We gather our index data from a combination of reputable sources, including, but not limited to, Lipper, Wilshire, and index websites.
The S&P 1500 Index includes all stocks in the S&P 500, S&P MidCap 400, and S&P SmallCap 600. This index covers approximately 90% of U.S. market capitalization. The S&P 500 Index is an unmanaged index of 500 selected common stocks, most of which are listed on the New York Stock Exchange. The index is adjusted for dividends, weighted towards stocks with large market capitalizations and represents approximately two-thirds of the total market value of all domestic common stocks. Investments cannot be made directly in an index.
After 4/30/23, this material must be accompanied by a supplement containing performance data for the most recent quarter end.
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