WellSaid – The Wellington Management Podcast

The rise of thematic investing

Episode Summary

Portfolio Manager Daire Dunne joins host Thomas Mucha to share his latest insights on thematic investing. Daire highlights the unique thematic opportunity in emerging markets; profiles key themes like financial inclusion and the energy transition; and explores the implications of today's geopolitical tensions.

Episode Notes

Portfolio Manager Daire Dunne joins host Thomas Mucha to share his latest insights on thematic investing. Daire highlights the unique thematic opportunity in emerging markets; profiles key themes like financial inclusion and the energy transition; and explores the implications of today's geopolitical tensions. 

2:15 – Defining themes versus trends

4:00 – The next generation of sector funds

7:50 – Thematic investing in emerging markets

9:25 – Identifying secular themes

12:15 – Key EM themes: Financial inclusion and the energy transition

16:20 – Geopolitical conflict, strategic sectors, and thematic investing

19:30 – Dispersion, volatility, and scenario planning

23:15 – Personal observations

Episode Transcription

DÁIRE DUNNE:   We already track the level of dispersion within all of our individual themes, and we find that actually the level of dispersion within themes provides a very interesting alpha opportunity. Yeah, of course, people can buy ETFs on themes, but actually you’re leaving a lot on the table if you do that, and if you can take advantage of those gaps through deep, fundamental research, by trying to understand the geopolitical stories, the individual company stories, that can be really additive to the long-term investment case.

THOMAS MUCHA:  Today’s topic is thematic investing, a broad, complex, and increasingly important investment approach that looks to the future to find durable and profitable ideas.Now, one of those key themes, technology, has enabled businesses to expand and innovate at scale, often defying traditional sector definitions. At the same time, a number of global challenges -- like climate change, geopolitical risk, or aging populations -- transcend geographic boundaries. Now, while these secular paradigm shifts may not matter as much to traditional investors, especially in the day-to-day trading of markets, to thematic investors they represent a wide range of opportunities. So joining me to talk about investing through a thematic lens is Dáire Dunne, a portfolio manager based in our Singapore office. He joins us today -- lucky me -- in Boston. Dáire, thanks for coming on to WellSaid.

DÁIRE DUNNE:   Thanks a lot for having me. I’m delighted to be here.

THOMAS MUCHA:  All right, Dáire, let’s start at the very top here with a definition. And, you know, people talk about thematic investing. People talk about trends and themes. To you, how do you think about thematic investing, from your perspective? What’s the right definition here?

DÁIRE DUNNE:   Yeah, thanks a lot for asking me that question, because I think it’s important at the very outset to get as clear a definition in this area as possible. So I think there are two important things to get your head around, two different definitions. The first is big mega trends and these are structural changes that have a transformational component to them, as well as a time dimension. So the transformation alludes to some change that’s happening; and then the time dimension is structural in orientation. So those big mega trends are big, structural changes that are happening as we look into the future. Now, themes are something slightly different. Themes are a central, binding concept that bring a group of stocks together in the case of what we do as equity investors and those stocks tend to have a central shared property around them. So bringing this trends and themes idea together -- you can say that there’s a really strong trend toward greater focus on climate and taking more responsibility for the impact that we have on climate, but a theme related to that could be the theme of water scarcity, this idea that water is becoming more scarce, and we need to think about our levels of water efficiency, our levels of water recycling, and all of the individual ideas that go with that. So it’s a much more narrowly-focused idea, and it binds a group of exposures together around that longer term structural mega trend of climate-oriented investing.

THOMAS MUCHA:  That makes a lot of sense to me. The other aspect of this that I hear a lot about are sectors, industries, how does that fit into it? So I’m hopeful you can give us an example here that might clarify the distinction between thematic investing and sector investing.

DÁIRE DUNNE:   Yeah, as I consider the outlook for thematic as an investment class, I think it’s actually just the next generation on from sector funds. Sector funds were a classification system that brought stocks together that had certain types of properties, with certain types of economic activity, and I think what we’ve seen over time is that more and more companies are blurring the lines between the traditional sectors, and none more so than some of the really big, mega-cap technology and consumer discretionary and communications services names that sit across a variety of different industry classifications. So it’s not just related to those. Maybe I’ll give you a more tangible example, Thomas, that might help. So if I think about the food industry as an example today. The food industry is made up, really, of manufacturers, of distributers, of retailers. All three of those sit within the consumer staples theme. That’s one of the 11 MSCI GIC sectors. On our platform, we have a theme that’s related to the future of food, not to the existing food footprint in markets but really thinking about the future of food over the next few decades. And when you think about the future of food, it’s quite a different type of economic exposure, because then you start having to think about logistics, industrials, biotech, chemicals, the kind of technology that’s being used in food today. You have to think about sustainability, and that actually gives you quite a different orientation across sectors. So as we think about the future of food theme, it actually cuts across seven of the 11 GIC sectors, and that, I think, just highlights that if you really want to think about the future of some of these ideas, you really have to unshackle yourself from the traditional classification systems.

THOMAS MUCHA:  Yeah, it’s that complexity, those interlocking variables, that I find so interesting in thematic investing, too, and so it’s really fun for me to hear you articulate that. And Dáire, you were a multi-asset, a macro investor for several years. So, what drew you towards thematic investing? Was there an a-ha moment, or was this more of an evolutionary aspect?

     DÁIRE DUNNE: Yeah, I guess I’ve always been a big picture thinker as it relates to—investing, so looking across different investment disciplines, always trying to translate some of these big policy or macroeconomic changes into investment exposure in portfolios, and I think that really rhymes with thematic investing, where you’re trying to take these big structural shifts that are happening, many of which are underpinned by policy changes, or consumer preferences evolving, or new technologies being integrated and translating that down to the micro level, to understand how was it impacting investment exposures over time. So I feel like that’s the background I’ve come from, but I guess the one a-ha moment that really stands out to me was a conversation I had with a sovereign wealth fund in Asia shortly after I moved to Singapore in 2008, where they were highlighting the difficulty of getting exposure in their portfolio to the structural changes that were happening, particularly in emerging markets, ideas that they found very interesting related to shifts in policy or technology or demographics, and they wanted to make those kinds of ideas investable, and when they looked at the broad market exposure in EM it was just so much more diversified across many of the past winners in EM, which then kinda led us down a path of thinking about how these structural changes are coming about, how they’re translating into financial markets, and how we can make them investable for clients, and that’s really what set me on a path toward thematic investing.

THOMAS MUCHA:  That’s really interesting, this geographic difference here in thematic investing. And I’m wondering, you know, is it your bias that thematic investing works better in emerging markets, or do you see these types of themes being expressed in developed markets, as well?

DÁIRE DUNNE:   Yeah, I think it’s actually very relevant in both developed markets and emerging markets, but the investment impact I think can be even bigger in EM, and that’s for a few different reasons. So I’d say the first is that, you know, traditional benchmarks in EM are more poorly constructed than they are in DM. They tend to have a lot of biases and concentration risks. So having an alternative approach I think can really be additive when you think about building your EM exposure. Point number two is that you don’t have a lot of the inherent infrastructure buildout that can sometimes slow adoption rates.

THOMAS MUCHA:  Starting from scratch in a lot of areas.

DÁIRE DUNNE:   You’re basically starting from scratch. So you think about banking, as an example, so totally unrealistic for an emerging economy to build out a big branch network the way, you know, a Chase Manhattan Bank or a Citibank did back when they were really getting going. So they move immediately and they leapfrog immediately to digital banking, to online, and I think we’ve seen that right across emerging markets. So that’s the second point: you haven’t got this incumbency challenge that slows adoption.  And then to bring to the surface the point you just made is that the development levels are just so much lower. The rate of change, the effect of policy, the enthusiasm for new business models: I think all of that means that you can see very dynamic changes in EM coming through much more quickly than perhaps might be the case in the developed world.

THOMAS MUCHA:  So, Dáire, one of the things we like to do in this podcast is to drill down on process, right, and to get into the minds of investors around the firm. And so, from your perspective, what are the steps here in identifying a secular theme and these related investment ideas? 

DÁIRE DUNNE:The structure of our research into themes is built around the three P’s for analyzing long-term structural change all around the world. The first P relates to policy, so how is policy changing, what’s the rate of change on that policy, or the delta: Is it becoming weaker or stronger. How uniform is it across different geographies around the world? How persistent do we think it’ll be over time? Because, ultimately, if you can align yourself with really consistent policy tailwinds, that’s a very good place to be and we’ve seen that all over the world. It’s generally a poor idea to fight government policy.  The second is profitability. There’s lots of interesting themes out there, but they don’t all generate profits, or not over a reasonable timeframe. And, ultimately, we’re in the business of trying to provide our clients with interesting exposure to profitable ideas from which there’ll be an investment benefit over time. So we think a lot about industry structure, the stability of margins, and how sustainable and predictable the profit pools can be over time, and that’s incredibly important. And then the third is purity; that’s the third P. So purity is all about building a deep and liquid exposure to an idea that has a high focus on the core theme. We want to make sure that the themes that we build on behalf of clients meet that high purity threshold.

THOMAS MUCHA:  So those three P’s help you stay on the right track, how do you know when you’ve reached the maximum opportunity point within a particular theme?

DÁIRE DUNNE:   I think it’s a bit more of an art than a science, but we continue to come back to the three P’s. Has the policy world changed? Has that changed from being a tailwind to becoming a headwind? The profitability dynamics -- you know, we have seen some of our themes, which started off being very profitable, but those profits got competed away, or the industry structure deteriorated, and that can be a signal to get out of a theme. And then, thirdly, we see this actually in some of our themes today, that the ability to get pure and liquid exposure to a theme itself can change over time, and that the winners within a theme might be taken over or they might be taken private. So, the investable universe in a theme is not a constant, and we keep going back to the three P’s. That’s our framework for thinking about long-term structural research. Now, that’s not to say we ignore things like profitability cycles or valuation cycles or, you know, earnings cycles. But that’s more about identifying the themes that might be favored over shorter periods of time, but the long-term research framework continues to be the three P’s, and we feel like that gives us a really good discipline.

THOMAS MUCHA:  Now, you know I’m eager to get to the geopolitical aspects of this, but before I do that, we’ve talked about emerging markets before and some of the opportunities, so can you give us a sense of what you’re most excited about right now, in terms of themes in emerging markets?

DÁIRE DUNNE:   You know, emerging markets are such a wide and diverse place, and there are so many cool and interesting things happening at all times, and all of the countries have their own idiosyncrasies, but I’d say when I look across EM there are two things that really jump out at me. One is an idea that has a universality of demand and logic related to economic development; and then the second is a dynamic that’s happening globally, but I think has particular relevance in emerging markets. So the first idea that I want to share is on financial inclusion. Incredibly important to put financial capital in the hands of consumers as a building block for long-term economic progress. You know, if you read anything about the UN Sustainable Development Goals, the UN makes it clear that the majority of those goals are built upon the assumption of increasing access to financial capital, so giving people the opportunity to save more effectively, to invest for the long term, to build security and have access to insurance, those kinds of ideas are really, really relevant. So that financial inclusion theme has within it sub-theme ideas like microfinance, insurance, mutual fund companies, brokerages, stock exchanges, everything that goes into deepening the financial markets in emerging markets, and we think that’s a crucial stepping stone to sustainable economic progress over time. And we’re still in the very early stages of that, and governments are really getting behind it. We see it in places like Indonesia, as an example, where there’s still a majority of the population that are unbanked. So the formalization of saving and investment continues to be a huge opportunity in emerging markets. The second idea that I wanna touch on, which I mentioned has a relevance globally but particularly relevant in EM, is energy transition. So the World Bank estimates that 75 percent of the cost of all of climate change will accrue to the people living in emerging markets. So I live in Singapore. It’s pretty close to the Equator. Generally, being close to the Equator is not great place to be.

THOMAS MUCHA:  It’s hot.

DÁIRE DUNNE: It’s hot. It’s humid. You know you’re more prone to volatile climactic episodes. And emerging markets have all of these challenges, and very little infrastructure to deal with it. And we see that as a really big challenge. So transitioning away from traditional fossil fuels toward renewable energy sources continues to be a big priority all around the emerging world. Now, China’s leading the way, and I think that’s clear. It’s got real dominance in a few areas of renewable energies already, and just this year, in 2023, just to give you an insight into the scale of the capacity buildout that we see in places like China, China will add more solar capacity this year than the US, Europe, and India combined, and they’re compounding that, and they’ve been doing something similar for the last number of years. So when we look at the energy transition opportunity, we see world leaders in solar glass, in wind power, in hydro, right across emerging markets, and it’s really because there’s an existential risk to emerging markets related to this topic. So I guess those are two themes that we’re really excited about. They’re very different. They’re not really growth-oriented themes. Actually, financial inclusion is a value-oriented theme, which I think makes it unique from a factor footprint, when you think about thematic investing. So two differentiated ideas that I think should be of interest to clients, I hope.

THOMAS MUCHA:  Now, this energy transition idea, dealing with climate changes, making societies more resilient, obviously that’s a key topic that we talk about on this podcast a lot, because there’s a direct line between that and geopolitics, but I wanna ask you about a separate issue, maybe somewhat related, in terms of the geopolitical backdrop, and this is the increasing technology competition between the United States and China. So how does this great power framework, there’s changes going on in the policy environment, so your first P is definitely impacted here, but how does this shifting geopolitical context alter the way that you think about thematic investing?

DÁIRE DUNNE:I feel like I’m speaking to the expert on this topic, but I guess at a minimum I can try and give you my perspective as a thematic investor based in the Asian region. China is relevant everywhere in the world, but it feels particularly relevant in a small island economy in the middle of Asia, like Singapore. So Singapore has a military relationship and alliance with the United States, but a huge economic relationship with China, and it’s not alone in that. Actually, large parts of Asia find themselves in similar situations. So, there is a complicated path that needs to be walked here and it makes the life of politicians, policymakers, investors certainly more challenging than it’s been in the past. Now, you’ve spoken very eloquently about the complexities around geopolitics, the great power competition. I don’t feel like I’ve got a lot to add on that but what I would say is that, you know, China is a really determined economic power, and they have a set of objectives that they’re working toward that are very, very long term, and they’ve shown themselves over generations to be incredibly patient. I don’t think there’s a country in the world that has as long a history of making consecutive five-year plans. You know, we’re on the 14th five-year plan at the moment, so they have a history of doing this, going back all the way to the 1950s. So they’ve been very thoughtful, very diligent, very forward-oriented, in terms of how they set the objectives for their economy, and I don’t see anything that’s likely to change that. And when we look at the most recent five-year plan that’s going to run from 2021 to 2025, it’s instructive to try and look at the areas that they’re trying to lean into, those strategic industries that they’re trying to build out, and that they think will be additive to the productivity of their economy over time. And that really focuses on areas like precision engineering, robotics, clean tech, electric vehicles, biotech, health care, and what we try and do is lean into those areas. So we’re trying to lean into the areas that the government, over the very long term, is orienting the economy toward. I think it’s important to try and understand, as it relates to geopolitics, where the potential fragilities lie, and I think getting too closely aligned with things that might come under the microscope from a military perspective, that’s certainly an area that we’d tend not to be quite as focused on. I guess, in summary, I’d say we’re most intrigued by those areas that we think will be the most stable, will have the most amount of government support, and that will attract the least controversy over time, but it’s hard for us to ignore China in the seat that we’re in, because there are so many fascinating things going on there. And just one data point to place in the head of your listeners, Thomas, is that, you know, China is the number one trading partner of more than 120 countries around the world. So it’s not like this is a massively unbalanced story in the US’s favor. China has very strong relationships, economically and politically, all over the world. And I guess I’m an optimist by nature, and I guess I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to resolve this over the long term.

THOMAS MUCHA:  So one of the most fascinating things about your answer to that last question, Dáire, is just how much the West is mirroring China’s approach in these strategic sectors, right? The industries that you just mentioned are the same industries that I’m hearing from policymakers in Washington, in Brussels, in London, in Berlin, in Canberra, right? So we have this massive policy shift happening, but almost in a mirror image of each other in a lot of ways. So I do think that this is going to create a lot of long-term economic and market opportunity, right? Sort of the P, again, in your framework. But I also think that it’s going to create more differentiation and more disruption, right? And that’s a good thing for investment, in a lot of ways, right? ’Cause we can find winners and losers across this process. And I’m wondering, you know, how do you think about the disruptive aspects of this in how you’re assessing opportunities, not only for the next year or five years but, you know, next 10, 20, 30 years?

DÁIRE DUNNE:   There are two fascinating things in the question that you just asked that I want to pick up on, and I think they both are very relevant for anyone that’s interested in committing investment capital long term to thematic investing. The first is that dispersion idea, the gap between the winners and the losers, and I think, if anything, that just gets bigger in the years ahead. We already track the level of dispersion within all of our individual themes, and we find that actually the level of dispersion within themes provides a very interesting alpha opportunity. Yeah, of course, people can buy ETFs on themes, but actually you’re leaving a lot on the table if you do that, and if you can take advantage of those gaps through deep, fundamental research, by trying to understand the geopolitical stories, the individual company stories, that can be really additive to the long-term investment case. So that’s point number one. And then point number two is on the risk management. And I think this becomes absolutely crucial as you look forward. I think that actually it’s not just alone a case for thematic investing, but it’s for all globally-oriented investing, that we just need to have more focused, more sophisticated ways to think about how we manage risk in portfolios. So, yeah I couldn’t agree more: dispersion’s on the rise. That’s a great alpha opportunity. Volatility’s on the rise, and that just means you need to be even tighter and more thoughtful about how you manage risk in your portfolios.

THOMAS MUCHA:  The last thing I’ll throw on the table here, because I have a lot of discussions with portfolio managers across the firm, with our clients around the world, and that’s around this idea of scenario planning, right, because the geopolitical backdrop is so fluid right now, there are many potential outcomes here. And so the other idea to throw on the table here is that position for the world that you think is coming, but have a plan B, have a plan C, right, something that you can move to quickly if the outcomes go a certain way. So I think, you know, combining that with the dispersion point, the risk point, and then opening up your imagination about what the future looks like is another way to think through some of these outcomes.

DÁIRE DUNNE:   That point really resonates with me around scenario planning. The words I use to describe the same thing are the difference between the probable and the possible. 

THOMAS MUCHA:  There’s a lot of possible out there right now.

DÁIRE DUNNE:   There’s an awful lot of possible out there right now, more so than probably ever in my 25-year investment career. So having a plan B for that I think is really important.

THOMAS MUCHA:  All right, I want to begin to close here with maybe a personal observation, and I’m wondering if there’s a particular life lesson, from how you grew up, or what your experiences were like that may influence your approach to thematic investing. I mean let’s get inside the mind of a very young Dáire Dunne.

DÁIRE DUNNE:  There are two things I’d like to allude to in answering your question. So, the first is an experience I had when I was pretty young. So growing up in Ireland in the West Coast in the early 1980s, at that point, the oil price had come down from about 140 down to a hundred dollars a barrel. And my parents decided actually, if we don’t go and visit our family in the United States now, we might never be able to afford to. So myself and my three siblings and my parents, we took a flight from Ballinagh in the West Coast of Ireland, and we flew over to New York to stay with family. And that was literally like turning the clock forward 25 years. At that time, Ireland’s GDP per capita was roughly a third of the level of the United States, so everything was bigger, bolder, brighter, faster in the US than anything that I’d seen before. I saw MTV for the first time. In Ireland at the time we had two channels on the television, and one of them started in the afternoon. To see massive infrastructure projects, I’d never seen a multilane highway prior to that trip. To see professional sports on TV for the first time. I’d never seen that before. So it was an eye-opening experience. And what it led me to better understand later in life I’ll use a quote from the science fiction writer William Gibson: you know, the future is already out there; it’s just not evenly distributed. And what I got from that trip to the United States was a vision into Ireland’s future. So Ireland’s future was visible, it was out there, you could observe it; you needed to get on a plane and fly five or six hours to go and see it. And that’s the point that I want to make about thematic investing. We don’t sit around the table pulling kinda crazy ideas about, you know, a distant reality out of thin air. We go looking for things that are already happening, and try and find small ideas that are building, that we think will be more relevant over time, that are underrepresented in people’s portfolios, and that’s really what we focus on.  And then the second, I guess, life learning, I guess I’ve had the benefit of, you know, studying in lots of different parts of the world, working in lots of different parts of the world -- I’ve got a very global family -- and all of the travel that I’ve done, and time I’ve spent with other cultures and other people all over the world, what I always come back to is that we are more similar than we are different. And I think it’s important to remind ourselves of that, particularly in a world with as heavy a focus on geopolitical tension as we see today. Maybe that’s a message I’d like to try and get out there to your listeners: that, you know, people in Asia, people in China, people anywhere else in the emerging markets have many of the same family aspirations, career aspirations, socioeconomic plans that people in the United States or Europe have and they’re going about their business in a slow and diligent way, trying to execute on that. And at the policy level, frequently it can create tension and headlines and media attention, but I think it’s important to always go back and to try and get inside the man or the woman in the street, and their family dynamic in another part of the world, and to remind yourself that in the vast majority of cases, they are pursuing a very similar set of objectives to what we are pursuing in our seat.

THOMAS MUCHA:  Could not agree more. The more you travel, the more cultures you get exposed to, the more people that you meet around the world, the more you understand that everyone’s wants and needs and desires are pretty much the same. So I think that’s a very wise observation.     Dáire, I could go on and on. I find this fascinating, but I’m gonna spare you that for now, and just say thank you for your time, your eloquence today, and for helping Wellington see the future better.

DÁIRE DUNNE:   Well, thanks very much for having me, Thomas. It’s been an absolute pleasure to be here. If I could leave your listeners with one parting comment, it’s to think a little bit more about the trend lines and less about the headlines. I think we’re inundated with a focus on the news flow day to day, but if we can really take a step back and use the telescope rather than the microscope, I think that’ll serve us all better over the long term.

THOMAS MUCHA:  Dáire Dunne, portfolio manager at Wellington Management, thanks for being with us. 


Views expressed are those of the speaker(s) and are subject to change. Other teams may hold different views and make different investment decisions. For  professional/institutional investors only. Your capital may be at risk. Podcast produced June 2023.

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