553 Billion euros. That is APG’s total invested assets worldwide (position at june 2022). The goal: a good pension in a livable world for the pension fund participants. The portfolio is obviously diversified. From investments in wind farms in Zeeland to Australian listed shares in stores. And from safe bonds to the somewhat more fluctuating trade in gold or soy. Who are the people behind these investments? What choices do they make? And why?
In this episode of the series The Investors: Henny Crauwels, responsible for investments in the Communications Industry at APG.
The playing field for Henny and his long-time colleague Frank Dekker is well defined: large companies in the telecom, media and social media sectors in developed markets. The portfolio includes a diverse range of stocks: from KPN and T-Mobile US to Netflix and The New York Times and to Facebook and Twitter. Their aim is not to outsmart the market on a day-to-day basis, their 'opponent' to beat is the index that reflects the average value of all the companies in their 'universe'. "Everything we do is relative", explains Henny. "If the index drops 40 percent and our portfolio loses only 38 percent, we're doing a relative good job and we're saving lots of money for the pension funds." In fact, they have beaten the index in nine of the past twelve years, by an average of 2.5 to 3% per year. This year they are on track to do the same.
What does it take to beat an index more often than not?
"We take a very structured approach to investing. We look at how relevant markets are organized and at the relative strengths of the companies in those markets. In the telecom part of our portfolio for example, a market with three incumbent mobile operators is generally more attractive to us than one with four or five plus a number of challengers. The latter means more competition, lower prices, less stability and more risk. We also take into account what impact new regulations or the issue of new licenses might have, and the potential for new entrants and mergers and acquisitions."
And how do you identify which companies will be most successful in an attractive market?
"For individual companies we try to assess how their long-term competitive position will develop. For telecom providers an important indicator is the quality of their customer service. So we collect and buy data on churn, the amount of customers that leave. But we also want to know how well their digital transformations are going, because that will determine how well they can interact with their customers in future. Therefore we try to form an opinion on the quality of their leadership, their innovation culture, their ability to attract new talent and so on. In telecom trends usually play out over quite a long period. So when you get your fundamental analysis and your investment case right, you could benefit for years."
Sustainability and ESG criteria play an important role in the investment policy of APG. How does that apply to your specific portfolio?
Are ESG criteria important in investing because you think companies that apply them will be more valuable in the long term, or because of idealistic motives?
But what do you do when idealism and a profitable investment are in conflict?
"Sometimes they are indeed, and that can present a real dilemma. If a social media platform can be easily used to spread lies, hate speech and racism, that might well be reason for us to no longer invest in them. But for investors like us, it's easier to exclude say Twitter from our portfolio than a company like Facebook: it's too big, it has generated impressive returns and may well continue to do so for years. And at the end of the day we're here to make enough money to be able to pay the pensions now and in the future."
Engagement is another important pillar in APG's investment policy. Can you influence the way these companies deal with the content that is shared on them?
"As APG we're big enough to get a meeting with someone at say Facebook, but it's not like Mark Zuckerberg will clear his agenda when we want to see him. We have, often together with other investors, an ongoing dialogue with some social media platforms about these issues. And we can use our voting rights as shareholders. It's hard to tell however how much impact we have. Sometimes you think they're trying hard to improve but are really struggling with this issue too. Other times you get the impression they just listen and nod politely but in fact only care about growing their businesses."
Talking about Twitter: what do you make of the spectacle that Elon Musk's takeover bid has become?
"As a long-term investor we always try to separate the signal from the noise. Much of what we hear in this case is noise I think. And when the stock jumps 40 percent or so when a takeover plan is announced we'll just accept that we missed that. You can't invest on the possibility alone that a company may become the target of a takeover. There always has to be an underlying story, and the market is not too positive about Twitter's story. They don't have a good track record when it comes to implementing successful new features, their content remains primarily text-based while user preferences tend more towards visual content, and they aren't the platform of choice in performance advertising that can very precisely target certain users. Those are the real signals that we base our investment decisions on."
Do you see new technology, regulations or trends in consumer behavior that will reshape the communications sector in the coming years?
"There is a lot of talk about the Metaverse of course. What's relevant to us today is that Meta is investing billions in it. In general however it's too far out and too difficult for us to put a value on it because there simply are no use cases yet. It's like with the early days of the internet, no one could foresee then how it would develop into what it is today and how it would change our lives. 5G is another important and more proven new technology that will enable many new services. From my perspective the risk for telecom companies is that, like with 4G, it will be the Googles and Amazons that will develop the most profitable services, while the telco's merely provide the basic infrastructure. That's why we're positive about a Canadian telecom company for example that is actively developing 5G-based services for agriculture and e-health."