Interview with Kerr Neilson

15 Aug 2018

Below is a transcript of a recent interview Kerr Neilson, founder of Platinum Asset Management, conducted with Mark Draper from GEM Capital.  Kerr answers questions about his long-standing career in funds management and what he has learnt along the way.

MD  Joining me here is legendary investor Kerr Neilson from Platinum Investment Management, Kerr thanks for joining us.
KN  Good to hear from you Mark.
MD  We just want to cover your career now that you’ve taken a step back from the CEO role at Platinum Asset Management, still involved in the business there clearly, just to glean what can we learn from such a long and well distinguished career and one of Australia’s best investors.  So how did you get started with investing Kerr?
KN Well I think the easy answer is that family background does influence that and coming from a family of inventors and industrialists I always understood that business was a source of wealth rather than any particular help from government.
MD History is an interesting cue to investment as well.  I know you’re an avid reader of history, one of the interesting parts of history as it relates to you is 1987 and your role in positioning BT funds management to actually do well from the stock market crash.  Are you able to talk us through what you saw at the time and the decisions you made at the time and why you made them?
KN Yes, I think you're being over generous.  I mean there were two divisions, one was the retail division and the other was the wholesale division and we operated in cahoots in a way, so what they did influenced me and what I had to say might have had some bearing on what they thought.  But what was happening at that time in 1987 was the gradual build-up of excitement  and interest rates were rising and people were tending to lean into the excitement rather than the concerns. I remember quite distinctly being able to look at BHP, which was very highly valued, and reckoning that I could simulate, I could create a facsimile from a group of other listed companies from around the world at about half percent price. So that indicated to me there was plenty, and it wasn’t the only company, there was plenty of evidence that investors were paying too much for Australian stocks.  So when the crash came it was a bit disappointing the way people were totally unprepared because these valuations were high and it wasn’t exactly a surprise.  But we were lucky at BT because we had hired this wonderful person, he was an aeronautic engineer called Vasant Killani and he developed an options strategy for BT, and I simply hopped on as a participant rather than an originator of that opportunity.
MD Looking at today’s market, are you seeing any similarities between then and now? I know history doesn’t repeat, but it rhymes.
KN Well it’s interesting, because there are signs of excess in specific areas such as cryptocurrencies, perhaps biotech, certainly there is quite a lot of heat in the whole e-commerce world, but there is also quite a lot of concern, so it’s unusual in that this whole bull market - which started after the crash of 2008/09 - has been characterised by there being a fair amount of concern throughout and that does remain in place and is not in keeping with the typical wild bull market. The hints of the bull market here are those specific areas, but also valuations have lifted a lot and strangely, the bonds are not showing any signs of responding to the huge funding needs of the US government or anything else.
MD To be a good investor, you have to understand what you are investing into both at a company level and sector level. Kerr, how do you go about gathering the information in both of those areas to build your knowledge?
KN You’re quite right.  The problem we all face is thinking our little darling is the best in the street. You need peripheral vision and that’s precisely why in Platinum, we’ve built up these teams of specialists across a lot of industries and in one instance across a region, so it allows us to have an all-encompassing view and it gives us a very good sense of what we need to do more work on. And our sources of information have expanded terrifically over the years, where todday if you’re interested in, for example, chip design, you could attend a lecture on YouTube.  Also, a source that I suggest many private investors, individual investors, should think about is logging on to a company’s website and either listening or reading the transcript of their quarterly or half yearly investor calls.  What you will find is there is a prepared section and then there is the Q&A section which I find very useful because that’s really where the management is put to the test by analysts asking questions about aspects of their business.
MD What other ideas would you have for retail investors to broaden their knowledge base?
KN Well, it is what Buffet and the like talk about, so it’s all about reading extensively and broadly because you’re all the time trying to conjure up a world that will be, rather than what is.  This internet has now liberated so many aspects of business that there are new models of doing business and one must be fairly agile to be able to cope with new possibilities rather than simply reverting back to the old.
MD And so clearly Platinum and yourself are not index investors Kerr, so if the index isn’t your starting point, what is your starting point to generate investment ideas?
KN We’ve always argued that the biggest problem investors have is paying too much attention to the media overload.  That creates huge biases in behaviour and we call the most common one 'availability bias', where there is an obsession about the current news item and it can lead to mispricing of shares.  So that’s what we think is a really valuable source for looking for asymmetric opportunities; so where the reality is not quite as bad as some people will hold and that gives you the mispricing.
MD What would be a good example of that in today’s market do you think?  Not stock specific.
KN I think we can see it in China where certainly the country has too much debt, as have most countries, and yet we can find companies trading at very low valuations that are growing at 15%-25% a year and we are paying about 80% of the world’s PE - we are paying about 12 times versus the world’s PE of maybe 15 or 16 times, and that strikes us as an asymmetrical play because it’s not as if these companies are necessarily going to be forced to do things by their government which are to the detriment of the investors, because that is one of the threats, but I don’t think that’s so likely in the case of some of these companies.
MD And China is a good example because clearly you’ve got some weight in that in your portfolios and right at this point in time as in we are cutting this in July, the portfolio is almost out of sync with the market. So, switching to how you deal with the mental pressure of the markets when you’re out of sync with what the latest fad is in the markets, how do you weather that mental pressure of not caving in to the popular thematic and the crowd of trades?
KN Well, it does make a big difference that we are stock pickers.  So we are not driven by thematics as much as the individual case around a company, and what that allows us to do is to very precisely target the enunciated doubts expressed by the investors.  This finds voice in what the analysts are saying, what the press are saying and so on.  So we can pinpoint those observations and test whether they have veracity or not.  It is through that individual focus that we can gradually build a group of companies into a portfolio, so you’re always anchoring back to the behaviour of those companies and how they are doing relative to the path you projected when you first put money into those companies.  If that path is intact, there is no reason why you should start flapping about the transient noise and the miscommunications from the media.
MD One of the ways that some investors - I’m aiming this at the retail investor market Kerr - are dealing with the noise in investment markets - and many financial advisers are doing this as well - is simply choosing a passive investment strategy which involves just investing in the index for argument's sake.  What do you think some of the problems are of a switch into passive investing?
KN You see, it’s so interesting because it really comes back to the whole idea of being a stock picker.  What you have to do when you’re finding companies that are in trouble is to find out whether those troubles will persist.  When on the other hand you're simply buying momentum, in other words companies that are lauded by the market, what you have to then assess is what the specific factors were that created that opportunity and gave rise to those big moves in those shares.  With passive what most people are doing is they are saying "well, it's worked so well since the crash, why should we not do it?"  The only question they need to address is the opposite, "Why should it persist? What has given rise to all of this enthusiasm?" So what I think you’ll find is when we have the first big upsets, they’ll be sitting with ETFs or passive holdings that are actually not doing what they expected to do. And then what do they do do? They panic because they have nothing to hang on to.  They’ve simply got a momentum path-dependency.  Momentum path-dependency is what they have.  That’s very different from having a very strong view about the inherent value of each of the stocks that form your portfolio; it’s a very different set of comforts.
MD It’s a very different approach, isn’t it?  A completely different approach.  I think the point that you make is everything is fine when everything is going well, but it’s when you have a problem that the different styles are going to have different reference points.
KN That’s perfectly put.
MD So what’s been your best investment call ever? This is a cheeky question; actually the next question is probably a bit cheekier.
KN Well, luck comes in to all of these things.  That’s the sad part, but not so sad if luck works for you.  I think one of the great investments we've made was when we bought about 17% - back in my BT days - when we bought about 17% of Westfield Holdings.  At that time the stock was very much under pressure from the foray they made into buying a TV channel and it was Channel 10 I think.  The market was misunderstanding the motivation and the cost of that position, and it gave us an opportunity to buy a very large stake in a pretty interesting company and so it went up maybe 10 or even 15 times from our initial purchase price.  So that was a great story because it had a big move, but also because we could put a lot of money into it.  That’s how I prefer to look at great investments.  You want to know the worst investment? I’m sure you would love to know that!
MD Yes, that’s the next question!
KN Well, in the early 90s we were spending a lot of time in Latin America and we found this interesting company that had tourist interests and was buying hotels in Peru from the government, and indeed we helped them buy some wonderful properties which turned out to be massive because at that time tourism was minute. Machu Picchu used to take two hundred or three hundred thousand visitors a year, and is now taking more than 2.2 million a year.  So we saw what could change.  The only trouble is we didn’t make any money out of it.  So it was a great idea and in theory should have been quite profitable, but because of a whole lot of other circumstances we never made a cent out of it, in fact we lost money.
MD What was the key take-away?  You learn a lot by your mistakes I reckon.  What were the key lessons that you learned from that particular investment?
KN You need pretty transparent markets to ensure that you get most of what you’re entitled to.
MD The world’s changing as you flagged and artificial intelligence, Kerr, is growing very rapidly.  What do you think it means for the funds management industry or the funds management sector?
KN Well, it is already being applied, but there are a lot of difficulties because when you try to model, I imagine, the problem you will face is to account for all the variables which relate to an open competitive market, because it’s not just the behaviour of the firm your investing in that matters, it’s how their competitors respond and that’s not so easy to programme.  I imagine AI is being used and strangely it’s not actually closing the gaps on these large swathes of the market where you have relatively large value dispersions - in places like Japan, for example.  So what you would normally expect is there should be a fair bit of buying of those things that are extremely cheap by their historical characteristics and selling of those that are pretty expensive, but the very opposite is happening.  There is a very high momentum element within the Japanese market ,for example, which you may not want to bank on if you are using AI.
MD I’ve heard you say that a lot in terms of ‘it’s the competitor’s response that matters’.  I'm reading that’s a really critical thought process in your decision making process.  Is it not?
KN It is, because, again, going back to what we talked about earlier, it’s easy to observe the winners in retrospect, but had it not been for people like - I classify them as gladiators - people like Gates and these huge tough titans of the industrial world, many of these companies would not have achieved quite what they have.  So you need to be able to identify those characters, and preferably not too late, because by then these shares could be running out of road in terms of the expansion of the business.  So you have to be able to recognise real talents after a relatively short time rather than after 10 or 15 years of success by which time it will be fully recognised and fully priced.  That’s what I would suggest is the difficult part.
MD The dot com boom, just going back to history, the dot com boom of the late 90s/early 2000s was another defining moment for you and the team at Platinum Asset Management in that you were very differently positioned compared to the market where the market was roaring away on very high valuations which, from my memory, they weren’t PEs at the time because there were no earnings part of the equation on many of the companies.  But are you able to talk us through the key decisions that you made at the time of the dot com boom and what some of the indicators that you saw at that time were that caused your positioning to be so different from the market?
KN Well, again it was valuations, Mark.  The valuations were becoming really quite extraordinary and the amount of activity in terms of IPOs (initial public offerings) and so on was huge, and the prices that were being sought were massive, so that was one of the give-aways.  Also we were finding that the companies which were actually enabling these new tech companies to succeed were often in Japan and so we were tending to play it there where the valuations were much lower.  That was one of the things.  Then the way to make the adjustment is when you reach that sort of climax of valuation, you move.  And we were very lucky because we then chose to move to what was then called the ‘old world’ and we were buying drinks companies and dull companies when everyone was still pretty enthusiastic to keep what was a pretty tired tune by then.
MD So valuations are clearly important.  What are some of the other indicators you look for that would indicate frothiness in any market, whether its property or equities?  What are some of the other things that you’re looking for?
KN We’ll never go too far from debt.  Debt is the beauty of booms.  Without debt in one form or another, booms don’t really get going.  We’ve got plenty of debt now and we have quite a lot of M&A.  We have quite a few IPOs at some pretty rich prices and we have the prospect of it being declared somewhat ‘different this time’ because the internet has now reached a point of maturity where you really do have access to the entire world, you have global reach almost from the start of one of these businesses and you can simply roll out the same package with some change for local laws and for local language.
MD Your funds are positioned very differently to the market at the moment, so you’ve got large underweight to the US, large overweight to China.  So is this another defining moment, do you think, at this point in time for you and for Platinum Asset Management?
KN Very hard to know.  We’ve been progressively increasing our exposure to Asia and we like Asia because of valuations, because of their history of stronger growth as economies and as businesses.  We can see why that could persist.  On the other hand, we are seeing fairly enthusiastic pricing and somewhat lower growth in the western hemisphere.  But I don’t know if there are any defining issues here, simply that the presumption is that these are emerging markets even though they emerged 400 years ago or submerged 400 years ago.  Places like India and China I would not really classify as emerging markets because they fund themselves.  And then you look at Korea and Taiwan, and to call them emerging markets is a bit rich.  So there is a fair amount of sloppy expression and it finds further expression in pretty low valuations, so that’s interesting to us.  It would be difficult for all these markets to be particularly independent from the rest.  If there’s a sell-off in the West, it will tend to wash across others, but over time we do get some protection from the idea that they are growing faster, are profitable and valuations are lower.
MD What in your opinion is the biggest mistake that you see financial advisers and retail investors making in Australia?
KN We all make huge mistakes; we shouldn’t point the bone too eagerly.  So I think the biggest problem we have when talking to local investors is this preoccupation with - there’s an overweighting in - Australian assets, starting with property, perhaps and certainly a preference for local companies rather than a broader view of the world.  So I think that’s the first difference.  The second is - and this is true for all investors - this preoccupation with what is being nominated as 'news' by the media.  I think those are the two things that I would point to that we try to pay less attention to and think more broadly about.
MD What’s been your proudest moment as a funds manager or an investor, Kerr?
KN Ummm, pride comes before a fall I thought.  We don’t spend a lot of time on pride; we spend a lot of time on thinking of how many mistakes we make and how to improve on those, that’s where the energy is spent.  I’m afraid it’s a rather dull answer, but we get well paid for doing the job and so it’s not about being proud about anything, it’s about doing the job well.
MD I think that tells you a lot about what sort of investor you are actually with your answer to that.  You’ve stepped back from the role, as of the 1st of July, of CEO at Platinum Asset Management.  You were a founder of that business, and you’re still involved in that business.  What does the future hold for you now, Kerr?
KN Would you like a succinct answer?  God alone knows!  But the longer answer is I will be looking at stocks.  I will be spending time with the young folk trying to expedite their understanding of really how companies are, not as they are portrayed, and also talking to investors or potential investors.  That will keep me pretty busy.
MD Are you still enjoying it?
KN Yes, well there is always so much changing, you can’t possibly get bored.  You can get exhausted, but not bored.
MD That’s a fair answer.  Kerr, you’ve had a wonderful career that’s still going - that’s spanned over BT and your own company Platinum Asset Management.  You’re a top 100 global investor, the only Australian nominated in the top 100 global investors. I’ve really enjoyed talking to you, and thank you very much for your insights to investing.  All the best for your future.  Take care.
KN Thanks so much, Mark.

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