Interactive Investor

Witan launches strategic review as Andrew Bell announces retirement

An interactive investor analyst runs through Witan Investment Trust’s annual results, which included the announcement that its longstanding CEO will be retiring during the coming year.

18th March 2024 12:24

Alex Watts from interactive investor

The big news from Witan Ord (LSE:WTAN) Investment Trust’s annual results was that its longstanding CEO Andrew Bell will be retiring during the coming year. This has prompted the board to review the company’s future management arrangements.

Below is a review of how performance fared over the 12-month period (to 31 December 2023), as well as highlighting the ii analyst view on prospects for the trust.

Net Asset Value (NAV) Return: +12.7% (-2% vs index)
Share Price Return: +10.1% (-4.6% vs index)
Index Return: +14.7%
Discount: -7.8% (as at 31/12/2023)
Dividend: 6.04p (+4.1% vs previous)
Gearing: 14.2% (as at 31/12/2023)

Performance

Throughout the year, Witan returned shareholders 10.1%, lagging its benchmark by 4.6%, adding to recent underperformance. Witan’s benchmark is 85% global (MSCI All Country World Index) and 15% UK (MSCI UK IMI Index).

Equity markets were fuelled by abating recessionary fears and prospects of a pivot in monetary policy. As with many active managers, the dominance of the US’ “Magnificent Seven” (14% of benchmark, but 6% of Witan), yielded a hard environment to find alpha and favoured concentration over Witan’s diversified portfolio.

Witan’s core portfolio performed well, with four of the six “Core” managers outperforming. Recently added growth manager Jennison (global shares) as well as Artemis (UK shares) posted particularly strong performance.

It was the specialist allocation that dented returns, notably the holding in GMO Climate Change Fund and the allocation to specialist trusts as discounts opened further across the closed-ended universe.

Dividend

The final dividend of 6p made for growth of 4%, with the bulk covered by earnings. This adds to a strong track record of growing earnings above CPI and a 49th year of growth.

Discount

Witan’s discount widened, finishing 2023 at 7.8%, having started nearer 5%. This trend was in keeping with peers in a sector where all trusts now trade at a discount. The board’s commitment to narrowing this discount was evidenced with the buyback of 54 million shares, uplifting the NAV and marginally benefiting the return to investors.

Portfolio

The multi-manager portfolio accesses global equities through a Core allocation (circa 75%) and Specialist regional or sector allocations (circa 25%). During 2023, the six core manager allocations remained much unchanged, with just minor reallocation to readjust geographic exposures. Changes in the struggling Specialist portfolio included adding to the weak GMO Climate Change position, given the manager’s long-term optimism towards sustainable energy.  

The portfolio remains geographically diversified, although retains its distinct home bias, whereby the UK allocation is consciously overweight (now 17% of the portfolio).

People

The most significant news is of the retirement of Andrew Bell in the coming year and subsequent review of Witan’s future investment management arrangements. Bell has been CEO since February 2010.

James Hart, investment director, has worked alongside Bell since 2015.

ii View

Witan’s underperformance in 2023 can much be chalked up to an underweight to US mega-cap and the specialist positions, particularly those vehicles exposed to alternative assets proving particularly rattled by higher interest rates. 2023 perpetuates a recent track record for Witan that is underwhelming for investors, with the trust underperforming its benchmark over one, three, five and 10 years. Absolute returns aren’t weak, but the strategy struggles on a relative basis versus its compound benchmark and multi-manager peers Alliance Trust Ord (LSE:ATST) and F&C Investment Trust Ord (LSE:FCIT).

The news of the retirement of Andrew Bell is significant. Bell has led the management of the portfolio since becoming CEO in 2010.  As an integral part of the allocation and selection process, it is unsurprising that his departure has led the board to conduct a strategic review.

While management will continue as is until a plan for continuation is settled on, the board has opened an invitation to other parties in the sphere to put forward proposals for the £1.7 billion global equity portfolio to Witan’s board.

The last year has seen a good amount of merger within the investment trust universe and interest in the book may well be expected.

Historically Witan has been a popular option for retail investors seeking a singular solution to investing in global equity markets, with the Core/Specialist multi-manager solution taking manager selection and allocation out of investors’ hands.

The trust has achieved reasonable scale being one of the larger options in the Global sector, although not to the same degree as its closest multi-manager peers.

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