The case for quality investing — building a portfolio of companies with competitive
advantages, strong market positions, healthy balance sheets, sustainable revenues
and low sensitivity to the economic cycle — is obvious when markets are stormy.
Less discussed is the potential for quality companies to grow robustly in a recovering
market. Amid the wreckage of weaker businesses as the dust settles, they often get a
head start on growth that can propel them through the next cycle.
A key attribute that helps quality companies not only survive a downturn but continue
to expand in the aftermath is their strong cash positions: or, more specifically, the fact
they tend to be both cash-flow resilient and to have cash on hand (accessible cash).
They say cash is king. After a crunch, possessing these twin cash advantages can be
a kingmaker, helping quality businesses increase their market dominance. As we
explore below, history suggests they have helped some quality companies
outperform as a recovery gets underway.
What is a quality company?
Quality companies, as we define them, have five attributes, as shown in the figure.
These characteristics help quality companies survive a market crisis and the slowdown that
- Whatever the economic backdrop, revenues usually keep flowing for quality companies — or, if
extreme circumstances do interrupt them, the hiatus would be expected to be brief before
structural growth resumes. This is partly because they offer products and services that people
need, which may sometimes be sold via subscription or as recurring purchases. They also tend to
operate in growing industries where they have competitive advantages. Consequently, they
aren’t as vulnerable when the economy slows.
- Because they often have dominant market positions, quality companies may have pricing
power, which gives them additional protection in a downturn.
- Quality companies tend to have low operating expenses, especially low fixed costs. They are
also capital light, meaning they don’t need to spend a lot on maintaining, say, factories or
sophisticated machinery just to stay in business.
- Strong balance sheets are another feature of quality companies. As well as having relatively
little debt, they typically have significant levels of cash and ready access to liquidity/funding on
good terms, due to their strong credit ratings.
Together, these attributes give quality companies more flexibility in allocating capital (see figure
below). As we suggested earlier, that’s an advantage not only in challenging times, but also when the
During a crunch, quality companies can make productive use of share buybacks or
temporary dividend cuts to ensure they remain resilient and to prepare for a changed
economic environment. That is to say, they can suspend buybacks if required as they
have not been reliant on borrowing to buy back shares in order to drive earnings-pershare
When conditions improve, they can spend on growing their businesses or on
acquisitions — at what may be a very advantageous time to do so, as some weaker
rivals may have been eliminated or may be available for purchase at a low price. With
a clearer field, the potential for robust growth is higher, which is why quality
companies can be quick out of the blocks in a recovery. They are also likely to restore
dividends sooner, if they reduced them at all — something income-seeking investors
will particularly appreciate.
Simply put, after a shake-out, the strong tend to get stronger. The performance of Ninety One’s
Global Franchise strategy — which seeks to identify quality companies through in-depth research —
suggests as much, with generally above-benchmark returns in the year immediately after a market
downturn, as shown in the figure below.
Annual performance in USD, %
Past performance is not a reliable indicator of future results, losses may be made.
Source: Morningstar, 31 March 2020. Performance is net of fees (NAV based, including ongoing charges, excluding initial charges), gross income
reinvested, in USD. Inception date 10.04.07. The performance is based on the OEIC Global Select Equity Fund from 10.04.07 which then merged
into the Luxembourg-domiciled Global Franchise Fund on 04.06.09.
*Benchmark: At Inception = MSCI World NR; Current Since 1 Oct 2011 = MSCI AC World NR.
5 year performance record: 2015: Fund 9.2%; Index -2.4%. 2016: Fund 0.9%; Index 7.9%. 2017: Fund 24.9%; Index 24.0%. 2018: Fund -3.6%; Index
-9.4%. 2019: Fund 28.2%; Index 26.6%. Highest and lowest returns achieved during a Rolling 12 month period since inception: Feb 2010: 54.4%
and Feb 2009: -38.7%. The Fund is actively managed. Any index is shown for illustrative purposes only.
Valuations are key
Or course, those seeking to follow a quality investment style need to maintain
valuation discipline, buying shares in quality companies at reasonable prices. With an
active, research-intensive approach, that can be done at any time. But it is at times
like the present, after largely indiscriminate sell-offs when share-price moves detach
from fundamentals, that the opportunity to build a quality portfolio at low valuations is
often the greatest.
And whether what follows the current turmoil is a prolonged slowdown or a swift
bounce back, a quality portfolio’s combination of resilience in hard times and strong
growth potential in recoveries could stand investors in good stead.
Concentrated portfolio: The portfolio invests in a relatively small number of individual holdings. This may mean wider fluctuations in value than more broadly invested portfolios. A counterparty to a derivative transaction may fail to meet its obligations which may also lead to a financial loss.
Equity investment: The value of equities (e.g. shares) and equity-related
investments may vary according to company profits and future prospects as well as more general market factors. In the event of a company default (e.g. insolvency), the owners of their equity rank last in terms of any financial payment from that company.
All investments carry the risk of capital loss. The value of investments, and any income generated from them, can fall as well as rise and will be affected by changes in interest rates, currency fluctuations, general market conditions and other political, social and economic developments, as well as by specific matters relating to the assets in which the investment strategy invests. If any currency differs from the investor’s home currency, returns may increase or decrease as a result of currency fluctuations. Past performance is not a reliable indicator of future results.