Established less than 10 years ago, Zeal Asset Management Limited already boasts a global clientele and numerous prestigious accolades in recognition of its value-oriented investment approach in the Greater China region. With an investment philosophy founded on rigorous fundamental research and bottom-up stock-picking, the boutique firm won this year’s Best-in-Class House Award in Equity Long/Short, while its Chief Investment Officer Jacky Choi won the Manager of the Year title in the Greater China Equity category. We talked to Jacky about the team’s investment success and where the China market is heading next.
BENCHMARK (BM): A highly concentrated investment approach, as in your case (usually with 20-30 long holdings and 10- 20 short holdings), calls for high-conviction ideas. How do you generate these ideas? Can you tell us your stop-loss policy?
Jacky Choi (JC): Right! Since each of the securities in our portfolio is given significant weighting, all our high-conviction ideas must be vindicated by in-depth research to be included in our portfolios. At any point in time, there are over 200 stocks being closely and actively monitored by our investment team. We have a comprehensive understanding of the businesses and management of these companies. Each of our convictions is built on many years of research, and we only execute buying decisions when the prices are attractive.
We perform quantitative screening regularly to initiate new coverage ideas. Parameters of this screening include balance sheet items, profit and loss items, and market-related items, such as sudden price movement or volume pickup. To complete the idea generation process, we also adopt qualitative methods to source ideas. After going through this process, if we find a high-conviction security to be significantly over- or undervalued, the security will be included in our “stock idea pool,” from which our fund managers source candidates to be included in their funds.
Setting loss alerts is imperative to managing highly concentrated portfolios. Instead of a hard stop-loss rule – which often leads to the premature exit from positions in volatile markets – we have loss alerts set up to flare big price movements. When an alert is triggered, the investment case in question is reviewed independently by the original idea generator and another member of the investment team so that appropriate actions can be taken if necessary.
BM: Would you say that your long/ short strategy places greater emphasis on protecting downside than capturing upside potential? What is the rationale behind this strategy?
JC: Not exactly. We would say that our emphasis is to capture the opportunities on both the long and short sides while taking a more pro-active approach to downside protection against market beta, thereby achieving superior risk-adjusted returns. We give equal weight to mining upside potential and protecting against the downside: The idea is to strike a balance between the two. In our long/short strategy, we aim to provide our investors with a relatively stable stream of returns year after year.
The rationale behind this strategy lies in the fact that China is a relatively inefficient market and that there is a large performance gap between the best- and worst-performing companies. These market inefficiencies enable us to capture alpha on both the long and short sides. Most of our trades are not meant to capture relative returns as pair trades but to generate positive alpha on both the long and short books.
BM: In the China market, what tailwinds should we expect in 2018?
JC: A major catalyst we see in the China market is the comprehensive transformation of its economy. For example, China’s supply side reform, which is seeing initial success, is expected to make further steady progress. China’s economy has undergone a period of reflation since 2016, largely due to the impact of supply-side reform. As corporate profitability improves, the quality of bank assets is showing signs of improvement too. From a social perspective, the reduction in overcapacity is leading to better air quality, which in turn amasses greater public support for the supply-side reform.
Another catalyst we see is the speeding up of state-owned enterprise (SOE) reforms in 2018 and beyond. We believe that the reform will gradually shift the focus of SOEs from scale and top-line expansion to profitability. When the SOE reform gains momentum, both Hang Seng China Enterprises Index and Shanghai Stock Exchange Composite Index are bound for further re-rating given their currently undemanding valuations. We expect the reforms to lay a solid foundation for China’s continuous economic recovery in 2018. BM