City of London’s (CTY) objective is to provide long-term growth in income and capital. Bearing in mind the fact that this trust has the longest track record of providing annual dividend increases in the investment trust sector – 53 consecutive years – it is also true that a rising level of dividend income is a very important part of what CTY aims to provide for shareholders.
In the context of this very long track record having been developed by the company, it is reassuring for investors that the last 28 years worth of dividend increases have been delivered by the same manager: Job Curtis. Job has sole responsibility for CTY, although as we discuss in the Management section, he leans on his team members in Janus Henderson’s global equity income team to help him form ideas about relative valuations and changing industry dynamics.
Within the mandate, the manager has a certain degree of flexibility to invest outside equities (opportunistically in fixed interest or convertibles), and outside the LSE. As at the end of June 2019, Job had 10% invested overseas, in companies which all offer either better income opportunities or non-replicable exposures to that found in the UK. Overseas holdings (and income received in foreign currencies) have clearly had a beneficial impact over the last few years, but with the end to the Brexit process potentially looming, Job is gently positioning CTY towards more domestically-focused areas. He has built up exposure to what he views as resilient domestic themes such as UK housebuilders, and travel and leisure businesses, which should generally benefit from a rise in sterling, and which add portfolio stability.
Fundamentally, Job aims to invest in companies that have strong balance sheets, which, in share price terms, offer a margin of safety, and have demonstrably sustainable cash generation to support both dividends and capital expenditure for the future growth of the company. He likes to spread investments across a wide variety of companies. The board has encouraged him to concentrate the portfolio very slightly, which over the last financial year saw the number of stocks come down from 117 to 97.
Valuations are an important determinant in the investment process. Job has been paring back exposure to what he views as very highly rated ‘quality growth’ stocks, and reinvesting in high quality cyclicals and value stocks. This subtle shift shows up in our correlation analysis, and CTY has recently become more highly correlated with ‘value’, whilst correlation to ‘growth’ has declined. In our view, this is an interesting by-product of the investment process of CTY and a cautious UK equity income mandate. As a pragmatic and experienced manager, Job instinctively sells into ‘hot’ areas of the market, recycling into less well-appreciated areas.
NAV total returns over both the long- and the short-term have been ahead of the FTSE All Share index – which this year replaces the AIC UK Equity Income peer group as the benchmark. Job’s style means he is not aiming to ‘shoot the lights out’ in any one year by having particularly large weightings to any one sector. As such, he expects to outperform gradually over the medium to long term, and fully accepts that over short periods, he may underperform. We observe that the dividend focus and investment strategy generally lends itself to the trust outperforming during periods of market difficulty; since June 2008, the trust has outperformed the FTSE and the Morningstar Equity Income sector more often during periods where the FTSE All Share has fallen over the previous 12 months. Conversely, it has tended to lag in rising markets.
At the current price, the shares yield 4.5%, a decent premium to the AIC UK Equity Income sector weighted average of 3.9%. One of the key selling points of CTY is its dividend track record, which has seen the board pay an increased dividend for the past 53 consecutive years – the longest track record in the investment trust sector. The board has been able to add to revenue reserves for the past seven years, such that revenue reserves (as at 30 June 2019) are were 0.83x the current dividend level of 18.6p per share.
A premium rating has for quite some time been the norm for the trust. The board’s aim is that the share price should “reflect closely its underlying asset value” but also to reduce discount volatility. The company continues to issue shares, which over time has enabled the board to negotiate lower fees with Janus Henderson. The OCF was 0.39% in the last financial year, and the board predicts it will fall further once recently negotiated lower management fees have had a full year’s impact.