S ince the bottom of the U.S. financial crisis in 2009, U.S. equities have climbed – first on recognition that the worst was over, then on acceptance of a modest recovery along with aggressive monetary policy and low inflation, and today on hopes that the recovery might gather greater steam. Along the way, valuations have expanded and the S&P 500 now trades at a high median price-to-earnings ratio that can only be justified by the lower government bond yields.

While PIMCO does not expect a bear market soon, there is no law that investors have to buy the entire market. In fact, as the current bull market continues to age, the movements of individual stocks and industries within broad market indexes are diverging more often. And as correlations recede, active investors are often more able to drive performance through a portfolio of individual stocks that represents good value, takes advantage of pockets of growth and capitalizes on near-term tactical opportunities in certain industries.

We favor pro-cyclical companies that will likely benefit from an improving economy while also demonstrating staple-like characteristics including strong free cash flow generation and attractive returns on invested capital. These businesses should better withstand macroeconomic risks and potentially dampen portfolio downside. In addition, we are focused on finding select mispriced, idiosyncratic opportunities that offer attractive upside potential. Within the PIMCO Long/Short Equity Strategy, we are emphasizing U.S.-centric companies in an effort to reduce currency risk and sensitivity to slowing global growth.

Capturing consumer demand
Lower oil prices and a strong dollar have been a drag on corporate profits, but they also benefit the U.S. consumer through increased buying power and lower gas prices. This trend, combined with stable jobs growth and rising consumer confidence, makes U.S. consumer stocks attractive. Arguably a primary beneficiary is lower income consumers and, by extension, dollar stores – which, even with the recent run in consumer discretionary names, we still believe have upside to come. Dollar stores remain one of the few retail sectors that are still expanding their store footprint materially.

We believe affordable luxury is on the rise as U.S. consumers look to splurge … a little. Companies offering premium brands and services at reasonable prices, or the ability to dine out, both as a treat and a necessary convenience, should capture market share as the consumer recovery continues. Quality apparel and shoes, dining out and travel are now luxuries that consumers seek at affordable prices. We are seeing consumer demand for more casual and athletic footwear and a shift toward “athleisure” apparel, which combines sporting performance with style for everyday wear. We own a mall-based athletic retailer that is well positioned to benefit from these trends. We have also found value in an apparel company that can offer products at multiple price points through its diversified portfolio of well established brands.

We view the U.S. consumer as a source of strength, but are selective because we see both headwinds and tailwinds for consumer company earnings. A stronger dollar benefits consumers, but it’s a headwind for companies with significant overseas operations. We have focused our investments in U.S.-centric companies to avoid the drag of foreign exchange on U.S. dollar earnings. The market has also been skeptical of multinational consumer stocks (see Figure 1).

Underappreciated healthcare businesses
The effects of an aging population and healthcare reform will be long-term growth drivers in the healthcare sector. We favor select outpatient services that may benefit from secular demographic trends. We own one of the largest drug distributors based on our view that the company should benefit from industry dynamics including brand-to-generic conversions and favorable drug pricing.

Though their business is more directly affected by health reform, hospitals may ultimately have significant upside as either the U.S. Supreme Court reaffirms current laws or, if not, Republicans in Congress offer replacements that preserve large portions of what already exists. While a Supreme Court decision may drive volatility among hospitals, it will also likely bring some clarity.

Mispriced banks
We believe select bank stocks offer attractive upside as fundamentals are strong and improving, while valuations continue to reflect legacy litigation and regulatory fines. While bank restructurings continue, we believe select banks are now well-capitalized and therefore able to make attractive payouts to shareholders. We believe the heavy regulation that U.S. banks currently face, while capping return on equity, may also help cap volatility of earnings. To the extent banks can begin to get beyond fines and charges that have become regular events post-crisis and begin to report consistently clean earnings and focus on capital return, some of the largest banks with the lowest valuations may see their prices grow as their valuations inch up and book values increase consistently. If that pans out slowly over time, investors may begin to look at banks somewhat less as high-risk ventures reaching for the highest return possible and a little more like utilities or staples that deliver slow but consistent growth and return excess capital through dividends and buybacks. It’s not as exciting as reaching for high return, but there are plenty of investors who would find that kind of investment attractive.

Idiosyncratic opportunities
Finding these stories is a rigorous process. For the PIMCO Long/Short Equity Strategy, twice a year we review all stocks that trade in the U.S. above a certain market capitalization. This forces us to stop and assess every industry and, if only briefly, consider every name in the space as a candidate for further research. The process is as exhaustive as it is exhausting. However, being thorough enables us to identify themes and one-off company ideas that we would never have found using shortcuts.

Among the more idiosyncratic names we’ve discovered is a mini-conglomerate that owns several businesses, such as shareowner recordkeeping, output solutions, healthcare processing and asset servicing. Our view is that the company’s previous CEO was an empire builder and used the company’s cash flow to make investments in other public companies, real estate, private equity and other unrelated businesses. Our thesis is that new management will likely monetize these non-core assets and return value to shareholders. In a slow-growth environment, companies that have the potential to unlock the value of existing assets may offer attractive upside potential to investors in almost any environment.

Another interesting idiosyncratic find is a wholesale vehicle auction service. The company provides auction services for sellers of used and salvage vehicles through both physical locations and websites. As a market leader in vehicle auction services in North America, the company is well positioned to benefit from the recovery in car auction volumes, in our view. There is a delay from when a car is sold (leased) new and when it ultimately could end up at a car auction (Figure 2). As new car sales (including leases) have been strong and accelerating, visibility on volumes is high over the next few years. Typically a car lease is three years, so in 2015, the company will benefit from 2012 leases that have been turned back into the dealer.

On the short side, we believe in a highly selective, stock-specific approach. We aim short positions at generating returns rather than simply hedging volatility. We are finding opportunities in companies that are sensitive to rising interest rates, such as utilities, REITs and telecom. These sectors have benefitted from low interest rates and investor demand for dividends. We believe select interest-rate-sensitive stocks are richly priced and these companies will suffer when rates eventually rise. We have also taken short positions in industrial stocks that are sensitive to slowing global growth and select oil service companies that we expect will struggle amid low oil prices.

Take advantage of market volatility
While equity markets have trended upward, investors remain concerned about corporate profits and a pending Federal Reserve interest rate hike. We expect the U.S. monetary normalization process could result in some short-term market volatility. The PIMCO Long/Short team will be actively looking to take advantage of market volatility, searching for growth opportunities at attractive price points.

We believe a selective, high-conviction approach is one of the best ways to generate attractive risk-adjusted returns today.

The Author

Benjamin Strom

Portfolio Manager, Long/Short Equity Strategies

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Past performance is not a guarantee or a reliable indicator of future results. Equities may decline in value due to both real and perceived general market, economic and industry conditions. Investments in value securities involve the risk the market’s value assessment may differ from the manager and the performance of the securities may decline. Investing in securities of smaller capitalization and mid-capitalization companies tend to be more volatile and less liquid than securities of larger companies. Investing in foreign denominated and/or domiciled securities may involve heightened risk due to currency fluctuations, and economic and political risks, which may be enhanced in emerging markets. Currency rates may fluctuate significantly over short periods of time and may reduce the returns of a portfolio. Entering into short sales includes the potential for loss of more money than the actual cost of the investment, and the risk that the third party to the short sale may fail to honor its contract terms, causing a loss to the portfolio. Derivatives may involve certain costs and risks such as liquidity, interest rate, market, credit, management and the risk that a position could not be closed when most advantageous. Investing in derivatives could lose more than the amount invested.

Statements concerning financial market trends or portfolio strategies are based on current market conditions, which will fluctuate. There is no guarantee that these investment strategies will work under all market conditions or are suitable for all investors and each investor should evaluate their ability to invest for the long term, especially during periods of downturn in the market. References to specific securities and their issuers are not intended and should not be interpreted as recommendations to purchase, sell or hold such securities. PIMCO products and strategies may or may not include the securities referenced and, if such securities are included, no representation is being made that such securities will continue to be included. Investors should consult their investment professional prior to making an investment decision.

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