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Brisk earnings advances, thanks mainly to internal revenue generation rather than cost cutting -- that's a key feature of companies that managers of the Loomis Sayles Growth Fund (LGRRX) are interested in. Using a

discounted cash-flow model, the fund invests in larger-cap stocks with annual earnings-per-share growth of at least 11% and upward profit revisions.

For the one-year period through Oct. 29, 2004, the $74 million fund gained 6.8%, vs. 3.5% for the average large-cap growth fund. For the three-year period, it has returned 5.9% on an annualized basis, while the peer group rose just 0.5%. Based on risk-and-return characteristics over the last three years, Standard & Poor's gives the fund its highest rank of 5 STARS.

The portfolio is somewhat less volatile than its large-cap growth peers, as reflected by its lower

standard deviation. Its expenses are also lower. However, turnover runs high, making it a better fit for nontaxable accounts.

While the fund started operations in May, 1991, the current management team -- Mark Baribeau (on board since April, 1999), Pamela Czekanski (January, 2000), and Richard Skaggs (January, 2000) -- is approaching its fifth anniversary together. The group also manages the USAA Mutual Growth Fund (USAAX) and USAA Growth & Tax Strategy Fund (USBLX).

Palash Ghosh of Standard & Poor's Fund Advisor spoke recently with Skaggs about the fund's investing strategy and top holdings. Here are edited excerpts of their conversation:

Q: How do you select stocks for this fund?

A: We screen companies with market caps of at least $3 billion -- our median market cap is about $20 billion, our weighted cap is about $53 billion -- that are chartered in the U.S. This gives us a universe of 500 to 600 stocks. Next, we screen for companies with a minimum annual earnings growth rate of 11%. We avoid those that are increasing earnings primarily by cutting costs. Instead, we seek profit growth driven by internal revenue generation.

We like companies that can become market leaders and possess leading products, sustainable competitive advantages, and strong management teams. The company must also have an above-average, preferably rising, return on capital, and stable or upward earnings revisions.

At this stage, we have filtered our universe down to 100 to 125 stocks. Our goal is to construct a portfolio of 45 to 55 stocks, and we currently have 51. We use disciplined fundamental analysis, including meeting with management and reviewing financial statements to measure risk-reward profiles. We measure a stock's prospects for price appreciation by evaluating the company on a discounted cash-flow model.

Q: How, if at all, did your team change the way the portfolio was run when you took it over five years ago?

A: We moved the fund exclusively to large-cap growth. The prior managers adhered to a more multi-cap growth strategy.

Q: What are your largest holdings?

A: As of Sept. 30, 2004: eBay (EBAY), 3.7%; Microsoft (MSFT), 3.4%; Avon Products (AVP), 2.6%; Home Depot (HD), 2.6%; Qualcomm (QCOM) 2.5%; Apple Computer (AAPL), 2.5%; Procter & Gamble (PG), 2.5%; UnitedHealth Group (UNH), 2.4%; Zimmer Holdings (ZMH), 2.4%; and Johnson & Johnson (JNJ), 2.4%. The top 10 stocks accounted for 26.9% of total assets.

Q: What steps do you take to control risk?

A: Although our stock-selection process is bottom up, we impose certain constraints to control risk and volatility. For example, none of our individual holdings can exceed 5% of total assets, and we typically don't go above 4%. An individual stock's weighting in the fund reflects the magnitude of our conviction in that company.

Also, our industry exposure is typically under 25%. Our sector exposures are never twice the allocation in our benchmark, the Russell 1000 Growth Index, for sectors that represent more than 10% of that index.

Q: Can you illustrate how your discounted cash-flow analysis works?

A: We maintain a discounted cash-flow model for all our holdings and update them periodically. For example, one of our smaller holdings, Chico's FAS (CHS), a specialty retailer, just reported quarterly earnings that we thought would be negatively affected by their presence in hurricane-ravaged Florida. However, Chico's posted better-than-expected profits, in-line revenues, and much better-than-expected margins.

Based on the earnings surprise and the company's expansion plans in 2005, we updated our discounted cash-flow model and raised the stock's price target to about $50. It's currently at about $38, and we think it can reach the target in 6 to 12 months, convincing us to add to our position.

Q: What are your top sectors?

A: As of Sept. 30, 2004: Technology, 22.5%; consumer discretionary, 21.5%; health care, 16.0%; financial services, 14.4%, and energy, 7.2%. Relative to our benchmark, we currently have an overweight position in consumer discretionary, technology, and financial services, and a significant underweight stake in health care and energy.

These sector weightings don't reflect any macroeconomic bets at all. They're simply a result of certain individual stocks showing up on our screens. For example, our exposure to the consumer-discretionary sector includes eBay, VeriSign (VRSN), retailers like Home Depot, Coach (COH), Chico's FAS, and Starwood Hotels & Resorts (HOT). We like these individual companies -- but not because we're necessarily so bullish on the consumer. On a bottom-up basis, we have identified these stocks as having strong earnings power with moderate risk and reasonable valuations.

Q: Can you discuss some of your top holdings?

A: eBay is our top holding, and we have owned it for three continuous years. Even though eBay has a high p-e, the company is growing its revenues by 50% annually and has a solid franchise and globally recognized brand name. eBay's acquisition of Paypal was brilliant, solidifying the company's trading platform. Three years ago, eBay's chief executive, Meg Whitman, laid out an outstanding business strategy, and the company has executed it perfectly. We think eBay's stock can move up to the $135 to $150 per share range over the next 6 to 18 months.

We purchased Home Depot in the second quarter of 2004 after the company reported significantly better-than-expected margin acceleration. After listening to management's conference call, we updated our discount cash model on the stock. Margin expansion, on top of consistently steady sales growth, makes it very attractive.

Johnson & Johnson is the one large-cap pharmaceutical stock that we like. The company has a nearly unmatched record of earnings consistency, unlike peers such as Merck (MRK) or Bristol-Myers Squibb (BMY). Johnson has superior return-on-equity and double-digit revenue growth. It generates about 25% of its sales from consumer-staples products, giving it a better mix of businesses than the pure pharmas. JNJ has also been less affected by drug-patent expirations, which have hurt Merck and Pfizer (PFE).

Q: What has driven the fund's performance this year?

A: We think the market is rewarding companies whose earnings growth has been driven by internal revenue growth, including such names as eBay, Apple Computer (AAPL), Home Depot, Coach, Moody's (MOC), and Dell (DELL).

Apple, which at one time reached a 4% position in the fund, has been particularly strong for us. The stock price has tripled in value this year, as the company's iPod franchise and iTunes brand have been highly successful.

Q: You have no exposure to consumer staples?

A: We are underweight there because we're not seeing any internal revenue-driven earnings growth from companies like Colgate-Palmolive (CL) and Procter & Gamble. Although Procter was one of our top holdings as of Sept. 30, we've been scaling it back over the past six months. P&G executed their turnaround wonderfully. They're generating solid numbers, and they're likely to benefit from the weak U.S. dollar. But the bottom line is that this a high single-digit revenue grower, not our ideal type of holding.

However, within consumer staples, we like Whole Foods Market (WFMI), which has consistently generated 15% to 20% annual revenue growth and boasts a solid store-opening expansion strategy.

Q: What are your sell criteria?

A: We typically sell when a stock hits our price target, or when we identify the potential for deteriorating returns, namely a negative earnings surprise, a failure by the company to realize a positive catalyst, a weakening of competitive positions, or a significant management change.

Q: Can you cite a recent sale?

A: Avon, which was one of our top 10 stocks as of Sept. 30, has been reduced to a zero position in the past month. While the company's global cosmetics business is terrific, with enormous potential in Asia, their U.S. operations have delivered sluggish results for three consecutive quarters.

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