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Oct 10 2011

3rd Quarter 2011 Commentary - ASTON/River Road Small Cap Value Fund

3rd Quarter 2011

Stocks Plunge as Macro Risks Intensify

Equity markets plunged during the third quarter as investors reacted to a string of negative macroeconomic events beginning with the debt ceiling fiasco in Washington and the subsequent U.S. debt downgrade by Standard & Poor’s, followed by the deepening financial crisis in Europe and a general slowing of economic growth around the globe.

The broad market S&P 500 Index declined nearly 14% during the quarter, its biggest drop since the fourth quarter of 2008 and the second worst calendar third quarter since 1928. Small-cap stocks suffered even worse, with the Russell 2000 Index plummeting almost 22%—its second worst third quarter on record. We had warned investors about the overvaluation of small-cap stocks relative to large-caps for several quarters. That valuation gap collapsed amid the decline as small-caps underperformed large caps by more than seven percentage points (as measured by the Russell 2000 vs. Russell 1000 Index)—the widest spread since the first quarter of 1999.

Investors dumped both low-quality and high beta (volatility) stocks as the risk trade collapsed during the third quarter. Within the Fund’s Russell 2000 Value Index benchmark, the lowest beta stocks (first quintile) lost only 9% during the quarter versus a stunning decline of 36% for those with the highest beta (fifth quintile). In terms of quality, stocks in the top quintile for return-on-equity (ROE) outperformed the lowest ROE quintile by more than 13 percentage points.

From a style perspective, performance was mixed across market caps. Value modestly outperformed growth among small-caps during the quarter driven largely by greater weightings in the more defensive Utilities and Healthcare sectors. Growth still leads value by nearly three percentage points for the year-to-date through September 30, however, as the overall trend favoring growth has been broad-based. On a sector basis, all 10 economic sectors in the benchmark posted negative returns during the period. Utilities posted the least negative return, while Energy and Telecommunications delivered the worst returns.

Avoiding the Risk Bandwagon

The Fund significantly outperformed its benchmark during the third quarter, boosting its returns ahead of the index for the year-to-date through the end of September. To put that into perspective, only 40% of active small-cap value managers outperformed the index during the quarter (according to Lipper Analytical Services and BofA/Merrill Lynch). Based on our historical observations, such weak performance is unusual in sharply declining markets.  Conservative, value-oriented managers typically shine in environments of heightened risk and volatility. As mentioned in prior commentaries, however, we observed an unusually large percentage of small-value managers outperforming when the market was advancing sharply higher in the months following the announcement of the second round of quantitative easing (QE2). To us, this trend not only reflected heightened equity correlations, but also that value managers, as a group, were jumping on the risk bandwagon. 

We believe investors and their advisors should take note of this trend. Not only is strategy consistency critically important in the context of an investor’s broader investment portfolio, but low-volatility stocks can help investors weather volatile periods without sacrificing long-term growth. Stocks that go down less require less upside to return to even, an advantage that can become especially valuable in a whipsaw, low-growth market.

We believe the key driver behind the Fund’s improvement during the third quarter was the market trend favoring lower-beta, higher-quality securities. The sectors with the highest contribution to relative performance were Consumer Discretionary and Industrials, highly cyclical sectors where our stock selection was distinctly less-cyclical, higher-quality, and somewhat more defensive. In addition, merger & acquisition (M&A) activity that carried over from the second quarter boosted a couple of individual names. As noted in our last commentary, the portfolio experienced five transactions during a roughly 50-day period ending July 7. We were excited about the developing M&A theme, but when the market rolled over into the third quarter M&A slowed and no further deals occurred in the portfolio.

The top two contributors to performance during the quarter were acquisition targets Immucor and APAC Customer Services. Healthcare technology company Immucor announced an agreement to be acquired by private equity firm TPG Capital for $27 a share—a 30% premium to the previous day’s closing price, and above that of our assessed Absolute Value. The potential for acquisition was part of our initial investment thesis due to the board-level involvement of ValueAct, an activist investment firm with a history of helping companies secure buy-out deals. Call center outsourcing provider APAC was purchased in an all-cash deal at a huge premium to its prior closing price. Both stocks were sold soon after their buy-out announcements.

Another top contributor was Rex Energy, a small independent energy company engaged in the exploration, development, and production of natural gas and oil. Rex reported strong second quarter results in July, with production up significantly from last year as the company raised its 2011 production guidance. In addition, Rex released an operational update in mid-September showing that its new wells in the Marcellus Shale were producing at a higher rate than expected. The Fund continues to hold a position in the stock.

Underweight Stakes Lag

The primary detractor from relative performance during the quarter came from significant underweight positions in the Utilities and Financials sectors. Both sectors outperformed the overall index, Utilities by an especially wide margin. Among the biggest individual detractors from returns were Brink’s, Miller Energy Resources, and WMS Industries.

Security company Brink’s was the biggest individual detractor after it reported mixed second quarter results as its North American segment continues to suffer from pricing and volume pressures driven by aggressive competition. Weak organic growth and sovereign debt fears in Europe also pressured the stock. Industry consolidation fortunately eliminated a low-price competitor in March, which should help alleviate pressure in North America. A continuing bright spot for the company was in the Emerging Markets of Latin America and Asia-Pacific, both of which posted sizeable organic revenue growth. We maintained the Fund’s position in the stock on expectations of an improving outlook.

Shares of micro-cap exploration & production company Miller Energy fell sharply after a blogger questioned the value of its oil and gas assets in Alaska. The stock fell further after the company, in conjunction with newly appointed auditor, KPMG, was forced to restate its cash flow statement in its latest annual filing. Although the change did not impact our assessed Absolute Value, investor confidence was damaged once again. Prior to these negative developments, River Road sent a team to perform on-site due diligence on the company’s primary oil and gas operations in Alaska and believe they support the fundamental long-term value of the company. Given the large loss, however, we trimmed the position.

Gaming equipment manufacturer WMS traded down sharply after management lowered the top end of its 2012 revenue growth range and withdrew its margin guidance. Although overall quarterly results and guidance were in-line with our estimates, Wall Street was disappointed.  The replacement cycle for slot machines has not occurred as quickly as anticipated and, in response, the company announced a 10% reduction in its workforce. Several sell-side analysts issued downgrades on the company as a result. We were encouraged that the firm repurchased stock during the quarter and Chairman and CEO Brian Gamache personally purchased a significant amount of the stock in the open market after the earnings disappointment. Despite WMS being a relatively new position, we trimmed the size of the holding due to its significant loss in the portfolio. 

Positioning and Outlook

During the quarter, nine new holdings were purchased and 11 companies were sold from the portfolio. The new positions added were diversified across a broad range of industry groups, with two-thirds having a market-cap of less than $1 billion and only one, DreamWorks Animation SKG, having a market-cap greater than $2 billion. Among the companies sold, five achieved their Absolute Value price targets and six were sold due to either accumulated losses and/or a negative change in our fundamental outlook for the firm. Three of the six losers sold during the quarter were in the capital markets industry, including Federated Investors, Knight Capital Group, and Artio Global Investors.

Since the beginning of 2011, much of our outlook has been focused on how we believed the market would react to the expiration of QE2. From our perspective, the extraordinary liquidity provided by QE2 effectively extended the risk trade from April 2010 through February 2011.  The average “early stage” recovery, when high-beta, low-quality and more-cyclical stocks tend to dominate, is about 14 months (excluding the tech bubble period). With QE2, the most recent high-beta recovery lasted 24 months. Since QE2 did little to stimulate actual demand for anything other than financial assets and commodities, equity markets became increasingly disconnected to the underlying economy. Prior to the recent correction, for example, small-cap stocks were experiencing the strongest post-war recovery on record, while U.S. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth was experiencing the weakest. Such gaps eventually close.

This is why we communicated our belief at the beginning of 2011 that the following two events would occur as the Federal Reserve began to wind down QE2: 1) investors would begin to de-risk their portfolios and low-beta/high-quality stocks would begin to outperform; and, 2) given stretched valuations, the small-cap market would experience at least a modest correction.  We anticipated the correction would signal the market’s entry into the mid-stage of the recovery, where earnings (and investor expectations) begin to moderate, and that the Fund’s relative performance would improve substantially as these events unfolded.

We did not foresee the Arab Spring, the natural disasters in Japan, the European financial crisis, or the debt ceiling debate in Washington. Thus, although our outlook for 2011 was bearish relative to most of Wall Street, we did not anticipate the severe contraction in economic growth or the depth of the correction in equity markets.  We simply knew speculative froth was high and the Fed had few remaining effective options. It was a time for caution.

Although investors still face many of the same challenges now as in early 2011, we believe the risk/reward proposition is greatly improved. Risk assets around the world have plunged in price, yet small-cap earnings have held up reasonably well. Many companies never unwound their austerity measures from the 2008 recession as they recognized, and subsequently learned how to manage in, a slow-growth world. Unlike 2008, corporate balance sheets are also in excellent condition.

Still, we think macroeconomic risks remain elevated. Since the end of June, the likelihood of a recession in Europe and the U.S. has increased substantially. The odds of a financial crisis (and associated contagion) emanating from Europe have also increased. Large U.S. banks remain weak, growth in key markets like China has slowed appreciably, and the political environment in Washington remains unstable and unpredictable.  We believe that many of these risks have already been discounted in equity prices, however.

We are not suggesting that investors return to what has worked during the past two years—a high-beta, high-risk investment strategy—just the opposite. We think this is a mid-stage, cyclical transition in a low-growth environment. It is not the beginning of a new bull market. Thus, it is a time for investors to seek high-quality companies which, in many cases, were left behind during the earlier recovery. Investors should not rush to reinvest. Current volatility is likely to continue and we believe the market may remain trading in a broad range through the 2012 presidential election or beyond. For most, averaging-in over a period of months during pullbacks is better than rushing in only to question your decision if the market sets new lows. This certainly proved to be the case in 2008-2009.

Finally, the Fed remains both a blessing and a curse. Its actions are at least temporarily supporting the price of commodities and financial assets, but there appears to be limited benefits to the real economy. We believe that, ultimately, the Fed is making it more difficult for the financial system to purge its excesses and rebuild. If there is a QE3 and high-beta stocks have a temporary resurgence, we urge investors not to get caught up in the euphoria. We believe stocks could respond negatively to further quantitative easing, as they did following the announcement of “Operation Twist.”  Thus, we urge investors to stay focused on high-quality portfolios of companies that can survive, and perhaps thrive, in a period of low economic growth. 

River Road Asset Management
10 October 2011

As of September 30, 2011, Immucor comprised 0.00% of the portfolio’s assets, APAC Customer Services – 0.00%, Rex Energy – 0.67%, Brink's Co. – 2.97%, Miller Energy Resources – 0.53%, WMS Industries – 1.00%, and DreamWorks Animation – 0.82%.

Note: Small-cap stocks are considered riskier than large-cap stocks due to greater potential volatility and less liquidity. Value investing often involves buying the stocks of companies that are currently out of favor that may decline further.

Before investing, carefully consider the fund’s investment objectives, risks, charges and expenses. Contact 800 992-8151 for a prospectus containing this and other information. Read it carefully. Aston Funds are distributed by BNY Mellon Distributors Inc.


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