Hello and welcome to Personally Invested. I’m your host, Dave Richardson.
I don’t think there’s a much more exciting area of investment markets than technology and health sciences. It’s an area of particular focus for investors throughout the pandemic and now as we’re moving past the pandemic. And so I’m really pleased to be joined by RBC Global Asset Management’s leads in this area, Robert Cavallo and Marcello Montanari. Guys, welcome to the podcast.
Yeah. Great. Thanks for having us.
Thanks for having us on.
So, as I said, this is an area that draws a lot of interest, particularly for new investors. But what’s happening all around us with respect to technology and what we’ve seen with the vaccine, and all the things around what’s going on in medicine and pharmaceuticals, all these areas are really some of the most exciting areas of life, not just investment. And you’ve managed to land in this fantastic place. But, Marcello, what drew you to getting into investment management in the first place? And then how did you end up where you are right now in terms of this particular area?
I’ve never been asked that question. If I had to put my finger on it, I think it was from my dad. My dad just loved playing stocks. He didn’t know really much about valuation and things like that, but he’d open up the paper every morning. He was just a restauranteur and just worked like a dog his entire life. But he loved the stocks and he kind of just got me into it. And so I went to university and took finance courses. Getting out of school, I ended up at a company called FRI Corporation that did third-party valuations of bond funds of individual bonds and stuff like that, because they weren’t quoted on exchanges and stuff.
Then I ended up at Canadian Bond Rating Service where they put me with the telecom team. And that was back in ‘95, so that was kind of at the beginning of the internet. And so they put me with the telecom team. I was fortunate because at Canadian Bond Rating Service, which is now Standard & Poor’s. By the way, management teams come in and they’re very open with you because they share a lot of nonpublic information. So it was really beneficial to be there because I met a lot of telecom people who are really smart. And the way they were talking about the internet and how it was coming about was really—I was so fortunate to be there.
So I moved from Canadian Bond Rating Service to RBC in the Montreal office. I’m originally a Montrealer. Bonjour à tous. And so they put me in telecom and then they started adding sectors to it, but it was always kind of telecom into tech, software, and stuff like that. So that’s how I ended up here. I was kind of at the epicenter of the Tech Bubble because I started RBC in ‘97, so I watched the bubble go up and was kind of part of it. And then watched it come down and managed to survive the whole experience. So that’s kind of the genesis of how I ended up here. Over the years I’ve taken different mandates from the firm and stuff. Back in 2016 when Ray Mawhinney was retiring, I’d actually been doing a lot of Canadian stuff at that point. They basically said, hey, do you want to come back and do tech? And I said, I’d love to do that. So that’s how I’m here.
Wow. And so what part of Montreal did you grow up in?
I grew up in Dorval.
Dorval, wow. So I grew up in Beaconsfield. Didn’t even know that coming into the taping. So that’s interesting.
Oui. Bonjour à tous mes amis à Montréal.
Yeah. For sure.
We’ll do a French version of this on a replay. That’s just so amazing. So you were right there at really the start of all of this.
And does that shape your view of where we are right now? Or does it make you more skeptical when we get into a period of enthusiasm like we have right now? Does it allow you to just see that where we are right now is just so dramatically different? So much passed where we were in the 1990s, that you see the opportunities?
Yeah. Well I think, like I’ve said before, I think it is very different. Back in the bubble, like everything was brand new. We use a lot of mental models here, and one of the ones that we like to use is something that was coined by a gentleman named [Michael Mobason] called “fill ‘n kill.” The idea behind that is that whenever you have a whole new ecosystem, what happens is that a speciation follows. Which is all these species or entities come in to fill up the ecosystem. Basically it kind of overcrowds the ecosystem, and it gets to the point where the system can’t handle that many new entities. And it’s happened in every industry you think of. You know, from hard drives to automobiles. There used to be 85 car companies in America. And then now we’re down to basically two, and three if you consider Chrysler American anymore. Anyway, so back in the tech bubble. It was a brand-new ecosystem. No one had ever seen anything like this before, so you had this flooding of ideas and companies come into it. You kind of had to step back and say, most of these things are not going to survive. And that’s exactly what happened.
The ecosystem gets filled and then it goes through a killing process where they basically thin out the herd. So that’s what we had in the tech bubble. Today is much different, because these are very well seasoned companies with real revenues, real returns, real business plans, real products, you name it. These things are for real. And at the end of the day, the most exciting thing about being here is, this is kind of the epicenter of innovation. It’s just every day you learn something new, and I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.
Yeah. It really is an exciting space. And we should get Rob in. I’m assuming, Rob, you grew up in Pointe-Claire? Right in between us? Or are you from another part of the country?
Close enough. No, I’m born and raised in Toronto. I took French Immersion through school, so I don’t know if that counts. But I’m a homegrown Torontonian.
So we can do that French podcast later. How did you get into investing? Is it a similar story or something different?
Yeah. I mean maybe not quite as exciting as Marcello’s, but I also took finance in university. And I knew I wanted to do something in the finance field. I wasn’t sure exactly where and what that role might be. And a few years after school, I realized that where I wanted to be was in equity research. So I actually started my career on the capital markets side, where I spent a number of years doing equity research. Which, if you’re curious and a know-it-all, there’s not many better jobs out there for you. So it was a great experience, coming in a range of sectors in Canada. So I started doing a lot of research on the consumer side first. And then eventually actually pretty quickly moved over to technology. So I spent a lot of time doing technology, as well as doing some health care technology.
Eventually a spot opened up on the buy side, I knew eventually I wanted to kind of move to the asset management side of the industry, and luckily joined the team at RBC in 2012. I originally started on the Global Equity team, so working with George Lewis, the former Head of Wealth Management for the bank. I was focused on the consumer and health care side of the market, just given my background. And similar to Marcello, I worked close with Ray Mawhinney. In 2016, the North American Equity Team thought it would be good to put myself with Marcello, just given our complementary but diverse backgrounds, and kind of take over the full responsibility for our health care and technology portfolios.
And we’re both Italian.
We’re both Italian, so it made sense to pair the two of us and separate us from the rest of the team.
So that’s where the expertise in high tech lies. I think we were all—you can tell, we were all influenced by Ray Mawhinney through our careers. We obviously miss Ray. Maybe he’s even listening, so we’ll hope for that.
Rob, let’s start with [you] because of your expertise in health sciences. The vaccine and the development of the vaccine that we’ve seen through the COVID crisis, and the speed with which it was achieved. Is that something that surprises you? Or something that, having watched this and watched technology evolve in that area, is it something that you thought was a possibility?
No. I mean I’ll very happy to admit that I was wrong. I was more confident that we would get to effective treatments and effective therapeutics, as opposed to effective vaccines. I thought the timeline would be much longer. So I’m very happy to have been wrong by probably about a year or so. I thought it was going to take an extra year versus what it actually did. In hindsight, I can understand why I was wrong. One, there was no real historical context for something to happen as quickly as it did. And two, I just completely did not appreciate the power of an industry coming together, and just putting everything out there, and being able to get something to market as quickly as they did. I very much underestimated what that ability was. Thankfully, there was a lot of companies out there with some vaccine expertise and new technologies that were sort of working in this field, so there wasn’t necessarily a start from zero. But completely astonished and beyond impressed about how the whole vaccine story came together.
So let’s focus more on say the last year in this space, because it’s been a pretty amazing story in terms of COVID hits. Many people are sent home to work from home instead of working in the office. And you really start to see how the evolution of technology, the internet, Wi-Fi, everything, comes together to allow basically the world to keep going in the midst of this global pandemic. And as you look at it, Marcello, when we were first in it—it’s pretty much a year ago today that we were first put into a lockdown and that the first travel restrictions were placed on Europe. Are you surprised at how easily we were able to adapt and take in these technologies and use them to continue to work and be productive?
I guess I’m surprised at the speed that we managed to do it more than anything, but I think these technologies had already set us on a path where we could do all of this. What the virus did was it really just kind of pulled everything forward. And, I mean, I know there’s nothing new in that, because it’s been repeated enough times, but just about every single trend that’s supported by this technology has been accelerated by the virus and the pandemic. So no, it doesn’t surprise me, but the speed that we did it and the fact that the companies involved managed to get through the pandemic as well as they did, is very impressive, very impressive. Again, like I said earlier, this is the most innovative part of the economy, so it’s just kind of ingrained in everyone who’s involved in it to basically solve problems. And I think that’s what happened at the end of the day.
Really the markets start to react to the pandemic in the middle of February, and bottom out towards the end of March—March 23rd to be specific. And then we rallied from there. So if you think of the experience as you’re coming into January, early February, global growth is pretty good. The technology sector is doing well and driving a lot of that growth and innovation as you say. How do you manage? What were you doing through your portfolio as you moved from pre-pandemic, through the crux of the market crisis part of the pandemic? And then position the portfolio coming out to take advantage of how technology helped the world manage through the early stages of the pandemic?
Oh, wow. I’m sure Rob is going to have some points to throw in here, but if I remember back to that period, we became very active. Basically kind of shifting things around the portfolio. It was clear that some companies were going to benefit more than others. So we were obviously adding to positions there. It was clear that some would be losers in this area. So the same thing, basically taking some money out of there. At first we were all pretty—it was kind of frightening to be completely candid. But once we saw the central banks around the world throwing liquidity at the market the way it did, it just became kind of, maybe not obvious, but it became very beneficial to any asset that had a long duration. And that’s a finance concept I hope the listeners will understand. And technology companies—we’re always kind of really discounting the far future when it comes to these type of companies, so they have longer durations. And as you know from valuing bonds and anything, whenever interest rates drop the way that they did, long duration assets benefit more so than others. So that was another element that came into play here benefitting the portfolio.
Rob, do you want to throw in a few thoughts on that?
Yeah, sure. I would say, I mean, one, it was unbelievably challenging. And it was challenging on the downside, and almost more challenging actually coming out of the depths of it. The only reason I say that is because on the downside there’s a little bit of a playbook. It’s let’s make sure we understand what companies could go to zero, because if the economy is going to shut down, there’s going to be some companies that are not going to potentially be able to survive. Let’s understand where our risks are there and reposition a little bit more to the companies that we know are going to come out the other side. What was more challenging though was coming out of it is, just it was such a “V” off the bottom that you just did not want to believe it. And it was a test of forgetting your own preconceptions and just kind of letting the market tell you what is happening, and trust what the market action is suggesting to you as opposed to what you think reality should be. As it was, just difficult, wanting to stay invested in some of these names just because of the uncertainty. So it was a big challenge. We made some mistakes. We got a few things right. And thankfully we feel like there’s a light now at the end of the tunnel. Knock on wood. But it was a very stomach turning few months there last year.
So what were maybe some of the two or three key areas or themes that you focused on as we were bouncing into that recovery, and what you thought would play out? Say through from April through to the election last year?
Well if I’m thinking about it, it was clear that a lot of retail was going to move online. So that was probably the most obvious one. So anybody who was deeply involved in online retail was bound to be a beneficiary. But then there’s the entire ecosystem around that. So you have all of the online advertising platforms and companies like that. Those benefitted as well.
And then there was all the kind of work-from-home players out there that made sure that connections were happening, made sure that security was in place for those connections, et cetera, et cetera. I’m sure Rob’s got a few thoughts too.
Yeah. I mean, along the same lines it was just really, again, following a playbook until there was high confidence on a vaccine. We had to let the “work-from-home” sort of run the playbook, with a close eye to vaccine developments, because that was understandably going to be where there could have been an inflection in the market. So to Marcello’s point, really, again, like many others, focus in on work-from-home and really avoiding names that were overly exposed to either brick and mortar or just a more open economy.
Yeah. And you obviously did a fantastic job managing through that. So then we kind of get to the next phase of the crisis. So we have the U.S. election, and get a result that I think, from a Canadian investment perspective, that people were fairly comfortable with. And then a week later, you get the announcement on a vaccine. At that point are you shifting your portfolio? Or were you already in the process of moving things around in advance of the election based on the way you thought it might play out, and that the vaccine might be coming in the not too distant future?
Maybe a couple things. The one qualifier there, what made it even more complicated, is that the election wasn’t necessarily a fully clear result. So while Biden won, there was still a lot of uncertainty around how Congress was going to fall. And if you recall, there was a runoff in Georgia that really sort of changed the complexion of the senate. So it was a little bit of a move right away, but it’s also the fact that what happened in January was going to very much dictate what was going to happen with stimulus. Which was going to be an important driver, we thought, for 2021. And ahead of the vaccine developments, it was difficult because even at that point, we didn’t really have much indication that the vaccines were going to be as good as they were. So it was difficult to do much prepositioning. I don’t know if Marcello wanted to jump in and thoughts as well.
Yeah. No, that’s all right, but we did a little bit around the fringes because we figured at some point —the market’s always forward-looking. So as it became, I guess, I don’t know if it was August or thereabouts. It started to become a little bit clearer that the vaccines were on an accelerated timeline, so we started moving some things around a little bit and reversing some of the positions that we had taken. And we also manage a number of other growth funds as well. So you would see those actions more in those funds where we could actually add some hotel companies, dabble in the odd airline and things like that. Restaurants. But for the most part, I guess a little bit less focus on some of the work-from-home type names and there’s a number of technology companies that were kind of harmed from the pandemic in terms of any company that has—that relies on long sale cycles and sales forces and lots of kind of professional services and the development work to implement systems, those guys all saw their business slow down because they couldn’t get people into their client’s location. So we started adding to those type of names and most of those are very large, well-known kind of software and the IT services companies. So we started kind of moving in that direction.
Yeah. And I think what I take away from this discussion with both of you --- walking through the through the whole circumstances coming into the COVID crisis, and then as we recover out of it from a market perspective -is just the level of activity and the expertise of being able to sit and look and identify fairly quickly the areas that you thought would be winners and position the portfolio. But then constantly adjusting along the way as the situation’s changing. I mean, I guess I would take it that that’s why you got into the business, to begin with. Which is what we started with, and as Rob said, it was a pretty exciting time.
Yeah. I mean, one thing I’d add to that is there’s increasingly this focus on value versus growth and cyclicality versus this. And increasingly a lot of firms are—I mean they take action based on factors like growth factors, momentum factors, and all these factors. So that’s kind of an overlaying to all of this where you see entire blocks of stocks move all in one direction because there’s a lot of players out there who are playing these factors. It adds a level of complexity to managing this, because as we’ve seen in the most recent last couple of days—and you see it within tech itself. The growth tech stocks the other days were like hammered. Okay? And some of the value tech stocks were actually up on the day. At the same time, some of the reopening trades were off very big. Then yesterday was the exact opposite. All the growth tech stocks were all up together. The value tech stocks were all down together. And so it’s just adding complexity. I wish I didn’t have to deal with it because I’d rather just pick stocks -- and I think Rob agrees -- we’d rather pick stocks that we just like. But you always have to be cognizant of some of the stuff that’s going on on top of it.
Yeah. Well, I mean that brings us forward to where I wanted to go next, which is kind of where we’re sitting right now. Obviously, we’ve seen treasury yields - so interest rates and concerns about inflation. Interest rates have moved higher and it sort of shifted the dynamic in the sector. We’ve seen some additional volatility. Where do you think we are right now and how are you managing through this period, Rob?
Well, again, I think we’re trying to say tactical because we are very confident around the long-term opportunities within life sciences and technology. But we’re aware that on a shorter-term basis, inside of a year, likely in 2021, more things can be driven by one, the absolute, but more likely the pace of change in yields and inflation and just market expectations around that. So we’re trying to be tactical. I mean — we’re going to stick with the names that we like best and then around the margin where we can tactically sort of play around names that maybe have—that can maybe soften some of the blow of a rising yield environment. So maybe the higher hypergrowth names are probably going to make up a smaller portion of what we do this year. Or at the very least, we’re going to be more selective about which of those names are included because as a group in a rising rate environment they’re probably more susceptible. So one example is sort of how we’re thinking tactically for 2021.
Yeah. And within tech, there’s plenty of sub-segments that are economically sensitive that’ll be able to kind of play into the reopening. For example, there’s a lot of computer-aided design companies, robotics companies. There’s certain players that are going to benefit—travel, in particular. Payment companies. So we’ve kind of shifted the portfolio to actually raise our weights in that area as well.
And is your view that this back-up in interest rates is something that’s going to continue or is this something that it’s happened very quickly, and we kind of level off here and take a step back? What are your thoughts in that? And is that impacting the way that you’re managing your portfolios?
Rob, do you want to handle that one?
Yeah. I can start, then feel free to come in as well. So I’d say one thing. The way we look at it is we’re not macro experts. So to come out and give point estimates of where we think rates will be at the end of the year we think is a bit of a fool’s game for our perspective. But we think that the upward pressures—or we think the pressure is probably to the upside. Given the pace of how things have moved, it probably would seem sensible that we’re going to get some sort of digestion in the near term. But we’re trying to say—again, we’re trying to stay nimble to the fact that things don’t always happen rationally. So a move from 150 to 2 on the 10-year and from minus 50, 60—minus 60 on real yields to 0, in theory, happens in small increments but in reality we know it can happen very quickly. So we’re trying to keep our finger on the pulse and making sure we’re not caught off guard and not trying to make too many predictions, and just let the markets sort of dictate to us what the right strategy should be in 2021.
Yeah. And it’s too bad that we’re doing this as a podcast, not a video, because the listeners could see just how nimble you two look. You’re two very nimble-looking guys. So their confidence would be—that would be inspiring. But just trust me. They know how to move around. Now, Marcello, I was listening to something you recorded the other day, and it kind of caught my attention. I thought it was an interesting perspective and I want to talk about it because the stock has bounced around. We’re not going to get into too many specific companies, but a lot of people look at Tesla and Elon Musk and you see this company that has risen to this incredible valuation. What lesson do you think investors, just an average investor can learn from the experience with Tesla? And what do you do with that in your opinion from an investment perspective?
Well, I mean I think you had mentioned it earlier. Tesla’s become kind of the poster child for electric vehicles. So my hat goes off to Elon Musk for taking the lead there. What he’s done there is quite something. But again, coming back to my earlier point of “fill ‘n kill”, whenever you have a new ecosystem, you have a whole bunch of species that come to fill the ecosystem. Tesla was the first of any significance. But now you’ve got a lot of big boys coming in to play the game as well, and Volkswagen is actually the largest manufacturer of electric vehicles right now - just people don’t really realize that. And the one lesson I would say, [to] share with investors, is imitation is the—what’s that phrase from Peter Lynch? Imitation is the sincerest form of battery.
So we’re getting to this place now where a lot of big boys are showing up to the game. They know what they’re doing. They’re not stupid. Volkswagen knows what they’re doing. Chevrolet, General Motors know what they’re doing. And again, coming back to tech investing, nothing hurts a tech investment like a lot of competition. And this is not small guys showing up to the party here. These are big guys. So we’d rather just be very careful around Tesla. We don’t own it at the moment. We think that if the sentiment changes because of the valuation—oh, and I forgot to mention it. I’m not sure where it stands today, but a couple weeks ago Tesla was worth more than all of the OEMs combined. And Elon’s done a great job of—he’s brilliant at adding S curves to his business even if they’re not there. But he’s brilliant at it. Oh, we’re a car company. Oh, we’re a truck company. We’re an SUV company. Oh, we’re a battery company. Oh, we’re going to be selling insurance.
So he adds all these S curves, and he helps keep the dream alive. But like I said, competition is coming. The stock is very dependent on sentiment and when people are able to see the market shares start to shift. And Tesla’s going to go from 100% market share to something lower. Tech markets don’t usually take that too well. So we’ll have to see how it plays out and my betting is that it’s not going to be the easiest needle to thread for Mr. Musk.
Yeah. And I think one of the key takeaways for listeners is that whole idea of sentiment driving the stock as much as anything that’s happening within the actual business.
And that when you’re buying into sentiment, maybe GameStop is an example of that for people who watch that.
It’s really hard. It’s harder to know where you really are. When you should be in, when you shouldn’t be in. You’re playing a game and it could work out the wrong way.
Yeah. I think I forgot to mention, but Elon’s done a really good job of positioning Tesla as something other than a car company. But at the end of the day, it is a car company and it’s going to live and die by its car company environment.
So, Rob. As you look and not just over the next couple of months, but over the next decade -- what are the two areas that you work in that you think are the most exciting from your perspective across technology or health sciences?
Yeah. Maybe I’ll give you sort of two broad, or a couple broad ones in each group. So all of the themes that you hear about out there whether it’s big data, artificial intelligence, the electric vehicle, automatic—the self-driving cars. All of these things are really powered by chips and semiconductors. I’d love to say I’m the one who coined it, but semiconductors are really kind of the new oil and it’s just an exciting industry that’s going to power all of these important themes. So I’m very constructive over a long period of time on semiconductors broadly. Within health care, again just a broad group. Biotechnology is going to be one of the key themes over the next decade in my opinion. We got a glimpse of it with how quickly a vaccine was developed, and it just goes to show the power of data and the power of how we are now able to more quickly, efficiently, and cost-effectively sequence genomes and what that’s going to mean for drug development.
So I think those are two areas I’m very excited by. I think there’s going to be a lot of humongous opportunities over the next decade and just feel fortunate to be able to spend my day looking at these individual stocks in those sectors.
Yeah. I have to admit, as I interview different investment managers, I feel pretty good about the job that I have. That they seem they’re investing in a very boring area. I’m kind of jealous as I listen to you guys because this is a pretty exciting place to be. Marcello, the same question to you. What are a couple of areas that you think are particularly exciting?
I would say I’m still really bullish on kind of the digital transformation of enterprise. I mean if there’s one thing the pandemic showed it was kind of like that classic Warren Buffet line about when the water recedes you get to see who’s swimming naked. And I think what the pandemic showed was you had a lot of companies that were dependent on third-party retailers to move their goods. And they woke up one day and discovered that all the malls were closed, and they had no way to sell things. Or if they did, they were highly dependent on Amazon. So they quickly realized that they needed to basically have an avenue to digitally interact with their client base. So that’s a perfect example of what needs to be done and it permeates like just about every enterprise across all their operations. So still really excited about that. And the other thing is just I mean even though it’s been 20 years that we’ve had kind of online—like the internet in terms of the opportunities for advertising and things like that. I mean this market—so internet advertising has now exceeded television advertising but TV is now—for the first time ever has actually started—TV advertising’s starting to roll over. And for years we were expecting that to happen and it didn’t happen and now it’s starting to happen. So it might bounce back now that we get back from the pandemic.
So that money is shifting and it’s going to shift somewhere, but it’s not just about advertising. Bernstein just did a paper on this or a report, and we’ve already been kind of thinking about this a long time but it’s not just about advertising because companies have. They have promotional fees, slotting fees, to make sure that their products are at eye level on the pharmacy shelves, and things like that. So all those promotional dollars are shifting as well. And you’re doing this and it’s benefitting a number of companies that have just absolutely incredible operating leverage where they’re getting like $0.80 on the dollar falls to the bottom line and they’re already at scale.
So as more and more of this money kind of shifts over, I think these companies are already gigantic, and I just think they’re getting bigger.
Well, guys, thank you very much for your time today. I think one of the reasons I love doing these podcasts and sharing them with all the listeners is [while] I get the pleasure of working very closely with our investment management teams and see you guys all the time, for everyone to appreciate the depth and level of understanding. The passion to find those great opportunities. The dedication that an investment manager has to have to maneuver, as you’ve clearly highlighted, some very, very complex markets with lots of different things going on, it’s really amazing. And you guys have done a fantastic job over the last year doing that. So Rob, Marcello, thank you very much for your time today.
Thanks, Dave. Appreciate it.
Thank you for having us.