Out of
Our Minds

Ideas, arguments, and musings from inside Harding Loevner.
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Fewer Babies Means Better Business for Diaper Maker

Japan has been undergoing a baby bust for decades. In the early 1970s, there were years where more than 2 million babies were born in Japan, but since then, those numbers have declined steadily. By the 1990s, there were about 1.2 million babies born each year in Japan, while in 2022, births fell below 800,000 for the first time.

Source: The Statistics Bureau of Japan
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Can a Raw Deal Be Good for Netflix?

Did Netflix just put a headlock on the entertainment industry? On January 23, the company announced a US$5 billion deal to stream the professional wresting show Raw and other programs from World Wrestling Entertainment, expanding into live sports programming (the recent sexual-assault allegations against WWE founder Vince McMahon, which led to his resignation from the board of WWE’s parent company, appear unlikely to derail the partnership).

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Japan Digging Out of Chronic Deflation One IT Worker at a Time

In Japan, it’s common for an employee to work for the same company for their entire career. Indeed, lifetime employment has been a central feature of the nation’s economy since World War II, and with such limited job mobility, nominal wages haven’t grown for three decades.

Analyzing Industry Structure through Porter’s Five Forces Model

As bottom-up investors, we aim to invest in high-quality growth businesses at reasonable prices to provide superior risk-adjusted returns over the long term. To determine what constitutes a high-quality growth business, we research a company’s management, financial strength, growth prospects, and we closely examine the industry in which it operates to determine the company’s competitive advantage.

It’s as important to examine a company’s industry as it is to examine the fundamentals of a company. An analysis of industry structure can inform how well-positioned a company is relative to competitors, as well as the profit potential for the company.

Our analysis is guided by Harvard University professor Michael Porter’s Five Forces, which were first introduced in a 1979 issue of Harvard Business Review and later detailed in his 1980 book, Competitive Strategy: Techniques for Analyzing Industries and Competitors.

In this six-part video series, we examine each Porter Force and discuss how we use them to analyze industries. Watch the series introduction below and click through to see how we leverage Michael Porter’s Five Forces framework for industry analysis.

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Japan’s Past Hints at China’s Future

China faces a demographic shift similar to Japan three decades ago. Portfolio manager Jingyi Li explains how that comparison can help guide investors looking at China today.

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NVIDIA and the Cautionary Tale of Cisco Systems

NVIDIA, the giant semiconductor company founded by Taiwanese American Jensen Huang, seems invincible these days. Annual revenue has more than doubled since 2020. Its stock price has more than doubled this year and is up more than 700% over the past five years. It is one of the rare trillion-dollar market-cap companies.

Competitive Advantage and Pricing Power

Portfolio manager Jingyi Li discusses how several Global Equities portfolio companies are using their pricing power to navigate through this period of higher interest rates and higher inflation.

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The Democratic Republic of The Congo Could Be the Next Big Frontier Market, Eventually

The Democratic Republic of the Congo, which has abundant natural resources, rich farmland, and the powerful Congo River, has the potential to become the renewable-energy hub for the entire world and Africa’s breadbasket. I toured Kenya and the DRC in July on a trip organized by Nairobi-based Equity Bank, which operates a subsidiary in the DRC. As an analyst of frontier-market companies, what I saw intrigued me. The DRC is a nation with vast potential, as well as significant hurdles to overcome.

Navigating Conflict in the Middle East

Portfolio manager Anix Vyas, CFA, discusses how the current conflict in the Middle East is affecting International Small Companies portfolio holding CyberArk.

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Chinese Companies Look Better than China’s Economy

In 2023, Chinese markets have been roiled by continued trade tensions, slowing economic growth, and deleveraging in the property sector. Despite this difficult backdrop, there are reasons to be optimistic about the growth prospects of some Chinese companies. Portfolio Managers Andrew West, CFA, and Lee Gao discuss their current perspectives on China with Portfolio Specialist Apurva Schwartz, including how they weigh the opportunities and risks of investing in the market.

Slowdown in Economic Growth

Real estate, the biggest source of wealth for Chinese consumers, was in bubble territory and has been slowing for a while. This has negatively affected consumer confidence and household consumption.

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Cable Strikes Back

Most people viewed the recent contentious negotiations between Walt Disney and Charter Communications like a prize fight: two combatants, one winner.

I see it differently. Viewed through the lens of Michael Porter’s competitive forces, which we use at Harding Loevner to analyze industry dynamics, the dispute was a clear example of a change in the bargaining power of buyers amid the changing economics of streaming services.

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Ozempic and the Substitution Trade

The diabetes drug Ozempic has made headlines recently as the secret behind several slimmed-down stars of the Bravo network’s “Real Housewives” franchise. Tabloid fodder doesn’t usually matter to investors, but the story of Ozempic is one worth reading.

The twist is that Ozempic, a trade name for semaglutide, is a diabetes drug, not an obesity drug. Semaglutide is however effective in inducing weight loss; its creator Novo Nordisk markets a separate version called Wegovy specifically for obesity. Wegovy became so popular there were shortages of it, so doctors began prescribing Ozempic “off label” for a condition other than its intended use. That popularity fueled Novo Nordisk shares and this month it pushed past LVMH as Europe’s most valuable company.

Growth Opportunities from Electrification

Portfolio manager Scott Crawshaw highlights several companies in our Emerging Markets portfolio that are poised to benefit from increasing electrical power demand.

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Meta Accelerates Its AI Game

Meta has been quieter about its artificial-intelligence-focused endeavors this year than some of its big-tech peers like Microsoft and NVIDIA, but it expects just as massive a transformation of its business from the much-hyped technology.

In its second-quarter earnings conference call, Meta founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg detailed how AI permeates the company. For example, nearly all of Meta’s advertisers now use at least one AI-based product, allowing them, for instance, to personalize and customize ads. He also touted an increase of 7% in time spent on Facebook after launching AI-recommended content from accounts that users don’t follow.

Now the company plans an aggressive push of its own version of generative AI, the kinds of large language models that have gotten so much attention lately. In July, the company released an open-source—i.e., free for even commercial use—generative AI platform called Llama 2, which Meta hopes will emerge as a competitor to OpenAI’s GPT-4. Meta is betting its platform will unleash users’ creative potential and result in a flood of content. If that occurs, Meta’s powerful algorithms for matching content with users—4 billion of them across all of its platforms—will become indispensable as a content-discovery tool with a rich set of monetization options from advertising to ecommerce to subscriptions.

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Generative AI Through a Fundamental-Research Lens

The following is an excerpt from our second-quarter report for the Global Equity strategy. Click here to read the full report.

Anyone who has interacted with popular AI models—asked them about the mysteries of life and the cosmos or created convincing Van Gogh replicas using AI-enabled image generators—can sense that we may be in the midst of a technological revolution. That prospect has consumed equity markets lately, with seven US tech-related stocks responsible for most of the market appreciation in the second quarter.

As an investor in high-quality, growing businesses, we have always tried to position this portfolio to benefit from secular trends, the kind that transcend economic cycles and are driven by fundamental changes in key areas such as tech. Still, it is incredibly difficult for anyone to predict how such trends will unfold; the vicissitudes of cryptocurrency are a sobering reminder of this. Furthermore, as seen with the rise of the internet and, later, mobile connectivity, technology is merely a platform; it’s the applications of the technology that eventually determine many of the winners and losers. In the case of generative AI, some of the future applications may not yet be conceivable, although many companies, even outside the tech field, are now pondering the possibilities.

India: Four Takeaways from Our Travels

With high GDP growth and a rapidly expanding industrial base, there is a lot of optimism about the Indian economy. And having passed China earlier this year as the world’s most populous nation, there is the potential for a “demographic dividend” to bolster that growth in the coming decades. Recently, three Harding Loevner colleagues traveled to India to talk to companies and see conditions on the ground for themselves. In the video series below, portfolio manager and analyst Jafar Rizvi and analysts Sean Contant and Chris Nealand discuss what they saw on their trip and their perspectives on India with portfolio specialist Apurva Schwartz.

Vietnam’s Labor Costs, Taxes Attract Chinese Manufacturers

Portfolio Manager Wenting Shen, CFA, and Portfolio Specialist Apurva Schwartz discuss why Chinese companies are relocating production facilities to Southeast Asia. Watch the rest of their conversation.

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What P&G’s Pricing Decisions Tell Us About Inflation

Inflation has been the relentless economic theme of the last two years. Even with interest rates higher than before the pandemic, global supply chains no longer paralyzed by virus-related bottlenecks, and the World Health Organization declaring an end to the COVID-19 emergency, prices for goods and services in many parts of the world continue to climb.

As the world’s largest consumer-goods company, Procter & Gamble provides insight into what’s driving the pricing decisions at big brands.

How Are Earnings of Emerging Markets Companies Holding Up?

Portfolio manager Pradipta Chakrabortty discusses the earnings bright spots within emerging markets regions and sectors.

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Small Caps: Adventures in Fundamental Research

How do you begin to research a company when so little information is readily available beyond a name and a set of regulatory filings? This is the challenge that defines small-cap investing, an asset class that invariably entails an adventure in fundamental research.

The superheroes of the stock market—mainly US corporations valued at or close to a trillion dollars—tend to dominate investment news and research. And yet little-known small companies—often based outside the US—that never generate a headline remain some of the most vibrant sources of innovation. If the biggest large caps sell the finished products that investors and consumers know well, small caps often occupy a small niche along the global supply chain, providing a critical piece of technology known only to its intended audience.

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Macro Do’s and Don’ts

This commentary is excerpted from the Harding Loevner Third Quarter 2022 International Report.

One of our more acid-tongued colleagues likes to observe that “just because we don’t do macro, it doesn’t mean the macro cannot do us.” The observation is a challenge to our bottom-up investment philosophy and merits a response. What does his comment really mean? Is he correct?

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Going Home: An Account from China’s “Zero-COVID” Frontline

Prior to COVID-19, Wenting Shen travelled to China regularly to visit managements of current and prospective investments. Round-trip travel to China from the US was impossible during the first two years of COVID-19, but recent easing of US travel restrictions encouraged her to plan a trip. With seats going fast, she snagged one on a flight from Newark to Shanghai for March 30. After three negative PCR tests over seven days at a Chinese-government-approved clinic in Queens, New York, she was ready to fly.

But days before Shen’s departure, new complications arose: outbreaks of the Omicron variant in several Chinese cities, including Shanghai, were prompting citywide lockdowns. The flight was still due to depart, but had been rerouted to Fuzhou, a coastal city across the strait from Taiwan, 450 miles to the Southwest.

The natural—some would say, prudent—decision at this point might have been to postpone her trip. But Shen, worried she might not easily get another ticket, pressed ahead. Here are her travel bulletins.

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A Ground’s Eye View on Inflation and Its Persistence

The pandemic sowed the seeds of today’s inflation. That much is clear. Last year, fear and government-mandated lockdowns sparked a global recession. Businesses rushed to cut production ahead of an anticipated slowdown in consumption, or were hobbled by forced plant closings, anxious workers, or snarled logistics. But the sheer sweep of the income support in many developed countries meant that household incomes didn’t fall nearly as far as had been expected based on the rise in unemployment. Unable to spend on services like eating out and travel, consumers flush with cash turned to buying, or attempting to buy, big-ticket goods and better houses.

The outsized demand for durable goods has run headlong into the diminished supply. While the springboard for price increases may have been reduced supply, the strength and persistence of those increases, which are now feeding through to labor markets, are raising the specter that aggregate demand is outpacing even normalized aggregate supply. There is precious little that monetary policy can do to counter supply-led inflation, but—Omicron willing—it is likely to be temporary. But if inflation comes to be led by stubborn excess demand, then tight monetary policy is the orthodox response, and we can expect central banks to hit the economy over the head with a brick to prevent a sustained wage-price spiral. Demand-led inflation would have significant implications for asset prices.

Inflation is notoriously difficult to forecast; even some at the US Federal Reserve (Fed) concede that it has no working model for inflation.1 We could do no better and accordingly make no effort to forecast future inflation. What we can do is talk to the companies we own or follow and tease out the impact on their earnings from the rising input costs they’re experiencing; their changing bargaining power vis à vis their suppliers; whether they are able to pass on higher costs to their customers before stifling demand; and how all that is coloring their business outlook. The following represents what our research analysts have been able to glean from those conversations.

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What’s Driving China’s Regulatory Transformation

On the surface, there are few precedents for China’s quick-fire regulatory changes, which over the past few months have transformed everything from e-commerce and education to health care and real estate.

One can only speculate on the reasons for this synchronous timing, but one possibility that stands out is the confluence of the five-year policy and leadership cycles in China. This is the first year of the 2021-25 Five-Year Plan, but more importantly, it is the final full year before the top 200 or so members of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China are selected at its National Congress in October 2022. It bears remembering that those politicians are similar to counterparts elsewhere in facing challenges that have diverted them from other priorities. They spent the first two years of their terms coping with escalating US-China trade tensions, and just when “normal order” loomed after the signing of the Phase One trade agreement, COVID-19 hijacked everyone’s lives. Only recently have they gotten a chance to work on much-delayed goals.

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Big Health vs. Big Tech: A Fight over the Future of US Health Care

The $4 trillion US health care system represents both the best and worst of health care globally, responsible for the vast majority of leading-edge treatments and providers as well as high rates of uninsured, a staggering $11,000 in annual expenditures per person, and among the worst levels of infant mortality and life expectancy in the developed world. The system’s structure—a hodgepodge of private employer-subsidized, public, and quasi-public insurers, for-profit and not-for-profit networks and unaffiliated providers—famously incentivizes some providers to ring up higher volumes of procedures while inflating fees to cover the huge overhead required to administer the complexity.

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Too Much Information

In the late 1950s, in his book Common Stocks and Uncommon Profits, Phil Fisher recommended making investment decisions based on “scuttlebutt,” the kind of information an investor could get by asking around. This entailed tracking down and interrogating customers and competitors, employees, and former employees. Doing research, in the sense of gathering evidence and analyzing it to reach a conclusion, was hard work, but enabled analysts committed to such intellectual labor to obtain an edge over their competitors simply by having better, and more complete, information.

Indeed, when I started my career in investing in the late 1970s, obtaining even basic financial info about a German car company still required going to Germany and knocking on the company’s door.

Now gathering information no longer takes much effort. We are deluged by floods of data—not only the details of prices, volumes, margins, and capital investments of individual companies, but also highly granular data about credit card receipts, numbers of cars in parking lots, or words used in media reports. These new, “alternative” sources of information have briefly given some stock pickers a slight edge in predicting short-term stock price movements. The informational advantage provided by such data is but fleeting, however; once this data is commercially accessible to everyone, the advantage disappears. Thus, even for the short-term investor, information gathering itself no longer provides a lasting edge.

For long-term investors, the relationship to information has changed even more fundamentally. You no longer need to seek information; it finds you. Your job, rather, is to act as what Lou Gerstner, the former CEO of IBM, called an “intelligent filter”—determining the information that is important and ignoring data that (in the case of the investor) doesn’t help you forecast cash flows and estimate the value of a security.

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When Will Life Return to Normal?

If we are honest with ourselves, it is a question that almost all of us, as investors and people, are probably wondering right about now. In this case, it took the form of the following note from a young colleague based in locked-down London directed to me and my fellow Health Care analyst as part of the daily, ongoing Research Information Group email discussion that has always comprised much of our meeting, brainstorm, and “water-cooler” time here at Harding Loevner.

Considering the challenges of [vaccine] manufacturing and distribution, what would be your best estimate for when developed economies will return to “normality”? I.e., people in developed economies are allowed—and feel safe enough—to live a life more like 2019. E.g., Sept 2021? Jan 2022? Never?

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Out of Our Minds—From the Beginning

People who know a little about the history of our firm sometimes credit us with being ahead of our time. When we set out 30+ years ago we made an early decision that we would only invest in stocks of high-quality companies capable of growing revenues and cash flows over long periods of time, and then only when we could purchase them at reasonable prices. Mind you, this was two years before Eugene Fama and Kenneth French proposed their three-factor model incorporating value, and more than a decade before Cliff Asness’s seminal work on quality or the conflicting studies on the long-term premium provided by growth. So, we weren’t thinking of these aspects of our process as “factors,” or permanent sources of returns, in the current sense of the term. We thought they were merely sensible principles, based on our own beliefs about the markets, that would give us the best chance of achieving the above-market returns necessary to satisfy our clients and sustain our fledgling enterprise. Considering we had left well-paying jobs to stake our futures on these ideas, there were probably some people who thought us out of our minds. And, in a sense, they were right.

Disclosures

“Out of Our Minds” presents the individual viewpoints of members of Harding Loevner on a range of investment topics. For more detailed information regarding particular investment strategies, please visit our website, www.hardingloevner.com. Any views expressed by employees of Harding Loevner are solely their own.

Any discussion of specific securities is not a recommendation to purchase or sell a particular security. Non-performance based criteria have been used to select the securities discussed. It should not be assumed that investment in the securities discussed has been or will be profitable. To request a complete list of holdings for the past year, please contact Harding Loevner.

There is no guarantee that any investment strategy will meet its objective. Past performance does not guarantee future results.

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