The fund that avoids the herd

By Alex Brummer, March 18, 2010

Fund management groups come in all shapes and sizes. One boutique manager which is punching above its weight, with funds spanning the globe from Russia to Japan, is Hammersmith-based Neptune Investment Management.

Founded in 2002 by Rugby and Oxford educated Robin Geffen, Neptune has demonstrated an ability to succeed in the most difficult market conditions.

And despite Geffen's traditional English public school background he remains conscious of his Jewish heritage.

Neptune operates a more open architecture than many of its competitors, taking journalists along on company visits - in the last three years I have accompanied Geffen to Moscow, Chicago and Tokyo - and it tends to reach its investment view on a cooperative basis.

So although each of its funds has its own manager, the macro-view is reached through consensus, taking into account the research of the group's bright young chief economist, James Dowey, in addition to Geffen himself.

While Japan may not be the powehouse it once seemed, it still has its virtues

Rather than conventionally following the indexes like many fund managers, Neptune makes its individual stock picks on the basis of its own judgement.

Moreover, it has no hesitation in selling a stock in which it has been a long-term holder if the company springs a surprise. This is something I observed personally in Russia three years ago when Geffen decided to divest a well-known holding company after the firm decided - without telling shareholders - to diversify into telecoms in India.

Geffen's fund management career began at Charterhouse J Rothschild where he was a graduate trainee. He moved on through Eagle Star and Scottish Equitable before joining a smaller manager Orbitex Investments as chief investment officer in 1997. It was in this role that he established his reputation as a shrewd stock picker and was one of the few managers to successfully navigate their way through the dotcom crash a decade ago.

Neptune is still relatively small, ending 2009 with £5 billion under management having doubled its assets over the year. At a time when other fund management groups, like industry giant Fidelity, are heavily marketing China as an investment venue, Geffen is taking a strong interest in Japan.

At present Japan is unfashionable among investors. The country is burdened with debt levels at 227 per cent of national output, which make the accumulated borrowings of Greece and Britain look modest. It is a nation where standards of living have barely risen over the past decade, it suffers from deflation and faces complex social trends.

Japan's very cohesive population is aging faster than any of the other advanced economies, with more than 25 per cent of the population expected to be over 65 years old by 2020 and the number of centenarians reaching 40,000 last year. The latest data shows abortions outnumber live births and there is worrying social dissonance among young people.

But there is another side to this coin which became clear on the recent visit to Japan with Geffen.

Debt may be high but the money has not been totally squandered. The state of the roads and infrastructure - from ports to railways - is in infinitely better shape than in most other Western economies. This should hold it in good stead when other nations are having to batten down the hatches.

Unlike the Anglo-Saxon economies, Japan is there for the long term. This was the most striking observation that we took away from the materials/chemicals group Toray which we visited. The firm has spent the past four decades, for example, developing carbon fibre technology.

All of its rivals have now dropped out of the field, so it is Japan which will be the main supplier of carbon fibre to Boeing, the world's leading aerospace company (and eventually Airbus), as they move to a new generation of non-metallic aeroplanes.

Israel may be the great developer of high-tech processes, but Japan remains the master of consumer technology and robotics. For instance it almost single-handedly digitalised photography, pocketing 90 per cent of the market for digital single lens reflex (DSLR) cameras - the current fashion item for would-be-snappers. It is now ceding control of the flat-screen, HD television market to cheaper competitors in Korea and China and focusing its attention on becoming the leader in 3D TV. The rest of Asia may be moving strongly ahead in production but this would not be possible were Japan's multinationals not able to provide the robot controlled machine tools which are helping to fuel that output. So while Japan may not be the powerhouse it once seemed - and could soon be taken over by China as the world's second largest economy - it still has virtues.

Geffen and Neptune have ridden the Japanese story, despite all the negatives, and the Japan Opportunities Fund - a minnow among giants - has been the top performer over five years, climbing 95.15 per cent. The current Neptune view is that Japan will continue to do well as a market as the yen weakens against other countries.

Winning the confidence of independent financial advisers and investors is never easy in an industry where the newcomers must compete against established giants.

Geffen's cerebral, non-City approach to investment is appealing in an industry where the herd instinct often tends to distort judgement.

Alex Brummer is City Editor of the Daily Mail

Last updated: 12:31pm, March 18 2010