SMSF investors should look to the Nifty 15

Chief Investment Officer and founder of Aitken Investment Management
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Key points

  • The two major themes of ‘lower for longer’ cash rates driving dividend yield compression and a resurgent US dollar (falling Aussie dollar) driving earnings translation served investors well in Q1.
  • A good mix of equities and property is usually consistent with the requirements of both long-term capital growth and regular annuity-style income streams for SMSFs.
  • A style of “Nifty 15” has emerged in Australia, where dominant industrial franchises, with all the attributes of the US Nifty 50, have led the broader ASX200.


Q1 in Australian and global equities was strong. If you simply parked your investment capital in the equity markets with the strongest central bank support (then swapped the currency to US dollars), you made very strong capital gains. That included Australia, where the RBA, entering the competitive currency devaluation game, saw the ASX/S&P 200 have its best quarter since 2009, led by sustainable fully-franked dividend payers. The ASX/S&P 200 Accumulation Index (XJOAI) rose 10.2%, despite resources going backwards, while the ASX/S&P 200 Financials Accumulation Index (XFJAI) rose 13.4%, despite only one of the big four banks paying a dividend in the quarter

The quarter was a solid one in terms of my macro strategy and high conviction stock selection. My two major themes of ‘lower for longer’ cash rates driving dividend yield compression and a resurgent US dollar (falling Aussie dollar) driving earnings translation served me well and remain strongly in tact as we enter Q2.

As we enter Q2, I see no reason to alter my macro strategy. If anything, Q2 will see the RBA lower cash rates further and potentially the Fed make its first small rate move upwards in June. If that proves right, the Aussie/US dollar will have a “6” handle and so will the ASX/S&P 200, led by reliable yield equities and US dollar industrial earners.

I hope these articles added value to your portfolio in Q1. Let’s look to Q2 and beyond.

Asset allocation tips for SMSFs

Currently, there is about $600 billion in self managed super funds (SMSFs), which represents about one-third of total superannuation assets. While SMSFs offer both flexibility and a lower cost alternative than managed funds, the trade-off is the added responsibility of proper portfolio construction. As a result, I am often asked by SMSF trustees at conferences and public forums about the weightings of individual asset classes and the stock selection criteria within those asset classes. Given the aim of super is to provide either capital growth in the accumulation phase, or retirement income in a drawdown phase, the composition of assets within an SMSF can provide headaches for many trustees.

My advice on asset weightings has always been diversification but that will also depend on individual time horizons and financial circumstances. As a general rule, I believe a good mix of equities and property is usually consistent with the requirements of both long-term capital growth and regular annuity-style income streams.

In a financial world obsessed with short termism and instant gratification, it seems the time frame for equity returns has narrowed. In the current climate, the publication of managed funds returns has been progressively compressed from yearly, to quarterly, and now monthly performance tables. In addition, the speed of news flows within an increasingly inter-related financial world, and the rise of high frequency trading, have significantly increased equity volatility. As such, trustees overseeing an SMSF equity portfolio are being forced into regular monitoring of equity positions due to higher volatility levels.

To be sure, responsible portfolio management requires careful monitoring. But I am often asked if there is an opportunity for “long-only” investing or “set and forget” portfolios within an SMSF structure. The answer is yes and no. Yes, I believe you can still invest in a combination of growth and income stocks over the medium term. But no, I certainly don’t advocate buying a portfolio of stocks and putting them in the bottom drawer for the next 20 years. The reason is that disruptive technology has the ability to quickly undermine what appears to be an enduring equity theme (see Tony Featherstone’s article on this topic today).

Nifty 50 arrives in Australia

While the concept of “long-only” equity investing has subsequently lost favour with many managed funds in recent years, it dominated US investment strategy in the 1960s and the early 1970s with the rise of the Nifty 50. As the name implied, the Nifty 50 was a portfolio of 50 blue chip, “buy and hold” growth stocks. The common characteristics included: household names with dominant industry positioning and strong and stable earnings growth. The stock composition included: Proctor and Gamble, Coca Cola, General Motors, Merck, Pfizer, GE and Walmart, which still remain industry leaders today.

At the time, the Nifty 50 formed an integral part of any investment selection criteria, and became a benchmark for equity performance over the course of nearly two decades. With the index’s popularity however, the PE multiples of the individual stocks soared, with many trading on 40 to 50 times earnings. In one way, the Nifty 50 was an index within an index. Considering the high index weights and big market capitalisations, a market weighting in the Nifty 50 was required, or risk underperforming the broader index. After a long period of strong performance, the recession and high inflation of the savage 1970s bear market decimated the high PEs of the Nifty 50. Subsequently, many of the stocks suffered 40%-50% falls.

Despite the long passage of time, I think the Nifty 50 still provides some very valuable lessons for SMSF trustees and equity investors. Firstly, it is most definitely a cautionary tale on the pitfalls of a portfolio comprised almost exclusively of high PE growth stocks. Secondly, it’s also a reminder of the dynamic nature of financial markets given ex-Nifty 50 stocks and household names, such as Eastman Kodak, Polaroid and Xerox have all become yesterday’s heroes due to the power of disruptive technologies.

Lastly, I believe that the investment criteria for inclusion within the Nifty 50 provides a perfect example of the stock selection process for a “buy and hold” SMSF equity portfolio. The stocks should have: dominant industry positioning, high barriers to entry, double digit return on equity, strong balance sheets, strong free cash generation, and strong sustainable earnings. In the current climate, I would recommend tilting towards fully-franked dividend yield growth over pure EPS growth. In essence this is virtually the same stock selection criteria used by Warren Buffett – the world’s most successful and recognised “buy and hold” investor.

In line with the Nifty 50, my strong recommendation would be to only include blue chip, big cap and high index weight stocks. The idea is to create a small equity portfolio of 10 to 15 stocks with roughly a 50-60% weighting in the ASX 100. The aim would be to try and minimise the tracking error of the portfolio by attempting to partly replicate the performance of the ASX 100 benchmark index. In short, such a portfolio structure would enable an SMSF trustee the benefit of near index performance, with a balance of sustainable earnings growth and dividend yield without the fees associated with a managed fund.

A “Nifty 15” would be more appropriate in Australian equities. Interestingly, in the post-GFC, low-interest rate/low-growth environment, a style of “Nifty 15” has emerged in Australia, where dominant industrial franchises with all the attributes of the US Nifty 50 have led the broader ASX200.

That “Nifty 15” list would include (all are ASX100 members):

• Amcor (AMC)
• Brambles (BXB)
• Commonwealth Bank (CBA)
• Goodman Group (GMG)
• Macquarie Group (MQG)
• Ramsay Healthcare (RHC)
• REA Group (REA)
• Telstra (TLS)
• Transurban Group (TCL)
• Sydney Airport (SYD)
• Wesfarmers (WES)
• Westfield (WFD)
• Westpac (WBC)

Consistent with my current strategy view, I believe the majority of the stocks included in a local version of the Nifty 15 are leveraged to my sustainable yield and strong US dollar themes. They all have dominant industry positions and, in turn, high sustainable ROE’s.

While many commentators, analysts and institutional investors have described most of the names in the list above as “expensive”, for the last three years, they continue to deliver above market total returns. The true question is: “expensive versus what?”. ‘Cash’ isn’t the answer. ‘Their peers’ isn’t the answer.

The lesson of the last few years remains to let winners run and be a ruthless cutter of losers. Winners keep on winning, losers keep on losing. As Warren Buffet says, very few companies can truly be turned around and you are better off paying a higher multiple for a great and enduring company. That remains sage advice in a low growth environment with heightened volatility.

I’m going to take an Easter break with my little family next week. I wish all readers a safe and happy Easter.

Important: This content has been prepared without taking account of the objectives, financial situation or needs of any particular individual. It does not constitute formal advice. Consider the appropriateness of the information in regards to your circumstances.

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