Long-Term Value Investing: Q&A With the CIO and Co-Founder of Fort Pitt Capital Group

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Long-Term Value Investing: Q&A With the CIO and Co-Founder of Fort Pitt Capital Group

Portrait of Charlie Smith
We recently had the chance to talk with Charlie Smith, CIO, founder and manager of the Fort Pitt Capital Total Return Fund (FPCGX). Smith has 30 years of investment industry experience and is a co-founder of Fort Pitt Capital Group, which manages $1.7 billion of assets. His investment philosophy involves long-term value and underpriced securities. We discuss this in detail below.
MutualFunds.com (MutualFunds): Please tell us about yourself and your trajectory in becoming the CIO, founder and manager of the Fort Pitt Capital Total Return Fund (FPCGX).

Charlie Smith (C.S.): My “trajectory” has been slow, steady and gradual. I started in the business in 1983 as Ron Muhlenkamp’s (MUHLX) second employee right out of college. He taught me the craft of money management. From there I went on to a regional brokerage firm (Bill Few Associates – BFA) in 1992 to convert a largely commission-based book of business into fee-based, managed money. Seven of us broke away from BFA in 1995 to form Fort Pitt Capital. We’ve been building our business ever since. We started the fund in late 2001…9/11 happened as I was writing the prospectus.

MutualFunds: What inspired you to change paths from serving as CIO at Bill Few Associates to founding your own fund, FPCGX?

C.S.: It was less inspiration than philosophic and strategic conflict with the ownership at BFA. They saw the business going in a different direction than we did.

MutualFunds: FPCGX seeks long-term capital appreciation and income. The strategy involves finding companies with high ROEs that are undervalued (with low P/E ratios). Can you elaborate on its strategy and what makes it unique in comparison to other mutual funds?

C.S.: There is nothing particularly unique about our strategy, per se. A better descriptor is “consistent.” What we do boils down to purchasing well-run businesses at reasonable prices and holding onto them. ROE is our lodestar when it comes to measuring corporate performance, as it gives you the most “well-rounded” picture of corporate results and is easily broken into its component parts via DuPont analysis. We try to be patient enough to buy consistently high-earning companies at opportune times – when they are under a cloud for some reason. Then we hold them for a long time, typically eight to 10 years.

MutualFunds: This fund has underperformed in the ine-year time period and lost about 10%, whereas the S&P 500 lost roughly 5%. Could you tell us about why you believe it underperformed? YTD the fund is doing much better, and in fact it overperformed the S&P 500, what has changed?

C.S.: Fund performance for 2015 lagged the major indexes. This occurred as the “value” style of investing trailed the “growth” style for the third consecutive year, and the seventh in the past eight.

The fact that growth has outperformed value for nearly the entirety of the current economic recovery speaks volumes about the mindset of investors, the tepid nature of the recovery, and Federal Reserve policy. In a halting economy, investors clamor for companies able to produce predictable earnings growth, with diminishing regard for the price paid for that growth. Up through the end of 2015, this phenomenon explained the steady outperformance of stocks in the booming biotech, cloud-computing, and social media spaces, as well as the monster valuations awarded many private firms (so-called “Unicorns” – Uber USA, LLC, Airbnb, Inc., Snapchat, Inc., etc.) not yet available to the broader public.

This emphasis on growth has been further accentuated by central banks around the world (including the U.S. Federal Reserve) determined to drive interest rates as low as possible. The lower the interest rate within an economy, the higher the price investors have been willing to pay for a stream of expected future cash flows. Seven years of quantitative easing (“QE”) and zero interest rate policy (“ZIRP”) have driven a universal hunt for high “duration” assets – those with a promise of steady growth not only today, but compounded far into the future.

This performance “regime” may be changing, however, as you noted. Our fund has recently begun to outperform market averages. In the future, investors may be less enamored with growth as interest rates begin to rise. Value may begin to outperform as we escape the deflationary funk of the past seven years. The timing is anyone’s guess, but we’re certainly not going to try to change what we’re good at (picking good businesses at reasonable prices) in order to chase returns. We’d end up chasing our tails.

MutualFunds: To what type of investor are you catering? Who should invest in your mutual fund?

C.S.: Investors who want to earn a reasonable level of equity return (historically about 4 to 6 percentage points per year above inflation) with less volatility than market averages. We certainly won’t outperform the market averages every year (or even every rolling three or five years), but over the long term our returns will be competitive. From inception in January 2002 through February 2016, for example, our fund has outperformed the S&P 500 by more than 100 basis points annually.

MutualFunds: In the last few years there has been a movement away from active mutual funds into passive ETFs. Given this trend, are you considering an ETF launch as well?

C.S.: No. We have neither the systems nor the desire to build an automated investment vehicle. We’re good at helping people solve their investment needs in a manner that lets them sleep at night. ETFs and index-oriented products can be wonderful vehicles for reducing the costs of investing, and work well as far as they go. They work very well as long as the markets never go haywire. Unfortunately, many clients have a tendency to make exactly the wrong moves (buy high – sell low) at market extremes. That’s where we (and human advisors in general) come in.

MutualFunds: Do you believe that mutual funds and ETFs can coexist?

C.S.: Absolutely. As noted above, human beings will always need sound and calming advice, particularly when the investment world is not working “as advertised.” In many ways, we get paid more for our stomachs than our heads.

MutualFunds: Given what we’ve seen in the markets in the last few months, what is your view going forward? Do you believe the worst is behind us and the markets will continue to rally as we’ve seen in February, or is there more volatility and uncertainty ahead?

C.S.: Impossible to know. There is always volatility and uncertainty ahead, and likely more so now that the Fed has stopped the “morphine drip” of Quantitative Easing. In this sense, we’re getting back to a more “normal” market, and here at Fort Pitt Capital we welcome it!


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Portrait of Charlie Smith

Long-Term Value Investing: Q&A With the CIO and Co-Founder of Fort Pitt Capital Group

We recently had the chance to talk with Charlie Smith, CIO, founder and manager of the Fort Pitt Capital Total Return Fund (FPCGX). Smith has 30 years of investment industry experience and is a co-founder of Fort Pitt Capital Group, which manages $1.7 billion of assets. His investment philosophy involves long-term value and underpriced securities. We discuss this in detail below.
MutualFunds.com (MutualFunds): Please tell us about yourself and your trajectory in becoming the CIO, founder and manager of the Fort Pitt Capital Total Return Fund (FPCGX).

Charlie Smith (C.S.): My “trajectory” has been slow, steady and gradual. I started in the business in 1983 as Ron Muhlenkamp’s (MUHLX) second employee right out of college. He taught me the craft of money management. From there I went on to a regional brokerage firm (Bill Few Associates – BFA) in 1992 to convert a largely commission-based book of business into fee-based, managed money. Seven of us broke away from BFA in 1995 to form Fort Pitt Capital. We’ve been building our business ever since. We started the fund in late 2001…9/11 happened as I was writing the prospectus.

MutualFunds: What inspired you to change paths from serving as CIO at Bill Few Associates to founding your own fund, FPCGX?

C.S.: It was less inspiration than philosophic and strategic conflict with the ownership at BFA. They saw the business going in a different direction than we did.

MutualFunds: FPCGX seeks long-term capital appreciation and income. The strategy involves finding companies with high ROEs that are undervalued (with low P/E ratios). Can you elaborate on its strategy and what makes it unique in comparison to other mutual funds?

C.S.: There is nothing particularly unique about our strategy, per se. A better descriptor is “consistent.” What we do boils down to purchasing well-run businesses at reasonable prices and holding onto them. ROE is our lodestar when it comes to measuring corporate performance, as it gives you the most “well-rounded” picture of corporate results and is easily broken into its component parts via DuPont analysis. We try to be patient enough to buy consistently high-earning companies at opportune times – when they are under a cloud for some reason. Then we hold them for a long time, typically eight to 10 years.

MutualFunds: This fund has underperformed in the ine-year time period and lost about 10%, whereas the S&P 500 lost roughly 5%. Could you tell us about why you believe it underperformed? YTD the fund is doing much better, and in fact it overperformed the S&P 500, what has changed?

C.S.: Fund performance for 2015 lagged the major indexes. This occurred as the “value” style of investing trailed the “growth” style for the third consecutive year, and the seventh in the past eight.

The fact that growth has outperformed value for nearly the entirety of the current economic recovery speaks volumes about the mindset of investors, the tepid nature of the recovery, and Federal Reserve policy. In a halting economy, investors clamor for companies able to produce predictable earnings growth, with diminishing regard for the price paid for that growth. Up through the end of 2015, this phenomenon explained the steady outperformance of stocks in the booming biotech, cloud-computing, and social media spaces, as well as the monster valuations awarded many private firms (so-called “Unicorns” – Uber USA, LLC, Airbnb, Inc., Snapchat, Inc., etc.) not yet available to the broader public.

This emphasis on growth has been further accentuated by central banks around the world (including the U.S. Federal Reserve) determined to drive interest rates as low as possible. The lower the interest rate within an economy, the higher the price investors have been willing to pay for a stream of expected future cash flows. Seven years of quantitative easing (“QE”) and zero interest rate policy (“ZIRP”) have driven a universal hunt for high “duration” assets – those with a promise of steady growth not only today, but compounded far into the future.

This performance “regime” may be changing, however, as you noted. Our fund has recently begun to outperform market averages. In the future, investors may be less enamored with growth as interest rates begin to rise. Value may begin to outperform as we escape the deflationary funk of the past seven years. The timing is anyone’s guess, but we’re certainly not going to try to change what we’re good at (picking good businesses at reasonable prices) in order to chase returns. We’d end up chasing our tails.

MutualFunds: To what type of investor are you catering? Who should invest in your mutual fund?

C.S.: Investors who want to earn a reasonable level of equity return (historically about 4 to 6 percentage points per year above inflation) with less volatility than market averages. We certainly won’t outperform the market averages every year (or even every rolling three or five years), but over the long term our returns will be competitive. From inception in January 2002 through February 2016, for example, our fund has outperformed the S&P 500 by more than 100 basis points annually.

MutualFunds: In the last few years there has been a movement away from active mutual funds into passive ETFs. Given this trend, are you considering an ETF launch as well?

C.S.: No. We have neither the systems nor the desire to build an automated investment vehicle. We’re good at helping people solve their investment needs in a manner that lets them sleep at night. ETFs and index-oriented products can be wonderful vehicles for reducing the costs of investing, and work well as far as they go. They work very well as long as the markets never go haywire. Unfortunately, many clients have a tendency to make exactly the wrong moves (buy high – sell low) at market extremes. That’s where we (and human advisors in general) come in.

MutualFunds: Do you believe that mutual funds and ETFs can coexist?

C.S.: Absolutely. As noted above, human beings will always need sound and calming advice, particularly when the investment world is not working “as advertised.” In many ways, we get paid more for our stomachs than our heads.

MutualFunds: Given what we’ve seen in the markets in the last few months, what is your view going forward? Do you believe the worst is behind us and the markets will continue to rally as we’ve seen in February, or is there more volatility and uncertainty ahead?

C.S.: Impossible to know. There is always volatility and uncertainty ahead, and likely more so now that the Fed has stopped the “morphine drip” of Quantitative Easing. In this sense, we’re getting back to a more “normal” market, and here at Fort Pitt Capital we welcome it!


Sign up for Advisor Access

Receive email updates about best performers, news, CE accredited webcasts and more.

Popular Articles

Download our free report

Find out why $30 trillon is invested in mutual funds.

Why 30 trillion is invested in mutual funds book

Why 30 trillion is invested in mutual funds book

Download our free report

Find out why $30 trillon is invested in mutual funds.

Why 30 trillion is invested in mutual funds book

Download our free report

Find out why $30 trillon is invested in mutual funds.


Read Next

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