Actively managed small cap growth strategy driven by bottom-up fundamental research seeking high-quality companies with strong balance sheets and cash flow characteristics that are beneficiaries of sustainable growth trends.
- Fourth quarter returns for small cap growth stocks, as measured by the Russell 2000 Growth index, were positive, albeit a bit of a bumpy ride.
- October and November saw nice upside resulting from evidence that US Federal Reserve policy was starting to take hold and perhaps the continuous cycle of rate hikes would subside. December proved more challenging, as inflation and recessionary fears reared their ugly heads and continued to weigh heavily on investors’ minds.
- From conversations with management teams, there is evidence of a slowing economy, as Fed policy implemented in 2022 will affect economic growth in the year ahead.
For the quarter ended December 31, 2022, the strategy outperformed the index, due to individual stock selection. The consumer discretionary, energy and financials sectors added the most to performance. Sector allocation was a slight detractor along with stock selection in the information technology sector.
Key contributors to performance included Helix Energy Solutions Group, Inc., Axon Enterprises, Inc. and Planet Fitness, Inc.
Helix Energy Solutions Group, Inc. (HLX), an offshore energy services company, was the largest positive contributor for the quarter. On the heels of a solid 3Q22 beat and raise resulting from increased order flow, Helix continues to see improving fundamentals. Although 2023 will see significant financial performance improvements, the earnings revisions higher will likely be more muted and thus we have started to trim the position after significant outperformance.
Axon Enterprises, Inc. (AXON), a manufacturer of personal defense systems for law enforcement agencies, outperformed during the quarter after reporting 3Q22 upside and raising forward guidance. Domestic and international public defense spending is an area of resilience, which we expect to continue. Axon remains a top holding and we are encouraged by the forward growth prospects.
Planet Fitness, Inc. (PLNT), an operator and franchiser of fitness centers, saw continued membership growth and the reset of unit growth expectations for 2023 due to HVAC supply chain issues was received well by investors. The stock struggled earlier in the year, as a result of these same unit growth concerns. With 2022- and 2023-unit growth expectations reset, we added to our position during the fourth quarter and the stock outperformed.
Key detractors from performance included R1 RCM Inc., Chart Industries, Inc. and Pacira Biosciences, Inc.
R1 RCM Inc. (RCM), a provider of revenue cycle management services to the healthcare industry, was the largest detractor for the quarter. RCM struggled with a key new customer implementation and an elongated payment collection cycle during the quarter. In addition, they guided down for 2023, sighting a 10–15% reduction in earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization (EBITDA). Following this news, we trimmed our position based on an unexpected fundamental change.
Chart Industries, Inc. (GTLS), a manufacturer of engineered equipment utilized in the infrastructure of the industrial gas and energy industries, struggled during the quarter. In the weeks following a positive 3Q22 earnings report, management announced a $4 billion strategic acquisition of United Kingdom based Howden Group, a maker of air and gas handling products. Investors grew concerned that GTLS was paying a premium multiple for peak fundamentals going into a recession, which caused a dramatic selloff in the stock. To compound investor angst, the company raised $3.5 billion of debt at rates ranging from 7.5% and 9.5% to fund the acquisition, which will burden GTLS with Debt/EBITDA for 2024 of 5x or more. After considering the higher debt burden and slower growth for the combined company, we trimmed the positions.
Pacira Biosciences, Inc. underperformed due to weak sales of its main product Exparel, an opioid sparing product used by surgeons to alleviate pain at the surgery site for up to 72 hours. Despite providing longer relief than the generic alternative, Exparel’s cost per dose is much greater. As hospitals and surgery centers deal with increased labor costs resulting from staffing shortages, the demand for Exparel has tempered meaningfully as procedure volumes continue to languish. We expect Exparel sales for 4Q22 to be down from 4Q21 and believe the 2023 consensus number of $603m in sales needs to be adjusted down. We trimmed our position during the quarter and will look for evidence that demand is accelerating.
Current Strategy and Outlook
Investors can be forgiven for wanting to put 2022 in the rearview mirror. High inflation, rate hikes, market volatility, the war in Ukraine and resurging Covid infections top the list of things we would like to move past. Will 2023 bring more troubles, or do investors have reasons for optimism? The Eurozone appears to be headed for a recession, whereas the United States seems slightly less at risk. The markets are hunting for imbalances, such as whether China’s return to growth will be stymied by its significant debt burden. There is at least one reason for optimism: The end of the global interest-rate hiking cycle may be in sight, letting markets focus more on economic fundamental factors.
Voya Small Cap Growth Strategy Quarterly Commentary - 4Q22