The big interview: Anthony Bolton

Published by on 25 November 2010.
Last updated on 01 December 2010

Anthony Bolton

There aren't many people who would come out of virtual retirement aged 60 and relocate to the other side of the world to practise their trade. But that's exactly what Anthony Bolton, iconic fund manager and investment director at Fidelity Investment Management, did.

Two years after stepping down as manager of Fidelity Special Situations – a fund he managed for 27 years with annualised returns of 19.5%, compared with a benchmark of 13.5% - Bolton is back.

"I stopped fund managing at the end of 2007," he says. "The original plan was to retire, but before I did I thought it would be nice to finish my career doing some work with the team in China."

The rest, as they say, is history. Bolton was so convinced by the investment opportunities in China that he was compelled to return to active fund management and launched Fidelity China Special Situations in April.

At the time, some commentators suggested Fidelity was using Bolton's name to entice investors to put their cash into an area that might be unsuitable for their risk appetite. But his investment style has never been particularly low-risk; he prefers to focus on out-of-favour or 'value' stocks he believes hold the potential for dramatic growth.

Culture shock

In China, Bolton continues his habit of meticulous research into the stocks he picks - since arriving there in March he has met with over 250 companies. However, even star fund managers can experience culture shock.

"One of the main challenges in China is knowing who you can believe," Bolton says. "In the UK, 95% of those I met were trustworthy. Here, more people stretch the truth in some way."

When sorting the wheat from the chaff, Bolton relies on his instinct. A couple of months ago, for example, he met with pharmaceutical company Novartis, which has been down on performance since 2007.

He was impressed by the new management's strategy for turning the business around, despite the fact that the rest of his team weren't so convinced. Bolton says having confidence in his own ability to pick winners is crucial, since "instinct and experience will add something that others often miss".

As the portfolio manager, he has the final word, but he likes to think he's receptive to the input of others. "I'm pretty approachable. It's in the analysts' interests and mine to let them know what I'm looking for."

Many people wonder why he would want to risk his reputation by launching a China fund. Bolton responds: "You've got to do the things in life that you enjoy. I didn't want to be standing here in 10 years' time thinking I could have done it."

Of course, he feels the pressure to perform – and with a maximum performance fee of 1.5% he has every reason to; but he is a firm believer in performance fees, saying if investors want good managers, they have to pay for them.

Giving a further insight into what motivates him, Bolton explains it was the number of non-believers rather than supporters that convinced him to launch the fund. "They thought China was an accident waiting to happen. But if everyone had been bullish, it would have been a worrying sign."

High premium

Despite a mixed reception from the financial services industry on his latest project, there's no denying Bolton's popularity among investors.

But being flavour of the month isn't always a good thing: the board of China Special Situations is faced with the unusual challenge of bringing the trust's premium down, and has decided to issue over four million new shares in an attempt to do so.

Investors' appetite for both China and Bolton has pushed shares in the £600 million fund to 9.7% over the value of its holdings (net asset value, or NAV) as at 8 November.

Investment trusts tend to trade at a discount to their NAV, and even when they do achieve a premium, it's rarely so high. So it's good news for investors who subscribed to the initial share offering in April, as their shares are worth 9.7% more regardless of the underlying performance.

Discounting the premium, the trust is up 7.7% since launch (as at 30 September) compared with benchmark returns of 1.4%. But the premium is likely to discourage new investors from buying the trust – at least until it has returned to a lower level.

"Big discounts are a problem," Bolton says, "and it's not great to have the trust on a big premium either; the ideal is to have it on a small one."

So far the jury is out on the success of his latest venture. Bolton, however, seems used to the pressure, and his diverse interests, including his passion for composing classical music, probably help to keep things in perspective.

One of his pieces was performed recently at the 90th anniversary of Save the Children in St Paul's Cathedral. It seems there's no end to this man's talents.  

Take a leaf out of Bolton's book

In his book, Investing Against the Tide, Bolton explains the success of his investment process. Here are his key principles:

  • If you're investing for the long term don't be concerned about short-term volatility.
  • Keep a 'watchlist' of stocks or funds you are interested in and review your position on them every three months.
  • Don't be afraid to go for something or somewhere out of favour.
  • Use any insider knowledge of a sector you might have gained from your day job.
  • Trust your instinct, but avoid emotional attachment to your holdings.

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