The broader market continues to defy gravity in the face of a spike in COVID-19 cases in many states. This has caused many states to halt or slow down their plans to reopen the economy fully. But in spite of the spike, there are positive signs, and we are learning to deal with the virus more effectively. Even though an effective vaccine is not going to arrive until 2021, there are more and more treatments available, which has certainly brought the mortality rate down significantly. The market’s big takeaway is that things are under reasonable control, and the economic recovery will remain intact.
That said, this period of uncertainty will last for at least a year if not more. It’s also true that a lot of challenges remain in the real economy. Unemployment numbers are still north of 10%, and thousands of small businesses are still struggling to regain their footing. Many more are probably closed forever. This is reflected in the fact that Congress is once again considering and likely pass a second stimulus package, probably as big as the first one.
The real possibility of a second stimulus is not lost on the market, and market indexes are approaching their all-time highs once again. Also, we should not ignore the fact that markets are forward looking, and the impact of all the stimulus money and actions of the Federal Reserve is real.
All that said, the picture is never crystal clear, even in the best of times. If it was so, there would be no value left to be found in the market as everything would be priced to perfection. So, it’s always prudent to ignore the short-term gyrations of the market and focus on the long term. In that spirit, we keep looking for good investment opportunities and keep our wish list ready and buy when the time is right.
Why Invest In CEFs?
For income investors, closed-end funds remain an attractive investment class that offers high income (generally in the range of 6%-10%), broad diversification (in terms of variety of asset classes), and market matching total returns in the long term if selected carefully and acquired at reasonable price points. However, CEFs come with their own set of risks and challenges that investors should be aware of. We list various risk factors at the end of this article. They are not suitable for everyone, so please consider your goals, income needs, and risk tolerance carefully before you invest in CEFS.
Closed-end funds, in general, had performed very well in the last year, until the recent meltdown. The coronavirus-induced health crisis and the resulting economic shutdown have had real and serious impacts on many sectors and industries. CEFs had taken a beating, and some more along with the broader market, and their recovery has been weaker than the broader market. That’s why many of them are still offering attractive discounts to their NAVs. So, is now the time to buy? Probably yes, albeit in small lots. No one can predict with any certainty the future direction of the market. So we continue to be on the lookout for good investment candidates that have a solid track record, offer good yields, and are offering great discounts.
5 Best CEFs to Consider Every Month
This series of articles attempts to separate the wheat from the chaff by applying a broad-based screening process to the 500 CEF funds, followed by an eight-criteria weighting system. In the end, we are presented with about 30 of the most attractive funds in order to select the best five.
This is our regular series on CEFs where we highlight five CEFs that are relatively cheap, offer “excess” discounts to their NAVs, pay reasonably high distributions, and have a solid track record. We also write a monthly series to identify “5 Safe and Cheap DGI” stocks. You can read our most recent such article here.
We use our multi-step filtering process to select just five CEFs from around 500 available funds.
The selected five CEFs this month, as a group, are offering an average distribution rate of 9% (as of 07/17/2020) and a discount and excess discount (compared to 52-week average) of -6.51% and -6.03%, respectively. Also, these five funds have collectively returned a very decent annualized return of 7.95% and 11.26% in the last five and 10 years. Since this is a monthly series, there may be some selections that could overlap from month to month.
Please note that these are not recommendations to buy but should be considered as a starting point for further research.
Author’s Note: This article is part of our monthly series that tries to discover five best buys in the CEF arena at that point in time. Certain parts of the introduction, definitions, and the section describing selection criteria/process may have some commonality and repetitiveness with our other articles in the series. This is unavoidable as well as intentional to keep the entire series consistent and easy to follow for the new readers. Regular readers who follow the series from month to month could skip the general introduction and sections describing the selection process.
Goals for the Selection Process
Our goals are simple and are aligned with most conservative income investors, including retirees who wish to dabble in CEFs. We want to short list five closed-end funds that are relatively cheap, offering good discounts to their NAVs, paying relatively high distributions, and have a solid and substantial past track record in maintaining and growing their NAVs. Please note that we are not necessarily going for the cheapest funds (in terms of discounts or highest yields), but we also require our funds to stand out qualitatively. We adopt a systematic approach to filter down the 500-plus funds into a small subset.
Here’s a summary of our primary goals:
- Reasonably high income/distributions.
- High long-term performance in terms of total return on NAV: We also try to measure if there has been an excess NAV return over and above the distribution rate.
- Cheaper valuation at the time of buy determined by the absolute discount to NAV and the “excess” discount offered compared to their history.
- Coverage ratio: We try to measure to what extent the income generated by the fund covers the distribution. Not all CEFs fully cover the distribution, especially the equity, and specialty funds, as they depend on the capital gains to cover their distribution. We adjust this weight according to the type and nature of the fund.
We believe that a well-diversified CEF portfolio should at least consist of 10 CEFs or more, preferably from different asset classes. It’s also advisable to build the portfolio over a period rather than invest in one lump sum. If you were to invest in one CEF every month, in a year, you would have a well-diversified CEF portfolio. What we provide here every month is a list of five probable candidates for further research. We think a CEF portfolio can be an important component in the overall portfolio strategy. One should preferably have a DGI portfolio as the foundation, and the CEF portfolio could be used to boost the income level to the desired level. How much should one allocate to CEFs? Each investor needs to answer this question himself/herself based on the personal situation and factors like the size of the portfolio, income needs, risk appetite, or risk tolerance.
We have more than 500 CEF funds to choose from, which come from different asset classes like equity, preferred stocks, mortgage bonds, government and corporate bonds, energy MLPs, utilities, infrastructure, and municipal income. Just like in other life situations, even though the broader choice always is good, it does make it more difficult to make a final selection. The first thing we want to do is to shorten this list of 500 CEFs to a more manageable subset of around 75-100 funds. We can apply some criteria to shorten our list, but the criteria need to be broad and loose enough at this stage to keep all the potentially good candidates. Also, the criteria that we build should revolve around our original goals. One important change we made a few months back from our past practice is that we now demand only a five-year history instead of a 10-year history. However, we do take into account the 10-year history if available. With this change, we are able to include many more CEFs that still have a good history and a chance to be excellent income providers in the coming years.
Criteria to Shortlist:
Brings down the number of funds to…
Reason for the Criteria
Baseline expense < 2.5% and Avg. Daily Volume > 10,000
Approx. 435 Funds
We do not want funds that charge excessive fees. Also, we want funds that have fair liquidity.
Market-capitalization > 100 Million
Approx. 400 Funds
We do not want funds that are too small.
Track record/ History longer than five years (inception date 2014 or earlier)
Approx. 375 Funds
We want funds that have a reasonably long track record.
Discount/Premium < +6%
Approx. 350 Funds
We do not want to pay too high a premium; in fact, we want bigger discounts.
Distribution (dividend) Rate > 5%
Approx. 260-275 Funds
The current distribution (income) to be reasonably high.
5-Year Annualized Return on NAV > 0% AND
3-Year Annualized Return on NAV >0%
Approx. 210 Funds
We want funds that have a reasonably good past track record in maintaining their NAVs.
After we applied the above criteria this month, we were left with 207 funds on our list. But it’s too long a list to present here or meaningfully select five funds.
Narrowing Down to 50-60 Funds
To bring down the number of funds to a more manageable number, we will short list 10 funds based on each of the following criteria. After that, we will apply certain qualitative criteria on each fund and rank them to select the top five.
Six broad criteria:
- Discount to NAV.
- Excess Discount/Premium (explained below).
- Distribution rate.
- Return on NAV, last three years (medium-term).
- Return on NAV, last five years (long-term).
- Coverage ratio.
- Total weight (calculated up to this point).
Discount to NAV:
We sort our list (of 207 funds) on the discount/premium in descending order since we want to buy when we are offered the largest discount. For this criterion, the lower the value, the better it is. So, we select the top 10 funds (most negative values) from this sorted list.
(All data as of 07/17/2020)
We certainly like funds that are offering large discounts (not premiums) to their NAVs. But sometimes we may consider paying near zero or a small premium if the fund is great otherwise. So, what’s important is to see the “excess discount/premium” and may not be the absolute value. We want to see the discount (or premium) on a relative basis to their record, say 52-week average.
Subtracting the 52-week average discount/premium from the current discount/premium will give us the excess discount/premium. For example, if the fund has the current discount of -5%, but the 52-week average was +1.5% (premium), the excess discount/premium would be -6.5%.
Excess Discount/Premium = Current Discount/Premium (Minus) 52-Wk Avg. Discount/ Premium
So, what’s the difference between the 12-month Z-score and this measurement of Excess Discount/Premium? The two measurements are quite similar, maybe with a subtle difference. The 12-month Z-score would indicate how expensive (or cheap) the CEF is in comparison to the 12 months. Z-score also takes into account the standard deviation of the discount/premium. Our measurement (excess discount/premium) compares the current valuation with the last 12-month average.
We sort our list (of 207 funds) on the “excess discount/premium” in descending order. For this criterion, the lower the value, the better it is. So, we select the top 10 funds (most negative values) from this sorted list.
High Current Distribution Rate:
After all, most investors invest in CEF funds for their juicy distributions. We sort our list (of 207 funds) on the current distribution rate (descending order, highest at the top) and select the top 10 funds from this sorted list.
Medium Term Return on NAV (last 3-years):
We then sort our list (of 207 funds) on a three-year return on NAV (on descending order, highest at the top) and select the top 10 funds.
Five-Year Annualized Return on NAV:
We then sort our list (of 207 funds) on the five-year return on NAV (on descending order, highest at the top) and select the top 10 funds.
Coverage Ratio (Distributions vs. Earnings):
We then sort our list (of 207 funds) on the coverage ratio and select the top 10 funds. The coverage ratio is derived by dividing the earnings per share by distribution amount for a specific period.
Total Weight (Quality Score) calculated up to this point:
Not: The Total Weight calculation is not fully complete at this point since we have not taken into account the 10-year NAV return. Also, we would adjust the weight for the coverage ratio at a later stage.
Now we have 70 funds in total from the above selections. We will see if there are any duplicates. In our current list of 70 funds, there were 25 duplicates, meaning there are funds that appeared more than once. Following names appear twice (or more):
Appeared 2 times: ASG, BME, CHY, EDF, HGLB, KYN, NTG, QQQX, STK, TYG
Appeared 3 times: BST, CEM, CHI, EOS, NIE, TDF,
Appeared 4 times: OXLC
Note: It may be worthwhile to mention here that just because a fund has appeared multiple times, does not necessarily make it an attractive candidate. Sometimes, a fund may appear multiple times simply for wrong reasons, like a high current discount, high excess discount, or a very high distribution rate that may not be sustainable. But during the second stage of filtering, it may not score well on the overall quality-score due to other factors like poor track record.
So, once we remove 25 duplicate rows, we are left with 45 funds.
Narrowing Down to Just 10-12 Funds
In our list of funds, we already may have some of the best probable candidates. However, so far, they have been selected based on one single criterion that each of them may be good at. That’s not nearly enough. So, we will apply a combination of criteria by applying weights to eight factors to calculate the total quality score and filter out the best ones.
We will apply weights to each of the NINE criteria:
- Baseline expense (Max weight 5)
- Current distribution rate (Max weight 10)
- Current discount/premium (Max weight 5)
- Excess discount/premium (Max weight 5)
- 3-YR NAV return (Max weight 5)
- 5-YR NAV return (Max weight 5)
- 10-YR NAV return (Max weight 5, if less than ten years history, an average of 3-yr & 5yr)
- Excess NAV return over distribution rate (Max weight 5)
- Coverage Ratio (Max weight 10): This weight is adjusted based on the type of fund to provide fair treatment to certain types like equity and sector funds. We assign some bonus points to certain types of funds, which by their make-up depend on capital gains to fund their distributions, to bring them at par with fixed-income funds. These fund types include Equity/ Sector-equity (four bonus points), Real-estate (three points), Covered-call (two points) and MLP funds (variable). However, please note that this is just one of nine criteria that are being used to calculate the total quality score.
Once we have calculated the weights, we combine them to calculate “Total Combined Weight,” also called the “Quality Score.” The sorted list (spreadsheet) of 45 funds on the “combined total weight” is attached here.
The top 25 funds (out of 45) are also presented here:
In order to structure a CEF portfolio, it’s highly recommended to diversify in funds that invest in different types of asset classes. In our list of 45, if we were to look at the top 25 based on the total quality score/weight, below is the list of top funds, which is sorted sector-wise and quality rating. Please note that some asset classes may not make it to the top 25 due to the fact that these ratings are dynamic and time sensitive.
If you were to select 10 picks, we would simply pick the top one from each of the above categories. That said, due diligence on each name is still recommended.
Final Selection: Our List of Final Top 5
Now, if we had only five slots for investment and need to select just five funds, we will need to make some subjective selections. However, we should be careful to select from different sectors (or asset classes). Since this step is mostly subjective, it will differ from person to person. Here are the selections for this month, based on our perspective:
Some information about the selections:
- This month, a large number of MLP CEFs made to the initial list as well as in the top 70. The main reason was that they are trading at huge discounts to their NAVs, and this helped them to clear the first test. However, in terms of overall quality score, they all fell to the bottom of the list. Since quality score also considers the past performance (short term as well as long term), and they fared pretty bad on this count. Most of them are showing negative total returns over the short term as well as long term. For these reasons, we could not include any of the MLPs in our final list.
- RQI is the real-estate fund from Cohen & Steers family. Just like other REIT funds, it had lost more than 50% at the peak of the recent pandemic-induced crisis but has recovered quite substantially since then.
- The fund USA is our top equity-based fund this month. NIE has an equity component as well, with nearly 67% equity and rest as convertible/ preferred income securities. So, obviously, there’s some overlap between the two funds.
- Out of these five funds, PHK has reduced their distributions compared to last year; however, the current yield is still very good at above 11%.
CEFs Specific Investment Risks
It goes without saying that CEFs, in general, have some additional risks. This section is specifically relevant for investors who are new to CEF investing, but in general, all CEF investors should be aware of.
They generally use some amount of leverage, which adds to the risk. The leverage can be hugely beneficial in good times but can be detrimental during tough times. The leverage also causes higher fees because of the interest expense in addition to the baseline expense. In the tables above, we have used the baseline expense only. If a fund is using significant leverage, we want to make sure that the leverage is used effectively by the management team – the best way to know this is to look at the long-term returns on the NAV. NAV is the “net asset value” of the fund after counting all expenses and after paying the distributions. So, if a fund is paying high distributions and maintaining or growing its NAV over time, it should bode well for its investors.
Due to leverage, the market prices of CEFs can be more volatile as they can go from premium pricing to discount pricing (and vice versa) in a relatively short period. Especially during corrections, the market prices can drop much faster than the NAV (the underlying assets). Investors who do not have an appetite for higher volatility should generally stay away from CEFs or at least avoid the leveraged CEFs.
CEFs have market prices that are different from their NAVs (net asset values). They can trade either at discounts or at premiums to their NAVs. Generally, we should stay away from paying any significant premiums over the NAV prices unless there are some very compelling reasons.
Another risk factor may come from asset concentration risk. Many funds may hold similar underlying assets. However, this is easy to mitigate by diversifying into different types of CEFs ranging from equity, equity covered calls, preferred stocks, mortgage bonds, government and corporate bonds, energy MLPs, utilities, and municipal income.
The underlying purpose of this exercise is to highlight five likely best funds for investment each month using our screening process. As always, our filtering process demands that our selections have a solid long-term record, maintain good earnings to distribution coverage (in certain categories), offer reasonably high distributions, and are cheaper on a relative basis and offer a reasonable discount. Also, we ensure that the selected five funds are from a diverse group in terms of the types of assets. Please note that these selections are dynamic in nature and can change from month-to-month (or even week-to-week). At the same time, some of the funds can repeat from month-to-month if they remain attractive over an extended period.
The selected five CEFs this month, as a group, are offering an average distribution rate of 9.0% (as of 07/17/2020) and a discount and excess discount (compared to 52-week average) of -6.51% and -6.03%, respectively. Besides, these five funds have collectively returned 7.95% and 11.26% in the last five and 10 years. Most CEFs are likely to remain a bit volatile for the next few months until the economy finally turns around. It’s probably a good opportunity to lock in the high yield, though there may still be some pain ahead. So, it’s always good to be cautious and conservative and should add in small and multiple lots to take advantage of dollar-cost averaging.
We believe that the above group of CEFs makes a great watch list for further research.
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Disclosure: I am/we are long ABT, ABBV, JNJ, PFE, NVS, NVO, UNH, CL, CLX, GIS, UL, NSRGY, PG, KHC, ADM, MO, PM, BUD, KO, PEP, D, DEA, DEO, ENB, MCD, BAC, PRU, UPS, WMT, WBA, CVS, LOW, AAPL, IBM, CSCO, MSFT, INTC, T, VZ, VOD, CVX, XOM, VLO, ABB, ITW, MMM, LMT, LYB, ARCC, AWF, CHI, DNP, EVT, FFC, GOF, HCP, HQH, HTA, IIF, JPC, JPS, JRI, KYN, MAIN, NBB, NLY, NNN, O, OHI, PCI, PDI, PFF, RFI, RNP, STAG, STK, UTF, VTR, TLT. I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it (other than from Seeking Alpha). I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.
Additional disclosure: Disclaimer: The information presented in this article is for informational purposes only and in no way should be construed as financial advice or recommendation to buy or sell any stock. The author is not a financial advisor. Please always do further research and do your own due diligence before making any investments. Every effort has been made to present the data/information accurately; however, the author does not claim 100% accuracy. The stock portfolios presented here are model portfolios for demonstration purposes.