In any given month, Wattle Partners meets with many different professionals offering a new investment product, idea or scheme. Most are a pass from us, but now and again some pique our interest.  The following is an outline of the opportunities that we think deserve a second look.

Growth Farms – Australian Agriculture Lease Fund

We met with David Sackett, the Managing Director of Growth Farms. David’s group has recently launched a new fund called the Australian Agriculture Lease fund. The fund plans to raise $100million to invest in farmland across Australia. Growth Farms has a long track record of managing livestock, irrigated and row cropping assets, with about $430 million being managed already.

Most readers would know that Wattle Partners has been a big supporter of the agricultural industry with strong recommendations of Rural Funds Group (RFF) and Arrow Funds Management, both have proven to be very impressive investments,  showing an annualized return of over 30% per annum over the past 3 years.

We do still recommend both investments, however David had some very succinct points that made us consider his fund as an alternative.

Farm leasing is a well-established strategy in the US and Europe but not so much in Australia. It’s seems to work very well for investors and tenants (farmers) as there are mutual benefits.  The size of the farms they target are commercial and well run but typically farmers wanting to expand, however the farms are too small for institutional investors like pension funds and as such provides a return benefit to the investors.

The idea is that leasing provides a stable cash flow based on rental yield and avoids much of the volatility that comes with direct exposure to agricultural markets. David commented that the “the leasing model gives farmers opportunities to expand their businesses without having to find the capital to buy more land” and noted “many existing farms are sub-scale and capital constrained. Leasing overcomes this”.

“On the flip side from an investor’s point of view, leasing provides a stable cash flow based on rental yield and avoids much of the volatility that comes with direct exposure to agricultural markets.”

Australian Agricultural Lease Fund’s investor support base and earnings will be assessed after five years, but the intention is to give it a 10-year life span David did make the point that many agriculture funds are charging uneconomical rates to the farmer, he commented “that funds charging 6-7% rental will send the farmer broke eventually”.

He said while the new fund’s 4.5pc rental rate may be considered a “bit of a stretch” for some aspiring lessees in the livestock sector, in the wake of recent jumps in grazing land values, it was “certainly not at the top” of the leasing market’s range.

“If somebody with an existing family operation sees a place next door, we may well be interested to partner with them”. “We’ve been in this game, looking after other people’s investments, for a quite a while and we know the sort of discipline required.”

Acquisition opportunities would likely range from sugar cane country to irrigated grain and dairy properties, with the fund paying attention to areas where current seasonal or commodity market trends may make land valuations more attractive.

Growth Farms expected the yield after fees to be about 4%, and then farmland values to appreciate over the long term at 2% to 3% more than the consumer price index, thanks to rising commodity prices and productivity gains.  So, a total return over time of low double digits with very limited volatility.


Should you consider investing?

The short answer is yes. With low to negative correlation to other assets, the fund seems to have found a submarket (direct to farmer) that offers a low risk way to get exposure to a diversified portfolio of Australian agriculture.  Wholesale investors are invited to invest a minimum of $100,000 to join the fund.

Aoris Funds Management

During the week we met with Stephen Arnold, the Chief Investment Officer and Portfolio Manager of a new global share fund. Aoris is reasonably new to the market, however, Stephen was previously managing close to $1bn with Evans and Partners under a similar strategy and consistently delivered returns in the top 10% of similar managers. As independent investment advisers, and investors ourselves, we are regularly approached by managers seeking investors for their new products as they know we are not tied to major institutions and are willing to consider new managers or strategies.

We will provide a more detailed review of this fund as we undertake more extensive due diligence, however, we must say we were impressed by our initial meeting. In our view, this is a manager who knows what they are good at and understands the issues with a great deal of the industry. The fund is high conviction, holding only 10 to 15 companies, seeks a return of 10-12% and gives no consideration to any index when constructing its portfolios. At its most simple level, the fund is focused on avoiding businesses with key risk characteristics of high financial leverage, low profitability, rapid asset growth and expensive valuations. Readers will likely expect most people would avoid these companies, however, that is unfortunately not the case, and in fact it drastically reduces Aoris’ investment universe to just a few core sectors.

In terms of the investments they seek, it is businesses who are increasing their real earnings, not accounting for adjustments, and dividends year after year and reinvesting a portion of their profits back into their business. They are not seeking to identify the next Amazon, Apple or Google, but rather invest in the solid, profitable businesses that we use every day.  This fact alone means they will complement well with higher growth managers and provide valuable diversification.

Should you consider investing?

Not yet, Wattle Partners is doing a lot more work on this one but see the fund as a potential investment in the Wattle Partners Value Bucket. We will provide more information once we have completed our due diligence on this investment.