- The market closed 2021 near its 12-month and all-time highs. In 4Q21, the S&P 500 returned 11.03% and theS&P 400 MidCap returned 8.00%. In 2021, the S&P 500 returned 28.71%; the S&P 400 MidCap returned 24.76%.
- While 2021 was a great year, the start of 2022 is anything but great. Inflation is lasting longer than the FederalReserve previously indicated, and it needs to raise rates sooner and faster in 2022. Core CPI growth of 5.5% in December was the highest in over 30 years. The market is factoring in higher interest rates, which may result in lower multiples.
- 10-year U.S. Treasury rates ended 4Q where they started at 1.5%. In January, the 10-year has spiked to 1.81%.
- U.S. unemployment fell to 4.2% in November. Throughout 2021, the labor force participation rate remained at a level not seen since 1976, before the widespread participation of women in the workforce. Labor and inventory shortages (including semiconductors) and supply chain disruptions remain prevalent. As long-time investors in semiconductor manufacturing technology, we are pleased to see the world recognize the need for investment.
- The Fed indicated an intention to taper its bond-buying by $15 billion per month and raise interest rates in 2022. Jerome Powell, recently nominated to a second term as Chairman, said “transitory” is no longer an accurate term to describe the current high inflation rate. Other than Paul Volcker, the Fed’s Board Governors have a history of accommodative policies that have long provided a tailwind for equities, and we believe this is unlikely to change.
- The higher rates anticipated by the markets are still well below inflation, which makes equities a way to earn a real return. To achieve a real return, companies must have pricing power and growth plans.
- In December, the Omicron variant of COVID-19 ripped around the world, disrupting the holiday season. Fortunately, it is less lethal, although more contagious, than earlier variants. We are hopeful that Omicron’sretreat brings a return to many aspects of pre-COVID life sometime in 2022.
- A range of industries performed well in 4Q21, including technology, industrials, real estate, utilities, consumer discretionary and staples, and materials.
IMPACTS ON PORTFOLIO PERFORMANCE
- The Fund’s Institutional (NEEIX) and Retail classes (NEEGX) returned 6.91% and 6.81% respectively in 4Q21. In 2021, NEEIX returned 28.18% and NEEGX returned 27.68%.
- The Fund’s allocation to technology was a contributor, but stock selection was the dominant reason for the 4Q21 results. PDF Solutions, Inc, (PDFS) was the leading contributor; it reported strong results for its Exensio semiconductor manufacturing data analytics business. Other leading contributors were some of the Funds’ largest positions – Nova, Ltd. (NVMI), Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc. (TMO), and Aspen Aerogels Inc. (ASPN). Aspen Aerogels was by far the leading contributor for the year as it achieved design wins with electric vehicle makers. Aspen’s PyroThin is used to prevent thermal runaway in lithium-ion batteries. These companies, plusEntegris Inc. (ENTG) were the leading contributors for the year.
- The Fund’s lack of exposure to the energy and consumer discretionary sectors was a minor detriment to performance in 4Q21.
- With 15% turnover, the Fund does not rotate into or out of sectors, but invests in companies we believe can outperform over the long-term.
- There were no significant new positions or exits in 4Q21. The Fund took advantage of market weakness to increase the size of many established positions.
- The Fund reduced positions in Aspen Aerogels and PDF Solutions after significant outperformance. We also sold about half of the Fund’s position in NeoPhotonics Corporation (NPTN) after it announced an agreement to sell to Lumentum Holdings, Inc. (LITE).
- The Fund ended 4Q21 with 11% cash as a result of inflows. We plan to carefully deploy this capital.
LOOKING AHEAD & OPPORTUNITIES
- Many of our top portfolio holdings have made multi-year investments that we believe position them to deliver growth and positive returns over the next few years. If these investments succeed, they could provide a hedge to macroeconomic factors such as inflation.
- We are optimistic about the short- and long-term opportunities in semiconductor manufacturing technology, which represents approximately 30% of the Fund’s investments.
- The Fund targets investments that we perceive to have significant, unrecognized growth opportunities. COVID-19 hastened the revolutionary development in technology and life sciences; the Fund is a long-term investor in companies that enable the research and manufacturing to bring these developments to market.
- Greater-than-benchmark exposure to stocks with high quality factors might position the Fund for outperformance in future periods of market weakness.