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Impax Asian looks to the future after activist piles in

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Impax Asian looks to the future after activist piles in

Activist Weiss has scooped up the near 24% stake in Impax Asian Environmental Markets let go of by Invesco.

It is a move which could turn up the heat on sister trust, Impax Environmental Markets, now that like Invesco another 20% of the shareholder base has also fled for the door at Impax Asian.

Unlike its Asian counterpart, investors in Impax Environmental have remained loyal.  But in-keeping with the broader environmental sector, both trusts have struggled to eek out benchmark-beating returns over the last three years, according to Citywire data.

What's different?

While Impax Asian is not alone in feeling the pressure from investors - last year Weiss also bought into BlackRock New Energy - Impax Asian has faced fairly unique challenges.

Looking beyond the investment trust sector, environmental shares have suffered on the back of renewables budget cuts announced by the EU, double dip recession fears, and the lacklustre performance of emerging markets versus global equities.

While some of these worries can be put down to risk aversion in the face of a gloomy macro backdrop, none of these concerns will have helped Impax Asian, where a bias to smaller companies will only have amplified the pain.

Adding to these difficulties, the trust has also been the maker of its own misfortune.  It unveiled a poorly timed £131 million 'C' share issue in October 2010 - virtually the peak of the market - and as returns tumbled the year after the trust was also hit by a widening discount.

Now, with the loss of shareholders representing close to 50% of the trust's share capital, the future looks 'bleak' for Impax Asian, said analysts at Numis.

'The fund currently has net assets of £212 million and given the proportion of share capital seeking an exit, it is unclear there would be sufficient assets remaining to support a viable on-going vehicle,' the brokerage said.

Impax Asian's share price has rallied since last week's announcement about the investors' exit, adding 9% to 98.7p, and ironically, given Invesco and Co's decision to sell, the fund's recent performance has been strong with its net asset value (NAV) up more than 25% over six months, versus a rise of 16.3% in the MSCI Asia (ex Japan).  This contrasts starkly to its three-year NAV loss of 5.10%, looking at data to April 2013.

Worryingly, however, there is the threat of contagion from the events at Impax Asian hitting Impax Environmental, managed by Bruce Jenkyn-Jones (pictured) and which in October will face its three-year continuation vote.

Numis said for some time it has believed this could trigger a capital return or tender.  The board has taken steps to appease twitchy shareholders, and used buy backs to rein in its average discount of 18% to around 12%.

Analysts said there could be further action to come, though.  'The developments relating to Impax Asian Environmental Markets could increase pressure on the fund to take more radical action,' Numis argued.

Thankfully, there is little overlap in ownership of Impax Asian and Impax Environmental, and the board of the Asian trust told Wealth Manager it was considering its options following Invesco and the London Pensions Fund Authority's decision to sell.

'We can confirm the board is consulting with shareholders and advisers on the best course of action and would be happy to enter discussions with Weiss and any other new shareholders in new course,' the board said.

There is, of course, still some potential for upside for investors that hold firm.  Drilling into the numbers Impax Asian could be considered cheap compared to peers, with its portfolio trading at less than 14x expected forward earnings and earnings growth forecast at around 20% a year.

Moreover, China is pushing on with plans to become greener and Impax Asian offers exposure to this theme.

A case can also be built for Impax Environmental.  While it has lagged the MSCI, it has outperformned the FTSE ET350, arguably a better comparator index, though it is undeniable the trust's three-year numbers have been held back by its exposure to alternative energy.

The board said that at 11%, this exposure was arguably not low enough through its weak spell, however the company believes long-term drivers are still in place and keep the trust compelling.

Increasing populations, rising living standards, infrastructure deficits, finite natural resources and increasing global pollution,' were all cited by the board, and count for a lot with the world's population set to hit 9 billion in 2050 and near-daily headlines about the impact food shortages could cause.

The board added: 'We are optimistic there are early signs for a period of outperformance and see several strong catalysts for strong performance.'

Shares in Impax Asian ended Thursday's session at 98.8p, an at a discount of 6.9%, while Impax Environmental shares ended trade at 125p and at a discount of 12.7%.

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