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Sym to 'totally revamp' Howard-Spink's Schroder European fund

James Sym plans to waste little time overhauling the Schroder European Alpha Plus fund when he takes command from Leon Howard Spink at the start of June.

One of Sym's first moves will be to shift the £1 billion portfolio from high quality stocks towards a strategy more akin to his top performing European Alpha Income Plus fund.

'I am totally revamping the portfolio to move it in line with my view of what the best opportunities are over the next 18 months,' Sym told Wealth Manager.

Last week Schroders confirmed Sym would be the Alpha Plus fund's new pilot, allowing Howard-Spink more time to focus on his pan-European funds.  

Alpha Plus fund has struggled in recent years, returning 18.3% in three years to the end of March, compared with 22.6% for the FIDS World Series Europe ex UK benchmark. 

By contrast, the European Alpha Income fund has returned 76.7% since launch in November 2012 compared with a 47.5% rise for the same benchmark. 

Alpha Plus fund is much bigger than Sym's £309 million income mandate. He acknowledges that this could bring challenges and admits the changes he is making could prompt some outflows.

''Every £100 million we have to run makes liquidity more difficult. I'm fully aware of the challenge of running a bigger fund but I'm excited about it,' he said.

'There are some people for whom the fund will not be suitable because they wanted higher quality stocks. Bigger clients may take money out but initial signs have been very positive, better than I thought, but of course it will get smaller.'

'I have always run concentrated portfolios and that is what the Alpha plus fund should  be and is, it's just the philosophy will change slightly.'

The fund will be similar in outlook to his European Alpha Income fund, Sym explained, but without the constraints of the income requirement. This means he can own more of stocks he likes which do not necessarily pay a dividend.

It will also follow the European Alpha Income fund by having around 70% large cap, 25% mid cap and 5% small cap. This contrasts to its current positioning, which is mainly large cap.

While Sym said he is 'agnostic' about where the best ideas come from, he still thinks there are opportunities in the periphery, particularly Italy.

'Eighteen months ago it was Spain, now it's Italy. Italy has not done all these moves to do with competitiveness that Spain has done and has a new PM who is making some pretty positive noises. In addition there is a lot of value,' he said. 

Sym favours large cap Italian banks, some of which are trading at less than book value. However, he argued Greek banks look 'outright expensive' with their widespread consolidations priced in.

'At this moment in the business cycle I feel like financials are the right place to be,' he added.

'The hangover of the credit crunch is having a big impact on the valuations of these businesses. I don't think the investor community is prepared to believe they can outperform.' 

The Alpha Income fund is overweight financials with 32.1% compared with 23.8% for the benchmark FTSE World Series Europe ex UK. When Sym took on the Alpha Plus fund it was underweight, with 17.3% in the sector compared with 23.8% for the same benchmark.

While Europe is not as cheap as it was, Sym believes there is still great value in the region if you are selective.

'It's not as cheap as it was because no one thinks the eurozone is going to break up. Although the market has moved up a long way, it's for the perfectly legitimate reason that the risks have diminished,' Sym said. 

'If the current environment persists after five or six years of a depressed economy. Europe is no longer very cheap.

'But, if you can see some sort of normalised cycle, you can find companies that will go up by 50 or 100% because they are not making money today, and that really is not featured in the share price'     

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