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Actual investors imagine ‘what if?’ Not ‘what is’

  • Human ingenuity is relentless. It’s not always successful, but the big successes drive progress and far outweigh the many failures
  • The most successful companies pivot their plans in light of experience and are adaptable. Often, their success comes obliquely to their original plans

‘What if petrol-powered cars come to dominate personal transport?’ The question would have seemed outlandish in 1910, but 15 years later, the motorcar was in mass production and horse-drawn vehicles were disappearing. Radical change that seems inevitable with hindsight can be hard to predict.

It takes a concerted feat of imagination to identify companies, such as the Ford Motor Company, that can engender and benefit from technology-led transformation. It takes a further imaginative leap to predict the wider implications of that change. What would mass car ownership mean for the supply and price of rubber for tires? Or for property prices on the newly-accessible urban fringes?

For Actual investors, questions about the shape of the future matter more than past or present short-term market movements or even economic storms. As with Covid-19 however, crises can help to accelerate change.

At Baillie Gifford, we think about the barriers to human progress and consider the companies best placed to make breakthroughs. From excessive carbon emissions to congested roads to shortages of agricultural land to incurable diseases, we imagine how the future could be different when human ingenuity eventually finds a fix.

Applying human ingenuity

When seeking investment ideas, we believe that companies promising more of the same are unlikely to achieve outstanding results. We prefer to invest in the growth companies that dare to ask the ‘what if?’ questions. These are the companies with a clear vision of how the world is changing and investing in their own ability to compete.

Only constant innovation makes growth possible, the kind of growth that benefits investors and society more widely. The great companies are those that embrace new technologies and business models to expand existing markets and to create new ones. So rather than fixating on how a company or nascent industry might fail, we ask: ‘What could happen if its vision becomes reality?’

What does it mean for the treatment of disease if gene sequencing for all new-born babies becomes both possible and ethically acceptable? What happens if low Earth orbit satellites can widen internet access for a fraction of the costs of existing broadband? What if solar cells on the ground become a cheaper and equally reliable source of energy than the oil under it?

Actual investors pose these ‘what if?’ questions from other angles as well: ‘How can this company solve peoples’ problems or show them new ways of doing things?’ Often this ability emerges almost accidentally, as a by-product of a company’s original plan and purpose. We ask: ‘What if this flexible, entrepreneurial firm uses a breakthrough in one field to address a larger, more profitable market?’

What if US biotech company Moderna’s mRNA protein-manipulating technology could be used not only to tackle the challenge of Covid-19 but to fight other big killers such as autoimmune and cardiovascular disease?

Asking the right questions

Assessing a company or an industry’s potential takes a balance of imagination and realism. We can’t back every biotech start-up with the potential to find a cure for cancer, but we do look carefully and think deeply about what could happen. If the scenario is plausible, we invest on the basis of ‘what if?’.

Actual investors know that often the projected supersized investment returns won’t materialise. Many of the companies we back won’t transform the world. They may not even go on to be successful businesses.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t ask the questions and to back the ideas. The upside from those that do succeed is by far the dominant factor in successful growth investing. By looking beyond current reality and imagining what could happen, we give ourselves a better chance of finding the big winners of the future.

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Any stock examples, or images, used on this website are not intended to represent recommendations to buy or sell, neither is it implied that they will prove profitable in the future. It is not known whether they will feature in any future portfolio produced by us.