Home / Markets / Stock Markets /  Cathie Wood’s ARK Investment faces reckoning as tech trade stalls

ARK Investment Management LLC’s winning bets on disruptive technology companies cemented Cathie Wood’s status as Wall Street’s hottest fund manager since Peter Lynch or Bill Gross.

Now, those gambits threaten to make ARK a high-profile casualty of the recent shift in investor sentiment away from tech stocks and toward cyclical shares tied to an economic upswing.

ARK runs five exchange-traded funds that actively invest in companies Ms. Wood and her team of portfolio managers believe will change the world through what they call “disruptive innovation." Among the ETFs’ biggest holdings are electric-car maker Tesla Inc., payments company Square Inc. and streaming-media firm Roku Inc.

The stock prices of those three companies have surged at least 195% in the year since the Covid-19 pandemic upended the investing landscape—helping ARK’s funds more than double over the same period. But the stocks have dropped more than 20% since Feb. 19 in the midst of a broader selloff in fast-growing tech stocks, a slump many attribute to a sharp rise in government bond yields.

They have badly underperformed the tech-heavy Nasdaq Composite Index, which has fallen 5% over that same period.

Worries about a rising interest-rate environment have posed a test for ARK, exposing the vulnerabilities of its investment approach. Higher yields generally make growth stocks, including shares of big tech companies, less attractive.

Plus, some of ARK’s positions are in small, illiquid stocks that have swung more dramatically. Arcturus Therapeutics Holdings Inc., a biotech company worth $1.2 billion and heavily owned by ARK’s genomics fund, has fallen 48% over the last month. Compugen Ltd., a $682.8 million Israeli biotech firm featured in two ARK funds, has slid 36% over the same period.

The ETFs suffered double-digit percentage decreases last week, their biggest routs since the stock market’s plunge last March, according to FactSet. Further declines among growth stocks on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday drove even deeper drops among ARK’s funds, bringing the declines for its flagship ARK Innovation ETF to 20% over the past month.

The cascade of red has proved hard for many investors to stomach. ARK’s funds collectively lost more than $1.8 billion between Feb. 24 and Monday, their biggest stretch of outflows ever, according to FactSet. Together, they managed roughly $51 billion at the end of February, making ARK the ninth-largest ETF operator. That is after attracting $36.5 billion in assets over the past year, more than Invesco Ltd., Charles Schwab Corp. and First Trust—the fourth-, fifth- and sixth-biggest ETF issuers in the U.S., according to Morningstar Direct.

But the recent outflows triggered sales across ARK’s funds to meet redemptions, while the firm also opted to dump shares of its easier-to-trade holdings, including Apple Inc. and Snap Inc., to load up on favorites like Tesla.

With tech stocks continuing to fall, ETF analysts and traders worry that a combination of broad market declines and additional outflows could create a snowball effect across ARK’s portfolio. That could potentially cause some of its more-illiquid, small-cap holdings to trade sharply lower.

Tom Staudt, ARK’s chief operating officer, dismissed concerns of any liquidity problems and said ARK’s ETFs have continued to perform as any other ETF would during the tumult.

Still, it has been a rough patch for ARK and its star stock picker, Ms. Wood.

“What a crazy week or two we’ve had here," Ms. Wood said in a YouTube video posted Friday that was viewed by nearly 600,000 people.

Ms. Wood founded ARK in 2014 following a 12-year stint at AllianceBernstein. She now serves as chief executive and chief investment officer at ARK, which is an acronym for active research knowledge.

The funds’ eye-catching performance, coupled with Ms. Wood’s willingness to engage investors through social media, podcasts and videos, has earned her a variety of endearing monikers from individual investors and Reddit’s day traders, including “Mamma Cathie," “Aunt Cathie" and, in South Korea, “Money Tree."

“ARK’s funds fit 2020’s narrative of secular growth, but we’re now seeing a shift in that," said Steven DeSanctis, an equities analyst at Jefferies. “It probably won’t be the last time in the near term she sees outflows," Mr. DeSanctis added, referring to Ms. Wood.

Outside of last week’s pullback, ARK’s returns have been the envy of the asset-management industry, reviving some investors’ belief in stock pickers after more than a decade of dominance by index-tracking funds. The ARK Innovation ETF has logged an average annual return of 36% since it started trading in 2014. That compares with the S&P 500’s average return of 11% over the past 10 years.

“There’s been lots of calls with clients over the last six months as the funds gained assets, and the primary conversation has been about what happens when the funds are no longer a hot topic," said William Kartholl, director and head of ETF trading at Cowen.

Mr. Staudt said ARK has a soft limit of about 10% on any one stock within its funds. Tesla’s stock sits at that level in ARK’s innovation and autonomous funds, as does Square in ARK’s fintech innovation pool. As for ARK’s exposure to smaller stocks, Mr. Staudt said those worries are overblown and pointed to the fact that about 15% of ARK’s innovation fund is invested in stocks with market caps below $5 billion.

If anything, the volatility has created “attractive buying opportunities" for ARK, Mr. Staudt added.

ARK loaded up on more shares of Tesla, Teladoc Health Inc. and Square during last week’s selloff, according to ARK’s daily trading logs. It also added more shares of Zoom Video Communications Inc. to one of its funds earlier this week.

In the midst of redemptions across ARK’s funds, the firm also sold shares in some of its more widely traded liquid stocks. The firm cut its positions in Apple and Snap last week and sold all its remaining shares in Inc., he added. ARK also sold shares of Facebook Inc., Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. and Roche Holding AG this week.

“It’s almost like having dry powder in the portfolio," said Mr. Staudt, referring to how the funds basically build up a cash-like reserve to buy other stocks.

Not all investors are fazed by ARK’s bigfooted approach to investing. Flows into ARK’s innovation fund turned positive Tuesday and Wednesday, pulling in $464.3 million and $146.6 million, respectively, according to FactSet.

But ARK’s most recent stumble continued to shake out others.

Paolo Campisi, a 31-year-old entrepreneur in Toronto, bought shares of ARK’s innovation fund in early February but sold his stake last week after shares dropped more than 10%. He decided to take a riskier bet on an eventual rebound by buying out-of-the money call options that expire at the end of the month. But he sold those options as well Wednesday when ARK’s flagship fund fell an additional 6.3%.

“I think everyone’s going to be challenged moving forward," Mr. Campisi said, adding that he is unsure at what level he would consider buying back into the fund again. “And the level of scrutiny on someone like Cathie [Wood] is going to be high."

This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text.

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