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Meet Justin Thomson

An interview with Justin Thomson Head of International Equity and Chief Investment Officer, T. Rowe Price.



Justin Thomson is Head of International Equity at T. Rowe Price. Justin is a member of the Management Committee and the chairman of the International Equity Steering Committee. He is a member of the Asset Allocation and ESG Committees. He is also the CIO (chief investment officer) for International Equities. He is a vice president of T. Rowe Price Group, Inc., and T. Rowe Price International Ltd.

Justin's investment experience began in 1991, and he has been with T. Rowe Price since 1998. From 1998 to 2020, he was the lead portfolio manager for our International Small-Cap Strategy. In 2008, he incepted our European Small- Cap Strategy and managed that until 2016. Prior to joining the firm, he was employed by G.T. Capital/LGT/Invesco, where he managed European small- cap, global small-cap, and German all-cap portfolios.

Professional & Education

Justin earned an M.A., with honours, in Economics from Cambridge University in 1990.

Justin, can you tell us something about your background?

Let me start by saying that I grew up in Asia, so I have very strong ties to the region. My parents came to Hong Kong in 1966, not on some generous ex-pat package or deal, but rather just in the hope of finding a job. Their timing was not good as it was the beginning of Mao's 'Cultural Revolution' in China. It was a very tough time indeed for Hong Kong. There were severe droughts and water rationing – with tap water only available for 4 hours every 4 days. So we went around filling up baths, buckets, saucepans – anything you could find – in order to have enough water to last for 4 days! Hong Kong was very dependent on China for its water supply, as it is today with 70 to 80 per cent coming from the Dongjiang reservoir in Guangdong. Back then, many Hongkongers feared it might be cut off by the Mainland.

Hong Kong's stock market entered a protracted bear market in 1965, beginning with a run on the Canton Trust Bank run. This was followed by another plunge due to Leftist riots in 1967. This particular grizzly bear was to last until 1978. So the local stock market was hardly a great source of inspiration for me during my early years in Hong Kong. I should note, however, that on a long-term view the Hang Seng index has risen from 66 on my arrival in 1966 to over 22,000 today1, a compound annual return of almost 11.0 per cent!

There are some parallels between the political challenges then and the protests and disruption in 2019 followed by the COVID pandemic. The important point for me is that the city is resilient and always manages to bounce back, as does its stock market. And this is what I expect to see from Hong Kong going forward, in 2023 and beyond.

So what made you choose a career in asset management?

After reading economics at Cambridge, I think I can fairly say that it was my career that chose me! I had become fascinated by the history of financial markets. Looking at demographic and retirement trends in 1990, it seemed that asset management was likely to be a growth industry and thus a good career choice. I would still recommend asset management to today's graduates, even though demographic trends are less favorable. I truly believe that with application, the right attitude, and a desire for personal growth, over time you can become a better investor and map out a satisfying career path.

For me, the 'Eureka moment' when I realized that being a fund manager came with the understanding that the job came with tremendous fiscal responsibility to clients. As one good example, one early client account was a municipal firefighters' pension fund, where workers had not earned huge sums over their lifetime and where a significant minority had work-related disabilities. We in asset management can clearly have a significant impact on the financial outcomes in retirement of working people. So it becomes less about how much you earn as an asset manager, or the size of your annual bonus, and more about maintaining and hopefully improving the financial wellbeing of our clients around the world. I have always believed that it is the overriding fiduciary responsibility to clients that is the real source of job satisfaction for a fund manager.


Hiking with APAC colleagues in Hong Kong in November.


How do you think Hong Kong has changed over the years?

Well, over the past fifty years, there has clearly been an incredible accumulation of wealth that's happened here. Back in 1966 there was much poverty and hardship for many of Hong Kong's citizens, who had to stand on their own two feet, as they could expect to receive little help from the government in those times. Fast forward to today, and Hong Kong has become an international financial centre with a high- income economy and a per capita GDP of close to USD50,000 that ranks 16th in the world.2

In asset management I see fewer Western faces and more Asian faces in Hong Kong today, which is good since most expats come and go. But what doesn't change is the sheer energy of the place - the dynamism, resourcefulness, and resilience of the people of Hong Kong. This is a key message that I would like to get across. Hong Kong is a highly resilient place. I believe it is capable of a strong recovery from the negative shocks of the past four years. You can once again see the energy bursting through on the streets of Hong Kong. Reports in the Western financial media of the demise of Hong Kong are entirely premature and will soon be seen to be false. Hong Kong remains uniquely positioned as an international financial centre, as the gateway or indeed the airlock between global capital and China. In terms of equity capital markets, IPOs etc, Hong Kong remains the region's premier financial centre.

Last November I was able to visit T. Rowe Price's Hong Kong office for six weeks. It was a period of total immersion, allowing me to really get to know more of our APAC employees, which has been a great privilege. I would specifically like to thank Derek Yuen for organizing weekend walks on the Maclehose Trail, a real bonus for me during my visit. We had great autumn weather and about sixty plus associates joined me at different stages of the trail. If you really want to get to know someone, then if you're forward facing as on a trail walk, you will have a better conversation. Really, I don't know if there's any truth in that, but it was certainly great fun. I think we achieved a lot in terms of bringing together colleagues who had only recently joined the company, also bringing people together from different functions and teams.

After such a turbulent start to the 2020s, will the market environment remain challenging? How should investors adjust to a world of lower returns and higher risks?

Firstly, I believe that the era of benign disinflation, ultra-low interest rates and abundant central bank liquidity are indeed over. So our job as fund managers is to figure out what that means over the medium to longer term - which asset classes are likely to succeed, and which asset classes are likely to perform less well. There will almost certainly be opportunities and those opportunities will often turn up in surprising places. It's really up to portfolio managers like us to figure out where and when they are going to occur.

On the question of the higher risks facing today's investors, I would argue that there are always risks. If there were no risks, there would surely be no need for portfolio managers. I think people often confuse risk with volatility, failing to make any distinction between them. My fundamental definition of risk suffer a permanent diminution of capital or the risk of material underperformance versus benchmark. This is not the same thing as market volatility. I think the reason why so many investors worry so much about volatility is because it tends to be associated with corrections and downward trending markets, so volatility and risk tend to get conflated in the mind of the investor.

As an active fund manager, volatility can be your friend. It can throw up both market and individual security opportunities, and we need to be alive to those opportunities. It may be the period of low volatility since the global financial crisis and QE that is abnormal. Taking a longer historical lens, the post- pandemic period that we're currently going through may actually represent the return to a more normal volatility regime. If so, everything we do today as investors - whether in the context of high valuations, ultra-low interest rates, or suppressed volatility - we should think of in terms of a transition to a different investment regime than that which has prevailed for the past decade and a half. This brings challenges, but I think that what's really interesting is that the world adapts and learns from each crisis.

How important are ESG and DEI concerns to T. Rowe Price? Do you think they are being sufficiently incorporated into the firm's investment process?

ESG is deeply embedded across all our investment work and ESG metrics are part of an investor's annual appraisal. It is clearly an issue of importance to many of our institutional clients. Part of our job is to make sure that we are giving our investors the right choices, providing strategies and services that they want, and this includes ESG and Impact funds.

At Management Committee levels T. Rowe Price has key goals around diversity. I am an executive sponsor for ' Women and Investments,' a body where we as a firm try to think about how we can best recruit, develop, and promote women in asset management. I think it's worth saying that a lack of gender awareness is an industry-wide phenomenon, and greater efforts are needed to eradicate any biases we might have. To my mind, the ESG revolution is not a passing event, but is likely to be a long-term phenomenon. It's become obvious that climate change is a growing part of ESG today. It is an area where I strongly believe that we asset managers can help to drive positive change.

Finally, Justin, can you please share with us your personal interests and how you relax outside work?

Well, the first point is that outside of work and family, for me there is not a great deal of time left. I like to go hiking when I can. And during the lockdown we got a puppy, never having kept a dog before, which has brought us all a lot of joy. Basically, I'm a family man with three children aged twenty two, nineteen and seventeen. My daughter is the eldest and she has a profound and multiple learning difficulty (PMLD). So much of my time outside work is spent thinking about her well-being and development, where I of course do my best. But this is nothing in comparison to the time and effort that my wife Kate devotes to our daughter each and every day. For this I am forever grateful, as it is thanks to my wife's devotion to our daughter that I have been able to throw myself into my work and career. Without the support of my wife, I would not be here today giving you this interview.


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