Over the years I’ve been asked whether there is a mutual fund family (or families) that I prefer. My answer is generally along the lines that I choose mutual funds and ETFs based on screening and their fit in a particular client portfolio. This is absolutely true but there are families that I do tend to use more than others.
For example, for the individual client assets which I custody at Schwab (which is the bulk of them):
- Vanguard mutual funds and ETFs comprise about 22% of these assets.
- PIMco mutual funds, ETFs, and closed end funds make up just over 10%.
In addition to Schwab I have individual clients with a smattering of assets at other custodians, including Vanguard.
A significant portion of my practice involves providing advice to several 401(k) plans, as well as a couple good-sized pension plans and foundations. Both Vanguard and PIMco are well-represented, along with Fidelity. In the case of Fidelity two of the larger 401(k) plans are administered by Fidelity and we do have a number of Fidelity funds in both plans (along with a number of non-Fidelity funds).
In the case of Vanguard I am drawn to their low cost index products, I rarely use their actively managed funds. In the case of PIMco the bulk of the assets are in three of their funds. Their fixed income expertise and their research orientation are impressive.
A Sample 401(k) Menu
Beyond this a look at the funds and ETFs that I use would reveal no particular loyalty to any family or fund provider. I am typically looking for something in a particular fund in a given asset class and I don’t really care which fund family they are affiliated with, unless I uncover some negative aspect about the fund company. As an example, here are the fund families represented in one of the 401(k) plans for which I serve as advisor:
- Vanguard (4 index funds plus their Target Date Funds)
- American Funds
- American Beacon
- BMO Funds
- Northern Funds
- Dodge and Cox
Red Flags to Look For
While I am fund family agnostic, there are however, some fund family red flags that might give you pause when considering an investment. Here are three:
- A sense of general turmoil. Janus is a prime example of firm where this concern is prevalent to me. The company is on its 5th CEO since 2003 and they have experienced a noticeable amount of manger turnover.
- Refusal to close popular funds. One of the things that I really like about Artisan (a relatively small fund firm in Milwaukee) is that they routinely close funds when they take on too much money for the managers to effectively manage. Perhaps the “poster child” here is Sequoia who had reopened their lone fund in 2008 after being closed to new investment for over 20 years, feeling comfortable for the first time that they could effectively manage new money. They just re-closed the fund once again in the past year. It seems to be a rule that money follows performance. A fund that has a couple of really good years will attract waves of new investors. In my opinion it is irresponsible for the fund company to keep the fund open if they don’t feel they can effectively manage these inflows. In my opinion this is the definition of greed overruling shareholder interests.
- A commissioned or fee-based rep who pushes a particular fund family, especially if that family is also his/her employer. A recent example involves a lawsuit against JP Morgan Chase alleging that their reps pushed the company’s proprietary funds over those from other families. I suggest asking many questions of this rep if you like them, or better terminating the meeting on the spot if you are a prospective client.
As an individual investor I would caution you against loyalty to any fund family. Rather start out with the overall portfolio allocation that you are shooting for and then pick the best funds/ETFs to fill those “buckets.” Ideally this is an outgrowth of your financial plan. As a practical matter you might be unable to buy some funds due to investment minimums and other factors. However there are many custodians that offer access to a wide array of funds across many families. I would generally suggest going that route vs. limiting yourself to a situation where you only have access to a single family or a very small number of fund families.
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