Objective information about financial planning, investments, and retirement plans

4 Considerations When Evaluating Active Mutual Funds

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It’s spring here in Chicago (fingers crossed), the baseball season opened yesterday, and the first quarter of the year is in the books.  This means that you will be receiving statements from your 401(k) and your various investment accounts.  For many investors mutual funds comprise a significant percentage of their portfolio.  Here are 4 things to consider when evaluating actively managed mutual fund holdings.

Who’s running the show? 

Even with index mutual funds the manager(s) of the fund are a consideration.  However the management of the fund is a vital consideration when evaluating an actively managed fund.

Davis New York Venture (DNVYX) is an actively managed large cap blend fund with a long track record of success under two long-tenured co-managers.  When one of these co-managers unexpectedly left at the end of 2013 this was a cause of concern in evaluating the fund.  The fact that Davis moved quickly to replace this manager with an experienced member of the team at Davis was reassuring.  The fund continued its solid relative performance in the first quarter of 2014 after a solid 2013, which was preceded by three very sub-par years.  It is too early to tell what impact the management change with have on the long-term performance of the fund and this will bear close scrutiny.

Another example is the veritable soap-opera unfolding at PIMco over the departure of former Co-CEO Mohamed El-Erian.  While El-Erian didn’t manage many of PIMco’s funds, I’m guessing the whole situation was a distraction to CEO and founder Bill Gross who is also the manager of the firm’s flagship fund PIMco Total Return (PTTRX).  While this situation may not have been the cause, the fund finished in the bottom 15% of its peers in the first quarter.  This is on the heels of sub-par performances in calendar 2011 and 2013, though the fund ranks the top 5% of its peers over the trailing ten years all under Bill Gross’ leadership.

It is not uncommon for a fund that has achieved a solid track record over time to see the manager who was responsible for achieving that track record move on.  It is important when looking a mutual fund with a stellar track record to understand if the manager(s) responsible for this track record are still on board.

Size matters 

One of the truisms that I’ve noticed over the years is that good performance attracts new money.  Even if a top fund is responsible enough to its shareholders to close the doors to new investors before asset bloat sets in, the assets inside the fund might still balloon due to investment gains.  Two closed funds that I applaud for putting their shareholders first are Artisan Mid Cap Value (ARTQX) and Sequoia (SEQUX).

I’ve seen several formerly excellent actively managed mutual funds continue to take on new money to detriment of their shareholders.  Asset bloat can be a huge issue especially for equity mutual funds that invest in small and mid cap stocks.  At some point the managers have trouble putting all of this extra money to work and can be faced with investing in stock with larger market capitalizations.  At this point the fund might have the same name, but it is likely a far different fund than it was at its inception.

Closet index funds

According to a 2011 article in Reuters: 

Since the height of the U.S. financial crisis, more funds are playing it safe, hugging their benchmarks and sometimes earning the unwanted reputation as “closet indexers.” 

About one-third of U.S. mutual fund assets, amounting to several trillion dollars, are with closet indexers, according to research published last year by Antti Petajisto, a former Yale University professor who now works for BlackRock Inc. 

In general, Petajisto defines a closet indexer as a fund with less than 60 percent of its investments differing from its benchmark.” 

I was quoted in this 2012 piece in Investment News discussing closet indexers.  As the article mentions a fund is considered a closet indexer when its R2 ratio (a measure of correlation) reaches 95 in comparison to its benchmark.  In the example of American Funds Growth Fund of America this benchmark index would be the Russell 1000 Growth Index.

The point here is that if you are going to pay up in terms of an actively managed fund’s higher expense ratio, you should receive something in the way of better performance and/or perhaps better downside risk management over and above that which would be delivered by an index mutual fund or ETF.

An example of a an actively managed fund that you might consider being worth its expense ratio is the above-mentioned Sequoia Fund.  A hypothetical $10,000 investment in the fund at its inception on 7/15/1970 held through 12/31/13 would be worth $3,891,872.  The $10,000 invested in the S&P 500 Index (if this was possible) would have grown to $901,620 over the same period.  This fund suffered a much milder loss than did the S&P 500 in 2008 (-27.03% vs. 37.00%) and outgained the index considerably in challenging 2011 (13.19% vs. 2.11%).  Sequoia’s R2 ratio is 80.

R2 can be found on a fund’s Morningstar page under the Ratings and Risk section of the page.

Performance is relative 

Superior performance is an obvious motivation, but you should always make sure to compare the performance of a given mutual fund to other funds in the same peer group.  A good comparison would be to compare a Small Cap Value mutual fund to other funds in this peer group.  A comparison to Foreign Large Value fund would be far less useful and in my opinion irrelevant.

Unfortunately superior active mutual funds are often the exception rather than the rule, one reason I make extensive use of index mutual funds and ETFs.  However solid, well-run actively managed funds can add to a portfolio.  Finding them and monitoring their performance does take work.

Please contact me at 847-506-9827 for a complimentary 30-minute consultation to discuss  all of your investing and financial planning questions. Check out our Financial Planning and Investment Advice for Individuals page to learn more about our services.

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My Thoughts on PBS Frontline The Retirement Gamble

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Gamble

The PBS show Frontline recently aired The Retirement Gamble, an investigative documentary on the state of retirement savings and the problems with 401(k) and similar retirement plans.  The show did a great job of highlighting a number of issues and was pretty scathing in its treatment of the financial services industry and workplace retirement savings plans.

As a professional who serves as a financial advisor to a number of 401(k) plan sponsors as well as to individual clients (most of whom are either close to retirement or in retirement) I watched this broadcast with great interest.  Here are my reactions to what I saw.

Key issues highlighted by The Retirement Gamble

  • The high fees imbedded in some retirement plans, often these fees are next to impossible for the average participant to uncover.
  • Poor investment choices offered in some plans.
  • There are a lot of lousy 401(k) plans out there.
  • The confusion and frustration that many retirement savers in 401(k) and other defined contribution plans feel due to the fact that they are responsible for accumulating enough for retirement.  This is in contrast to the era when many folks were covered by a defined benefit pension plan where the investment risks and responsibilities for funding the plan were on the employer’s shoulders.
  • While the issues highlighted were not new to me nor to many of us in the industry, I think this documentary was a bit of an eye-opener to many in the general public.  I say this as there have been several surveys taken over the years where a shocking number of investors responded that they had no idea that there were fees charged by their 401(k) plan.

Where the documentary fell a bit short in my opinion 

As regular readers of this blog and those who follow me on Twitter and other social media outlets know, I am highly in favor of lower retirement plan fees and anything that increases transparency for investors.  That said I thought The Retirement Gamble had a very decided bias against the financial services industry and almost felt as though they had come to their conclusions before they started on the project.

  • The show did not highlight a single good 401(k) plan and there are many out there.
  • The show did not highlight a single person who had used the 401(k) to accumulate a significant nest egg. I have the privilege to serve as advisor to a number of folks who have done just that.
  • While I am an admirer of Vanguard founder John Bogle and use index funds extensively in the 401(k) plans that I advise and in the portfolios of all clients, I disagree that there are no actively managed funds worthy of investor’s dollars.  That’s not to say that these are the majority of active funds, but they do exist.  Finding them and determining if they are an appropriate investment choice for a plan sponsor to offer is what plan investment consultants are paid to do.
  • While the program did mention advisors who act as Fiduciaries in passing, the focus was on those advisors, reps, and brokers who sell plans and/or suggest investment options that serve to line their pockets sometimes at the expense of the plan’s participants.  Why not interview some advisors who do the right thing for their plan sponsor clients and the participants of those plans?
  • The worst part of The Retirement Gamble was that while many problems and issues were brought to light, there was little in the way of advice or suggestions for plan participants on what to do to improve their situation.

I do have to say that the most amazing part of the show was the interview with the head of Prudential Retirement Christine Marcks.  She insisted that she was unaware of any of the research showing the advantages of low cost index investing over high cost active management.  While she may or may agree with the findings, the fact that she insisted that she was unaware of this research was jaw-dropping in my opinion.  I think Ms. Marcks should have been coached prior to her appearance by someone at Prudential.

The documentary is very worthwhile and if you haven’t seen it there is a link to the video on our Resources page.  Please weigh in below as to your thoughts on The Retirement Gamble.

Please contact me at 847-506-9827 for a free 30 minute retirement planning consultation and to discuss all of your investing and financial planning questions. Check out our Financial Planning and Investment Advice for Individuals page to learn more about our services.   

Retirement plan sponsors, do you need an independent review of your company’s plan?  Do you need help selecting a new plan provider?  Are you looking for ongoing financial advice to help you meet your fiduciary obligations and to provide a superior retirement savings vehicle for your employees?  Please feel free to contact me to learn about our investment consulting services for retirement plan sponsors.

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ETFs or Mutual Funds? – Why Not Both?

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Diversification - Investing

Over the past several months I’ve read a number of articles along the lines of “ETFs vs. Mutual Funds.”  In most cases these articles take an either or position which is generally in favor of ETFs.  While I am a fan of ETFs and use them extensively in client portfolios, my question is why do we need to choose between ETFs and mutual funds?  Why not use both?

Looking over the portfolios of my individual clients I could not find one that did not include both ETFs and mutual funds.  In addition some include closed-end mutual funds as well as individual stocks.

Advantages of ETFs  

Originally ETFs were introduced as a way to trade various stock market indexes.  The S&P 500 SPDR (ticker SPY) just turned 20 and is generally at or near the top of the list in terms of ETF trading volume.  The availability of low cost ETFs across a variety of equity and fixed income indexes has mushroomed over the years.  As a financial advisor I use them extensively for their style consistency, low cost, and in many cases their consistently above average performance within their style peer groups.

Especially after the 2008-09 financial crisis the number of ETFs offered has mushroomed and so has the variety of offerings.  Actively managed ETFs are growing and the success of PIMco’s ETF version (ticker BOND) of its popular PIMco Total Return (ticker PTTRX) mutual fund will undoubtedly spur further growth here.

Why bother with Mutual Funds?

In looking at mutual funds you have to divide them into actively managed funds and passive (index) funds.

If you are indexing all or part of your portfolio you want to look at various factors in making your decision as to whether to go with a mutual fund or an ETF.  These include:

  • The size of your account/portfolio.  Even in the world of index mutual funds there are some lower cost versions available to investors who can meet higher minimum investment thresholds.  Vanguard is a good example here.
  • Cost to own.  The expense ratio should be the main factor, but transaction costs can come into play.  While the availability of no-transaction fee ETFs is growing, the ETF you want to buy may not be on this menu at a given custodian.  Likewise some mutual fund families might incur a transaction fee at certain custodians.
  • How will you invest?  If you are dollar cost averaging into a fund/ETF at say $250 per month you’ll want to look for options with no transaction costs.

While actively managed mutual funds get a bad rap in the press, there are still a number of well-managed reasonably priced funds across equity and fixed income styles.  A Schwab study a number of years ago touted a “core and explore” approach to investing.  This meant that the core of the portfolio would be index funds, with the use of actively managed funds in certain asset classes where good index products were not available.

Given the expansion of indexing to a wide range of assets classes in both the ETF and mutual fund format this approach in its original form may be passé.  However I still use a number of actively managed funds across both individual and institutional portfolios.

In choosing an active fund I’m looking for some or all of the following:

  • Long-term outperformance.
  • Superior risk-adjusted performance.
  • Consistency of management.
  • Something that I can’t find in an index product that adds to the overall quality of the portfolio.

Certainly there are a lot of mutual funds that don’t belong in your portfolio.  Loaded funds, proprietary funds from various brokerage houses and other high fee alternatives put a lot of money into your broker/registered rep’s pockets.  Go with no load funds and always shop for the most competitive share class available to you in terms of expense ratio.

Why exclude either ETFs or Mutual Funds?

My point here is not to argue the merits of either mutual funds or ETFs, or for that matter active management vs. passive.  Certainly I’ve seen some excellent examples of portfolios that are all ETF and/or all index products.

However why limit yourself and feel that you need to avoid funds or ETFs?  There are so many choices out there, I feel that I owe to my clients to look at the whole universe of ETFS, mutual funds, and other products that might enhance their portfolio and help them to achieve their investment goals.  In building a portfolio I suggest that you take the approach of picking the best investing vehicles for the various allocation “buckets” in your portfolio whether they be ETFs, mutual funds, actively managed, or passive index products.

Please feel free to contact me with your financial planning questions.  Check out our Financial Planning and Investment Advice for Individuals page for more information about our services.   

For you do-it-yourselfers, check out Morningstar.com to analyze your mutual funds, ETFs, and all of your investments and to get a free trial for their premium services.

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Do Index Funds Reduce Investment Risk?

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Index mutual funds and ETFs (we will refer to them as index funds unless otherwise indicated going forward in this article) have received a lot of favorable press of late.  This is justifiable as index funds offer a low cost way to invest and are generally quite specific to a given investment style.  Over the years I have been asked if index funds reduce investment risk.  Let’s examine this question.

Illustration of Standard deviation

What is investment risk? 

One definition of  investment risk as the variability of the investment’s returns also known as standard deviation.   Note variability means returns that are both higher and lower than the fund’s average returns over a given period, say the trailing three or five years.

I contend that most investors would define investment risk as the risk of losing money on an investment.  This is especially true in the wake of the recent financial crises.

An index fund takes on the risk of the underlying index it tries to replicate. For instance, in 2008 the S&P 500 Index lost 37 percent. There are many funds and ETFs that track that index. They all lost around 37 percent plus the fund’s expenses. For example, the Vanguard 500 Index Fund (symbol VFINX) posted a loss of 37.02 percent for the year.

Active management vs. index funds 

Let’s take a look at several of Morningstar’s analyst favorites in the Large Growth style compared with an index fund in this style and with the S&P 500 index.

10 yr. Standard Deviation

10 yr. mean return

Vanguard Growth Index (VIGRX)

+/-15.14%

8.10%

Jensen Quality Growth (JENSX)

+/-13.19%

6.62%

Vanguard Primecap (VPMCX)

+/-15.50%

10.83%

Harbor Capital Apprec. (HACAX)

+/-15.57%

8.65%

S&P 500 Index

+/-14.80%

7.93%

Data from Morningstar.com

In plain English, the Vanguard Primecap fund posted an average annual return of 10.83% over the trailing ten years depicted.  Based on fund’s standard deviation of +/- 15.50% one would expect the fund’s returns to range between -4.67% and +26.33%.

The bigger take away from this chart is that the Vanguard Index fund’s volatility was lower than a couple of the funds and higher than Jensen.   As with any index fund the Vanguard fund experienced approximately the level of risk and return of its underlying index, other actively managed funds in this category experienced more or less risk and return based upon the stock selections of the managers.

Manager Risk 

Index funds can eliminate manager risk, or the risk of investing in an actively managed fund only to see the manager underperform the benchmark index.  As an example for the trailing periods ending January 31, 2013 the Vanguard Growth Index outperformed 83% of the other Large Growth funds for the trailing three years; 84% of the other fund for the trailing five years; and 61% of the other fund for the trailing ten years.

This is not to say this will be the case with all index funds over all periods of time. However, a well-run index fund should track its underlying index closely and deliver index-like performance.

Several years ago an instructor at a continuing education session indicated that many of the actively managed mutual funds atop the 10-year rankings in their respective categories most likely spent three of those calendar years in the bottom quartile of their category rankings. For an investor who held one of these funds over that entire 10-year period this isn’t a problem. But investors who bought into such a fund at a different time or over various periods of time may have had quite a different experience.  As we know, money tends to chase performance, hot funds attract investor dollars, funds that are struggling tend to see more client redemptions.  This is so prevalent that Morningstar measures investor performance along with the actual performance of the mutual fund.  Investor performance provides a measure of how actual investors fared by investing in this fund, including the timing of investments and redemptions.  In many cases investor performance varies significantly from the actual fund returns.

A few other points to consider: 

Expenses matter

You should generally buy the cheapest index fund that tracks the index you are interested in. There is a huge disparity in the fees for funds that track the S&P 500 for example.

Understand the underlying index.

There has been a proliferation of new index ETFs tracking a variety of indexes. In many cases I have never heard of many of these indexes. Make sure the index tracked by the fund or ETF you are considering makes sense for your overall portfolio and that the index has a real history not just some back-tested data behind it.

Using index funds is no guarantee of investment success

Just like with any mutual fund or ETF, how you use these products is the key to your success. Index funds are nothing more than a building block to construct your portfolio.

Don’t dismiss active managers  

Evaluate actively managed funds and understand why they have been successful in the past and in what types of environments they might lag their peers. Moreover, carefully think through the role the fund might play in your portfolio, and be aware of who is managing the fund. Is the same person or team that actually compiled the impressive track record still in charge? Or has this manager moved on, placing the fund in the hands of some new, unproven manager?

Index funds do not necessarily reduce investment risk or guarantee a higher investment return than using actively managed funds.  Like anything in the investment world, investing with a strategy (ideally tied to your financial plan), monitoring your results, rebalancing your allocation, and making adjustments to your portfolio when warranted are still key elements in successful investing.  Index funds are simply a tool you can use in this process.

Feel free to contact me with your investment and financial planning questions.

For you do-it-yourselfers, check out Morningstar.com to analyze your mutual funds and all of your investments and to get a free trial for their premium services.  Please check out our Resources page for links to some additional tools and services that might be beneficial to you.

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Mutual Funds and Alabama Football – Does Past Performance Matter?

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As most of you know, The University of Alabama is once again the king of the college football world.  They recently vanquished Notre Dame to win their second consecutive BSC Championship and their third in the past four years.  Including a BCS title while coaching LSU, Alabama coach Nick Saban has won four BCS titles in the last eight years.

Can we infer anything about the future from this performance? I would argue yes based upon a couple of recent articles that I have read about Saban’s approach to coaching and managing the football program.  According to the articles, there is a process in place for just about every aspect of the program from recruiting to practices and so on.  While Alabama still has to go out and play the games (in arguably the toughest conference around) they generally seem to find a way to win under Saban as evidenced by his worst record of 10-3 in 2010.

A repeatable process is what sets Saban apart and in my opinion is the key factor in his coaching success.  A repeatable process is also a key element in investment success.

Clearly in the investment world a disclaimer on the order of “…past performance is no guarantee of future performance…” is often used.  And with good reason.  If we apply this to the world of mutual funds any number of factors can come into play.  I and many other advisor colleagues and self-directed investors have migrated in large part to passive, low cost index funds and ETFs simply because so few active managers deliver top returns year in and year out.

Two active mutual funds managers who consistently deliver superior performance 

Sequoia SEQUX is a large cap blend fund that started as disciples of Warren Buffet’s investing style and still has a very definite process in place for finding stocks that meet the management team’s criteria.  Over the 15 years ended 12/31/12 the fund ranked in the top 5% of its category and has beaten the return of the S&P 500 by an average of 308 basis points annually.  The fund ranks in the top 2% for the trailing 3 and 5 year periods and the top 22% for the trailing 10 years.  Moreover this fund is closed to new investors more than it isn’t the fund was closed for 25 years until 2008.  At that point I added this fund to the portfolios of a number of clients.  The fund closed again at the beginning of 2012.  This is a sign of a superior fund company in that they didn’t feel they can invest all of the new money that was flowing into the fund so they closed it.

PIMco Total Return PTTRX is an Intermediate Bond Fund run by famed bond fund manager Bill Gross.  This is the largest and one of the most successful bond funds around.  Gross is very visible in large part due to his regular appearances on CNBC.  Many thought he had lost his touch in 2011 when the fund ranked in the bottom 13% of its category; however the fund turned around and finished in the top 12% for 2012.  The fund ranks in the top 25% for the trailing 3 years ended 12/31/12; the 7% for both the trailing 5 and 10 year periods and the top 3% of its category for the trailing 15 years.  In all cases the fund has outperformed its benchmark the Barclay’s Aggregate Bond Index significantly.  Gross and the PIMco team clearly have a process in place that has been successful and this was reinforced by the success of the recently introduced ETF version of the fund.  I have client money in this fund.

Two active managers who used to deliver consistently superior performance

American Funds Growth AGTHX was at one time a preeminent large growth fund.  While fund had a very strong year in 2012, returning 20.54% and outpacing the S&P 500 by 454 basis points, the fund ranked in the bottom half of its category in 3 of the 5 calendar years from 2007 -2011.  This was after a five year run during which the fund had ranked in the top 18% or better of its category in each of those five years.  I suspect the fund’s bloated size followed by significant reduction in fund assets via withdrawals contributed to this recent mediocre run.

Legg Mason Capital Management Value Trust LMVTX was formerly managed by the legendary Bill Miller who had rattled off a string of 15 consecutive years of beating the fund’s benchmark the S&P 500 Index.  In recent years the fund has fallen off  to the point where the fund ranked in the 99th percentile for the 5 years ended 12/31/12 and the absolute bottom of it category for the trailing 10 years.

The point is that there are actively managed mutual funds who deliver consistently excellent performance.  Even here, the performance can be uneven as evidenced by the fact that Sequoia has ranked near the bottom of its category in several individual years over the course of its solid run.

I tend to use index funds and ETFs pretty extensively, but I still use a fair number of actively managed funds as well.  Finding funds that fit the needs of my clients takes work and ongoing monitoring, but I have found this to be worth the time spent.  Even with the best managers there are no guarantees about the future, but analyzing and understanding the details of their past performance can provide insight.

As for the Crimson Tide, they may not win a third straight national title, they might not even win their division of the SEC (LSU and Texas A&M are formidable obstacles) but I have no doubt that they will be in the mix in 2013 and as long as Saban is coaching due to his process and preparation.

Please feel free to contact me with questions about your mutual funds or to address your investment and financial planning advice needs. 

Do-it-yourselfers check out morningstar.com to analyze your investments and to get a free trial for their premium services. Check out our Resources page for links to a variety of tools and services that might be beneficial to you.

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Investing in 2013 – Is it Different This Time?

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The New Year has started out with a nice opening day rally in the markets, following a strong rally on the last day of 2012.  In all the Dow Jones Industrial Average is up 3.7% over the past two trading days.

Longer –term, the S&P 500 index was up 111% from the lows on March 9, 2009 through December 31, 2012.  With the solid rise in the markets on the first trading day of 2013, the index closed at 1,462 just 6.6% below its all time high of 1,565 reached in October of 2007.

The phrase “It’s different this time…” remains etched in my mind as this was a common theme among many investment managers with regard to many technology companies in the period leading to the bursting of the Dot Com Bubble in early 2000.  They contended that it made sense to invest in start-ups with high multiples and no balance sheet, “It’s different this time…”

As we now know it wasn’t different, the stocks of most of these companies fell hard and the NASDAQ has never come close to its peak.

I thought of this time period today as I was listening to Professor Jeremy Siegel on CNBC while working out.  He felt the market would rise 20% this year, he is generally bullish.

It is different this time 

While there have been a number of investment managers and analysts on CNBC and elsewhere indicating that they felt markets would rise in 2013, the mindless euphoria of the late 1990′s doesn’t seem to be present in general, and certainly not among my clients and the prospective clients I talk with.

In fact the mood seems a bit more pessimistic than I would expect given the solid rally in the markets that is close to entering its fourth year.  This pessimism is exemplified by the outflows we’ve seen over the past several years from equity mutual funds.  Much of this money has flowed into fixed income, despite historically low interest rates.

Filter out the noise and invest sensibly 

For regular readers of this blog, my investing suggestions for the current year will look very much like my suggestions for past years:

  • Start with a financial plan.  Your investment strategy should be tied to your goals and risk tolerance.
  • Focus on asset allocation.
  • Rebalance your portfolio as needed, generally twice per year is appropriate.
  • Don’t think you can consistently beat the market, you likely can’t.  This is why asset allocation and a healthy dose of low cost index funds generally make sense for most investors.
  • Use actively managed mutual funds sparingly, but don’t discount active management either.
  • Review your portfolio and your financial plan periodically, but don’t obsess over short-term market moves.
  • Manage all of your investment accounts as a total portfolio, not a collection of separate account.
  • Read up on the markets and the economy but don’t let yourself become driven by what you hear on CNBC or in the financial media.
  • Don’t get your advice from around the water cooler at work.  Your co-workers may be nice folks but they may not be financial experts and their situation may not resemble yours at all.
  • If you need professional advice, hire a competent fee-only advisor.

Here’s wishing you a successful 2013.

Please feel free to contact me with your financial planning and investing questions at any time. 

Check out our Resources page for links to some services and tools that might be beneficial to you.

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Are Mutual Fund Closures a Bad Thing?

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Road closed, farm road in Champaign County, Il...

You’ve been following a mutual fund for awhile and you’ve decided that this fund is a good fit for your portfolio.  You go online to make an initial purchase and you learn the fund has closed to new investments.  While you might be frustrated, overall I tend to view fund closures as a positive move in most cases.

Factors that might lead to a fund closing 

Typically the main reason that mutual funds close to new investments is that more money is coming in than the managers feel they can effectively invest.  Closely related to this is the rule that funds are only allowed to buy into the stock of a single company if that holding is 5% or less of the total value of the fund.  (Note a holding may constitute more than 5% of a fund’s value due to price appreciation).  Generally fund closures occur in actively managed mutual funds versus passively managed index products.

Fund closures benefit existing shareholders 

In my opinion, a fund closure is generally a sign of a fund company that values its shareholders.  A case in point is Artisan, a fund company based in Milwaukee.  Over the years I have used Artisan Mid Cap Value (ARTQX) extensively in several of the retirement plans for whom I serve as advisor as well in the portfolios of many of my individual clients.  The management team of this fund was named Domestic Manager of the Year for 2011 by Morningstar.

Artisan runs 12 funds, of which 5 are currently closed to new investors, including Mid Cap Value.  Even with the closure, fund assets have topped $8 billion a high for the fund.  The fund’s performance has lagged in 2011, though I don’t think that it is related to the increased size.  The fund ranks in the top 1% of all Mid Cap Value funds over the past 10 years.

The fact that Artisan is willing to close a popular fund like Mid Cap Value speaks volumes about the firm.  Shutting off the spigot of new money means that the firm will lose the fees it would collect on these assets.  Artisan is also in the process of going public.

Examples of large funds that didn’t close 

This can work both ways.  An example of a fund that in my opinion should have closed to new investment is Ariel (ARGFX).  This was an outstanding Small Cap Value fund run by John Rogers, a well-known Chicago-based value investor.  Fund assets ballooned from about $600 million in 2001 to over $4.7 billion in 2005.  The fund never closed its doors to new money and was forced to increase the market cap of the stocks held in the fund.

As a Mid Cap Blend fund, performance has largely been below average, the fund ranks in the middle of the pack for the trailing 5 years and in the bottom 25% of its category for the tailing 10 years.  Performance has picked up in recent years with the fund ranking in the top quarter of its category in 2009, 2010, and year to date in 2012.  In-between the fund ranked in the bottom 7% of its category in 2011.  This improved performance follows a significant decline in fund assets in recent years.

I haven’t followed this fund for several years and have no client money invested here.  Would shareholders have been better served had the fund closed its doors a number of years ago and stuck to the type of investing it was known for?  In my opinion yes, but I’ll leave that to others to decide.

On the flip side of this is Fidelity Contra (FCNTX).  Will Danoff manages about $85 billion in this fund and over $100 billion in this style (Large Growth) when you add in some other portfolios under his management.  The fund has placed in the category’s top 39% or better in every annual period since 2002 with the exception of 2009 (when the fund earned over 29%).  For the trailing 10 years the fund ranks in the category’s top 7%.  To be able to manage this much money as well as Danoff has year in and year out is a commendable and rare feat.

Asset bloat

While asset bloat can be a problem in any fund, it is generally a more serious issue in a fund that invests in small or mid cap stocks.  At some point there are only so many good places to invest new cash coming in.

While fund companies are in the business to make money, my experience has been that the fund companies that tend to close funds when they get too big also tend to run funds that are better performers over time.  At some point if a fund gets too big it might also become a “closet indexer.”  In those situations, why pay the fees associated with an actively managed fund?  Why not just buy an index fund or ETF?

What if my fund closes? 

Typically if you already own a fund and it closes, you be able to buy more shares if you wish.  This is not always the case, however.

If a fund that you were considering closes before you own it, look for an alternative fund.  This might be a good opportunity to consider a low cost index fund or ETF in the same asset class.

Feel free to contact me with questions about your investments.

For you do-it-yourselfers, check out Morningstar.com to analyze your investments and to get a free trial for their premium services.

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My Search for the Worst Mutual Fund Yielded a Surprising Result

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I wanted find the worst performing actively managed Large Cap Blend style mutual fund in Morningstar’s data base over the five year period ended October 31, 2012.

English: Legg Mason Tower, Legg Mason Headquaters

I was surprised to find that the fund was Legg Mason Value Trust which until earlier this year had been managed by legendary fund manager Bill Miller.  The fund has several share classes, for this analysis I used the I share class (ticker LMNVX).

Bill Miller is a legendary fund manager because he was able to beat the return of the S&P 500 Index each year over a 15 year stretch from 1991-2005.  This is an incredible feat of performance and consistency.

How did this fund end up at the bottom of the rankings?  Starting with 2006, the fund underperformed the index each year except 2009.  Let’s look at the fund’s performance over the past 10 + years:

Year Fund Return S&P 500 Return Category Avg. Return Fund Rank in Category
2002

-18.06%

-22.10%

-22.25%

13

2003

44.99%

28.68%

27.05%

1

2004

13.09%

10.88%

10.02%

14

2005

6.36%

4.91%

5.88%

40

2006

6.92%

15.79%

14.17%

98

2007

-5.73%

5.49%

6.16%

98

2008

-54.61%

-37.00

-37.39%

99

2009

41.96%

26.46%

28.17%

6

2010

7.71%

15.06%

14.01%

96

2011

-2.99%

2.11%

-1.27%

70

2012 YTD

7.72%

10.29%

8.86%

71

Via Morningstar as of 11/16/2012

In terms of category rank, 1 is the top of the category, 100 would equal the bottom.  This fund ranks in the 99th percentile of the Large Blend category for the five years ended October 31, 2012 (there was actually one fund ranked lower but it was a bit of a specialty fund so I eliminated it).

What happened to Legg Mason Value Trust?

What happened to this high flier?  While I’ve never invested either my own money or any client money in this fund, here are a couple thoughts:

The fund’s assets peaked at just under $7 billion in 2006, fund assets stood at about $328 million as of October of this year.  I’m guessing that as performance continued to slide, investors continued to redeem their shares.  The need for liquidity to meet these redemptions has most certainly been a drag on the fund’s performance.

In 2002 the S&P 500 lost over 22%; the fund was able to limit its loss to just over 18%.  In 2008 the S&P 500 lost 37% while the fund lost an astonishing 54.61%!  That means that an investor with $10,000 in the fund on January 1, 2008 saw their holdings drop to $4,539 by the end of 2008.  The value-oriented approach that had served shareholders well over the years was in the process of producing a third straight year of the fund performing in the category’s bottom 2%.

Lessons in Picking a Mutual Fund

Many argue that no active fund manager can continually outperform the markets over time.  The performance of this fund gives weight to that argument.  I will leave this discussion to others, but there are several lessons to be learned here:

  • Every market environment is different.  During the market decline of 2000-2002 there were still a number of mutual funds and market sectors that held up pretty well.  During the sharp decline of 2008-09 pretty much no strategy worked well.  Funds such as Dodge & Cox Stock which had been stars in the 2000-2002 timeframe saw their strategy backfire and sustained out-sized losses for their shareholders.
  • A precipitous decline in assets often becomes a snowball.  In the case of Legg Mason Value Trust fund assets declined from just over $6 billion at the end of 2007 to about $1.35 billion at the end of 2008.  This is a greater drop than can be accounted for by the fund’s investment losses.  The level of redemptions served to amplify to fund’s losses.  This issue has continued through the present and has limited the fund’s ability to take advantage of the market rally since March of 2009.
  • It’s hard for superstar funds and managers to outperform forever.  Fidelity Magellan and American Funds Growth are two examples.  On the flip side the managers at Fidelity Contra and Fidelity Low-Priced Stock have continued to be top performers over long periods of time and in the face of significant asset growth in their funds.  They are the exception rather than the rule.

Evaluating an actively managed mutual fund is not an easy task, which is another argument for index products.  Many actively managed funds are not worth the extra expense ratios they charge.  This is not to say that there are not some excellent actively managed funds that are worth investing in.  Just be prepared to understand why these funds have been successful and to monitor them for changes in key personnel, major fluctuations (up and down) in the level of fund assets, changes in the fund’s investment process, and organizational changes that might impact the investment process among other factors.

Please feel free to contact me with your financial planning and investment questions.

Check out Morningstar.com to analyze your mutual funds and to get a free trial for their premium services.

Photo credit:  Wikipedia

 

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American Funds Growth – A Fallen Star?

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falling star

My last post asked Mutual Funds – Should You Pay Extra for Active Management?  As a follow-up I am taking a look at an actively managed Large Growth fund that was once a top-flight performer, but has really slipped in recent years.

Readers of this blog may note that two of the most popular posts have dealt with the American Funds in the context of their use in 401(k) plans.  American Funds Growth remains a major holding across the 401(k) universe.

The asset base of American Funds Growth (across all share classes) is huge at just over $116 billion, but it is down considerably from its 2007 high of about $202 billion.  Still the fund remains the largest in the Large Growth category.

Let’s compare Growth’s A Share class with the Investor Share Class (the most expensive) of the Vanguard Growth Index Fund.

The A shares have a low expense ratio of 0.68%, but the Vanguard fund’s expense ratio is 0.24%.  The average fund/ETF in this category had an expense ratio of 1.22% as of June 30.  Note the A shares carry a front-end sales charge; the returns below do not reflect this.

YTD

12 months

3 years

5 years

10 years

Amer. Funds Growth

17.86%

27.94%

10.03%

0.06%

8.72%

VG Growth Index

18.20%

31.08%

14.90%

3.39%

8.22%

As of September 30, 2012 – courtesy of Morningstar.

A Former Star Performer

The superior performance of American Funds Growth over the ten-year period is consistent with the fund’s annual performance.  From 2002-2006 the fund outperformed the Growth Index fund during each of these years.  Further the fund ranked no worse than the top 18% of all of the funds in the Large Growth Category.

A Fall From Grace

Since 2006, the story is a different one.  American Funds Growth  has lagged the Growth Index fund in each of these years.  Further the fund has ranked in the lower half of the Large Growth category in 3 of those 5 years.  For the three years ended September 30 the fund ranks in the 74th percentile (bottom 24%) of the Large Growth category.  The fund ranks in the 68th percentile for the trailing five years and the 24th percentile for the trailing ten years.

A Closet Index Fund?

While American Funds Growth’s expenses are generally reasonable (though not for some of the share classes that are sold via the broker channel) what are you getting by paying the extra cost?  Further, the fund’s R-Squared (a measure of correlation) with the Russell 1000 Growth Index over the past three years is over 97%.

Essentially the fund has become a closet indexer with lagging performance and higher expenses.  I’m not saying American Funds Growth will never be a consistent long-term performer again, nobody can predict the future.   I respect the American Funds as an organization.  But why invest in a closest index fund when you can invest in the real thing?  If your broker or registered rep tries to convince you otherwise ask them the same question.

Please feel free to contact me with your investing and financial planning questions.

For you do-it-yourselfers, check out Morningstar.com to analyze your investments and to get a free trial for their premium services.


Morningstar Stock Fund Investment Research

 

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Mutual Funds-Should You Pay Extra for Active Management?

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I was recently quoted in the industry publication Investment News in an article discussing how many Large CapCommon Sense on Mutual Funds: New Imperatives ... domestic equity mutual funds have become very highly correlated with their benchmark index.

The article’s author cited the American Funds Growth Fund of America as an example with its three year R-squared to the Russell 1000 Index having increased to 98% from 77% just five years ago.  R-squared measures the strength of the statistical relationship, in this case between the fund and its benchmark.

Here are my two quotes from the article:

“If I buy an active fund in the large-cap space, I want somebody who’s going to do something over the long term to outperform,” said Roger Wohlner, a financial planner at Asset Strategy Consultants. “Why pay 70 or 80 basis points for active management that doesn’t give you much differentiation from the index?” 

“Downside protection is one of the reasons that led Mr. Wohlner to rush some of his clients into the $5.5 billion Sequoia Fund (SEQUX) when it briefly opened to new investors in 2008. As the S&P 500 fell 37% in 2008, the Sequoia Fund fell 27%.” 

Both quotes reflect my belief that an active mutual fund manager needs to add value beyond what you can find in an index mutual fund or ETF.

Index Funds Often Outperform Their Actively Managed Peers

Especially with Large Cap funds, quite often index funds out perform a large percentage of their actively managed peers.  Let’s look at an example:

Vanguard Growth Index Signal (VIGSX) – Large Growth Category

YTD

1 year

3 years

5 years

10 years

Fund Return

10.77%

6.49%

17.66%

3.06%

5.97%

Category percentile

24

8

14

17

28

# Funds in category

1,543

1,499

1,328

1,137

736

As of June 30, 2012 via Fi360.com

By way of explanation:

  • Category percentile represents its ranking among all of the mutual funds and ETFs in this Morningstar Category.  For example for the three years ended June 30 the fund ranked in the top 14% of the 1,328 funds in the category with a three year track record.
  • The fund delivered these results quite cheaply.  The fund’s expense ratio is 0.10%.  This compares to the average mutual fund/ETF in this category of 1.22% as reported by Morningstar.
  • While this share class may not be available to all individual investors, the Admiral Share class ($10,000 minimum investment) and the ETF version (which can be traded commission-free at Vanguard) of this fund also carry a 0.10% expense ratio.  Even the basic Investor share class is very cheap to own with a $3,000 minimum investment and a 0.24% expense ratio.  In addition there are many other excellent index ETFs in this category that are solid low cost choices.

Why Pick an Actively Managed Fund? 

A bit over half of the money that I have invested on behalf of my clients is in some sort of index product, across both mutual funds and ETFs.

That said I still use a number of actively managed mutual funds as well.  What am I looking for in an active fund?

  • A long-term track record of excellence.  There are still a number of active fund managers who in my opinion add value.
  • A manager who excels at controlling their fund’s downside risk when the markets drop.
  • Superior management in an investment style that is not well-represented by index products.

As we have seen especially over the market cycle of the past decade, it is increasingly difficult for actively managed mutual funds to add value to investors over and above what inexpensive index funds deliver.   This is especially true with equity funds.  If your financial advisor suggests a portfolio of pricey actively managed mutual funds ask why (especially if these funds are proprietary products of their employer).  What added value do these funds provide over less expensive index alternatives?  If you advisor is paid all or in part via commissions I’ll bet his/her compensation is part of the answer.

Please feel free to contact me with your investing and financial planning questions.

For you do-it-yourselfers, check out Morningstar.com to analyze your investments and to get a free trial for their premium services.  Please check out our Resources page for links to some additional tools and services that might be beneficial to you.

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