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.
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