Objective information about financial planning, investments, and retirement plans

Is Your Mutual Fund Bloated and Should You Care?

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Asset bloat in a mutual fund is akin to the situation we’ve all found ourselves in while dining out.  Our meal is fantastic and we can’t stop eating it even though we know we’ll feel lousy and bloated if we don’t stop.  Mutual fund asset bloat can also be a big problem for investors.

What is asset bloat? 

Asset bloat is simply a large increase in the assets managed by a given mutual fund.  Asset bloat is typically not an issue for index funds or money market funds, but it certainly can be for actively managed stock and bond mutual funds.

Asset bloat can be caused by an influx of new money into a mutual fund, often the result of a period of superior performance by the fund.  It has been my experience over the years that investor money chases good performance.  Asset bloat can also be organic in nature via the fund’s investment gains.

Morningstar’s Russ Kinnel wrote an excellent piece on mutual fund bloat that you should check out.

Why is asset bloat a problem? 

At some point an actively managed mutual fund can become too large for the manager(s) to effectively manage.  As an example, Peter Lynch was the legendary manager of the Fidelity Magellan Fund (FMAGX).  Lynch managed the fund from 1977 until 1990 during which time the fund’s assets grew from about $18 million to about $13 billion.  During this time period the fund’s average annual return was 29%.

At the end of the decade of the 1990s the fund’s assets had hit $100 billion, ultimately dropping to today’s level of about $16 billion.  Subsequent to Lunch’s departure the fund’s performance never hit the levels seen during Lynch’s tenure.  I have to believe that this was in part due to the massive growth in the fund’s assets.

This phenomenon is especially problematic in mutual funds that invest in small and mid-cap stocks.  Due to the smaller market capitalization of the underlying holdings in these funds at some point it becomes difficult for the manager to find enough good stock ideas within the fund’s mandate to continue to deliver the top performance that was responsible for the asset growth in the first place.

There have been many instances of small and mid-cap funds that have grown to be so large they have started to invest in larger stocks and ultimately have migrated to another investment style, for example from mid to large cap.

How can funds curb asset bloat? 

Close the fund to new money.  I always respect mutual funds that shut off purchases by new investors in the interest of benefiting existing shareholders.  More assets under management means more money for the fund company.  A shining example of a fund that does this is Sequoia (SEQUX) which has been closed for most of the past 25 years.  The fund’s long-term track record is exemplary.

Start losing money or underperforming.  I say this only partially tongue and cheek.  Nothing will reduce mutual fund assets like a period of underperformance.  Just ask the folks at Fidelity Magellan.  Just as investor money often chases superior mutual fund performance it also has a tendency to flee poor performance.

As Russ Kinnel points out in the Morningstar piece referenced earlier, asset bloat is a symptom of the solid stock market performance we have seen over the past five years.  This is not to say that a large fund cannot be effectively managed.  Case in point is Fidelity Contra (FCNTX).  Manager Will Danoff has done a credible job given the sheer volume of money under his management.  On the other hand American Funds Growth Fund of America (AGTHX) has been called a “closet index fund” meaning that its investments are extremely closely correlated to its benchmark Russell 1000 Growth Index.

For investors in actively managed mutual funds it is important to monitor the fund’s size as one of the indicators that you look at in your periodic review of your mutual fund holdings.  No single indicator is a reason onto itself in determining whether to hold onto a fund or consider selling it, but several key indicators viewed together can help you understand what is happening with your fund holdings.

Please feel free to contact me with your questions. 

Check out an online service like Personal Capital  to manage all of your accounts all in one place.  Also check out our Resources page for more tools and services that you might find useful.

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Should you Micromanage Your Mutual Fund Manager?

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I routinely receive a number of press requests via email during the course of the week.  I delete the vast majority of them because I either do not feel qualified to comment or I’m just not interested in being quoted.  However I did receive one today to which I did send a few thoughts to the reporter seeking input.

My Investments from the last year or so

He was seeking comments on:

“….financial planners who are surprised or have an opinion on some of the mutual funds that decided to buy Facebook stock in its first two weeks of trading. The monthly portfolio holdings for some fund families have been released in the last couple weeks.

Is it expected for some core mutual fund holdings (including those in 401ks) to participate in a volatile IPO like Facebook? Should Value or Dividend funds (have) picked up the stock, as a few did? Some funds have as much as a 5% to 7% allocation to the stock, is that worrisome?

Some of the funds that bought the stock between May 18 and May 31 include: …” 

My email response to this reporter was:

In the case of actively managed mutual funds such as the ones mentioned in the press request below, for better or worse you are buying into the judgment and skill of the manager or management team.  I would tend to evaluate the fund’s performance over time, their expenses, risk, adherence to a style, and other factors.  I wouldn’t necessarily look at their having bought Facebook during the IPO phase or any other singular holding.  Managers make some good bets and some that aren’t so good.  At this juncture it is a bit early to judge these purchases; however my focus would again be in the aggregate.  Have they made far more good bets vs. poor ones? 

The point of my response was that if one purchases an actively managed mutual fund (or separate account, annuity sub-account, closed-end fund, ETF, etc.) they are buying that manager’s skill and their ability to achieve some expected result.

There is a whole other debate about whether an investor should stick with lower cost index funds and ETFs vs. actively managed funds and that is not the point of this article.  For the record I am a fan of both, I use a high percentage of index products in my client portfolios but I also use a fair number of active funds as well.  As an advisor I have one advantage that many individual investors may not have in that I have access to institutional and other lower cost share classes for a number of the funds that I use both active and index.

In my opinion if you are looking at an actively managed fund you should evaluate the “whole picture.”  Typically when evaluating a fund, the starting points of my analysis include:

  • Track record relative to its peers.  It’s useless to compare a mid cap growth manager to one who invests in foreign large value stocks.  Note a stellar track record may not indicate success going forward so it is incumbent upon you to look further and understand what is behind that track record.  For example, how did this fund do on a relative basis in both up and down markets?
  • Expenses, how does the fund compare to its peers?
  • Alpha and Sharpe ratio.  These are measurements of the fund’s risk-adjusted return and to me are indicators of the value (or lack thereof) added by the manager.
  • Management tenure.  It is not uncommon for a successful fund manager to move on to greener pastures, especially if wooed by a competitor.  If the manager(s) who compiled the fund’s great track record are gone this is a big red flag, though not always a deal killer.  A number of years ago the long-time manager of a foreign fund that I like left.  Two of her underlings took over and frankly I think they have done an even better job.  Investing is about people, but it’s also about process.
  • Gain or loss of assets.  This is huge, especially if the fund invests in small or mid cap stocks.  Many funds have compiled a great track record with a low asset base.  One of the truisms of investing is that money chases performance.  Once a fund does well, new money can often poor in.  It can be tough for the manager to find enough good ideas in which to invest this new money.  Case in point is Fidelity Magellan.  This fund was managed by the legendary Peter Lynch and posted some fantastic numbers.  Money poured in, Lynch left, and the fund has been decidedly mediocre for a number of years.

These items are a starting point when researching an actively managed fund.  Overall my job is to develop portfolios for my individual and institutional (retirement plans, endowments, and foundations) clients that fit their needs.  Mutual funds and ETFs are the tools that I use.  I rely on the managers of these funds and ETFs and I judge them on their overall performance, not on any one individual holding or transaction.

If you need help evaluating your investments or with your financial planning  please feel free to contact me to discuss your situation.

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