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The Cook and Bynum Fund

The fund:

The Cook and Bynum Fund
(COBYX)

Manager:

Richard P. Cook and J. Dowe Bynum, managers and founding partners.

The call:

Recently published research laments the fact that actively-managed funds have become steadily less active and more index-like over time.

The changing imperatives of the fund industry have led many managers to become mediocre by design. Their response is driven by the anxious desire for so-called “sticky” assets. The strategy is simple: design a product to minimize the risk that it will ever spectacularly trail its peer group. If you make your fund very much like its benchmark, you will never be a singular disaster and so investors (retirement plan investors, particularly) will never to motivated to find something better The fact that you never excel is irrelevant. The result is a legion of large, expensive, undistinguished funds who seek safety in the herd.

The Cook and Bynum Fund (COBYX) strikes me as the antithesis of those. Carefully constructed, tightly focused, and intentionally distinct. On Tuesday, March 5, we spoke with Richard Cook and Dowe Bynum in the first of three conversations with distinguished managers who defy that trend through their commitment to a singular discipline: buy only the best. For Richard and Dowe, that translates to a portfolio with only seven holdings and a 34% cash stake. Since inception (through early March, 2013), they managed to capture 83% of the market’s gains with only 50% of its volatility; in the past twelve months, Morningstar estimates that they captured just 7% of the market’s downside.

Among the highlights of the call for me:

  1. The guys are willing to look stupid. There are times, as now, when they can’t find stocks that meet their quality and valuation standards. The rule for such situations is simply: “When compelling opportunities do not exist, it is our obligation not to put capital at risk.” They happily admit that other funds might well reap short-term gains by running with the pack, but you “have to be willing to look stupid.” Their current cash stake is about 34%, “the highest cash level ever in the fund.” That’s not driven by a market call; it’s a simple residue of their inability to find great opportunities.
  2. The guys are not willing to be stupid. Richard and Dowe grew up together and are comfortable challenging each other. Richard knows the limits of Dowe’s knowledge (and vice versa), “so we’re less likely to hold hands and go off the cliff together.” In order to avoid that outcome, they spend a lot of time figuring out how not to be stupid. They relegate some intriguing possibilities to the “too hard pile,” those businesses that might have a great story but whose business model or financials are simply too hard to forecast with sufficient confidence. They think about common errors (commitment bias, our ability to rationalize why we’re not going to stop doing something once we’ve started, chief among them) and have generated a set of really interesting tools to help contain them. They maintain, for example, a list all of the reasons why they don’t like their current holdings. In advance of any purchase, they list all of the conditions under which they’d quickly sell (“if their star CEO leaves, we do too”) and keep that on top of their pile of papers concerning the stock.
  3. They’re doing what they love. Before starting Cook & Bynum (the company), both of the guys had high-visibility, highly-compensated positions in financial centers. Richard worked for Tudor Investments in Stamford, CT, while Dowe was with Goldman, Sachs in New York. The guys believe in a fundamental, value- and research-driven, stock-by-stock process. What they were being paid to do (with Tudor’s macro event-driven hedge fund strategies for Richard) was about as far from what they most wanted as they could get. And so they quit, moved back to Alabama and set up their own shop to manage their own money and the investments of high net-worth individuals. They created Cook & Bynum (the fund) in response to an investor’s request for a product accessible to family and friends. The $250 million invested with them (about $100 million in the fund) includes 100% of their own liquid net worth, with their investment split between the fund and the partnerships. Since both sets of vehicles use the same fees and structure, there’s no conflict between the two.
  4. They do prodigious research without succumbing to the “gotta buy something” impulse. While they spend the majority of their time in their offices, they’re also comfortable with spending two or three weeks at a time on the road. Their argument is that they’ve got to understand the entire ecosystem in which a firm operates – from the quality of its distribution network to the feelings of its customers – which they can only do first-hand. Nonetheless, they’ve been pretty good at resisting “deal momentum.” They spent, for example, some three weeks traveling around Estonia, Poland and Hungary. Found nothing compelling. Traveled Greece and Turkey and learned a lot, including how deeply dysfunctional the Greek economy, is but bought nothing.
  5. They’re willing to do what you won’t. Most of us profess a buy low / buy the unloved / break from the herd / embrace our inner contrarian ethos. And most of us are deluded. Cook and Bynum seem rather less so: they’re holding cash now while others buy stocks after the market has doubled and profits margins hit records but in the depth of the 2008 meltdown they were buyers. (They report having skipped Christmas presents in 2008 in order to have extra capital to invest.) As the market bottomed in March 2009, the fund was down to 2% cash.

Bottom Line: the guys seem to be looking for two elusive commodities. One is investments worth pursuing. The other is investing partners who share their passion for compelling investments and their willingness to let other investors charge off in a herd. Neither is as common as you might hope. 

podcastThe conference call (When you click on the link, the file will load in your browser and will begin playing after it’s partially loaded.)

The profile:

It’s working.  Cook and Bynum might well be among the best.  They’re young.  The fund is small and nimble.  Their discipline makes great sense.  It’s not magic, but it has been very, very good and offers an intriguing alternative for investors concerned by lockstep correlations and watered-down portfolios.

The Mutual Fund Observer profile of COBYX, April 2013.

podcast

 The COBYX audio profile

Web:

The Cook & Bynum Fund website

The Cook and Bynum Fact Sheet

Fund Focus: Resources from other trusted sources

Seafarer Overseas Growth & Income (SFGIX)

The fund:

Seafarer Overseas Growth and Income Fund
(SFGIX and SIGIX)

Manager:

Andrew Foster, Founder, Chief Investment Officer, and Portfolio Manager

The call:

On February 19th, about 50 people phoned-in to listen to our conversation with Andrew Foster, manager of Seafarer Overseas Growth * Income Fund (SFGIX and SIGIX).   The fund has an exceptional first year: it gathered $35 million in asset and returned 18% while the MSCI emerging market index made 3.8%. The fund has about 70% of its assets in Asia, with the rest pretty much evenly split between Latin America and Emerging Europe.   Their growth has allowed them to institute two sets of expense ratio reductions, one formal and one voluntary. 

Among the highlights of the call, for me:

  1. China has changed.   Andrew offered a rich discussion about his decision to launch the fund. The short version: early in his career, he concluded that emergent China was “the world’s most under-rated opportunity” and he really wanted to be there. By late 2009, he noticed that China was structurally slowing. That is, it was slow because of features that had no “easy or obvious” solution, rather than just slowly as part of a cycle. He concluded that “China will never be the same.” Long reflection and investigation led him to begin focusing on other markets, many of which were new to him, that had many of the same characteristics that made China exciting and profitable a decade earlier. Given Matthews’ exclusive and principled focus on Asia, he concluded that the only way to pursue those opportunities was to leave Matthews and launch Seafarer.
  2. It’s time to be a bit cautious. As markets have become a bit stretched – prices are up 30% since the recent trough but fundamentals have not much changed – he’s moved at the margins from smaller names to larger, steadier firms.
  3. There are still better opportunities in equities than fixed income; hence he’s about 90% in equities.
  4. Income has important roles to play in his portfolio.  (1) It serves as a check on the quality of a firm’s business model. At base, you can’t pay dividends if you’re not generating substantial, sustained free cash flow and generating that flow is a sign of a healthy business. (2) It serves as a common metric across various markets, each of which has its own accounting schemes and regimes. (3) It provides as least a bit of a buffer in rough markets. Andrew likened it to a sea anchor, which won’t immediately stop a ship caught in a gale but will slow it, steady it and eventually stop it.

podcastThe conference call (When you click on the link, the file will load in your browser and will begin playing after it’s partially loaded.)

The profile:

The case for Seafarer is straightforward: it’s going to be one of your best options for sustaining exposure to an important but challenging asset class.

The Mutual Fund Observer profile of SFGIX, Updated March 2013.

podcast

 The SFGIX audio profile

Web:

Seafarer Overseas Growth and Income Fund website

Shareholder Conference Call

2013 Q3 Report

Fund Focus: Resources from other trusted sources

Matthews Asia Strategic Income (MAINX)

The fund:

Matthews Asia Strategic Income (MAINX)

Manager:

Teresa Kong, Manager

The call:

We spent an hour on Tuesday, January 22, talking with Teresa Kong of Matthews Asia Strategic Income. The fund is about 14 months old, has about $40 million in assets, returned 13.6% in 2012 and 11.95% since launch (through Dec. 31, 2012).

Highlights include:

  1. this is designed to offer the highest risk-adjusted returns of any of the Matthews funds. 
  2. the manager describes the US bond market, and most especially Treasuries, as offering “asymmetric risk” over the intermediate term. Translation: more downside risk than upside opportunity. 
  3. given some value in having a fixed income component of one’s portfolio, Asian fixed-income offers two unique advantages in uncertain times. First, the fundamentals of the Asian fixed-income market are very strong. Second, Asian markets have a low beta relative to US intermediate-term Treasuries. 
  4. MAINX is one of the few funds to have positions in both dollar-denominated and local currency Asian debt (and, of course, equities as well). 
  5. in equities, Matthews looks for stocks with “bond-like characteristics.” 
  6. most competitors don’t have the depth of expertise necessary to maximize their returns in Asia. 
  7. TK said explicitly that they have no neutral position or target bands of allocation for anything, i.e., currency exposure, sovereign vs. corporate, or geography. They try to get the biggest bang for the level of risk across the portfolio as a whole, with as much “price stability” (she said that a couple of times) as they can muster.

podcastThe conference call (When you click on the link, the file will load in your browser and will begin playing after it’s partially loaded.)

The profile:

MAINX offers rare and sensible access to an important, under-followed asset class. The long track record of Matthews’ funds suggests that this is going to be a solid, risk-conscious and rewarding vehicle for gaining access to that class.

The Mutual Fund Observer profile of MAINX, updated March, 2012

podcastThe MAINX audio profile

Web:

Matthews Asia Strategic Income Fund

Fact Sheet

2013 Q3 Report

Fund Commentary

Fund Focus: Resources from other trusted sources

ASTON / River Road Long Short (ARLSX)

The fund:

ASTON / River Road Long Short (ARLSX)

Manager:

Matt Moran and Dan Johnson

The call:

Highlights of the call:

In December 2012, we spoke with Matt and Dan about the River Road Long Short Strategy, which is also used in this fund. With regard to the strategy, they noted:

  • they believe they can outperform the stock market by 200 bps/year over a full market cycle. 
  • they believe they can keep beta at 0.3 to 0.5. They have a discipline for reducing market exposure when their long portfolio exceeds 80% of fair value. 
  • risk management is more important than return management, so all three of their disciplines are risk-tuned. 
  • River Road is committed to keeping the strategy open for at least 8 years.
  • The fund might be considered an equity substitute. Their research suggests that a 30/30/40 allocation (long, long/short, bonds) has much higher alpha than a 60/40 portfolio.

podcastThe conference call (When you click on the link, the file will load in your browser and will begin playing after it’s partially loaded.)

The profile:

Long/short investing makes great sense in theory but, far too often, it’s dreadful in practice.  After a year, ARLSX seems to be getting it right and its managers have a pretty cogent explanation for why that will continue to be the case.

The Mutual Fund Observer profile of ARLSX, dated June 2012.

podcastThe ARLSX audio profile

Web:

For information about the Aston mutual fund, subadvised by River Road, please see the following:

Aston Asset Management

2013 Q3 Report

Fact Sheet

ARLSX Profile Sheet

Fund Focus: Resources from other trusted sources

RiverPark Long/Short Opportunity Fund (RLSFX)

The fund:

RiverPark Long/Short Opportunity Fund (RLSFX)RiverPark Logo

Manager:

Mitch Rubin, a Managing Partner at RiverPark and their CIO.

The call:

For about an hour on November 29th, Mitch Rubin, manager of RiverPark Long/Short Opportunity(RLSFX) fielded questions from Observer readers about his fund’s strategy and its risk-return profile.  Nearly 60 people signed up for the call.

The call starts with Morty Schaja, RiverPark’s president, talking about the fund’s genesis and Mr. Rubin talking about its strategy.  After that, I posed five questions of Rubin and callers chimed in with another half dozen. I’d like to especially thank Bill Fuller, Jeff Mayer and Richard Falk for the half dozen really sharp, thoughtful questions that they posed during the closing segment.

Highlights of the conversation:

  • Rubin believes that many long/short mutual fund managers (as opposed to the hedge fund guys) are too timid about using leverage.
  • He believes long/short managers as a group are too skittish.  They obsess about short-term macro-events (the fiscal cliff) and dilute their insights by trying to bet for or against industry groups (by shorting ETFs, for example) rather than focusing on identifying the best firms in the best industries.
  • RiverPark benefits from having followed many of their holdings for nearly two decades, following their trajectory from promising growth stocks (in which they invested), stodgy mature firms (which they’d sold) and now old firms in challenged industries (which they short).

podcastThe conference call (When you click on the link, the file will load in your browser and will begin playing after it’s partially loaded.)

The profile:

All long-short funds have about the same goal: to provide a relatively large fraction of the stock market’s long-term gains with a relatively small fraction of its short-term volatility.  They all invest long in what they believe to be the most attractively valued stocks and invest short, that is bet against, the least attractively valued ones.  Many managers imagine their long portfolios as “offense” and their short portfolio as “defense.”

That’s the first place where RiverPark stands apart.  Mr. Rubin intends to “always play offense.”  He believes that RiverPark’s discipline will allow him to make money, “on average and over time,” on both his long and short portfolios.

The Mutual Fund Observer profile of RLSFX, dated August, 2012

podcastThe audio profile

Web:

RiverPark Funds Website

2013 Q3 Report

RLSFX Fact Sheet

Fund Focus: Resources from other trusted sources

RiverPark Short Term High Yield (RPHYX)

The fund:

RiverPark Short Term High Yield (RPHYX)RiverPark Logo

Manager:

David Sherman of Cohanzick Management, LLC

The call:

For about an hour on September 13th, David Sherman of Cohanzick Management, LLC, manager of RiverPark Short Term High Yield (RPHYX) fielded questions from Observer readers about his fund’s strategy and its risk-return profile. Somewhere between 40-50 people signed up for the RiverPark call.

Highlights include:

  1. they expect to be able to return 300 – 400 basis points more than a money market fund
  2. they manage to minimize risk, not maximize return
  3. they do not anticipate significant competition for these assets
  4. expenses are unlikely to move much
  5. NAV volatility is more apparent than real – by any measure other than a money market, it’s a very steady NAV. 

podcastThe conference call (When you click on the link, the file will load in your browser and will begin playing after it’s partially loaded.)

The profile:

People are starting to catch on to RPHYX’s discrete and substantial charms.  Both the fund’s name and Morningstar’s assignment of it to the “high yield” peer group threw off some potential investors.  To be clear: this is not a high yield bond fund in any sense that you’d recognize.

The Mutual Fund Observer profile of RPHYX, updated October, 2012

podcastThe audio profile

Web:

RiverPark Funds Website

2013 Q3 Report

RPHYX Fact Sheet

Fund Focus: Resources from other trusted sources

New and Noteworthy Site

LearnBonds Mutual Fund & ETF Ratings

History and Focus

LearnBonds (LB) Mutual Fund & ETF Ratings was launched in December 2011 by its co-founders Marc Prosser and David Waring. Marc Prosser is currently a Forbes contributor; previously he was the Chief Marketing Officer at Forex Capital Markets (FXCM). David Waring was formerly the Managing Director, business development and strategy, at Market Simplified Inc.

Unlike industry heavyweights such as Morningstar and Lipper, LB Ratings focuses on a relatively small number of bond funds in a limited number of categories. They divide funds into categories based on purpose. The categories currently listed are core bond funds, municipal bond funds, short term/low-duration bond funds, high credit risk bond funds and long duration funds. Their belief is that no individual or family should have more than 5 purpose driven funds in their portfolio. This is how David Waring describes their approach:

We have tremendous respect for Morningstar and Lipper’s mutual fund and ETF ratings. LB Ratings will not replace these great tools. However, we recognize many investors find these tools overwhelming and complicated to apply to making investment choices. We are addressing the need for a simplified product which expresses strong views as to which funds an investor should own.

Methodology

LB Ratings does not use a mathematical formula to identify or rate individual funds. Every fund listed on LB ratings was personally chosen and rated by the co-founders.  Instead of mechanical, number-based, quantitative analysis, they use a specific set of criteria to personally select and rate individual funds. Factors include fund performance both long and short term, risk levels, associated fees and quality and tenure of management. Funds are given a rating level between 1 and 5 stars, 1 being the lowest and 5 the highest. The website describes this method as “opinionated ratings.”  They are clear and upfront about their methods and their belief that all fund rating agencies and websites are inherently subjective.   This makes LB’s ratings akin to Morningstar’s Analyst Ratings (the Gold, Silver … designations).

LearnBonds screenshot

Extras

Every fund listed is accompanied by a compact but comprehensive report that outlines its strengths and weaknesses, as well as the rationale behind its rating. In addition to their bond fund and ETF lists, LB Ratings also offers links to bond and fund related articles. Additionally, website visitors can sign up for a daily newsletter, or download the free e-book “How to Invest in Bonds.”

Pros

The website is simple and straightforward, providing shortlists of funds that were hand chosen by experts in the field.  The rating report that accompanies each fund is clear and concise, giving readers information that can be useful to them independent of the rating. Fewer categories and shorter lists may be less stressful to some investors and help to reduce confusion.

Cons

The limited number of categories and funds means that inevitably many strong candidates will be missing. The subjective nature of the ratings will be too abstract for many. The lack of comparative tools – and tools in general – will limit the site’s appeal to investors who need more in-depth coverage. One practical concern we have is that there’s no evidence of predictive validity for the LB ratings; that is, they don’t have proof that their five star funds will perform better in the future than their three star ones.  Here’s Mr. Prosser’s response:

As far as predictive analysis , I would make the argument that at least for actively traded bonds funds we are in a period of time where quantitative analysis is difficult to employ:

Funds have radically changed the profile of the assets they hold and significantly drifted away from their benchmarks. Here are two easy examples; the Templeton World Bond Fund is now a short-duration fund, with a duration two years shorter than its peers. The PIMCO Total Return Fund now is a large holder of munis. which are neither included in its benchmark nor have they ever been a major part of its holdings.  In both cases, these are radical departures from the past . . . and at the same time [might be] temporary positions . . .  As a result, more than ever you’re “betting” on the skill of the fund’s manager.  Or put another way, historically the best performing bond mutual funds had most their returns generated from beta and now they are generating it from alpha. In short, I don’t think the quant models being employed really capture this shift.  [Assessing these funds] requires more qualitative analysis.

Bottom Line

Although the website’s offerings are limited, many investors may prefer a human chosen shortlist of choices over one generated by a computer.  For those who don’t need or likely will not use tools such as screeners and comparative charts, the simple straightforward nature of LB Ratings will be welcome. As the website itself acknowledges though, a fund rating website is built on trust.  Trust is earned over time, and ultimately only time will tell how the “opinionated ratings” approach fares against the tried and tested methods of the industry’s heavyweights in terms of performance.  For now, we conclude that LB has a sensible niche, that it’s interesting, worth watching and potentially useful, so long as you use their ratings as a starting point rather than a final word.

Website

http://www.learnbonds.com/lb-rated-funds/

May 1, 2012, A brief note

Dear Gentle Reader,

There will be a slight delay in publishing the May 2012 issue of the Observer.  In the past 24 hours I’ve been laid low by a particularly unattractive virus.  While our monthly essay is pretty much done, I haven’t been able to complete the final pre-publication quality review.  With luck (and a lot of medicine), we’re hopeful of having the May issue available on the evening of May 1st.

Highlights of some of the stories we’re pursuing this month include:

The Greatest Fund that Isn’t.  As of mid-April 2012, data services reported one fund with 180% year-to-date returns.  It turns out to be an old and occasionally troubled friend that’s not quite a fund any longer.

The Return of the Giants, a review of the cheerful notion that the “star managers” have regained their footing in 2012.

“A Giant Sucking Sound” and Investor Interest in Mutual Funds. We’ve updated our link to Google’s analysis of interest in mutual funds and the picture isn’t getting brighter.  We suspect that fund companies, in too many instances, abet the decline through insensitive, desultory communications with their shareholders, so we talk about really good shareholder communication and a new service designed to help smaller fund companies get better.

The Best of the Web: Curated News Aggregators.  Google News manages to draw 100,000 clicks a minute with its collection of mechanically assembled and arranged content.  News aggregators offer a useful service, and it’s possible for you to do a lot better than robo-edited content.   Junior highlights two first rate, human curated aggregators (Abnormal Returns and Counterparties).

As always, we offered new or updated profiles of four cool funds (Amana Developing World, Artisan Global Value, FMI International and LKCM Balanced).

There’s important news from a half dozen fund companies, including a new fund in registration that represents a collaboration of two fine firms, RiverNorth and Manning & Napier.

Except for our monthly highlights and commentary, all of the new content is available now using the navigation tabs along the top of this page.

Thanks for your patience and regrets for the delay,

Bretton Fund (BRTNX) – February 2012

Objective and Strategy

The Bretton Fund seeks to achieve long-term capital appreciation by investing in a small number of undervalued securities. The fund invests in common stocks of companies of all sizes. It normally holds a core position of between 15 to 20 securities whose underlying firms combine a defensible competitive advantage, relevant products, competent and shareholder-oriented management, growth, and a low level of debt.  The manager wants to invest “in ethical businesses” but does not use any ESG screens; mostly he avoids tobacco and gaming companies.

Adviser

Bretton Capital Management, LLC.  Bretton was founded in 2010 to advise this fund, which is its only client.

Manager

Stephen Dodson.  From 2002 to 2008, Mr. Dodson worked at Parnassus Investments in San Francisco, California, where he held various positions including president, chief operating officer, chief compliance officer and was a co-portfolio manager of a $25 million California tax-exempt bond fund. Prior to joining Parnassus Investments, Mr. Dodson was a venture capital associate with Advent International and an investment banking analyst at Morgan Stanley. Mr. Dodson attended the University of California, Berkeley, and earned a B.S. in Business Administration from the Haas School of Business.

Management’s Stake in the Fund

Mr. Dodson has over a million dollars invested in the fund.  As of April 5, 2011, Mr. Dodson and his family owned about 75% of the fund’s shares.

Opening date

September 30, 2010.

Minimum investment

$5000 for regular accounts, $1000 for IRAs or accounts established with an automatic investment plan.  The fund’s available for purchase through E*Trade and Pershing.

Expense ratio

1.5% on $3 million in assets.

Comments

Mr. Dodson is an experienced investment professional, pursuing a simple discipline.  He wants to buy deeply discounted stocks, but not a lot of them.  Where some funds tout a “best ideas” focus and then own dozens of the same large cap stocks, Bretton seems to mean it when he says “just my best.”

As of 9/30/11, the fund held just 15 stocks.  Of those, six were large caps, three mid-caps and six small- to micro-cap.  His micro-cap picks, where he often discerns the greatest degree of mispricing, are particularly striking.  Bretton is one of only a handful of funds that owns the smaller cap names and it generally commits ten or twenty times as much of the fund’s assets to them.

In addition to being agnostic about size, the fund is also unconstrained by style or sector.  Half of the fund’s holdings are characterized as “growth” stocks, half are not.   The fund offers no exposure at all in seven of Morningstar’s 11 industry sectors, but is over weighted by 4:1 in financials.

This is the essence of active management, and active management is about the only way to distinguish yourself from an overpriced index.  Bretton’s degree of concentration is not quite unprecedented, but it is remarkable.  Only six other funds invest with comparable confidence (that is, invests in such a compact portfolio), and five of them are unattractive options.

Biondo Focus (BFONX) holds 15 stocks and (as of January 2012) is using leverage to gain market exposure of 130%.  It sports a 3.1% e.r.  A $10,000 investment in the fund on the day it launched was worth $7800 at the end of 2011, while an investment in its average peer for the same period would have grown to $10,800.

Huntington Technical Opportunities (HTOAX) holds 12 stocks (briefly: it has a 440% portfolio turnover), 40% cash, and 10% S&P index fund.  The expense ratio is about 2%, which is coupled with a 4.75% load.  From inception, $10,000 became $7200 while its average peer would be at $9500.

Midas Magic (MISEX).  The former Midas Special Fund became Midas Magic on 4/29/2011.  Dear lord.  The ticker reads “My Sex” and the name cries out for Clara Peller to squawk “Where’s The Magic?”  The fund reports 0% turnover but found cause to charge 3.84% in expenses anyway.  Let’s see: since inception (1986), the fund has vastly underperformed the S&P500, its large cap peer group, short-term bond funds, gold, munis, currency . . . It has done better than the Chicago Cubs, but that’s about it.  It holds 12 stocks.

Monteagle Informed Investor Growth (MIIFX) holds 12 stocks (very briefly: it reports a 750% turnover ratio) and 20% cash.  The annual report’s lofty rhetoric (“The Fund’s goal is to invest in these common stocks with demonstrated informed investor interest and ownership, as well as, solid earnings fundamentals”) is undercut by an average holding period of six weeks.  The fund had one brilliant month, November 2008, when it soared 36% as the market lost 10%.  Since then, it’s been wildly inconsistent.

Rochdale Large Growth (RIMGX) holds 15 stocks and 40% cash.  From launch through the end of 2011, it turned $10,000 to $6300 while its large cap peer group went to $10,600.

The Cook & Bynum Fund (COBYX) is the most interesting of the lot.  It holds 10 stocks (two of which are Sears and Sears Canada) and 30% cash.  Since inception it has pretty much matched the returns of a large-value peer group, but has done so with far lower volatility.

And so fans of really focused investing have two plausible candidates, COBYX and BRTNX.  Of the two, Bretton has a far more impressive, though shorter, record.  From inception through the end of 2011, $10,000 invested in Bretton would have grown to $11,500.  Its peer group would have produced an average return of $10,900. For 2011 as a whole, BRTNX’s returns were in the top 2% of its peer group, by Morningstar’s calculus.   Lipper, which classifies it as “multi-cap value,” reports that it had the fourth best record of any comparable fund in 2011.  In particular, the fund outperformed its peers in every month when the market was declining.  That’s a particularly striking accomplishment given the fund’s concentration and micro-cap exposure.

Bottom Line

Bretton has the courage of its convictions.  Those convictions are grounded in an intelligent reading of the investment literature and backed by a huge financial commitment by the manager and his family.  It’s a fascinating vehicle and deserves careful attention.

Fund website

Bretton Fund

© Mutual Fund Observer, 2012. All rights reserved. The information here reflects publicly available information current at the time of publication. For reprint/e-rights contact us.

Marathon Value (MVPFX), August 2011

Objective

To provide shareholders with long-term capital appreciation in a well-diversified portfolio.  They invest primarily in U.S. mid- to large caps, though the portfolio does offer some international exposure (about 10% in mid-2011) and some small company exposure (about 2%).   On average, 80% of the portfolio is in the stock market while the rest is in cash, short term bonds and other cash equivalents.  The manager looks to buy stocks that are “relatively undervalued,” though Morningstar generally describes the portfolio as a blend of styles.  The core of the portfolio is in “sound businesses [with] dedicated, talented leaders” though they “sometimes may invest opportunistically in companies that may lack one of these qualities.”  The portfolio contains about 80 stocks and turnover averages 30% per year.

Adviser

Spectrum Advisory Services, an Atlanta based investment counseling firm whose clients include high net worth individuals and pension and profit sharing plans.  In addition to advising this fund, Spectrum manages over $415 million in taxable, retirement and charitable accounts for high net worth individuals and institutions.

Manager

Marc S. Heilweil.  Mr. Heilweil is President of Spectrum.  He founded the firm in 1991 and has managed Marathon since early 2000.  He received both his B.A. and his J.D. from Yale.

Management’s Stake in the Fund

Mr. Heilweil has over $1 million invested, and is the fund’s largest shareholder.

Opening date

The original fund launched on March 12, 1998 but was reorganized and re-launched under new management in March 2000.

Minimum investment

$2,500 across the board.

Expense ratio

1.23% on assets of $41 million (as of 6/30/2011). Update – 1.25% on assets of nearly $42 million (as of 1/15/2012.)

Comments

It’s not hard to find funds with great returns.  Morningstar lists them daily, the few surviving financial magazines list them monthly and The Wall Street Journal lists them quarterly.  It’s considerably harder to find funds that will make a lot of money for you. The indisputable reality is that investors get greedy any time that the market hasn’t crashed in 12 months and are delusional about their ability to stick with a high-return investment.   Many funds with spectacular absolute returns have earned very little for their investors because the average investor shows up late (after the splendid three-year returns have been publicized) and leaves early (after the inevitable overshoot on the downside).

The challenge is to figure out what your portfolio needs to look like (that is, your mix of stocks, bonds and cash and how much you need to be adding) in order for you to have a good chance of achieving your goals, and then pick funds that will give you exposure to those assets without also giving you vertigo.

For investors who need core stock exposure, little-known Marathon Value offers a great vehicle to attempt to get there safely and in comfort.  The manager’s discipline is unremarkable.  He establishes a firm’s value by looking at management strength (determined by long-term success and the assessment of industry insiders) and fundamental profitability (based on a firm’s enduring competitive advantages, sometimes called its “economic moat”).  If a firm’s value exceeds, “by a material amount,” its current share price, the manager will look to buy.  He’ll generally buy common stock, but has the option to invest in a firm’s high-yield bonds (up to 10% of the portfolio) or preferred shares if those offer better value.   Occasionally he’ll buy a weaker firm whose share price is utterly irrational.

The fund’s April 2011 semi-annual report gives a sense of how the manager thinks about the stocks in his portfolio:

In addition to Campbell, we added substantially to our holdings of Colgate Palmolive in the period.  Concerns about profit margins drove it to a price where we felt risk was minimal. In the S&P 500, Colgate has the second highest percentage of its revenues overseas.  Colgate also is a highly profitable company with everyday products.  Colgate is insulated from private label competition, which makes up just 1% of the toothpaste market.  Together with Procter & Gamble and Glaxo Smithkline, our fund owns companies which sell over half the world’s toothpaste.  While we expect these consumer staples shares to increase in value, their defensive nature could also help the fund outperform in a down market.

Our holdings in the financial sector consist of what we consider the most careful insurance underwriters, Alleghany Corp., Berkshire Hathaway and White Mountain Insurance Group.  All three manage their investments with a value bias.  While Berkshire was purchased in the fund’s first year, we have not added to the position in the last five years.  One of our financials, U.S. Bancorp (+7%) is considered the most conservatively managed of the nation’s five largest banks.  The rest of our financial holdings are a mix of special situations.

There seems nothing special about the process, but the results place Marathon among the industry’s elite.  Remember: the goal isn’t sheer returns but strong returns with limited risk.  Based on those criteria, Marathon is about as good as a stock fund gets.  For “visual learners,” it’s useful to glance at a risk-return snapshot of domestic equity funds over the past three years.

Here’s how to read the chart: you want to be as close as possible to the upper-left corner (infinite returns, zero risk).  The closer you get, the better you’re being served by your manager.  Five funds define a line of ideal risk/return balance; those are the five dots in a row near the upper-left.  Who are they?  From lower return/lower risk, they are:

First Eagle US Value (FEVAX): five stars, $1.8 billion in assets, made famous by Jean-Marie Eveillard.

Marathon Value (MVPFX): five stars for the past three-, five- and ten-year periods, as well as since inception, but with exceedingly modest assets.

Sequoia (SEQUX): five stars, $4.4 billion in assets, made famous by Bill Ruane and Bob Goldfarb, closed to new investors for a quarter century.

Nicholas (NICSX): five stars for the past three years, $1.7 billion, low turnover, willing to hold cash, exceedingly cautious, with the same manager (Ab Nicholas) for 41 years.

Weitz Partners Value (WPVLX): five stars over the past three years, $710 million in assets, run by Wally Weitz for 28 years.

That’s a nice neighborhood, and the funds have striking similarities: a commitment to high quality investments, long-tenured managers, low turnover, and a willingness to hold cash when circumstances dictate.  Except for Marathon, they average $2 billion in assets.

Fans of data could search Morningstar’s database for domestic large cap stock funds that, like Marathon, have “low risk” but consistently better long-term returns than Marathon.  There are exactly three funds (of about 1300 possibles) that meet those criteria: the legendary Sequoia, Amana Income (AMANX) and Auxier Focus (AUXFX), both of which are also profiled as “stars in the shadows.”

Regardless of how you ask the question, you seem to get the same answer: over Mr. Heilweil’s decade with the fund, it has consistently taken on a fraction of the market’s volatility (its beta value is between 74 and 76 over the past 3 – 10 years and Morningstar calculates its “downside capture ratio” as 68%). Alan Conner from Spectrum reports that Marathon is the 11th least volatile large core fund of near 1800 that Morningstar tracks. At the same time, it produces decent if not spectacular returns in rising markets (it captures about 82% of the gains in a rising market).  That combination lets it post returns in the top 10% of its peer group over the past 3 – 10 years.

Because Mr. Heilweil is in his mid 60s and the fund depends on his skills, potential investors might reasonably ask about his future.  Mr. Conner says that Heilweil intends to be managing the fund a decade from now.  The fund represents a limited piece of Heilweil’s workload, which decreases the risk that he’ll become bored or discouraged with it.

Bottom Line

If you accept the arguments that (a) market volatility will remain a serious concern and (b) high-quality firms remain the one undervalued corner of the market, then a fund with a long record of managing risk and investing in high-quality firms makes great sense.  Among funds that fit that description, few have compiled a stronger record than Marathon Value.

Fund website

Marathon Value Portfolio,though the website has limited and often outdated content.

© Mutual Fund Observer, 2011.  All rights reserved.  The information here reflects publicly available information current at the time of publication.  For reprint/e-rights contact [email protected].