Category Archives: Current

June 1, 2017

By David Snowball

Dear friends,

And they’re off!” signals both the start of a horse race and the end of a class’s years at college.

Augustana just launched 485 more grads in your direction. It’s our 157th assault on adult life, and one of our largest. I’m pleased that Mike Daniels was the student selected to speak at commencement but he’s so durn Augie. Mike’s a defensive lineman, but also a jazz musician. He’s an accountant, but also a first team NCAA Academic All-American. He’s been to Italy (with the football team), but also managed to sneak in three internships on his way to working for Deloitte & Touche. He’s a good man who overtly rejects “good enough” as a goal; that is not, he said, Continue reading →

February 1, 2017

By David Snowball

Dear friends,

I’m sorry we were late to the party, but glad that you’re here. We had a rough start to February. Our estimable technical director Chip had a bad fall at work which took her out for three days. Just as we were preparing for launch, our site was vandalized by what appears to be an Indonesian hacking collaborative. Then as we thought we’d undone the damage and settled back to work, they slipped in again. (To be clear: you’re safe. We collect neither personal nor tracking information. Any financial stuff goes through Amazon and PayPal, groups that can pay for security obsessiveness. Mostly they seemed interested in vandalism for the sake of “bragging rights.”)

And then, to top it off, Mr. Trump was president. Continue reading →

October 1, 2016

By David Snowball

Dear friends,

Welcome to autumn. It’s a season of such russet-gold glory that even Albert Camus (remember him from The Stranger and The Plague?) was forced to surrender: “Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower.” It’s the time of apples and cinnamon, of drives through the Wisconsin countryside, and of gardens turning slowly to their rest.

Open the windows, unpack the flannel, raise high the cup of cider. Summon the children, light the bonfires, deploy the marshmallows! Continue reading →

September 1, 2016

By David Snowball

Dear friends,

It’s fall. We made it!

The leaves are still green and there are still tomatoes to be canned (yes, I do) but I saw one of my students pull on a sweater today. The Steelers announce their final roster this weekend. The sidewalks are littered with acorns. It’s 6:00 p.m. and the sun outside my window is noticeably low in the sky. I hear the distant song of ripening apples. Continue reading →

July 1, 2016

By David Snowball

Dear friends,

Hi. We’re back. Did you miss us? Chip and I greatly enjoyed our holiday in Scotland; she’s the tiny squidge in the middle of the picture, smiling and waving at you. This shot captures much of the delight of our time there. It’s taken from atop Dun Beag, the remnants of a 2,400 year old fortified keep near Struan, on the Isle of Skye. It’s on the edge of a pasture that stretches for miles, up mountains and down ravines. Sheep grazed all about it, studiously ignoring us. It looks out onto The Inner Seas that separate Skye from the Hebrides. 

dun beag 1

atop dun beag

Chip adds, “And here’s our fearless leader, perched atop Dun Beag, enjoying the glorious views and perfect weather.”

We stopped and hiked here a bit on my birthday, on our way to dinner at the Edinbane Inn. I’d share a picture of our dinner, but then you’d drool on your keyboard and that can’t be good. Continue reading →

April 1, 2016

By David Snowball

Dear friends,

Sorry about the late launch of the Observer, but we’ve been consumed by the need to deal with a campus crime.

Someone stole the dome off my academic home, Old Main, early on the morning of April 1st.

Old Main, Augustana College

The barstids!

If you play the accompanying video (probably best with the sound muted), there are some way cool images of the pre-theft dome which occur around the: 45 second mark. It’s accompanied by some commentary by a couple of my students and my colleague, Wendy, who, like Anakin, has heard the song of the Dark Side.

Requiem for a heavyweight

The sad tale of Sequoia’s (SEQUX) unwinding continues.

heavyweightHere’s the brief version of recent events:

  • Investors have pulled more than a half billion from the fund, including $230 million just in the first three weeks of March. March will be the sixth consecutive month of net withdrawals.
  • The fund trails 98-100% of its peers for 2015 and 2016, as well as for the past one- and three-year periods.
  • Manager Bob Goldfarb, whose name is on the door at Ruane, Cunniff & Goldfarb, resigned and an unnamed analyst who was one of the cheerleaders for Valeant left.
  • The remaining guys have had a period of reflection and propose a more collaborative decision-making model and less risk-taking for the years ahead.

Senator Arthur Vandenberg (served 1928-1951), a Republican committed to the critical importance of a united front when it came to foreign policy, famously declared “politics stops at the water’s edge.” The fear is that the Sequoia version might have been “independence stops at the boss’s door.”

The dark version of the Sequoia narrative would be this: Goldfarb, abetted by an analyst, became obsessed about Valeant and crushed any internal dissent. Mr. Poppe, nominally Mr. Goldfarb’s peer, wouldn’t or couldn’t stop the disaster. “All the directors had repeatedly expressed concern” over the size of the Valeant stake and the decision to double-down on it. Mr. Poppe dismissed their concerns: “recent events frustrated them.” The subsequent resignations by 40% of the board, with another apparently threatening to go, were inconsequential annoyances. Sequoia, rather snippily, noted that board members don’t control the portfolio, the managers do. Foot firmly on the gas, they turned the bus toward the cliff.

If the dark version is right, Jaffe is wrong. The headline on a recent Chuck Jaffe piece trumpeted “How a big bet on one bad stock broke a legendary mutual fund” (3/28/2016). If the dark narrative is right, “One bad stock” did not break Sequoia; an arrogant and profoundly dysfunctional management culture did.

Do you seriously think that you’d be braver? In the wake of Josef Stalin’s death, Nicolas Khrushchev gave a secret speech denouncing the horrors of Stalin’s reign and his betrayal of the nation. Daniel Schorr picks up the narrative:

It was said that at one point a delegate shouted, “And Nikita Sergeyevich, where were you while all this was happening?” Khrushchev had looked up and snapped, “Who said that? Stand up!” When no one rose, Khrushchev said, “That’s where I was, comrade” (from Daniel Schorr, Stay Tuned (2001), 75-76).

Another version, though, starts with this question: “did Goldfarb fall on his sword?” His entire professional life has been entwined with Sequoia, the last living heir to the (Bill) Ruane, (Richard) Cunniff and Goldfarb legacy. Ruane and Cunniff started the firm in 1970, Goldfarb joined the next year and has spent 45 years at it. And now it was all threatening to come apart. Regardless of “who” or “why,” some dramatic gesture was called for. If the choice came down to Goldfarb, age 71, or Poppe, at 51 or 52, it was fairly clear who needed to draw his gladius.

Meanwhile, the usual suspects rushed to close the barn door.

  • Morningstar reduced the fund’s Analyst Rating from Gold to Bronze. Why? In the same way that a chef might be embarrassed to celebrate the tender delights of a fish flopping around on the ground, Morningstar’s analysts might have been embarrassed to look at an operation whose wheels were coming off and declaring it “the best of the best.”

    Oddly, they also placed it “under review” on October 30, 2015. At that point, Valeant was over 30% of the fund, investors had been pulling money and the management team conducted their second, slightly-freakish public defense of their Valeant stake. Following the review, the analysts reaffirmed their traditional judgment: Gold! The described it as “compelling” in the week before the review and “a top choice” in the week afterward.

    There’s no evidence in the reaffirmation statement that the analysts actually talked to Sequoia management. If they didn’t, they were irresponsible. If they did and asked about risk management, they were either deceived by management (“don’t worry, we’re clear-eyed value investors and we’re acting to control risk”) or management was honest (“we’re riding out the storm”) and the analysts thought “good enough for us!” I don’t find any of that reassuring.

    Doubts have only set in now that the guys presumably responsible for the mess are gone and the management strategy is becoming collaborative and risk-conscious.

    Similarly, up until quite recently Morningstar’s stock analyst assigned to Valeant recognized “near-term pain” while praising the firms “flawless execution” of its acquisition strategy and the “opportunities [that] exist for Valeant long term.”

  • Steve Goldberg, an investment advisor who writes for Kiplinger’s, “still had faith in the fund” back in October after the board members resigned and the extent of the Valeant malignancy was clear. But “What I didn’t know: Valeant was no Berkshire Hathaway.” (stunned silence) Uh, Steve, maybe you should let someone else hold the debit card, just to be safe? Mr. Goldberg correctly points out that Bill Nygren, manager of Oakmark Select (OAKLX), stubbornly rode his vast holdings in Washington Mutual all the way to zero. The lesson he’s learned, curiously late in his professional investing career, “I need to make sure a fund isn’t taking excessively large positions in one or two stocks or engaging in some other dicey strategy. Dramatically outsize returns almost never come without outsize risks.”

The excuse “we couldn’t have known” simply does not hold water. A pseudonymous contributor to Seeking Alpha, who describes himself only as “an engineer in Silicon Valley” wrote a remarkably prescient, widely ignored critique of Sequoia two years ago. After attending Sequoia’s Investor Day, he came away with the eerie sense that Rory Priday and Bob Goldfarb spoke most. The essay makes three prescient claims: that Valeant hadn’t demonstrated any organic growth in years, that they’d been cooking the books for years, and that Goldfarb and Priday were careless in their statements, inexperienced in pharma investing and already hostage to their Valeant stake.

Valeant’s largest shareholder, [Sequoia’s] fate has become inextricably intertwined with Valeant. Valeant is 23% of their portfolio and they own 10% of Valeant. They can’t exit without ruining their returns. This led to a highly desperate defense at the Ruane, Cunniff, Goldfarb annual meeting.

If an amateur investor could smell the rot, why was it so hard for professionals to? The answer is, we blind ourselves by knowing our answers in advance. If I start with the conclusion, “you can’t do much better than the legendary Sequoia,” then I’ll be blind, deaf and dumb on their behalf for as long as I possibly can be.

The bottom line: start by understanding the risks you’re subjecting yourself to. We ignore risks when times are good, overreact when times are bad and end up burned at both ends. If you can’t find your manager’s discussion of risk anywhere except in the SEC-mandated disclosure, run away! If you do find your manager’s discussion of risk and it feels flippant or jaded (“all investing entails risk”), run away! If it feels incomplete, call and ask questions of the advisors. (Yes, people will answer your questions. Trust me on this one.) If, at the end of it all, you’re thinking, “yeah, that makes sense” then double-check your understanding by explaining the risks you’re taking to someone else. Really. Another human being. One who isn’t you. In my academic department, our mantra is “you haven’t really learned something until you’ve proven you can teach it to someone else.” So give yourself that challenge.

Quick note to Fortune: Help staff get the basics right

In Jen Wieczner’s March 18, 2016 story for Fortune, she warns “Sequoia Fund, a mutual fund once renowned for its stock-picking prowess, has been placed under review by Morningstar.” The stakes are high:

Uhh, no. Morningstar is not Michelin. Their stars are awarded based on a mathematical model, not an analyst’s opinions (“This Valeant investor is in even bigger trouble than Bill Ackman,” The error was corrected eventually).

The Honorable Thing

edward, ex cathedra“Advertising is the modern substitute for argument; its function is to make the worse appear the better.”

               George Santayana

So we find one chapter at Sequoia Fund coming to a close, and the next one about to begin.  On this subject my colleague David has more to offer. I will limit myself to saying that it was appropriate, and, the right thing to do, for Bob Goldfarb to elect to retire. After all, it happened on his watch. Whether or not he was solely to blame for Valeant, we will leave to the others to sort out in the future. Given the litigation which is sure to follow, there will be more disclosures down the road.

A different question but in line with Mr. Santayana’s observations above, is, do those responsible for portfolio miscues, always do the honorable thing? When one looks at some of the investment debacles in recent years – Fannie and Freddie, Sears, St. Joe, Valeant (and not just at Sequoia), Tyco, and of course, Washington Mutual (a serial mistake by multiple firms)  – have the right people taken responsibility? Or, do the spin doctors and public relations mavens come in to do damage control? Absent litigation and/or whistle blower complaints, one suspects that there are fall guys and girls, and the perpetrators live on for another day. Simply put, it is all about protecting the franchise (or the goose that is laying the golden eggs) on both the sell side and the buy side. Probably the right analogy is the athlete who denies using performance enhancing drugs, protected, until confronted with irrefutable evidence (like pictures and test results).

Lessons Learned

Can the example of the Sequoia Fund be a teaching moment? Yes, painfully. I have long felt that the best way to invest for the long-term was with a concentrated equity portfolio (fewer than twenty securities) and some overweight positions within that concentration. Looking at the impact Sequoia has had on the retirement and pension funds invested in it, I have to revisit that assumption. I still believe that the best way to accumulate personal wealth is to invest for the long-term in a concentrated portfolio. But as one approaches or enters retirement, it would seem the prudent thing to do is to move retirement moneys into a very diverse portfolio or fund.  That way you minimize the damage that a “torpedo” stock such as Valeant can do to one’s retirement investments, and thus to one’s standard of living, while still reaping the greater compounding effects of equities. There will still be of course, market risk. But one wants to lessen the impact of adverse security selection in a limited portfolio. 

Remember, we tend to underestimate our life expectancy in retirement, and thus underweight our equity allocations relative to cash and bonds. And in a period such as we are in, the risk free rate of return from U.S. Treasuries is not 12% or 16% as it was in the early 1980’s (although it is perhaps higher than we think it is). And for that retirement equity position, what are the choices?  Probably the easiest again, is something like the Vanguard Total Stock Market or the Vanguard S&P 500 index funds, with minimal expense ratios. We have been talking about this for some time now, but Sequoia provides a real life example of the adverse possibilities.  And, it is worth noting that almost every concentrated investment fund has underperformed dramatically in recent years (although the reasons may have more to do with too much money chasing too few and the same good ideas). Is it really worth a hundred basis points to pay someone to own Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Microsoft, Johnson & Johnson, Merck, as their top twenty holdings? Take a look sometime at the top twenty holdings of the largest actively managed funds in the respective categories of growth, growth and income, etc., and see what conclusions you draw.

The more difficult issue going forward will be deflation versus inflation. We have been in a deflationary world for some time now. It is increasingly apparent that the global central banks are in the process (desperately one suspects) to reflate their respective economies out of stagnant or no growth. Thus we see a variety of quantitative easing measures which tend to favor investors at the expense of savers. Should they succeed, it is unlikely that the inflation will stop at their targets (2% here), and the next crisis will be one of currency debasement. The more things change.

Gretchen Morgenson, Take Two

As should be obvious by now, I am a fan of Ms. Morgenson’s investigative reporting and her take no prisoners approach. I don’t know her from Adam, and could be standing next to her in the line for a bagel and coffee in New York and would not know it. But, she has a wonderful knack for goring many of the oxen that need to be gored.

In this Sunday’s New York Times Business Section, she raised the question of the effectiveness of share buybacks. Now, the dirty little secret for some time has been that growth of a business is not impacted by share repurchases. Yet, if you listened to many portfolio managers wax poetic about how they only invest with shareholder friendly managements (which in retrospect turn out to have not been not so shareholder friendly after they have been indicted by a grand jury). Share repurchase does increase per share metrics, such as book value and earnings.  While the pie stays the same size, the size of the pieces changes. But often in recent years, one wonders why the number of shares outstanding does not change after a repurchase of what looked to have been 5% or so of shares outstanding during the year. 

Well, that’s because management keeps awarding themselves options, which are approved by the board. And the options have the effect of selling the business incrementally to the managers over time, unless share purchases eliminate the dilution from issuing the options.  Why approve the options packages? Well, the option packages are marketed to the share owners as critical to attracting and retaining good managers, AND, aligning the interests of management with the interests of shareholders. Which is where Mr. Santayana comes in  –  the bad (for shareholders) is made to look good with the right buzzwords.

However, I think there is another reason. Obviously growing a business is one of the most important things a management can do with shareholder capital. But today, every capital allocation move of reinvesting in a business for growth and expansion directly or by acquisition, faces a barrage of criticism. The comparison is always against the choices of dividends or share repurchase. I think the real reason is somewhat more mundane. 

The quality of analysts on both the buy and sell side has been dumbed down to the point that they no longer know how to go out and evaluate the impact of an acquisition or other growth strategy. They are limited to running their spread sheet models against industry statistics that they pull off of their Bloomberg terminals. I remember the horror with which I was greeted when I suggested to an analyst that perhaps his understanding of a company and its business would improve if he would find out what bars near a company’s plants and headquarters were favorites of the company’s employees on a Friday after work and go sit there. Now actually I wasn’t serious about that (most of the analysts I knew lacked the social graces and skills to pull it off). I was serious about getting tickets to industry tradeshows and talking to the competitor salespeople at their booths.  You would be amazed about how much you can learn about a company and its products that way. And people love to talk about what they do and how it stands up against their competition. That was a stratagem that fell on deaf ears because you actually had to spend real dollars (rather than commission dollars), and you had to spend time out of the office. Horrors!  You might have to miss a few softball games.

The other part of this is managements and the boards, which also have become deficient at understanding the paths of growing and reinvesting in a business that was entrusted to them.

Sadly, what we have today is a mercenary class of professional managers who can and will flit from opportunity to opportunity, never really understanding (or loving) the business. And we also have a mercenary class of professional board members, who spend their post-management days running their own little business – a board portfolio. And if you doubt all of this, take a look again at Valeant and the people on the board and running the business. It was and is a world of consultants and financial engineers, reapplying the same case study or stratagem they had used many times before. The end result is often a hollowed-out shell of a company, looking good to appearances but rotting away on the inside.

By Edward Studzinski 

Steve Romick: A bit more faith is warranted

In our March issue, I reflected on developments surrounding three of the funds in which I’m invested: FPA Crescent (FPACX), my largest holding, Artisan Small Cap Value (ARTVX), my oldest holding, and Seafarer Overseas Growth & Income (SFGIX), my largest international holding. I wrote that two things worried me about FPA Crescent:

First, the fund has ballooned in size with no apparent effort at gatekeeping … Second, Romick blinked.

That is, the intro to his 2015 Annual Report appeared to duck responsibility for poor performance last year. My bottom line on FPA was “I’ve lost faith. I’m not sure whether FPA is now being driven by investment discipline, demands for ideological purity or a rising interest in gathering assets. Regardless, I’m going.”

Ryan Leggio, now a senior vice president and product specialist for FPA but also a guy who many of you would recall as a former Morningstar analyst, reached out on Mr. Romick’s behalf. There were, they believed, factors that my analysis hadn’t taken into account. The hope was that in talking through some of their decision-making, a fuller, fairer picture might emerge. That seemed both generous and thoughtful, so we agreed to talk.

On the question of Crescent’s size, Mr. Romick noted that he’d closed the fund before (from 2005-08) and would do so again if he thought that was necessary to protect his shareholders and preserve the ability to achieve their stated goal of equity-like rates of return with less risk than the market over the long-term. He does not believe that’s the case now. He made three points:

  1. His investable universe has grown. That plays out in two ways: he’s now investing in securities that weren’t traditionally central to him and some of his core areas have grown dramatically. To illustrate the first point, historically, Mr. Romick purchased a security only if its potential upside was at least three times greater than its potential downside. He’s added to that an interest in compounders, stocks with the prospect of exceedingly consistent if unremarkable growth over time. Similarly, they continue to invest in mid-cap stocks, which are more liquid than small caps but respond to many of the same forces. Indeed, the correlation between the Vanguard Small Cap (NAESX) and Mid Cap (VIMSX) index funds soared after the late 1990s and is currently .96. At the same time, the number of securities in some asset classes has skyrocketed. In 2000, there was $330 billion in high-yield bonds; today that’s grown to $1.5 trillion. In an economic downturn, those securities can be very attractively priced very quickly.

  2. His analytic and management resources have grown. For his first 15 years, Mr. Romick basically managed the fund alone. In recent years, as some of the long-time partners came toward the ends of their careers, FPA “reinvested in people in a very big way which has given me a very large, high capability team.” That culminated in the June 2013 appointment of two co-managers, Mark Landecker and Brian Selmo. Mr. Landecker was previously a portfolio Manager at Kinney Asset Management in Chicago and Arrow Investments. Mr. Selmo founded and managed portfolios for Eagle Lake Capital, LLC, and was an analyst at Third Avenue and Rothschild, Inc. They’re supported by six, soon to be seven analysts, a group that he calls “a tremendously strong team.”

  3. Managing a closed fund is not as straightforward as it might appear. Funds are in a constant state of redemption, even if it’s not net Investors regularly want some of their money back to meet life’s other needs or to pursue other opportunities. When a fund is successful and open to new investors, those redemptions can be met – in whole or in large part – from new cash coming in. When a fund is closed, redemptions are met either from a fund’s cash reserves (or, more rarely, a secured line of credit) or from selective liquidation of securities in the portfolio. In bad times, the latter is almost always needed and plays havoc with both tax efficiency and portfolio positioning.

So, on whole, he argues that Crescent is quite manageable at its current size. While many fund managers have chosen to partially close their funds to manage inflows, Mr. Romick’s strategy is simply not to market it and allow any growth to be organic. That is, if investors show up, then fine, they show up. FPA has only two full-time marketers on payroll supporting six open-end mutual funds. While Romick speaks a lot to existing shareholders, his main outreach to potential shareholders is limited to stuff like speaking at the Morningstar conference.

While he agreed that Crescent was holding a lot of cash, reflecting a dearth of compelling investment opportunities, he’s willing to take in more money and let the fund grow. In explaining this rationale, he reflected on the maxim, “Winter is coming,” a favorite line from his daughter’s favorite television show. “The problem,” he said, “is that they never tell you when winter is coming. Just that it is. That’s the way I feel about the bond market today.” He made a point that resonated with Edward Studzinski’s repeated warnings over the past year: liquidity has been drained from the corporate bond market, making it incredibly fragile in the face of a panic. In 2007, for example, the market-makers had almost $300 billion in cash to oil the workings of the bond market; today, thanks to Dodd-Frank, that’s dwindled to less than $30 billion even as the high-yield and distressed securities markets – the trades that would most require the intervention of the market-makers – have ballooned.  Much more market, much less grease; that’s a bad combination.

On the question of dodging responsibility, Mr. Romick’s response is simple. “We didn’t try to duck. We just wrote a paragraph that didn’t effectively communicate our meaning.” They wrote:

At first glance, it appears that we’ve declined as much as the market — down 11.71% since May 2015’s market peak against the S&P 500’s 11.30% decline — but that’s looking at the market only through the lens of the S&P 500. However, roughly half of our equity holdings (totaling almost a third of the Fund’s equity exposure) are not included in the S&P 500 index. Our quest for value has increasingly taken us overseas and our portfolio is more global than it has been in the past. We therefore consider the MSCI ACWI a pertinent alternative benchmark.

My observation was that you didn’t “appear to decline” as much as the stock market; you in actual fact did decline by that much, and a bit more. Mr. Romick’s first reflection was to suggest substituting “additional” for “alternative” benchmark. As the conversation unfolded, he and Mr. Leggio seemed to move toward imagining a more substantial rewrite that better caught their meaning. I might suggest:

We declined as much as the S&P 500 – down 11.71% from the May 2015 market peak to year’s end, compared to the S&P’s 11.30% decline. That might seem especially surprising given our high cash levels which should buffer returns. One factor that especially weighed against us in the short term is the fund’s significant exposure to international securities. Those markets had suffered substantially; from the May market peak, the S&P500 dropped 11.3% but international stocks (measured by the Vanguard FTSE All-World ex-US Index Fund) declined 23.5%. We are continuing to find interesting opportunities overseas and may add the global MSCI ACWI index as an additional benchmark to help you judge our performance.

So where does that leave us? Three things seem indisputable:

  1. Crescent is still a large fund. As I write this (3/10/16), Morningstar reports that Crescent has $16.6 billion in assets, well down from its $20.5 billion 2015 peak. A year ago it was larger and still growing. Now, it’s both smaller and FPA expects “modest outflows” in the year ahead. This still makes it one of the hundred largest actively managed funds, the ninth largest “moderate allocation” fund (Morningstar) and the third-largest “flexible portfolio” fund (Lipper). The larger funds tend to be multi-manager beasts from huge complexes such as American Funds, BlackRock, Fidelity, Price and Vanguard.

    On the upside, its equity positions have still managed to beat the S&P 500 in five of the past seven calendar years.

  2. Crescent is led by a very talented manager. His recognition as Morningstar’s 2013 Asset Allocation Fund Manager of the Year is one of those “scratch the surface” sorts of statements. He’s beaten his Morningstar peers in eight of the past 10 years; the fund leads 99% of its peers over the past 15 years. Morningstar describes him as “one of the most accomplished” managers in the field and he routinely ends up on lists of stars, masters and gurus. He’s managed Crescent for just under a quarter century which creates a well-documented record of independence and success. While we have no independent record for his co-managers, we also have no reason to doubt their ability.

  3. Crescent is not the fund it once was. It’s no longer a small fund driven by one guy’s ability to find and exploit opportunities in small and mid-cap stocks or other small issues. In the course of reflecting on the general failure of flexible funds, a rule to which Crescent is the exception, John Rekenthaler offered a graphic representation of the fund’s evolution over the past decade:fund evolution

    The size of the dot reflects the size of the fund. The position of the dot reflects the positioning of the stock portion of the portfolio. Tiny dot with the black circle was Crescent a decade ago; big dot with the black circle is today. Currently, 82% of the fund’s stocks are characterized by Morningstar as “large” or “giant,” with more giants than merely large caps. The average market cap is just north of $50 billion. According to Mr. Romick, these securities are more reflective of the opportunity set based on valuations, than a byproduct of the Fund’s size.

    The unanswered question is whether the new Crescent remains a peer of the old Crescent. Over the past 15 years, Crescent has beaten 99% of its peers and it’s beaten them by a huge margin.


I don’t think the fund will be capable of reprising that dominance; conditions are too different with both the fund and the market. The question, I suppose, is whether that’s a fair standard? Likely not.

The better question is, can the fund consistently and honorably deliver on its promise to its investors; that is, to provide equity-like returns with less risk over reasonable time periods? Given that the management team is deeper, the investment process is unimpaired and its size is has become more modest, I think the answer is “yes.” Even if it can’t be “the old Crescent,” we can have some fair confidence that it’s going to be “the very good new Crescent.”

Share Classes

charles balconyLast month, David Offered Without Comment: Your American Funds Share Class Options. The simple table showing 18 share classes offered for one of AF’s fixed income funds generated considerable comment via Twitter and other media, including good discussion on the MFO Discussion Board.

We first called attention to excessive share classes in June 2014 with How Good Is Your Fund Family?  (A partial update was May 2015.) American Funds topped the list then and it remains on top today … by far. It averages more than 13 share classes per unique fund offering.

The following table summarizes share class stats for the largest 20 fund management companies by assets under management (AUM) … through February 2016, excluding money market and funds less than 3 months old.


At the end of the day, share classes represent inequitable treatment of shareholders for investing in the same fund. Typically, different share classes reflect different expense ratios depending on initial investment amount, load or transaction fee, or association of some form, like certain 401K plans. Here’s a link to AF’s web page explaining Share Class Pricing Details. PIMCO’s site puts share class distinction front and center, as seen in its Products/Share Class navigator below, a bit like levels of airline frequent flyer programs:


We’ve recently added share class info to MFO Premium’s Risk Profile page. Here’s an example for Dan Ivascyn’s popular Income Fund (click on image to enlarge):


In addition to the various differences in 12b-1 fee, expense ratio (ER), maximum front load, and initial purchase amount, notice the difference in dividend yield. The higher ER of the no-load Class C shares, for example, comes with an attendant reduction in yield. And, another example, from AF, its balanced fund:


Even Vanguard, known for low fees and equitable share holder treatment, provides even lower fees to its larger investors, via so-called Admiral Shares, and institutional customers. Of course, the basic fees are so low at Vanguard that the “discount” may be viewed more as a gesture.


The one fund company in the top 20 that charges same expenses to all its investors, regardless of investment amount or association? Dodge & Cox Funds.

We will update the MFO Fund House Score Card in next month’s commentary, and it will be updated monthly on the MFO Premium site.

Shake Your Money Market

By Leigh Walzer

Reports of the death of the money market fund (“MMF”) are greatly exaggerated. Seven years of financial repression and 7-day yields you can only spot under a microscope have made surprisingly little dent in the popularity of MMF’s. According to data from the Investment Company Institute, MMF flows have been flat the past few years. The share of corporate short term assets deposited in MMFs has remained steady.

However, new regulations will be implemented this October, forcing MMFs holding anything other than government instruments to adopt a floating Net Asset Value. These restrictions will also allow fund managers to put up gates during periods of heavy outflows.

MMFs were foundational to the success of firms like Fidelity, but today they appear to be marginally profitable for most sponsors. Of note, Fidelity is taking advantage of the regulatory change to move client assets from less remunerative municipal MMFs to government money market funds carrying higher fees (management fees net of waived amounts.)

While MMFs offer liquidity and convenience, the looming changes may give investors and advisors an impetus to redeploy their assets. In a choppy market, are there safe places to park cash?  A popular strategy over the past year has been high-dividend / low-volatility funds. We discussed this in March edition of MFO. This strategy has been in vogue recently but with a beta of 0.7 it still has significant exposure to market corrections.

Short Duration Funds:  Investors who wish to pocket some extra yield with a lower risk profile have a number of mutual fund and ETF options. This month we highlight fixed income portfolios with durations of 4.3 years or under.

We count roughly 300 funds with short or ultraShort Duration from approximately 125 managers. Combined assets exceed 500 billion dollars.  Approximately one quarter of those are tax-exempt.  For investors willing to risk a little more duration, illiquidity, credit exposure, or global exposure there are roughly 1500 funds monitored by Trapezoid.

Duration is a measure of the effective average life of the portfolio. Estimates are computed by managers and reported either on or on the manager’s website. There is some discretion in measuring duration, especially for instruments subject to prepayment.  While duration is a useful way to segment the universe, it is not the only factor which determines a fund’s volatility.

Reallocating from a MMF to a Short Duration fund entails cost. Expenses average 49 basis points for Short Term funds compared with 13 basis points for the average MMF.  Returns usually justify those added costs. But how should investors weigh the added risk. How should investors distinguish among strategies and track records? How helpful is diversification?

To answer these questions, we applied two computer models, one to measure skill and another to select an optimal portfolio.

We have discussed in these pages Trapezoid’s Orthogonal Attribution Engine which measures skill of actively managed equity portfolio managers. MFO readers can learn more and register for a demo at Our fixed income attribution model is a streamlined adaptation of that model and has some important differences. Among them, the model does not incorporate the forward looking probabilistic analysis of our equity model. Readers who want to learn more are invited to visit our methodology page. The fixed income model is relatively new and will evolve over time.

We narrowed the universe of 1500 funds to exclude not only unskilled managers but fund classes with AUM too small, duration too long, tenure too short (<3 years), or expenses too great (skill had to exceed expenses, adjusted for loads, by roughly 1%). We generally assumed investors could meet institutional thresholds and are not tax sensitive. For a variety of reasons, our model portfolio might not be right for every investor and should not be construed as investment advice.

exhibit i

DoubleLine Total Return Bond (DBLTX), MassMutual Premier High Yield Fund (MPHZX), and PIMCO Mortgage Opportunities Fund (PMZIX) all receive full marks from Morningstar and Lipper (except in the area of tax efficiency.)  Diversifying among credit classes and durations is a benefit – but the model suggests these three funds are all you need.

Honorable Mentions: The model finds Guggenheim Total Return Bond Fund (GIBIX) is a good substitute for DBLTX and Shenkman Short Duration High Income Fund (SCFIX) is a serviceable substitute for MPHZX. We ran some permutations in which other funds received allocations. These included: Victory INCORE Fund for Income (VFFIX), Nuveen Limited term Municipal Bond (FLTRX), First Trust Short Duration High Income Fund (FDHIX), Guggenheim Floating Rate Strategies (GIFIX), and Eaton Vance High Income Opportunities Fund (EIHIX). 

exhibit ii

The Trapezoid Model Portfolio generated positive returns over a 12 and 36-month time frame. (Our data runs through January 2016.) The PIMCO Mortgage fund wasn’t around 5 years ago, but it looks like the five-year yield would have been close to 6%.

The portfolio has an expense ratio of 53 basis points. Our algorithms reflect Trapezoid’s skeptical attitude to high cost managers.  There are alternative funds in the same asset classes with expense ratios of 25 basis points of better. But superb performance more than justifies the added costs. Our analysis suggests the rationale for passive managers like Vanguard is much weaker in this space than in equities. However, investors in the retail classes may see higher expenses and loads which could change the analysis.

No Return Without Risk: How much risk are we taking to get this extra return? The duration of this portfolio is just under 3.5 years.  There is some corporate credit risk: MPHZX sustained a loss in the twelve months ending January. It is mostly invested in BB and B rated corporate bonds. To do well the fund needs to keep credit loss under 3%/yr.  Although energy exposure is light, we see dicey credits including Valeant, Citgo, and second lien term loans. The market rarely gives away big yields without attaching strings.

The duration of this portfolio hurt returns over the past year. What advice can we give to investors unable to take 3.5 years of duration risk? We haven’t yet run a model but we have a few suggestions.

  1. For investors who can tolerate corporate credit risk, Guggenheim Floating Rate Strategies (GIFIX) did very well over the past 5 years and weathered last year with only a slight loss.
  2. A former fixed income portfolio manager who now advises clients at Merrill Lynch champions Pioneer Short Term Income Fund (PSHYX). Five-year net return is only 2.2%, but the fund has a duration of only 0.7 years and steers clear of corporate credit risk.
  3. A broker at Fidelity suggested Touchstone UltraShort Duration Fixed Income Fund (TSDOX) which has reasonable fees and no load.

Short Duration funds took a hit during the subprime crisis.  At the trough bond fund indices were down 7 to 10% from peak, depending on duration. Funds with concentrations in corporate credit and mortgage paper were down harder while funds like VFFIX which stuck to government or municipal bonds held up best. MassMutual High Yield was around during that period and fell 21% (before recovering over the next 9 months.) The other two funds were not yet incepted; judging from comparable funds the price decline during the crisis was in the mid-single digits. Our model portfolio is set up to earn 2.5% to 3% when rates and credit losses are stable. Considering that their alternative is to earn nothing, investors deploying cash in Short Duration funds appear well compensated, even weighing the risk of a once-in-a-generation 10% drawdown.

Bottom Line: The impact of new money market fund regulations is not clear. Investors with big cash holdings have good alternatives.  Expenses matter but there is a strong rationale for selecting active managers with good records, even when costs are above average.  Investors get paid to take risk but must understand their exposure and downside. A moderate amount of diversification among asset classes seems to be beneficial. Our model portfolio is a good starting point but should be tailored to the needs of particular investors.

Slogo 2What’s the Trapezoid story? Leigh Walzer has over 25 years of experience in the investment management industry as a portfolio manager and investment analyst. He’s worked with and for some frighteningly good folks. He holds an A.B. in Statistics from Princeton University and an M.B.A. from Harvard University. Leigh is the CEO and founder of Trapezoid, LLC, as well as the creator of the Orthogonal Attribution Engine. The Orthogonal Attribution Engine isolates the skill delivered by fund managers in excess of what is available through investable passive alternatives and other indices. The system aspires to, and already shows encouraging signs of, a fair degree of predictive validity.

The stuff Leigh shares here reflects the richness of the analytics available on his site and through Trapezoid’s services. If you’re an independent RIA or an individual investor who need serious data to make serious decisions, Leigh offers something no one else comes close to. More complete information can be found at MFO readers can sign up for a free demo.

The Alt Perspective: Commentary and news from DailyAlts.

dailyaltsFor anyone who enjoys roller coasters, Q1 2016 was for you. While it seemed a bit wild at times, it was really just a trip down to the bottom of a trough, and a consistent tick back up to where we started. Thanks to a coordinated plan of attack on part of global sovereign bankers, and reiterated by new policy actions from the European Central Bank, the markets shrugged off early losses in the year with a very solid recovery in March. As they say, don’t fight the Fed. And in this case, don’t fight the globally coordinated Fed.

Let’s first take a look at how alternative funds faired in the bull month of March.


The returns for the month of March were positive, except for managed futures and bear market funds. Commodities led the way over the month, while bear market funds got hammered with the strong rally in equities. Managed futures struggled to add value as markets tended to be one directional in March.

Commodities Broad Basket        4.32%

Long/Short Equity  2.53%

Multicurrency         2.52%

Nontraditional Bond         1.65%

Multialternative      1.27%

Market Neutral       0.46%

Managed Futures    -2.79%

Bear Market  -10.86%

Cleary, equity based alternative strategies, such as long/short equity, struggled to keep up with the strong rally in March, however, nontraditional bond funds performed well relative to their long-only counterpart (Intermediate Term Bonds). Below are a few traditional mutual fund categories:

Large Blend (US Equity)    6.37%

Foreign Large Blend         6.86%

Intermediate Term Bond  1.30%

Moderate Allocation        4.72%

Data Source: Morningstar


Two interesting pieces of research emerged over the month. The first is from an investment advisor in La Jolla, California, called AlphaCore Capital. In a piece written by their director of research, they highlight the importance of research and due diligence when choosing alternative investment managers (or funds) – not because the strategies are more complex (which is also a reason), but because the range of returns for funds in each category is so wide. This is called “dispersion,” and it is a result of the investment strategies and the resulting returns of funds in the same category being so different. Understanding these differences is where the expertise is needed.

The second piece of research comes from Goldman Sachs. In their new research report, they note that liquid alternatives outperformed the pricier hedge funds across all five of the major categories of funds they track. While the comparative results in some categories were close, the two categories that stood out with significant differences were Relative Value and Event Driven. In both cases, alternative mutual funds outperformed their hedge fund counterparts by a wide margin.

Fund Liquidations

Nineteen alternative mutual funds were liquidated over the quarter, with seven of those in March. Most notably, Aberdeen (the new owner of the fund-of-hedge fund firm Arden Asset Management) closed down the larger of the two Arden multi-alternative funds, the Arden Alternative Strategies Fund (ARDNX). The fund had reached a peak of $1.2 billion in assets back in November 2014, but lackluster performance in 2015 put the fund on the chopping block.

In addition to the Arden fund, Gottex Fund Management (another institutional fund-of-hedge funds, as is Arden) liquidated their only alternative mutual fund, the Gottex Endowment Strategy Fund (GTEAX), after losing nearly 6% in 2015. Both of these closures create concerns about the staying power and commitment by institutional alternative asset management firms. And both come on the back of other similar firms, such as Collins Capital and Whitebox (the latter being a hedge fund manager), who both liquidated funds in February.

Where to from here?

Challenging performance periods always serve to clean out the underperformers. In many ways, Q1 served as a housecleaning quarter whereby funds that wrapped up 2015 with few assets and/or below average (or well-below average) performance took the opportunity to shut things down. A little housecleaning is always good. Looking forward, there is significant opportunity for managers with strong track records, compelling diversification, and consistent management teams.

Alternative investment strategies, and alternative asset classes, both have a role to play in a well-diversified portfolio. That fact hasn’t changed, and as more financial advisors and individual investors grow accustom to how these strategies and asset classes behave, the greater the uptake will be in their portfolios.

Be well, stay diversified and do your due diligence.

Observer Fund Profiles:

Each month the Observer provides in-depth profiles of between two and four funds.  Our “Most Intriguing New Funds” are funds launched within the past couple years that most frequently feature experienced managers leading innovative newer funds.  “Stars in the Shadows” are older funds that have attracted far less attention than they deserve. 

AQR Equity Market Neutral (QMNIX) and AQR Long-Short Equity (QLEIX): our colleague Sam Lee, principal of Severian Asset Management, offers a close assessment of two institutional AQR funds. The bottom line is: “AQR does long-short investing right. Check these out.”

Intrepid Endurance (ICMAX): at 70% cash, what’s to like? Well, the highest Sharpe ratio of any small cap fund – domestic, global, or international – of the course of the full market cycle. Also the lower Ulcer Index. And peer-beating returns. Heck, what’s not to like?

Otter Creek Long/Short Opportunity (OTCRX): we’d describe the young Otter Creek fund as “pure alpha” – it has outperformed its peers by 11% a year since inception – except that it’s also done it was lower volatility and a near-zero correlation to the market. We’ll leave it to you to sort out.

Funds in Registration

Whether it’s the time of year or the sense of an industry-wide death spiral, the number of new funds in registration has been steadily declining. This month saw either six or 20 filings, depending on how you could a weird series of options funds from a group called Vest Financial. Two funds start out:

Moerus Worldwide Value Fund marks the return of Amit Wadhwaney, who managed Third Avenue International Value (TAVIX) from 2001-2013. Morningstar described Mr. Wadhwaney as “skilled and thoughtful.” His fund was distinguished by somewhat better than average returns with “markedly lower” volatility and strong down-market performance.  The fund’s performance since his departure has been disastrous.

Sit ESG Growth Fund which targets financially sound firms with good ESG records. The success of the other funds in the Sit family suggests that values-driven investors might find it worth investigating.

Manager Changes

We’ve track down rather more than 70 manager changes this month plus, of course, the one MANAGER CHANGE! Which is to say, Mr. Goldfarb’s departure from Sequoia.


Congratulations to the good folks at Seafarer. Seafarer Overseas Growth & Income (SFGIX), topped $1.1 billion in assets in March, a singular achievement. In just over four years of operation, the fund has returned 24.8% while its average peer has lost 9.75%. Seafarer seems to have SEC clearance to launch their Seafarer Overseas Value fund, but has not yet done so.

Briefly Noted . . .

GlobalX and Janus are locked in a struggle to see who can release the greatest number of pointless ETFs in a month. The Global X entries are Health & Wellness Thematic ETF (BFIT), Longevity Thematic ETF (LNGR) and Millennials Thematic ETF (MILN). The latter focuses, like a laser, on those uniquely Millennial passions: “social and entertainment, clothing and apparel, travel and mobility, food/restaurants and consumer staples, financial services and investments, housing and home goods, education and employment, and health and fitness.” Janus weighed in with The Health and Fitness ETF, The Long Term Care ETF, The Obesity ETF and The Organics ETF. None have symbols but all will be available on May 31.

Upon further consideration of tax and other stuff, the Board of Trustees of Midas Series Trust has determined not to proceed with the merger of Midas Magic (MISEX) into the Midas Fund (MIDSX). This was an almost incalculably stupid plan from the get-go. MISEX is a diversified domestic equity fund whose top holdings include Berkshire-Hathaway, Google and Johnson & Johnson. Midas invests in gold miners. Over the last decade, Magic shares are up 74% while Midas lost 70%. And no, that’s not just because gold was down over the period; from 2006-2015, the spot price of gold rose from around $560 to about $1060. Here would be your investment options: Midas in blue, the average gold fund in, well, gold or Magic in yellow.

midas chart

It’s easy to see why liquidating both funds makes sense. They’ve got $12-14 million in assets, weak to horrible long-term records and expenses pushing 4.0%. It’s hard to see how the Trustees managed to declare that “it’s in the best interest of the shareholders” to place them in Midas.

Effective March 31, 2016, the Templeton Foreign (TEMFX), Global Opportunities (TEGOZ) and World (TEMWX) funds gained the flexibility to “to hedge (protect) against currency risks using certain derivative instruments including currency and cross currency forwards and currency futures contracts.”

Tobin Smith, a financial tout for Fox News from 2000-2013, was nailed by the SEC for nearly $258,000 on charges that he fraudulently promoted a penny stock, IceWEB, to investors. Apparently the firm’s CEO wanted to pump its trading volume and price and, for a price, Mr. Smith and his firm was happy to oblige. The IceWEB scam occurred in 2012. He was terminated in 2013 over the on-air promotion of yet another stock.


As of April 11, 2016, AllianzGI Ultra Micro Cap Fund (GUCAX) will reopen.

Effective April 1, 2016, the Boston Trust Small Cap Fund (BOSOX) and the Walden Small Cap Innovations Fund (WASOX) will no longer be closed to new investors.

The Gotham Index Plus Fund (GINDX) is reducing their administrative fee by 2 basis points, from 1.17% to 1.15%. Woo hoo! Including the “acquired fund fees and expenses,” the fund continues to cost institutional investors 3.28% per year. The reduction came on the $15 million fund’s first anniversary. The fund posted returns in the top 2% of its large-core peer group.

Invesco International Growth Fund (AIIEX) reopened to all investors on March 18, 2016. Class B shares are closed and will not re-open.

J.P. Morgan U.S. Large Cap Core Plus Fund (JLCAX) has reopened to new investors

Effective April 1, 2016, Kaizen Advisory, LLC (the “Advisor”) has lowered its annual advisory fee on Kaizen Hedged Premium Spreads Fund (KZSAX) from 1.45% to 1.10% and agreed to reduce the limit on total annual fund operating expenses by 0.35% to 1.75% for “A” shares.

CLOSINGS (and related inconveniences)

Effective April 30, 2016, the Diamond Hill Small-Mid Cap Fund (DHSCX) will close to most new investors. 

On the general topic of “related inconveniences,” several fund advisors have decided that they need more of your money. The shareholders of LoCorr Managed Futures Strategy Fund (LFMAX) agreed, and voted to raise their fees management fees to 1.85%. To be clear: that’s not the fund’s expense ratio, that’s just the part of the fee that goes to pay the managers for their services. Similarly, shareholders at Monte Chesapeake Macro Strategies Fund (MHBAX) have voted to bump their managers’ comp to 1.70% of assets. In each case, the explanation is that the advisor needs the more to hire more sub-advisers.


On May 2, American Century Strategic Inflation Opportunities Fund (ADSIX) will be renamed the Multi-Asset Real Return Fund. The plan is to invest primarily in TIPs with “a portion” in commodities-related securities and REITs.

As of April 1, 2016, Cavanal Hill Balanced Fund became Cavanal Hill Active Core Fund (APBAX). The big accompanying change: The percentage of equity securities that the Fund normally invest in shall change from “between 40% and 75%” to “between 40% and 75%.” If you’re thinking to yourself, “but Dave, those are identical ranges,” I concur.

Effective April 18, 2016, Columbia Small Cap Core (LSMAX) will change its name to Columbia Disciplined Small Core Fund.

Liquidation of JPMorgan Asia Pacific Fund (JAPFX). The Board of Trustees of the JPMorgan Asia Pacific Fund has approved the liquidation and dissolution of the fund on or about April 29, 2016. 

Matthews Asia Science and Technology (MATFX) has been rechristened as Matthews Asia Innovators Fund. They formerly were constrained to invest at least 80% of their assets in firms that “derive more than 50% of their revenues from the sale of products or services in science- and technology-related industries and services.” That threshold now drops to 25%.

Pear Tree PanAgora Dynamic Emerging Markets Fund has been renamed Pear Tree PanAgora Emerging Markets Fund (QFFOX). At the same time, expenses have been bumped up from 1.37% (per Morningstar) to 1.66% (in the amendment on file). Why, you ask? The old version of the fund “allocate[d] its assets between two proprietary strategies: an alpha modeling strategy and a risk-parity strategy.” The new version relies on “two proprietary risk-parity sub-strategies: an alternative beta risk-parity sub-strategy and a “smart beta” risk-parity sub-strategy.” So there’s your answer: beta costs more than alpha.

The PENN Capital High Yield Fund has changed its name to the PENN Capital Opportunistic High Yield Fund (PHYNX).

The managers of the Rainier High Yield Fund (RIMYX), Matthew Kennedy and James Hentges, have announced their intention to resign from Rainier Investment Management and join Angel Oak Capital Advisors. Subject to shareholder approval (baaaaaa!), the fund will follow them and become Angel Oak High Yield. Shareholders are slated to vote in mid-April.

Effective on or about May 1, 2016, the name of each Fund set forth below will be changed to correspond with the following table:

Current Fund Name Fund Name Effective May 1, 2016
Salient Risk Parity Fund Salient Adaptive Growth Fund
Salient MLP & Energy Infrastructure Fund II Salient MLP & Energy Infrastructure Fund
Salient Broadmark Tactical Plus Fund Salient Tactical Plus Fund

The Board of Trustees of Franklin Templeton Global Trust recently approved a proposal to reposition the Templeton Hard Currency Fund (ICPHX) as a global currency fund named Templeton Global Currency Fund. That will involve changing the investment goal of the fund and modifying the fund’s principal investment strategies.

Seeing not advantage in value, Voya is making the fourth name change in two years to one of its funds. Effective May 1, we’ll be introduced to Voya Global Equity Fund (NAWGX) which has been Voya Global Value Advantage since May 23, 2014. For three weeks it has been called Voya International Value Equity (May 1 – 23, 2014). Prior to that, it was just International Value Equity. The prospectus will remove “value investing” as a risk factor.

Thirty days later, Voya Mid Cap Value Advantage Fund (AIMAX) becomes Voya Mid Cap Research Enhanced Index Fund. The expense ratio does not change as it moves from “active” to “enhanced index,” though both the strategy and management do.


Breithorn Long/Short Fund (BRHAX) has closed and will liquidate on April 8, 2016.

Crow Point Defined Risk Global Equity Income Fund (CGHAX) has closed and will liquidate on April 25, 2016.

The Board of Trustees of Dreyfus Opportunity Funds has approved the liquidation of Dreyfus Strategic Beta U.S. Equity Fund (DOUAX), effective on or about April 15, 2016

DoubleLine just liquidated the last of three equity funds launched in 2013: DoubleLine Equities Growth Fund (DDEGX), which put most of its puddle of assets in high-growth mid- and large cap stocks. Based on its performance chart, you could summarize its history as: “things went from bad to worse.”

Dunham Alternative Income Fund (DAALX) will be exterminated (!) on April 25, 2016. (See, ‘cause the ticker reads like “Daleks” and the Daleks’ catchphrase was not “Liquidate!”)

On August 26, 2016, Franklin Flex Cap Growth Fund (FKCGX) will be devoured. Franklin Growth Opportunities Fund (FGRAX) will burp, but look appropriately mournful for its vanished sibling.

Frost Natural Resources Fund (FNATX) liquidated on March 31, 2016. Old story: seemed like a good idea when oil was $140/barrel, not so much at $40. In consequence, the fund declined 36% from inception to close.

Hodges Equity Income Fund (HDPEX) merged into the Hodges Blue Chip Equity Income Fund (HDPBX) on March 31, 2016. At $13 million each, neither is economically viable, really. $26 million will be tough but the fund’s record is okay, so we’ll be hopeful for them.

The Board of Trustees of LKCM Funds, upon the recommendation of Luther King Capital Management Corporation, the investment adviser to each fund, has approved a Plan of Reorganization and Dissolution pursuant to which the LKCM Aquinas Small Cap Fund (AQBLX) and the LKCM Aquinas Growth Fund (AQEGX), would be reorganized into the LKCM Aquinas Value Fund (AQEIX).

The Board of Trustees of the MassMutual Premier Funds has approved a Plan of Liquidation and Termination pursuant to which it is expected that the MassMutual Barings Dynamic Allocation Fund (MLBAX) will be dissolved. Effective on or about June 29, 2016 (the “Termination Date”), shareholders of the various classes of shares of the fund will receive proceeds in proportion to the number of shares of such class held by each of them on the Termination Date.

Oberweis Asia Opportunities Fund (OBAOX), a series of The Oberweis Funds (the “Trust”), scheduled for April 22, 2016, you will be asked to vote upon an important change affecting your fund. The purpose of the special meeting is to allow you to vote on a reorganization of your fund into Oberweis China Opportunities Fund (OBCHX).

On March 21, the Board of RX Traditional Allocation Fund (FMSQX) decided to close and liquidate it. Ten days later it was gone.

Satuit Capital U.S. Small Cap Fund (SATSX) will be liquidating its portfolio, winding up its affairs, and will distribute its assets to fund shareholders as soon as is practicable, but in no event later than April 15, 2016.

SignalPoint Global Alpha Fund (SPGAX) will liquidate on April 29, 2016.

Toroso Newfound Tactical Allocation Fund was liquidated on March 30, 2016.

On March 17, 2016, the Virtus Board of Trustees voted to liquidate the Virtus Alternative Income Solution (VAIAX), Virtus Alternative Inflation Solution (VSAIX), and Virtus Alternative Total Solution (VATAX) funds. They’ll liquidate around April 29, 2016.

In Closing . . .

May’s a big month for us as we celebrate our fifth anniversary. When we launched, Chip reported that the average life expectancy for a site like ours is … oh, six weeks. Even I’m a bit stunned as we begin a sixth year.

It goes without saying that you make it possible but, heck, I thought I’d say it anyway. Thanks and thanks and thanks again to you all!

Each month about 24,000 people read the Observer but about 6,000 of them are reading it for the first time. For their benefit, I need to repeat the explanation for the “hey, if you’re not charging and there aren’t any ads, how do you stay in business?” question.

Here’s the answer: good question! There are two parts to the answer. First, the Observer reflects the passions of a bunch of folks who are working on your behalf because they want to help, not because they’re looking for money.  And so all of us work for somewhere between nothing (Brian, Charles, Ed, Sam, Leigh – bless you all!) and next-to-nothing (Chip and me). That’s not sustainable in the long term but, for now, it’s what we got and it works. So, part one: low overhead.

Second, we’re voluntarily supported by our readers. Some folks make tax-deductible contributions now and then (Thanks, Gary, Edward, and Mr. West!), some contribute monthly through an automatic PayPal setup (waves to Deb and Greg!) and many more use of Amazon link. The Amazon story is simple: Amazon rebates to us and amount equal to about 7% of the value of any purchase you make using our Amazon Associates link. It’s invisible, seamless and costs you nothing. The easiest way is set it and forget it: bookmark our Amazon link or copy it and paste it into your web browser of choice as a homepage. After that, it’s all automatic. A few hundred readers used our link in March; if we could get everybody who reads us to use the system, it would make a dramatic difference.

In May we’re also hoping to provide new profiles of two old friends: Aston River Road Independent Value and Matthews Asian Growth & Income. And, with luck, we’ll have a couple other happy birthday surprises to share.

Until then, keep an eye out in case you spot a huge dome wandering by. If so, let me know since we seem to be missing one!


March 1, 2016

By David Snowball

Dear friends,

It’s spring! Sort of. Despite the steady, light snow falling outside my window, March 1 is the beginning of “meteorological spring” and I’m indisputably in the middle of Augustana’s Spring Break. (It always looked better on MTV.) Spring training, both for major leaguers and my son’s high school team, has begun. There are stirrings in my garden and a couple newly-arrived catalogs (yes, I still get real mail) are encouraging horticultural fantasies: a swath of pollinator-friendly native plants taking over the southwest corner of the yard, a new home for my towering wall of sunflowers, some experiments with carrots, replacing more of the lawn with a rain garden to reduce run-off, regrowing a full head of hair … anything’s imaginable and everything’s possible, at least until I have to figure out how to pull it off.

Sadly, as Rudyard Kipling observed, “gardens are not made by sitting in the shade.”

For one more month, at least, I focus on tidying up my financial garden. We start this month’s issue with three of the most important kind of story: ones that actually affect me.

Artisan pulls the plug

artisan partnersArtisan has announced the liquidation of Artisan Small Cap Value (ARTVX), my oldest holding. My first fund, purchased when I was young and dumb, was AIM Constellation, then a very good mid-cap growth fund that carried a 5.5% load. After a bit, I learned that paying sales loads without any compensating benefit was stupid, so I stopped. I sold my shares and, shortly before it closed, invested the proceeds in Artisan Small Cap (ARTSX). Shortly after Artisan launched Small Cap Value in 1997, I moved my investment over from Small Cap. The $367 million fund, down from a peak of $3 billion in 2011, will be merged into Artisan Mid Cap Value (ARTQX) in May, 2016.

After a couple withdrawals and almost 19 years of paying taxes on the account, I’m disconcerted to report that I’ll be able to report a 30% tax loss on my 2016 taxes.

What happened? The managers’ discipline (and the dictates of marketing to advisors who want to execute their own asset allocation plans) does not encompass holding significant cash. And so, despite the fact that “We’ve complained for a long time now that too much of the market is fully- or fairly valued,” they stayed fully-invested. Their discipline also pushed them toward overweighting the best-valued stocks they could find and those turned out to be in two of the market’s worst areas: energy and industrials, that latter of which “have backdoor exposure to energy.” They eventually overweighted those areas by more than 2:1. That’s, at best, a very partial explanation for the fact that the fund trailed 90% or more of its small-value peers in five of the past six years, including years with high oil prices.

The folks at Artisan position this as a simple economic decision: “a determination was made that the strategy/fund was no longer commercially viable… Given our past few years of underperformance, we have seen outflows (and passive has been an asset flow winner here). We are also hearing that fewer folks plan to use dedicated small-cap value allocations going forward.” The management team “drove the decision” and they “still believe in the asset class.”

This is the first fund liquidation in Artisan’s history.

The team manages two other funds, Mid Cap Value (ARTQX) and the large-cap oriented Value (ARTLX). Over the full market cycle, ARTQX modestly leads its peer group in performance (40 bps/year) with subdued volatility. ARTLX trails its Lipper peers (80 bps/year) with somewhat higher volatility.

Bottom line

I prefer to maintain exposure to small value stocks, so I won’t wait around for the impending transition to the team’s mid-cap value fund. I’ll book my tax loss and move on.

The finalists for this slot in my portfolio are two cash-rich, low-vol funds: John Deysher’s Pinnacle Value Fund (PVFIX) and the team-managed Intrepid Endurance Fund (ICMAX, formerly Intrepid Small Cap). Both are run by absolute value investors. They have similar expense ratios, though Intrepid is five times Pinnacle’s size. Intrepid’s about two-thirds cash right now, Pinnacle about 50%. They are, by far, the two least volatile small cap funds around. Pinnacle’s market cap and turnover are both far lower.

We profiled Pinnacle one year ago. I think we’ll try to prepare a profile of Intrepid for our April issue and see if that helps decide things.

The tough question remaining

How long should you wait before you write off a manager or a fund? My normal rule is pretty straightforward: if I haven’t changed and they haven’t changed, then we’re not going to change. That is, if my portfolio needs remain the same, the management team remains intact and true to their discipline, then I’m not going to second-guess my due diligence. This may be the first time I’ve sold a fund in a decade. Leigh Walzer’s research on stumbling funds suggests that I should have sold in mid-2014 which would have spared me about a 10% loss assuming that I’d put it in a merely average SCV fund.

Romick stares reality in the face, and turns away

fpaMy single largest non-retirement holding is FPA Crescent (FPACX), which has always struck me as the quintessence of active management. While other managers were constrained to invest in a single asset class or in a single country, or to remain fully invested or unhedged, manager Steve Romick declared himself to be “the free-range chicken” of the investing world. He’d look for firms that offered compelling advantages, would analyze their capital structure and then invest in whatever instrument – common stock, warrants, senior debt – offered the most compelling opportunities. If nothing was compelling, he sat on cash.

That strategy performed wonderfully for years. Over the past decade the fund has led its Morningstar peer group by 1.12% annually though, by freakish coincidence, Morningstar also calculates that you lost 1.12% annually to taxes over the same period. Over the past three years, the fund has either been about average (using Morningstar’s “moderate allocation” peer group) or well-above average (using Lipper’s “flexible portfolio” one). In 2015, the fund lost money and finished in the bottom third of its Morningstar peer group.

Those two things do not bother me. Two others do. First, the fund has ballooned in size with no apparent effort at gatekeeping. In 2005, it performed gloriously but had under $1 billion in assets. In 2010, it performed solidly with $2.7 billion. It hit $10 billion in 2013 and $20 billion in 2015 and remains open today. While some funds have doubtless thrived in the face of huge, continual inflows, those are rare.

Second, Romick blinked. His recently released Annual Report offered the following announcement on page two:

At first glance, it appears that we’ve declined as much as the market — down 11.71% since May 2015’s market peak against the S&P 500’s 11.30% decline — but that’s looking at the market only through the lens of the S&P 500. However, roughly half of our equity holdings (totaling almost a third of the Fund’s equity exposure) are not included in the S&P 500 index. Our quest for value has increasingly taken us overseas and our portfolio is more global than it has been in the past. We therefore consider the MSCI ACWI a pertinent alternative benchmark.


“We look pretty good compared to a global all-equity benchmark”?

Uhhh … the fund is 37% cash. Morningstar reports a net exposure (11% long minus 3% short) of only 8.5% to international stocks. The most recent report on FPA’s website suggests 16% but doesn’t separate long/short. If Morningstar is right, net exposure is way less global than either its Morningstar benchmark or Morningstar peer group.

Underperformance doesn’t bother me. Obfuscation does. The irony is that it bothers Mr. Romick as well, at least when it’s being practiced by others. In a 2012 letter criticizing the Fed, he explained what we ought to demand of our leaders and ourselves:

Blind faith has gotten us into trouble repeatedly throughout history. Just consider the rogue’s gallery of false idols, dictators, and charlatans we have followed, hoping for something different, something better. That misplaced conviction corrupts and destroys. Daily life does require we put our trust in others, but we should do so judiciously.

Nobody has all the answers. Genius fails. Experts goof. Rather than blind faith, we need our leaders to admit failure, learn from it, recalibrate, and move forward with something better… As the author Malcolm Gladwell so eloquently said, “Incompetence is the disease of idiots. Overconfidence is the mistake of experts…. Incompetence irritates me. Overconfidence terrifies me.”

FPA once ran funds in a couple of different styles, Mr. Romick’s and the other one. They’ve now purged themselves of their quality-growth team and have renamed and repurposed those funds. In repurposing Paramount, they raised the expense ratio, ostensibly to create parity with the Perennial fund. In a private exchange I asked why they didn’t simply lower Perennial’s e.r. rather than raising it and was assured that they really needed the extra cash for as-yet undisclosed enhancements.

I’ve lost faith.

Bottom line

I’m not sure whether FPA is now being driven by investment discipline, demands for ideological purity or a rising interest in gathering assets. Regardless, I’m going. I have long respected the folks at the Leuthold Group and we recently profiled their flagship Leuthold Core Investment Fund (LCORX). Leuthold has delivered on such promises more consistently, with more discipline, for a longer period than virtually any competitor.” They’re apt to be the home for the proceeds from an FPA sale plus closing two small accounts.

Morningstar doesn’t share my reservations and FPACX retains a “Gold” analyst rating from the firm.

The tough question remaining

How do we account for cultural change in assessing a firm? Firms never admit to their internal machinations, the story is always “a long heritage and a strict discipline, honored, preserved, extended!” They say it because they must and, often, because they believe it. From the outside, it’s about impossible to test those claims and people get downright offended when you even broach the subject. Some folks have managed beautifully; Mairs and Power come to mind. Some have been disasters, Third Avenue most recently. And others, such as Royce Funds, are just now trying to navigate it. Without access to contacts within the organization or with their peers, we only see shadows and flickers, “as through a glass, darkly.”

Hate it when that happens.


We’ve had a chance to speak with Steve Romick from FPA about our concerns. We will share Mr. Romick’s reflections on them in our April issue.

Andrew Foster, Sufi master

Sell your cleverness and buy bewilderment.
Cleverness is mere opinion, bewilderment intuition.
― Rumi, Masnavi I Ma’navi,ca. 1270

I like Andrew Foster, manager of Seafarer Overseas Growth & Income (SFGIX). I also respect him. The confluence of those two is rare.

In his essay “Self Reliance,” Emerson describes “foolish consistency” as “the hobgoblin of little minds.” The rough translation is the people don’t like to admit that they’re unsure, whether it’s about what to think or what to do, even to themselves. And so they come up with procedures, policies, explanations, Great Insights and Magic Rules and claim you can stop thinking worrying now. You’ll notice this in the classroom: young teachers are terrified at losing control or losing respect while really experienced ones are comfortable admitting that they simply don’t have nearly as many answers as they’ve got questions, suspicions or possibilities.

That came to mind in reading two of Mr. Foster’s recent pieces, his Fourth Quarter 2015 Portfolio Review and his Semi-Annual Report. Between the two, you get a sense of a guy who is really sharp but not under the illusion of his own omniscience.

The short version of investing in the emerging markets over the last couple years: things have been wildly volatile and mostly negative, China’s been a concern, Seafarer’s doing better than the great majority of its peers.

Most managers, whether they’re small minded or they think you are, would have said that in about three paragraph – emphasizing their own excellence in the latter – and hit “send.”

Mr. Foster approached things differently. His analysis was more nuanced, sharper, more self-effacing and more respectful of his readers’ intelligence than almost any of what I’ve read in the professional press. You should read it, but only if you have the time to think about what you’ve read because you’ll encounter more careful speculation than illusory certainty.

Why was the market rising at the start of the fourth quarter?

Between October 1 and November 4, the benchmark index rose 9.72%. There was no obvious reason for this gain.

Okay, so what explains Seafarer’s outperformance?

The Fund’s marginal outperformance was due to selected holdings in China, Japan, Indonesia and Turkey. Those holdings had no unifying theme or idea that could explain the basis for their performance during the quarter.

Perhaps it’s because you were defensively positioned on China?

Unfortunately, my notion of “defensive” valuations proved faulty.

Oh. Dja do any better on currencies?

My prediction [there] was terribly wrong.

Ah, I see. You’ve described Seafarer as a China-centric portfolio. What’s going on there?

I wish I knew with certainty. Unfortunately, the situation is sufficiently opaque that facts are scant, and thus I can only speculate as to the cause behind the A-share market’s sudden collapse.

Well, how about a guess then? Surely you’ll do better than the bobbleheads in the media.

Unfortunately, I can only speculate as to the actual cause of the decline, so my thoughts on the matter are frankly no better than the media’s. I have very few facts to substantiate my arguments; all I can do is look at the pattern of events that has unfolded, and speculate as to the causes. 

I’m getting desperate here, Andrew. Why not just fling a wild speculation or two at us?

I would suggest two possible scenarios that might have caused the sell-off:

  1. The Renminbi’s weakness is not the direct cause of the decline, but it is a precursor for a growing liquidity shortage within the Chinese financial system. The currency’s persistent weakness may indicate that one or more banks, or perhaps some portion of the “shadow banking system,” may soon experience a liquidity crisis. This explanation would suggest the currency is signaling stressed liquidity within the financial system, to which stocks have reacted swiftly and punitively.
  2. The current government is unstable. Over the past three years, the government has propagated a sweeping anti-corruption campaign that has sometimes terminated in controversial political purges. The government has also introduced bold economic reforms – reforms that I largely support – but that have undoubtedly alienated powerful vested interests. Meanwhile, the current president has sought to consolidate power in a manner not seen since Mao’s era. It might be that such dramatic actions have silently eroded support for the current government among powerful factions within the Communist party. If so, the weakness in the currency and the stock market might portend a deeper source of instability.

Either scenario might have been the root cause of the volatility we observed; it is also possible that both acted in tandem.

You get the idea, I think: rather more insight than ego, important arguments made in a clear and accessible style.

In terms of portfolio positioning, he’s finding better values in Latin America and Emerging Europe than in Asia, so the portfolio is the least Asia-centered in its history. Similarly, there are intriguing opportunities in larger firms than in smaller ones right now; he’s actually been surprised at his portfolio’s small- to mid-cap positioning, but that’s where the value has been.

Bottom line

Seafarer remains a core position in my non-retirement portfolio and I’ve been adding to it steadily. Valuations in the emerging markets are compelling, with stocks trading at P/E ratios of 5 or 6. I’m tempted to sell my holdings in Matthews Asia Growth & Income (MACSX) and roll them into Seafarer, mostly as an attempt to simplify, but the two really do seem to be driven by diverse forces.

macsx-sfgix correlation

For now, I’ll continue to invest in each and, mostly, ignore the noise.

The tough question remaining

If emerging markets are simultaneously our best and our worst investment option, what on earth do we do with them? There’s a near-universal agreement that they represent the cheapest stocks and most dynamic economies in the world. And yet, collectively, over the last decade EM equity funds have made 1.3% annually with a standard deviation of 23. Run away? Pretend that investing in Nestle is the same just because they sell a lot in emerging markets? Hedge, which is tough? Hybrid? Hope? The worst case is “hire Greed and Panic to manage your investments,” though that seems awfully popular.

The source of my opening couplet was Jalal al-Din Muhammad Balkhi, a13th century Persian Sufi poet, mystic, teacher. “Rumi” is a nod to where he grew up, Rûm. Today we call it Turkey but since it had long been a Roman province, it got tagged with the term “Roman.”

He’s famous for his erotic poetry, but I like his description of the writing process at least as much:

All day I think about it, then at night I say it.
Where did I come from, and what am I supposed to be doing?
I have no idea.

Whoever Brought Me Here Will Have to Take Me Home

Fans of that damned annoying inspiration wall art would appreciate this question of his, “If you are irritated by every rub, how will your mirror be polished?”

The Weather

By Edward Studzinski

“When we unleash the dogs of war, we must go where they take us.”

Dowager Countess of Grantham

Starting off one of these monthly discussions with a title about the weather should be indicative that this piece will perhaps be more disjointed than usual, but that is how the world and markets look to me at present. And there is very little in the way of rational explanation for why the things that are happening are happening. My friend Larry Jeddeloh, of The Institutional Strategist, would argue that this country has been on a credit cycle rather than a business cycle for more than fifteen years now. Growth in the economy is tied to the price and availability of credit. But the cost of high yield debt is rising as spreads blow out, so having lots of cheap credit available is not doing much to grow the economy. Put another way, those who need to be able to borrow to either sustain or grow their business, can’t. A friend in the investment banking business told me yesterday about a charter school that has been trying to refinance a debt package for several years now, and has not been able to (thank you, Dodd-Frank). So once again we find ourselves in a situation where those who don’t need the money can easily borrow, and those who need it, are having difficulty obtaining it. We see this in another area, where consumers, rather than spend and take on more debt, have pulled back.

Why? We truly are in a moment of deflation on the one hand (think fuel and energy costs) and the hints of inflation on the other (think food, property taxes, and prescription drug costs on the other). And the debt overload, especially public debt, has reached a point where something has to be done other than kicking the can down the road, or other major crisis. I would argue we are on the cusp of that crisis now, where illiquidity and an inability to refinance, is increasingly a problem in the capital markets. And we see that, where the business models of businesses such as energy-related master limited partnerships, premised on always being able to refinance or raise more equity, face issues.

I was reading through some old articles recently, and came across the transcript in Hermes, the Columbia Business School publication, of a seminar held in May 1985 there. The speakers were Warren Buffett, James Rogers, Jr., and Donald Kurtz. As is often the case, sifting through the older Buffett can be rewarding albeit frustrating when you realize he saw something way before its time. One of the things Buffett said then was that, based on his observations of our political system, “ … there is a small but not insignificant probability that we will lose fiscal control at some point.” His point was that given a choice, politicians will always opt for an implicit tax rather than an explicit tax. If expenditures should determine the level of explicit taxes, than taxes should cover expenditures. Instead, we have built in implicit taxation, expecting inflation to cover things without the citizens realizing it (just as you are not supposed to notice how much smaller the contents are with the packaging changes in food products – dramatically increasing your food budget).

The easier way to think of this is that politicians will always do what allows them to keep doing what they like, which is to stay in office. Hence, the bias ends up being to debase the currency through the printing presses. So you say, what’s the problem? We have more deflation than inflation at this point?

And the problem is, if you look at history, especially Weimar Germany, you see that you had bouts of severe inflation and sharp deflationary periods – things did not move in a straight line.

Now we have had many years of a bull market in stocks and other assets, which was supposed to create wealth, which would than drive increases in consumption. The wealth aspect happened, especially for the top 5%, but the consumption did not necessarily follow, especially for those lower on the economic ladder. So now we see stock and asset prices not rising, and the unspoken fear is – is recession coming?

My take on it, is that we have been in a huge jobless recovery for most of the country, that the energy patch and those industries related to it (and the banks that lent money) are now beyond entering recession, and that those effects will continue to ripple through the rest of the economy. Already we see that, with earnings estimates for the S&P 500 continuing to drift lower. So for most of you, again, my suggestion is to pay attention to what your investment time horizons and risk tolerances are.

Moving totally down a different path, I would like to suggest that an article in the February 28, 2016 New York Sunday Times Magazine entitled “Stocks & Bots” is well worth a read. The focus of the article is about the extent to which automation will eliminate jobs in the financial services industry going forward. We are not talking about clerks and order entry positions. That revolution has already taken place, with computerized trading over the last twenty years cutting by way of example, the number of employees buying and selling stock over the phone from 600 to 4 at one of the major investment banking firms. No, we are talking about the next level of change, where the analysts start getting replaced by search programs and algorithms. And it then moves on from there to the people who provide financial advice. Will the Millennials seek financial advice from programs rather than stock brokers? Will the demand grow exponentially for cheaper investment products?

I think the answer to these questions is yes, the Millennials will do things very differently in terms of utilizing financial services, and the profit margins of many of today’s investment products, such as mutual funds, will be driven much lower in the not too distant future. Anecdotally, when one has a year in the markets like 2015 and the beginning of 2016, many investment firms would push down the bonus levels and payments from the highest paid to take care of the lower ranks of employees. I was not surprised however to hear that one of the largest asset managers in the world, based in Boston, had its senior employees elect to keep the bonuses high at the “partner” levels and not take care of the next levels down this past year. They could see the handwriting on the wall.

All of which brings me back to the weather. Probably suggesting that one should read a politically incorrect writer like Mark Twain is anathema to many today, but I do so love his speech on the New England weather. For a preview for those so inclined, “The lightning there is peculiar; it is so convincing that, when it strikes a thing it doesn’t leave enough of that thing behind for you tell whether – Well, you’d think it was something valuable, and a Congressman had been there.”

At a future point I will come back for a discussion of Mr. Twain’s essay “On the Decay of the Art of Lying” which might be essential reading as this year’s elections take shape.

High Dividends, Low Volatility

trapezoid logoFrom the Trapezoid Mailbag:

A financial advisor in Florida is interested in low-volatility products. With the market so choppy, he would like to dial down risk in his client’s portfolio. He wondered whether SEI Institutional Managed Trust Tax-Managed Volatility Fund (TMMAX) was a suitable choice.

exhibit IAs Exhibit I illustrates low-volatility has been a successful investment strategy in recent years. A good argument can be made that historically, low-volatility stocks were mispriced. Players like Berkshire Hathaway and private equity capitalized on this by levering up these firms to deliver strong risk-adjusted returns. There is a heavy overlap between the low-volatility universe and the high-dividend universe. Many high-dividend stocks have dropped assets into REITs in recent years which have fueled better returns for this sector. Low volatility has outperformed the broad market meaningfully for the past two quarters, partly due its lower beta.

Trapezoid doesn’t take a view on whether these trends will continue or whether low-volatility is the best place to hide out in a tough market. In this instance, we wonder whether the “private equity bid” which contributed to the sector’s strong performance will be as reliable as corporate credit markets tighten and whether the increasing use of REIT/MLP structures has about run its course. What Trapezoid does do is help investors, advisors, and allocators find the best instruments to express their investment strategy based on extrapolation of historic skill in relation to risk.

There are several passive strategies which express the same theme. For example, Power Shares markets an S&P 500 Low Volatility Portfolio (SPLV) and an S&P 500 High Dividend Low Volatility Portfolio (SPHD). Those two funds move virtually in lockstep, underscoring the overlap between high dividend and low volatility. The correlation between the PowerShares indices and TMMAX is 98.5% and the expense ratio is 70-75 basis points lower.

Despite the availability of good passive indices, we would nonetheless consider TMMAX. The fund’s track record has been slightly above average, making us slightly confident (53%) it is worth the added cost. SEI also manages the SEI US Managed Volatility Fund which has a 50% confidence rating (slightly lower due mainly to higher expense ratio.)

SEI relies on three subadvisors to manage the fund. The largest sleeve is managed by Analytic Investors (39%) followed by LSV (35%) and AJO. While we don’t have sleeve-level data, we can evaluate the body of work by Analytic and LSV looking at comparable sole-managed funds. Analytic’s track record the past five years on Touchstone Dynamic Equity Fund (TDELX) is good but the previous five years were poor. LSV’s record at LSV Conservative Value Equity Fund (LSVVX) and Harbor Mid-Cap Value Fund (HIMVX) was middling.

We have discussed in the past that Morningstar star ratings have some predictive value but that even a five-star rating is not sufficient to make an investment decision. The SEI funds are good examples. TMMAX, SEVIX, and SXMAX all carry five star ratings, and we agree investors are better off choosing these funds than many of the alternatives but the evidence of manager skill is inconclusive.

If the advisor is willing to expand his horizons a little, he can find similar funds which improve the odds a little. We used the Orthogonal Attribution Engine to find highly correlated funds with better confidence ratings and came up with the following.

exhibit II

A few observations

  • T. Rowe Price Capital Appreciation Fund (PRWCX) is closed to new investors
  • The two Vanguard funds attempt to outperform their benchmark indices using a quantitative strategy.
  • Many of the other similar funds have higher betas, which may be a deal breaker for our advisor who wants to reduce his client’s market exposure
  • Many of these funds are large blend funds, accessible to demo customers at the website.
  • Our confidence ratings are based on data through 10/30/15. In the subsequent months TMMAX’s performance lagged the lower-cost PowerShares indices. This may serve to erode our confidence that active management pays for itself. Updated data will be posted shortly

The heightened appeal of low-volatility funds might suggest something else: Advisors are more focused on extreme negative outcomes which could get them fired than extreme positive outcomes. In a choppy market, low-volatility funds have the allure of a safe haven. We don’t have a view on the wisdom of this. But we are interested in helping allocators avoid individual managers who have the potential to “blow up.” One of Trapezoid’s forthcoming new metrics hones in on this risk by focusing on the likelihood of extreme negative outcomes.

Slogo 2What’s the Trapezoid story? Leigh Walzer has over 25 years of experience in the investment management industry as a portfolio manager and investment analyst. He’s worked with and for some frighteningly good folks. He holds an A.B. in Statistics from Princeton University and an M.B.A. from Harvard University. Leigh is the CEO and founder of Trapezoid, LLC, as well as the creator of the Orthogonal Attribution Engine. The Orthogonal Attribution Engine isolates the skill delivered by fund managers in excess of what is available through investable passive alternatives and other indices. The system aspires to, and already shows encouraging signs of, a fair degree of predictive validity.

The stuff Leigh shares here reflects the richness of the analytics available on his site and through Trapezoid’s services. If you’re an independent RIA or an individual investor who need serious data to make serious decisions, Leigh offers something no one else comes close to. More complete information can be found at MFO readers can sign up for a free demo.

Offered without comment: Your American Funds share class options

american funds share classes

MFO Rating Metrics

charles balconyWhen MFO introduced its rating system in June of 2013, it chose Martin Ratio as the principal performance rating metric. Martin is a risk adjusted return metric that is the ratio between excess return, which is the compounded annualized total return above risk free T-Bill return, divided by the so-called Ulcer Index, which is a measure of extent and duration of drawdown. Our friend Peter Matin formulated the Ulcer Index as described in An Alternative Approach to the Measurement of Investment Risk & Risk-Adjusted Performance.

For each fund category, like Large Growth or Moderate Allocation, the MFO Rating system divides funds into five groups or “quintiles” based on the risk adjusted return over selected evaluation periods. Funds with the highest Martin in each category are assigned a 5, while those with the lowest receive a 1.

While this approach suits many MFO readers just fine, especially having lived through two 50 percent equity market drawdowns in the past 15 years, others like Investor on the MFO Discussion Board, were less interested in risk adjusted return and wanted to see ratings based on absolute return. Others wanted to see ratings based on the more traditional risk adjusted Sharpe Ratio. (For more definitions, see A Look A Risk Adjusted Returns.)

It took a while, but subscribers on our MFO Premium site can now choose which rating metric they prefer, including multiple rating metrics simultaneously.

For example, since the start of the current market cycle in November 2007, which Small Cap funds have delivered the best absolute return (APR) and the best Martin Ratio and the best Sharpe Ratio? To find the answer, enter the selection criteria on the MFO MultiSearch tool, as depicted below (click image to enlarge), then hit the “Submit Search” button …


A total of 28 funds appear from the more than 9,000 unique funds in the MFO database. Here are the first 10, sorted by MFO Risk and then name:


Notables include Brown Capital Mgmt Small Company (BCSIX), Champlain Small (CIPSX), Conestoga Small Cap (CCASX), and FMI Common Stock (FMIMX). The closed BCSIX is both an MFO Great Owl and Fund Alarm Honor Roll fund. It is also a Morningstar Gold Medal fund, while Silver goes to CIPSX and CCASX.

Intrepid Endurance (ICMAX) has the lowest risk rating with a MFO Risk of 3, which means this fund has historically carried volatility suited for investors with Moderate risk tolerance. Unlike other metrics in the MFO ratings system, and in fact the risk metric in Morningstar’s rating system, which assign risk relative to other funds in category, the MFO Risk metric assigns its rating based on volatility relative to the overall market.

The MFO MultiSearch tool now enables searches using more than 55 screening criteria, organized by Basic Info, Period Metrics, Composite Period Metrics, MFO Designations, Portfolio Characteristics, and Purchase Info. A list of current criteria can be found here.

The Alt Perspective: Commentary and news from DailyAlts.

dailyaltsPruning Season

You can call it a cycle, a season, or even a cleansing process, but when one looks at the liquid alternatives market, it’s apparent that there is some pruning going on. Some cleaning out of the products that no longer appeal to investors, those that hit a performance patch from which it would be near impossible to recover, or just didn’t gather the requisite assets for a fund to be viable. Clean out the funds that are not producing the intended results, or just aren’t resonating with investors.

This is all a healthy process as it makes room for newer products, the next generation. It also allows for a greater investment into existing products. Interestingly, we have already seen 9 alternative funds liquidated in the first two months of the year (and at least two more schedule to be liquidated) – some announced late last year, but nonetheless, fully liquidated in 2016. And these are from some bigger names in the industry, such as Lazard, Collins, Whitebox, Virtus, Ramius and Clinton. Some seasoned hedge fund managers in there, along with seasoned asset management firms.

Four of the liquidate funds were long/short equity funds, two were multi-alternative funds, and the remaining three included market neutral, event driven and non-traditional bonds. All in all, I think we will see more pruning in the coming months as fund managers rationalize their fund lineup as markets sell off, and begin thinking about the next set of products to introduce to the market.

The pruning process is healthy and helps future growth, so don’t be surprised to see more down the road. It’s just part of the natural cycle.

Asset Flows

January saw a continuation of 2015 where investors continued to pour money into multi-alternative funds and managed futures funds (inflows of $1.2 billion and $1.5 billion, respectively), while pulling assets from non-traditional bond funds, long/short equity and market neutral (-$3 billion, -$390 million and -$340 million, respectively). Excluding non-traditional bond funds and commodities, alternative mutual funds and ETFs gathered a total of $2.4 billion in January, bringing the total 12-month haul to $18.7 billion, third of any category behind international equity and municipal bonds and 11.5% of all net asset inflows.

Commodities bounced back in January with total inflows of $3.3 billion, led primarily by flows to precious metals funds, and gold funds in particular. Non-traditional bond funds, viewed as an alternative to long-only bond funds and a protective hedge against interest rate increases, have continued to disappoint in the aggregate. As a result, investors have pulled $17.9 billion of assets from these funds over the past 12 months.

Extended Reading

What did DailyAlts readers enjoy the most this past month? The three of the most widely read articles this past month were:

While it appears to be pruning season, that doesn’t mean it is time to stop looking for alternative funds. With Spring approaching, now is a good time to take a look across your portfolio at the risks you have exposure to, and perhaps do a bit of pruning of your own to balance risks and hedge for what might be more volatility ahead.

Have a great March, and to keep up with daily or weekly news in the liquid alts market, be sure to sign up for our newsletter.

Observer Fund Profiles: LSOFX / RYSFX

Each month the Observer provides in-depth profiles of between two and four funds. Our “Most Intriguing New Funds” are funds launched within the past couple years that most frequently feature experienced managers leading innovative newer funds. “Stars in the Shadows” are older funds that have attracted far less attention than they deserve.

LS Opportunity Fund (LSOFX): this was a really solid long/short fund that had to press the “reset” button last May when their sub-advisor decided to pack it up and call it a career. In Prospector Partners, they may have found a team that executes the same stock-by-stock discipline even more excellently than their predecessors.

Royce Global Financial Services (RYFSX): when you think “financial services,” you likely think “monstrous big banks with tendrils everywhere and eight-figure bonuses.” Royce thinks differently, and their focus on smaller firms that dominate financial niches worldwide has made a remarkable difference for their investors.

Elevator Talk: Jim Robinson, Robinson Tax-Advantaged Income (ROBAX)

elevatorSince the number of funds we can cover in-depth is smaller than the number of funds worthy of in-depth coverage, we’ve decided to offer one or two managers each month the opportunity to make a 200 word pitch to you. That’s about the number of words a slightly-manic elevator companion could share in a minute and a half. In each case, I’ve promised to offer a quick capsule of the fund and a link back to the fund’s site. Other than that, they’ve got 200 words and precisely as much of your time and attention as you’re willing to share. These aren’t endorsements; they’re opportunities to learn more.

Jim Robinson formed Robinson Capital Management, located in Detroit’s ritzy Grosse Pointe suburb, in December, 2012. The firm manages about a quarter billion in assets for a handful of high net worth clients and advises two (soon to be three) mutual funds.

From 1987-1999, Mr. Robinson served as the Fixed Income CIO for the Munder Funds. During his stint, he grew fixed income AUM from $100 million to $20 billion. Eventually promoted to Chairman, CEO and President, he was responsible for about $38 billion in assets. He left Munder for Telemus Capital Partners, LLC, with whom his firm still has a relationship.

Robinson Capital uses a variety of strategies in their separate accounts. The Tax-Advantaged Income Fund pursues one strategy: it invests in closed-end muni bond funds. Closed-end funds (CEFs) are strange creatures, the forerunners of today’s actively-managed ETFs. They have managers and portfolios like open-end mutual funds do, but trade on exchanges like stocks and ETFs do. Such funds have several relevant characteristics:

  1. They are far more likely to pursue income-oriented strategies than are open-end funds
  2. They are far more likely to make extensive use of leverage and hold more illiquid securities than are open-end funds
  3. Because they trade on exchanges, the managers never need to worry about meeting redemptions or closing the fund to new investors; they issue a set number of shares of the CEF during their initial public offering but after that they let buyers and sellers find each other.
  4. Because they trade on exchanges, the market price of their shares changes minute-by-minute, and
  5. Because they trade on exchanges, the net asset value of a share (the market value of all of the fund’s holdings divided by the number of shares outstanding) can diverge dramatically from that share’s market price (that is, the amount a potential seller can get at one particular moment for a share of the fund).

When shareholders panic, they may succumb to the temptation to sell shares of their fund for 15, 20 or even 40% less than they’re nominally worth, just because the seller really wants cash-in-hand. That’s mostly irrational. A handful of mutual fund firms – RiverNorth, Matisse, and Robinson among them – look to profit from panic. Using various metrics, they decide when to move in and buy shares that are selling at an unsustainable discount to their net asset values.

If everything goes according to plan, that strategy offers the potential for sustained, substantial, market-neutral gains: as soon as panic subsides, even if the market is still falling, a degree of rationality returns, investors start buying the discounted CEF shares, that bids up the price and the discount closes. If you invest before the crowd, you benefit when the shares you bought at, say, a 25% discount can now be sold at just a 5% discount.

Here’s a hypothetical illustration: the NAV of the Odd Income Fund is $100/share but, when rumors of dinosaurs rampaging down Wall Street rattles people, its market price drops to $75/share. Robinson moves in. In six months, the panic has passed, Odd Income’s NAV has risen a couple percent and its discount contracted to its non-panic norm of 5%. In such a scenario, Odd Income has earned 2% but folks who bought shares during the panic earned 29%.

There are distinct risks to playing this game, of course. The falling knife might continue to fall harder and faster than you’d imagined so that the 25% discount might widen to 35%. The manager of the underlying CEF might find that using leverage in a panicky market drives down the fund’s NAV as well as its market price. And, too, the CEF manager might simply do something stupid. It happens.

The folks who manage CEF-focused funds argue that downside risks are manageable through a combination of careful security selection, position-size limits and hedging. The upside can be dramatic. Here is the performance chart for ROBAX against two possible benchmarks: its Morningstar non-traditional bond peer group (orange) and long-term national muni bond group (yellow).


Here are Mr. Robinson’s 200 words on why investors concerned about income and income taxes should add ROBAX to their due-diligence list:

I generally tell people that the first three things you need to know about our fund are these:

  • We pay out 40 basis points a month in tax-exempt income, on average
  • We present very little credit risk; our portfolio’s credit quality is A/A+
  • We hedge out interest rate risk, such that our effective duration is under a year.

There are 191 Tax-exempt closed-end funds. Today, 150 are trading at a discount to NAV. Some of those discounts are rational; if you have a poorly-managed fund buying difficult-to-price securities and misusing leverage, it should be trading at a discount. Heck, I analyze some of these funds and suspect the discount should be bigger than it is.

What we do is move money from rationally discounted funds to irrationally discounted ones. Six large fund companies – BlackRock, PIMCO, Nuveen and company – dominate the CEF space. That’s important because those companies have pretty good governance practices in place; BlackRock is aggressive about merging funds to harvest economies of scale, others do share buybacks and so on. When funds with good management, good governance and good portfolios sell at irrational discounts, we move. Bill Gross did me a big favor. Two days before we launched, he resigned from PIMCO. Gross had nothing to do with PIMCO’s CEFs but suddenly funds that always trade at a premium were available at a discount. We moved in, the discount predictably reversed, and we closed the position at a nice profit. That discount arbitrage adds about 200 bps to our performance.

The other thing we do that individual investors can’t, and that most advisors would find tough, time-consuming and expensive, is we largely hedge interest rate risk out of the portfolio. Tax-exempt CEFs tend to be long-dated and leveraged so they typically have 10-12 year weighted durations. In a year like 2013 when rates rise 1%, they lose 10-12% in principal value. Our hedge is not perfect, since Treasuries and munis don’t trade in perfect sync, but it’s pretty good.

Robinson Tax-Advantaged Income has a $2500 minimum initial investment for the “A” shares and $1,000,0000 for “I” shares. While there’s a sales load, load-waived shares are widely available. Direct expenses are capped at 1.60% on the “A” shares. Since the fund invests in other funds, you indirectly pay (through lower returns) a portion of those funds’ expenses. In 2014, that added 1.14% to ROBAX’s today expenses. The fund has about gathered about $74 million in assets since its September 2014 launch. Here’s the fund’s homepage.

Funds in Registration

Funds need to submit their prospectuses for SEC review before they’re permitted to offer the fund to the public. The SEC has 75 days in which to ponder the matter, which means that proposed new funds cool their heels for about two and a half months. During that time their prospectuses are available for review on the SEC’s website but fund advisors are forbidden to talk publicly about them. Each month Funds in Reg gives you a heads-up about what’s in the SEC pipeline.

Except for last month, when I stupidly forgot to include the file in our February issue. As a result, this month we cover the last two sets of no-load retail funds that will become available between March and May. We found 17 funds that qualify. Particularly interesting morsels include:

  • 361 Domestic Long/Short Equity Fund, which will be managed by a really renowned investor – Harindra de Silva – who has a earned a great deal of respect in the industry and who already manages a number of top-ranked funds.
  • Matthews Asia Credit Opportunities, which appears to be a high-yield, distressed securities version of the very fine Matthews Asia Strategic Income Fund.
  • RiverPark Commercial Real Estate Fund, the latest entry in RiverPark’s quest to bring hedge fund strategies to “the mass affluent.” This fund has been running as a hedge fund for about five years now.

Sadly, there are a handful of future “Off to the Dustbin of History” nominees as well but I suppose that’s the magic of capitalism: 90% of the stuff we try fails, 9% does okay and 1% changes the world.

Uzès Grands Crus I

The French, being French, have their financial priorities in order. In February, Financière D’uzès announced the launch of their third mutual fund devoted to the investment potential of bottles of fine wine. At least 75% of the fund’s assets will be bottles of fine and their aim is “to outperform the annual rate for the five-year French treasury bond (OAT) with a minimum return of 5%.”

I reflected, very very briefly, on the investment value of the bottle of Lambrusco I bought at Trader Joe’s for $4.99, then made mid-winter sangria instead.

Manager Changes

The biggest news, by far, this month is the impending departure of Taymour R. Tamaddon from T. Rowe Price Health Sciences (PRHSX) and Donald Yacktman from his namesake funds. When Kris Jenner left the fund three years ago (how time flies!), the accepted wisdom was that nobody could live up to his legacy. Mr. Tamaddon then led the fund to 22.4% annualized returns, nearly 500 bps above his peers and good enough for a top 2% record.

Mr. Tamaddon steps down on July 1, 2016, is succeeded by Ziad Bakri then becomes manager of the $12 billion T. Rowe Price Institutional Large-Cap Growth Fund (TRLGX) on January 1, 2017.

yacktmanEffective May 1, 2016, Donald A. Yacktman will transition to an advisory role and will no longer serve as a portfolio manager for AMG Yacktman (YACKX) and AMG Yacktman Focused (YAFFX) funds. The roughly corresponds with his 75th birthday. Mr. Yacktman has been managing mutual funds since 1968, starting with Stein, Roe and the Selected American Shares before founding Yacktman Asset Management in 1992. $10,000 invested in YACKX that year would have grown to $95,000 today, which compares well to the returns on an investment in the S&P500 ($76,000) or the average large-value fund ($56,000). He was named Morningstar’s Manager of the Year in 1991 and was joined on the management team by his son, Stephen, in 2002. Stephen Yacktman and Jason Subotky will manage the funds after the transition.

Other than that, we found about 36 manager changes, a few years overdue.


Sequoia Fund (SEQUX) continues its defense of Valeant Pharmaceuticals in its Annual Report (2016) and they continued dodging the issue.

For the stock to regain credibility with long-term investors, Valeant will need to generate strong earnings and cash flow this year, make progress in paying down some of its debt, demonstrate that it can launch new drugs from its own development pipeline and avoid provoking health care payers and the government. The company has committed to doing all of these things and we are confident interim CEO Howard Schiller and interim board chairman Robert Ingram are focused on the right metrics. Before CEO J. Michael Pearson went out on an extended medical leave, he also seemed committed to this path.

“Avoid provoking health care payers.” Oh, right. That would be the predatory pricing model that attracted Sequoia to Valeant in the first place: Valeant would borrow money to buy a small pharmaceutical firm, then quintuple the price of the firm’s products. If that meant putting a few inexpensive lives at risk, well, that wasn’t Valeant’s problem.

Until it was. Before the blow-up, manager David Poppe’s tone was openly affectionate about “Mike,” Valeant’s president and almost giddy about the prospects. Valeant’s high-profile implosion cost Sequoia a lot:

As the largest shareholder of Valeant, our own credibility as investors has been damaged by this saga. We’ve seen higher-than-normal redemptions in the Fund, had two of our five independent directors resign in October and been sued by two Sequoia shareholders over our concentration in Valeant. We do not believe the lawsuit has merit and intend to defend ourselves vigorously in court. Moving along …

“Moving along”? No, it’s not time to move along, guys. Barron’s Chris Dieterich provides a nice synopsis of developments that transpired on February 29, the day Sequoia released their report:

Monday ushered in a nightmarish combination of trouble. First, Valeant said it would delay the release of its quarterly results. Then, news broke that Allergan (AGN) is challenging the patent to Xifaxan. Third, Moody’s Investors Service warned that it may need to downgrade portions of the company’s $31 billion of debt. Finally, headlines crossed the tape that Valeant faces a previously undisclosed investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission.

All told, the stock plunged 18% to $65.80 — a fresh three-year low (“Sequoia Fund Picked A Bad Time To Stick Up For Valeant”).

The bigger, unanswered question is what does this say about you as investors? Any damage to your credibility is (a) self-inflicted and (b) deserved. You committed one third of your fund and all of your credibility to an amoral little schemer who, on his best days, stayed right at the edge of what’s legal. That’s a fact you acknowledged. Then you implicitly compared him to Warren Buffett, an investor whose moral compass, operating style and record makes him utterly incomparable.

Investors might, heck, investors must, ask: where was your brain? Were you so blinded by the prospect of easy money that you chose to ignore the hard questions? The most optimistic interpretation is that you’re not addressing such questions because you’re being sued and you can’t afford to admit to whatever idiocy led to the resignations of 40% of your board last fall. The worrisome interpretation is that Sequoia isn’t Sequoia anymore; that the clarity of thought that guided it to renown in decades past mostly now serves to mask a less exalted management.

Think it can’t happen? Check Magellan, Fidelity (FMAGX), the other Titan which has now managed to trail its peers over the past five, ten, fifteen and twenty year periods. Utterly dominant in the market cycle from 1973-1987 when it beat its peers by 1000 basis points/year, the fund hasn’t even managed consistent mediocrity since.

Morningstar doesn’t share my reservations and SEQUX retains a “Gold” analyst rating from the firm. Their equity analyst also doesn’t share my concerns about Valeant, which they rate (on 3/1/16) as a five-star stock whose shares are selling at about one-third of their fair value. Senior equity analyst Michael Waterhouse doesn’t “anticipate any major shift in our long-term thinking for the company.”

Briefly Noted . . .


Chou has voluntarily decided to waive its entire advisory fee on the Chou Opportunity Fund (CHOEX) beginning on January 1, 2016. In addition, on February 18, 2016 Chou made a voluntary capital contribution to the Opportunity Fund in the amount of $918,468, which approximates the advisory fees retained by Chou with respect the Opportunity Fund last year. Why, you ask? The advisor describes it as “a gesture of goodwill … in recognition of the fund’s underperformance” in 2015. That’s an oblique reference to having lost 22% in 2015 and another 20% in the first two months of 2016.

The advisor to the Great Lakes Bond Fund has closed the fund’s Investor Class (GLBDX) and converted the former Investor accounts into Institutional Class (GLBNX) ones. They then lowered the minimum on the Institutional shares by 99%, from $100,000 to $1,000. Net, potential retail investors save 25 bps.

Hotchkis & Wiley Mid-Cap Value Fund (HWMAX) has reopened to new investors.

RS Partners Fund (RSPFX) reopened to new investors on March 1, 2016. None of the fund’s independent trustees have chosen to partner with you by investing in the fund. The managers’ investment in the fund ranges between “modest” and “none.”

Walthausen Small Cap Value Fund (WSCVX) reopened to new investors on March 1, 2016.

Wasatch Emerging Markets Small Cap Fund (WAEMX) has reopened to new investors. Thanks for the heads up, Openice!

CLOSINGS (and related inconveniences)

Nope, turns out “turning away money” wasn’t a popular move in February. We found no funds closing their doors.


Armor Alternative Income Fund (AAIFX) has become Crow Point Alternative Income Fund

Diamond Hill Strategic Income Fund (DSIAX) has been renamed the Diamond Hill Corporate Credit Fund to better reflect what it’s up to.

Forward no more. On May 1, 2016, the name “Forward” disappears from the world of mutual funds. In general, all of the former Forward Funds will be renamed as Salient Funds, which no change other than substituting “Salient” for “Forward” in the name. There are a few exceptions,

Current Forward Name New Salient Name
Commodity Long/Short Strategy Commodity Long/Short Strategy
Credit Analysis Long/Short Tactical Muni Strategy
Dynamic Income US Dividend Signal
EM Corporate Debt EM Corporate Debt
Emerging Markets EM Dividend Signal
Frontier Strategy Frontier Strategy
Global Infrastructure EM Infrastructure
Growth Allocation Adaptive Balanced
High Yield Bond High Yield
Income Builder Adaptive Income
International Dividend International Dividend Signal
International Real Estate International Real Estate
International Small Companies International Small Cap
Investment Grade Fixed-Income Investment Grade
Real Estate Real Estate
Real Estate Long/Short Tactical Real Estate
Select Income Select Income
Select Opportunity Select Opportunity
Tactical Growth Tactical Growth
Total MarketPlus Adaptive US Equity

TIAA-CREF has boldly rebranded itself as TIAA.



Straightforward. Yep. 74%. Unless you’re buying the retail share class in which case it’s nine of 33 funds excluding money markets, or 27%. 32.5% of all funds receive either four- or five-stars from Morningstar.

And about that “uncomplicated” thing? Count the number of clicks it takes you to get to any particular fund. It took me two cups of coffee before I finally got to the one I wanted.

As of May 9, 2016, Transparent Value becomes … well, insert your own snark here. In any case, the Transparent Value Funds become Guggenheim Funds.

Current Name New Name
Trans Value Directional Allocation Guggenheim Directional Allocation
Trans Value Dividend Guggenheim RBP® Dividend
Trans Value Large-Cap Defensive Guggenheim RBP® Large-Cap Defensive
Trans Value Large-Cap Market Guggenheim RBP® Large-Cap Market
Trans Value Large-Cap Value Guggenheim RBP® Large-Cap Value

On March 1, 2016, The Wall Street Fund (WALLX) became Evercore Equity Fund (EWMCX). The word “Equity” in the name also triggered a new promise in the prospectus that the fund, which already invests in equities, promises to invest in equities.


On whole, fund companies would be well-advised to extract their heads from their behinds. If you’re not willing to stick with a new fund for, say, a whole market cycle, then don’t launch the damned thing. The hypocrisy of declaring that you’re “long-term investors” and that you want to be “partners” with your investors, then closing a fund after 12-24 months, is toxic. It conveys some combination of the following three messages: (1) we’re panicked. (2) We have no ability to plan. (3) Pretty much everything we said when we launched the fund was cynical B.S. crafted by marketers who were, themselves, probably disgusted with us.

Which of those messages do you really want to be associated with?

Okay, back to the ranks of the walking dead and the dead dead after a short word of thanks to The Shadow, one of the stalwarts of our discussion board whose daily updates on the comings and goings is enormously helpful in keeping this list current.

Let’s go to Plan B: Under Plan A, Arden Alternative Strategies Fund (ARDNX) was slated to become Aberdeen Multi-Manager Alternative Strategies Fund (no ticker) on March 31, 2016. That made perfect sense since Aberdeen acquired Arden. Plan A survived for about a week when someone likely noticed that the fund wasn’t actually very good, was shrinking in size and required an annual expense subsidy from the adviser, whereupon Plan B emerged: kill it. Same date.

BPV Core Diversification Fund (BPADX) has closed and will be terminated on March 11, 2016. It’s a tiny, conservative fund that’s still managed to lose money over the past three years and trail 90% of its peers.

On February 17, 2016, the CGM Advisor Targeted Equity Fund (NEFGX, reflecting its birth name: New England Growth Fund) was liquidated. Financial Advisor magazine managed to wax nostalgic over the loss of a “venerable” and “once-vaunted” fund. Two quick notes about this: (1) the fund hasn’t earned its keep over the past 20 years. Its closing NAV was below its NAV in 1994. The 20 year performance chart is the very image of what to avoid in your investments:


And (2) you can still access the manager’s skills, if you’d like. Natixis, the fund’s sponsor, no longer has an ownership stake in CGM and so they had no interest in continuing to sponsor a fund. Mr. Heebner continues to run three other CGM funds. Their website would also win the award for the industry’s least useful.

Collins Alternative Solutions Fund (CLLAX) liquidated on February 26, 2016. The fund had about $19 million in assets and dropped 19% in its final year of operation.

Crystal Strategy Absolute Income Fund (CSTFX), Crystal Strategy Absolute Return Fund (CSRAX) and Crystal Strategy Absolute Return Plus Fund (CSLFX) will, based on the recommendation of Brinker Capital, LLC, the investment adviser, be liquidated on March 18, 2016. The funds are just past their second anniversary. Between them they have $16 million in assets and a sorrowful performance record.

Dreyfus Strategic Beta U.S. Equity Fund (DOUAX) will liquidate in mid-April.

The Fortress has fallen! Fortress Long/Short Credit Fund (LPLAX) liquidated on February 12, 2016, about three years too late. The fund lost about 25% over its lifetime. It peaked in December 2012 and its chart since then looks, for all the world, like a child’s drawing of steps leading down to the basement.

Frost International Equity Fund (FANTX) will liquidate on March 31, 2016. The announcement helpfully notes that they’ll refer to that as “the liquidation date.” I think I went on one of those in college.

Gottex Endowment Strategy Fund (GTEAX) is liquidating after about 20 months of operation. In that time it lost about 12% for its few investors.

Guidestone Real Assets Fund (GRAZX) will liquidate on April 29, 2016. It’s a tiny fund-of-funds that’s designed to protect you from inflation by investing in things that are cratering. That’s not intentional, of course, but sectors that would be durable if inflation arose – energy, natural resources, real estate – have been disasters.

The $3 million JPMorgan Asia Pacific Fund (JAPFX) will liquidate on April 6, 2016.

Investors in the Lazard Master Alternatives Portfolio (LALOX) need to find an alternative since the fund was liquidated on March 1, 2016. The fund was 14 months old.

MassMutual Barings Dynamic Allocation Fund (MLBAX) will be dissolved on July 8, 2016. It isn’t an awful tactical allocation fund but it’s tiny and misallocated in the last year, costing its investors 11.5%.

Merk Asian Currency Fund (MEAFX) liquidated on February 29, 2016. From inception in 2008 until liquidation, the fund was above water once, briefly, in 2011.

Meyers Capital Aggressive Growth Fund (MAGFX) liquidated on February 29, 2016, on about three weeks’ notice. Since the manager owns 87% of the funds’ shares, he might have seen it coming. The oddest development is the collapse of the fund’s asset base: in May, Mr. Meyers owned over $1,000,000 in fund shares. By February 2016,the fund only had $130,000 in assets.

Oberweis Asia Opportunities Fund (OBAOX) will be merged into Oberweis China Opportunities Fund (OBCHX) on or about April 29, 2016.

Philadelphia Investment Partners New Generation Fund (PIPGX), having lost 35% in the past 12 months, is now going to lose its head. The execution is March 30, 2016.

After the advisor concluded that Satuit Capital U.S. SMID Cap Fund (SATDX) was not economically viable, they decided “to close the Fund, wind up its affairs, liquidate its portfolio.” I’ve never seen “wind up its affairs,” which the announcement uses twice, in a fund liquidation filling before. Huh. The fund is not yet two years old and had attracted only a couple million, despite a really strong record. The deed is done on April 30, 2016.

Having concluded that the Smith Group Small Cap Focused Growth Fund (SGSVX) has “limited prospects for meaningful growth,” its board authorized liquidation of the fund on March 31, 2016. One can’t fault the managers for a lack of commitment: internal ownership accounted for about two-thirds of the fund’s $600,000 in assets.

Strategic Latin America Fund (SLATX) liquidated in late February, 2016. 

Touchstone Global Real Estate Fund (TGAAX) will liquidate on March 30, 2016. The board attributes the decision to “the Fund’s small size and limited growth potential.” An interim manager, apparently someone who specializes in “safeguard[ing] shareholder interests during the liquidation period,” has been appointed. It’s the sad case of a good fund not finding its audience: top 25% returns over the past five years and even better returns recently, but still only $17 million in assets.

Sometime in mid-summer Victory CEMP Multi-Asset Balanced Fund (CTMAX) will be absorbed by Victory Strategic Allocation Fund (SBALX). As is so often the case, CTMAX is larger and weaker so they’ll bury its record while tripling SBALX’s assets.

On February 5, 2016, Virtus Dynamic Trend Fund merged into Virtus Equity Trend Fund (VAPAX). I’m slightly startled to report that, despite trailing 98—99% of its peers over the intermediate term, VAPAX retains $1.5 billion in assets.

Wanger International Select (WAFFX) will liquidate at the end of March. It appears to be available only through insurance products.

WHV/EAM Emerging Markets Small Cap Equity Fund (WVEAX) and WHV/EAM International Small Cap Equity Fund (WHSAX), rather less than two years old, will liquidate on or about March 31, 2016. Both funds had very strong performance. WHV/Seizert Small Cap Value Equity Fund (WVSAX), a bit more than two years old, will liquidate a month later.

In Closing . . .

Thanks, as always, to folks who’ve supported the Observer in thought, word or deed. Welcome, especially, to Nick Burnett, long-time friend, grad school roommate and mastermind behind the CapRadioCurriculum which helps teachers connect public radio content with classroom lessons. There’s a cool one on multilingual public relations that I rather liked. Thanks, as ever to the ongoing generosity of the folks at Gardey Financial and our first subscribers, Deb and Greg. Thanks to Gary, who didn’t particularly want premium access but did want to help out. Mission accomplished, big guy! Too, to MaryRose, we’re trying to help. Welcome to Abdon Bolivar, working hard to get people to understand the role that plan administrators play in creating and sustaining bad options for investors. By coincidence, Tony Isola and the folks are Ritholtz Wealth Management are pursuing a parallel track trying to educate educators about what to do if they’re getting screwed by the 403(b). And, in a horrifying number of cases, they are.

And so, thanks to you all, not just for your support of the Observer but for all the good work you’re doing for a lot of people.

We’re waiting to talk with the folks at Otter Creek Partners, a hedge fund firm with a small long/short fund that’s performed splendidly. That conversation will let us finish up our profile of Otter Creek Long/Short Opportunity (OTCRX) and share it with you. We’ll add a look at Intrepid Endurance (ICMAX) in conjunction with my own portfolio review. We’ll look for the launch of Seafarer Overseas Value, likely around the 75th day of 2016. We’ll look for you.


January 1, 2016

By David Snowball

Dear friends,

grinchTalk about sturm und drang. After 75 days with in which the stock market rose or fell by 1% or more, the Vanguard Total Stock Market Index managed to roar ahead to a gain … of 0.29%. Almost 3000 mutual funds hung within two percentage points, up or down, of zero. Ten managed the rare feat of returning precisely zero. Far from a Santa Claus rally, 2015 couldn’t even manage a Grinchy Claus one.

And the Steelers lost to the Ravens. Again! Just rip my heart out, why doncha?

Annus horribilis or annus mediocris?

In all likelihood, the following three statements described your investment portfolio: your manager lost money, you suspect he’s lost touch with the market, and you’re confused.

Welcome to the club! 2015 saw incredibly widespread disappointment for investors. Investors saw losses in:

  • 8 of 9 domestic equity categories, excluding large growth
  • 17 of 17 asset allocation categories, from retirement income to tactical allocation
  • 8 of 15 international stock categories
  • 14 of 15 taxable bond categories and
  • 6 of 6 alternative or hedged fund categories.

Anything that smacked of “real assets” (energy, MLPs, natural resources) or Latin America posted 20-30% declines. Foreign and domestic value strategies, regardless of market cap, trailed their growth-oriented peers by 400-700 basis points. The average hedge fund finished the year down about 4% and Warren Buffett’s Berkshire-Hathaway dropped 11.5%. The Masters of the Universe – William Ackman, David Einhorn, Joel Greenblatt, and Larry Robbins among them – are all spending their holidays penning letters that explain why 10-25% losses are no big deal. The folks at Bain, Fortress Investments and BlackRock spared themselves the bother by simply closing their hedge funds this year.

And among funds I actually care about (a/k/a “own”), T. Rowe Price Spectrum Income (RPSIX) lost money for just the third time in its 25 year history. As in 1994, it’s posting an annual loss of about 2%.

What to make of it? Opinions differ. Neil Irwin, writing in The New York Times half-celebrated:

Name a financial asset — any financial asset. How did it do in 2015?

The answer, in all likelihood: Meh.

It might have made a little money. It might have lost a little money. But, barring any drastic moves in the final trading days of 2015, the most widely held classes of assets, including stocks and bonds across the globe, were basically flat … While that may be disappointing news for people who hoped to see big returns from at least some portion of their portfolio, it is excellent news for anyone who wants to see a steady global economic expansion without new bubbles and all the volatility that can bring. (“Financial markets were flat in 2015. Thank goodness.” 12/30/2015)

Stephanie Yang, writing for CNBC, half-despaired:

It’s been a really, really tough year for returns.

According to data from Societe Generale, the best-performing asset class of 2015 has been stocks, whose meager 2 percent total return (that is, including dividends) still surpasses those of long-term bonds, short-term Treasury bills and commodities. These minimal gains make 2015 the worst year for finding returns since 1937, when the cash-like 3-month Treasury bill beat out other major asset classes with a return of 0.3 percent. (“2015 was the hardest year to make money in 78 years,” 12/31/2015).

Thirty-one liquid alts funds subsequently liquidated, the most ever (“The Year the Hedge-Fund Model Stalled on Main Street,” WSJ, 12/31/2015).

timeline of the top

Courtesy of Leuthold Group

The most pressing question is whether 2015 is a single bad year or the prelude to something more painful than “more or less flat.” The folks at the Leuthold Group, advisers to the Leuthold funds as well as good institutional researchers, make the argument that the global equity markets have topped out. In support of that position, they break the market out into both component parts (MSCI Emerging Markets or FTSE 100) and internal measures (number of new 52-week highs in the NYSE or the ratio of advancing to declining stocks). With Leuthold’s permission, we’ve reproduced their timeline here.

Two things stand out. First, it appears that “the market’s” gains, if any, are being driven by fewer and fewer stocks. That’s suggested by the fact the number of 52-week highs peaked in 2013 and the number of advancing stocks peaked in spring 2015. The equal-weight version of the S&P 500 (represented by the Guggenheim S&P 500 Equal Weight ETF RSP) trailed the cap-weighted version by 370 basis points. The Value Line Arithmetic Index, which tracks the performance of “the average stock” by equally weighting 1675 issues, is down 11% from its April peak. Nearly 300 of the S&P 500 stocks will likely finish the year in the red. Second, many of the components followed the same pattern: peak in June, crash in August, partially rally in September then fade. The battle cry “there’s always a bull market somewhere!” seems not to be playing out just now.

The S&P 500 began 2015 at 2058. The consensus of market strategists in Barron’s was that it would finish 2015 just north of 2200. It actually ended at 2043. The new consensus is that it will finish 2016 just north of 2200.

The Leuthold Group calculates that, if we were to experience a typical bear market over the next year, the S&P 500 would drop to somewhere between 1500-1600.

By most measures, US stocks remain overpriced. There’s not much margin for safety in the bond market right now with US interest rates near zero and other major developing markets cutting theirs. Those interest rate cuts reflect concerns about weak growth and the potential for a China-led recession. The implosion of Third Avenue Focused Credit (TFCVX) serves as a reminder that liquidity challenges remain unresolved ahead of potentially disruptive regulations contemplated by the SEC.

phil esterhausThe path forward is not particularly clear to me because we’ve never managed such a long period of global economic weakness and zero to negative interest rates before. My plan is to remind myself that I need to care about 2026 more than about 2016, to rebalance soon, and to stick with my discipline which is, roughly put, “invest regularly and automatically in sensible funds that execute a reasonable plan, ignore the market and pay attention to the moments, hours and days that life presents me.” On whole, an hour goofing around with my son or the laughter of dinner guests really does make a much bigger difference in my life than anything my portfolio might do today.

As Sergeant Phil Esterhaus used to remind the guys at Hill Street station as they were preparing to leave on patrol, “Hey, let’s be careful out there.”

For those seeking rather more direct guidance, our colleague Leigh Walzer of Trapezoid offers guidance, below, on the discipline of finding all-weather managers. Helpfully enough, he names a couple for you.

Good-Bye to All That

I cribbed the title from Robert Graves’ 1929 autobiography, one of a host of works detailing the horrors of fighting the Great War and the British military’s almost-criminal incompetence.

We bid farewell, sometimes with sadness, to a host of friends and funds.

Farewell to the Whitebox Funds

The Whitebox Advisors come from The Land of Giants. From the outside, I could never tell whether their expression was “swagger” or “sneer” but I found neither attractive. Back in 2012 readers urged us to look into the funds, and so we did. Our first take was this:

There are some funds, and some management teams, that I find immediately compelling.  Others not.

So far, this is a “not.”

Here’s the argument in favor of Whitebox: they have a Multi-Strategy hedge fund which uses some of the same strategies and which, per a vaguely fawning article in Barron’s, returned 15% annually over the past decade while the S&P returned 5%. I’ll note that the hedge fund’s record does not get reported in the mutual fund’s, which the SEC allows when it believes that the mutual fund replicates the hedge. 

Here’s the reservation: their writing makes them sound arrogant and obscure.  They advertise “a proprietary, multi-factor quantitative model to identify dislocations within and between equity and credit markets.”  At base, they’re looking for irrational price drops.  They also use broad investment themes (they like US blue chips, large cap financials and natural gas producers), are short both the Russell 2000 (which is up 14.2% through 9/28) and individual small cap stocks, and declare that “the dominant theories about how markets behave and the sources of investment success are untrue.”  They don’t believe in the efficient market hypothesis (join the club).

I’ll try to learn more in the month ahead, but I’ll first need to overcome a vague distaste.

I failed to overcome it. The fact that their own managers largely avoided the funds did not engender confidence.

whitebox managers

In the face of poor performance and shrinking assets, they announced the closure of their three liquid alts funds in December. My colleague Charles offers a bit of further reflection on the closure, below.

Farewell to The House of Whitman

Marty Whitman become a fund manager at age 60 and earned enormous respect for his outspokenness and fiercely independent style. Returns at Third Avenue Value Fund (TAVFX) were sometimes great, sometimes awful but always Marty. Somewhere along the way, he elevated David Barse to handle all the business stuff that he had no earthly interest in, got bought by AMG, promised to assemble at least $25 billion in assets and built a set of funds that, save perhaps Third Avenue Real Estate Value (TAREX), never quite matched the original. It’s likely that his ability to judge people, or perhaps the attention he was willing to give to judging them, matched his securities analysis. The firm suffered and Mr. Whitman, in his 80s, either drifted or was pushed aside. Last February we wrote:

In sum, the firm’s five mutual funds are down by $11 billion from their peak asset levels and nearly 50% of the investment professionals on staff five years ago, including the managers of four funds, are gone. At the same time, only one of the five funds has had performance that meets the firm’s long-held standards of excellence.

Many outsiders noted not just the departure of long-tenured members of the Third Avenue community, but also the tendency to replace some those folks with outsiders … Industry professionals we talked with spoke of “a rolling coup,” the intentional marginalization of Mr. Whitman within the firm he created and the influx of outsiders. Understandably, the folks at Third Avenue reject that characterization.

Mr. Barse was, reportedly, furious about our story. An outstanding bit of reporting by Gregory Zuckerman and Matt Wirz from The Wall Street Journal in the wake of the collapse of Third Avenue Focused Credit revealed that “furious” was a more-or-less constant state for him.

Mr. Barse also harangued other fund managers who grew disgruntled. Mr. Whitman took no public steps to rein in the CEO, the people said, preferring to focus on investing.

The dispute boiled over in the fall of 2011, when about 50 employees gathered in the firm’s largest conference room after an annual meeting with investors. Mr. Barse screamed at Mr. Whitman, inches from his face, demanding better performance, according to people who were in the room.

Mr. Whitman “was pounding the table so hard with his fist it was shaking,” said another person at the meeting. Mr. Whitman eventually withdrew money from the Value Fund and quit running it to focus on investing for himself, while remaining chairman of the firm.

As most of Third Avenue’s funds underperformed relevant benchmarks … Mr. Barse seemed to become more irritated, the people said.

Staff stopped using the conference room adjoining Mr. Barse’s office because sometimes he could be heard shouting through the walls.

Most employees received part of their pay on a deferred basis. After 2008, Mr. Barse began personally determining compensation for most personnel, often without explaining his decision, one of the people said. (“How the Third Avenue Fund Melted Down,” 12/23/2015).

Yikes. The Focused Credit fund, Mr. Barse’s brainchild, came into the summer of 2015 with something like one third of its assets invested in illiquid securities, so-called “Level 3 securities.” There are two things you need to know about illiquid securities: you probably can’t sell them (at least not easily or quickly) and you probably can’t know what they’re actually worth (which is defined as “what someone is willing to buy it for”). A well-documented panic ensued when it looked like Focused Credit would need to hurriedly sell securities for which there were no buyers. Mr. Barse ordered the fund’s assets moved to a “liquidating trust,” which meant that shareholders (a) no longer knew what their accounts were worth and (b) no longer could get to the money. The plan, Third Avenue writes, is to liquidate the illiquid securities whenever they find someone willing to pay a decent price for them. Investors will receive dribs and drabs as that process unfolds.

We wrote Third Avenue to ask whether the firm would honor the last-published NAV for their fund and whether the firm had a commitment to “making whole” their investors. Like The Wall Street Journal reporters, we found that folks were unwilling to talk.

And so now investors wait. How long might they wait? Oh, could be eight or ten years. The closest analogue we have is the 2006 blowup of the Amaranth Advisors hedge fund. Amaranth announced that they’d freeze redemptions for two months. That’s now stretched to ten years with the freeze extended until at least December 2016. (“Ten Years After Blowup, Amaranth Investors Waiting to Get Money Back,” WSJ, 12/30/2015). In the interim, it’s hard to understand why investment advisors wouldn’t follow Mr. Whitman out the door.

Farewell to Mainstay Marketfield

Marketfield (MFLDX) was an excellent small no-load liquid alts fund that aspired to be more. It aspired to be a massive liquid alts fund, a goal achieved by selling themselves to New York Life and becoming Mainstay Marketfield. New York Life adopted a $1.7 billion overachiever in 2012 and managed to jam another $20 billion in assets into the fund in two years. The fund hasn’t been the same since. Over the past three years, it’s earned a one-star rating from Morningstar and lost almost 90% of its assets while trailing 90% of its peers.

On December 15, 2015, Mainstay announced an impending divorce:

At a meeting held on December 8-10, 2015, the Board of Trustees of MainStay Funds Trust approved an Agreement and Plan of Reorganization [which] provides for the reorganization of the Fund into the Marketfield Fund (the “New Fund”) …

Prior to the Reorganization, which is expected to occur on or about March 23, 2016, Marketfield Asset Management, LLC, the Fund’s current subadvisor, will continue to manage the Fund … The New Fund will have the same investment objective, principal investment strategies and investment process.

There are very few instances of a fund recovering from such a dramatic fall, but we wish Mr. Aronstein and his remaining investors the very best.

Farewell to Sequoia’s mystique

The fact that Sequoia (SEQUX) lost money in 2015 should bother no one. The fact that they lost their independence should bother anyone who cares about the industry. Sequoia staked its fate to the performance of Valeant Pharmaceuticals, a firm adored by hedge fund managers and Sequoia – which plowed over a third of its portfolio into the stock – for its singular strategy: buy small drug companies with successful niche medicines, then skyrocket the price of those drugs. One recent story reported:

The drugstore price of a tube of Targretin gel, a topical treatment for cutaneous T cell lymphoma, rose to about $30,320 this year from $1,687 in 2009. Most of that increase appears to have occurred after Valeant acquired the drug early in 2013. A patient might need two tubes a month for several months, Dr. Rosenberg said.

The retail price of a tube of Carac cream, used to treat precancerous skin lesions called actinic keratoses, rose to $2,865 this summer from $159 in 2009. Virtually all of the increase occurred after 2011, when Valeant acquired the product. (“Two Valeant drugs lead steep price increases,” 11/25/2015)

Remember that Valeant didn’t do anything to discover or create the drugs; they simply gain control of them and increase the price by 1800%.

Sequoia’s relationship to Valeant’s CEO struck me as deeply troubling: Valeant’s CEO Michael Pearson was consistently “Mike” when Sequoia talked about him, as in “my buddy Mike.”

We met with Mike a few weeks ago and he was telling us how with $300 million, you can get an awful lot done.

Mike can get a lot done with very little.

Mike is making a big bet.

The Sequoia press releases about Valeant sound like they were written by Valeant, two members of the board of trustees resigned in protest, a third was close to following them and James Stewart, writing for The New York Times, described “Sequoia’s infatuation with Valeant.” In a desperate gesture, Sequoia’s David Poppe tried to analogize Sequoia’s investment in Valeant with a long-ago bet on Berkshire Hathaway. Mr. Stewart drips acid on the argument.

Sequoia’s returns may well rebound. Their legendary reputation, built over decades of principled decision-making, will not. Our November story on Sequoia ended this way:

Sequoia’s recent shareholder letter concludes by advising Valeant to start managing with “an eye on the company’s long-term corporate reputation.” It’s advice that we’d urge upon Sequoia’s managers as well.

Farewell to Irving Kahn

Mr. Kahn died at his home in February 2015. At age 109, he was the nation’s oldest active professional investor. He began trading in the summer of 1929, made good money by shorting overvalued stock at the outset of the Crash, and continued working steadily for 85 more years. He apprenticed with Benjamin Graham and taught, at Graham’s behest, at the Columbia Business School. At 108, he still traveled to his office three days a week, weather permitted. His firm, Kahn Brothers Group, manages over a billion dollars.

Where Are the Jedi When You Need Them?

edward, ex cathedra“In present-day America it’s very difficult, when commenting on events of the day, to invent something so bizarre that it might not actually come to pass while your piece is still on the presses.”

Calvin Trillin, remarking on the problems in writing satire today.

So, the year has ended and again there is no joy in Mudville. The investors have no yachts or NetJet cards but on a trailing fee basis, fund managers still got rich. The S&P 500, which by the way has 30-35% of the earnings of its component companies coming from overseas so it is internationally diversified, trounced most active managers again. We continued to see the acceleration of the generational shift at investment management companies, not necessarily having anything to do with the older generation becoming unfit or incompetent. After all, Warren Buffett is in his 80’s, Charlie Munger is even older, and Roy Neuberger kept working, I believe, well into his 90’s. No, most such changes have to do with appearances and marketing. The buzzword of the day is “succession planning.” In the investment management business, old is generally defined as 55 (at least in Boston at the two largest fund management firms in that town). But at least it is not Hollywood.

One manager I know who cut his teeth as a media analyst allegedly tried to secure a place as a contestant on “The Bachelor” through his industry contacts. Alas, he was told that at age 40 he was too old. Probably the best advice I had in this regard was a discussion with a senior infantry commander, who explained to me that at 22, a man (or woman) was probably too old to be in the front lines in battle. They no longer believed they couldn’t be killed. The same applies to investment management, where the younger folks, especially when dealing with other people’s money, think that this time the “new, new thing” really is new and this time it really is different. That is a little bit of what we have seen in the energy and commodity sectors this year, as people kept doubling down and buying on the dips. This is not to say that I am without sin in this regard myself, but at a certain point, experience does cause one to stand back and reassess. Those looking for further insight, I would advise doing a search on the word “Passchendaele.” Continuing to double down on investments especially where the profit of the underlying business is tied to the price of a commodity has often proved to be a fool’s errand.

The period between Christmas and New Year’s Day is when I usually try to catch up on seeing movies. If you go to the first showing in the morning, you get both the discounted price and, a theater that is usually pretty empty. This year, we saw two movies. I highly recommend both of them. One of them was “The Big Short” based on the book by Michael Lewis. The other was “Spotlight” which was about The Boston Globe’s breaking of the scandal involving abusive priests in the Archdiocese of Boston.

Now, I suspect many of you will see “The Big Short” and think it is hyped-up entertainment. That of course, the real estate bubble with massive fraud taking place in the underwriting and placement of mortgages happened in 2006-2008 but ….. Yes, it happened. And a very small group of people, as you will see in the story, saw it, thought something did not make sense, asked questions, researched, and made a great deal of money going against the conventional wisdom. They did not just avoid the area (don’t invest in thrifts or banks, don’t invest in home building stocks, don’t invest in mortgage guaranty insurers) but found vehicles to invest in that would go up as the housing market bubble burst and the mortgages became worthless. I wish I could tell you I was likewise as smart to have made those contrary investments. I wasn’t. However, I did know something was wrong, based on my days at a bank and on its asset-liability committee. When mortgages stopped being retained on the books by the institutions that had made them and were packaged to be sold into the secondary market (and then securitized), it was clear that, without ongoing accountability, underwriting standards were being stretched. Why? With gain-on-sale accounting, profits and bonuses were increased and stock options went into the money. That was one of the reasons I refused to drink the thrift/bank Kool-Aid (not the only time I did not go along to get along, but we really don’t change after the age of 8). One food for thought question – are we seeing a replay event in China, tied as their boom was to residential construction and real estate?

One of the great scenes in “The Big Short” is when two individuals from New York fly down to Florida to check on the housing market and find unfinished construction, mortgages on homes being occupied by renters, people owning four or five homes trying to flip them, and totally bogus underwriting on mortgage lending. The point here is that they did the research – they went and looked. Often in fund management, a lot of people did not do that. After all, fill-in-the blank sell-side firm would not be recommending purchase of equities in home builders or mortgage lenders, without actually doing the real due diligence. Leaving aside the question of conflicts of interest, it was not that difficult to go look at the underlying properties and check valuations out against the deeds in the Recorder’s Office (there is a reason why there are tax stamps on deeds). So you might miss a few of your kid’s Little League games. But what resonates most with me is that no senior executive that I can remember from any of the big investment banks, the big thrifts, the big commercial banks was criminally charged and went to jail. Instead, what seems to have worked is what I will call the “good German defense.” And another aside, in China, there is still capital punishment and what are capital crimes is defined differently than here.

This brings me to “Spotlight” where one of the great lines is, “We all knew something was going on and we didn’t do anything about it.” And the reason it resonates with me is that you see a similar conspiracy of silence in the financial services industry. Does the investor come first or the consultant? Is it most important that the assets grow so the parent company gets a bigger return on its investment, or is investment performance most important? John Bogle, when he has spoken about conflicts of interest, is right when he talks about the many conflicts that came about when investment firms were allowed to sell themselves and basically eliminate personal responsibility.

This year, we have seen the poster child for what is wrong with this business with the ongoing mess at The Third Avenue Funds. There is a lot that has been written so far. I expect more will be written (and maybe even some litigation to boot). I commend all of you to the extensive pieces that have appeared in the Wall Street Journal. But what they highlight that I don’t think has been paid enough attention to is the problem of a roll-up investment (one company buying up and owning multiple investment management firms) with absentee masters. In the case of Third Avenue, we have Affiliated Managers Group owning, as reported by the WSJ, 60% of Third Avenue, and those at Third Avenue keeping a 40% stake (to incentivize them). With other companies from Europe, such as Allianz, the percentages may change but the ownership is always majority. So, 60% of the revenues come off the top, and the locals are left to grow the business, reinvest in it by hiring and retaining talent, focus on investment performance, etc., with their percentage. Unfortunately, when the Emperor is several states, or an ocean away, one often does not know what is really going on. You get to see numbers, you get told what you want to hear (ISIS has been contained, Bill Gross is a distraction to the other people), and you accept it until something stops working.

So I leave you with my question for you all to ponder for 2016. Is the 1940 Act mutual fund industry, the next big short? Investors, compliments of Third Avenue, have now been reminded that daily liquidity and redemption is that until it is not. As I have mentioned before, this is an investment class with an unlimited duration and a mismatch of assets and liabilities. This is perhaps an unusual concern for a publication named “Mutual Fund Observer.” But I figure if nothing else, we can always start a separate publication called “Mutual Fund Managers Address Book” so you can go look at the mansions and townhouses in person.

– by Edward A. Studzinski

Quietly successful: PYGSX, RSAFX, SCLDX, ZEOIX

Amidst the turmoil, a handful of the funds we’re profiled did in 2015 exactly what they promised. They made a bit of money with little drama and, sadly, little attention. You might want to glance in their direction if you’ve found that your managers were getting a little too creative and stretching a little too far in their pursuit of “safe” income.

Payden Global Low Duration (PYGSX): the short-term global bond fund made a modest 0.29% in 2015 while its peers lost about 4.6%. In our 2013 profile we suggested that “flexibility and opportunism coupled with experienced, disciplined management teams will be invaluable” and that Payden offered that combo.

Riverpark Structural Alpha (RSAFX): this tiny fund used a mix of options which earned their investors 1.3% while its “market neutral” peers lost money. The fund, we suggested, was designed to answer the question, “where should investors who are horrified by the prospects of the bond market but are already sufficiently exposed to the stock market turn for stable, credible returns?” It’s structurally exposed to short-term losses but also structurally designed to rebound, automatically and quickly, from them. In the last five years, for example, it’s had four losing quarters but has never had back-to-back losing quarters.

Scout Low Duration Bond Fund (SCLDX): this flexible, tiny short-term bond tiny fund made a bit of money in 2015 (0.6%), but it’s more impressive that the underlying strategy also made money (1.4%) during the 2008 meltdown. Mr. Eagan, the lead manager, explained it this way: “Many short-term bond funds experienced negative returns in 2008 because they were willing to take on what we view as unacceptable risks in the quest for incremental yield or income …When the credit crisis occurred, the higher risks they were willing to accept produced significant losses, including permanent impairment. We believe that true risk in fixed income should be defined as a permanent loss of principle. Focusing on securities that are designed to avoid this type of risk has served us well through the years.”

Zeo Strategic Income (ZEOIX): this short-term, mostly high-yield fund made 2.0% in 2015 while its peers dropped 4.1%. It did a particularly nice job in the third quarter, making a marginal gain as the high-yield market tanked. Positioned as a home for your “strategic cash holdings,” we suggested that “Modestly affluent folks who are looking to both finish ahead of inflation and sleep at night should likely make the effort to reach out and learn more.”

RiverPark Short-Term High Yield (RPHYX) likewise posted a gain – 0.86% – for the year but remains closed to new investors. PIMCO Short Asset Investment (PAIUX) which provides the “cash” strategy for all the PIMCO funds, eked out a 0.25% gain, modestly ahead of its ultra-short peers. 

These are very different strategies, but are unified by the presence of thoughtful, experienced managers who are exceedingly conscious of market risk.

Candidates for Rookie of the Year

We’ve often asked, by journalists and others, which are the young funds to keep an eye on. We decided to search our database for young funds that have been exceptionally risk-sensitive and have, at the same time, posted strong returns over their short lives. We used our premium screener to identify funds that had several characteristics:

They were between 12 and 24 months old; that is, they’d completed at least one full year of existence but were no more than two. I suspect a few funds in the 2-3 year range slipped through, but it should be pretty few.

They had a Martin Ratio greater than one; the Martin Ratio is a variation of the Sharpe ratio which is more sensitive to downward movements

They had a positive Sharpe ratio and had one of the five highest Sharpe ratios in their peer group.

Hence: young, exceptional downside sensitivity so far and solid upside. We limited our search to a dozen core equity categories, such as Moderate Balanced and Large Growth.

In all of these tables, “APR vs Peer” measures the difference in Annual Percentage Return between a fund’s lifetime performance and its average peers. A fund might have a 14 month record which the screener annualizes; that is, it says “at this rate, you’d expect to earn X in a year.” That’s important because a fund with a scant 12 month record is going to look a lot worse than one at 20 or 24 months since 2015, well, sucked.

Herewith, the 2016 Rookie of the Year nominees:

Small cap rookies Sharpe Ratio Martin Ratio APR vs Peer  
Acuitas US Microcap (AFMCX) 0.83 3.10 9.6 Three sets of decent sub-advisors, tiny market cap but the fund is institutional only.
Hodges Small Intrinsic Value (HDSVX) 0.79 2.37 9.3 Same team that manages the five-star Hodges Small Cap fund.
Perritt Low Priced Stock (PLOWX) 0.74 2.05 8.8 The same manager runs Perritt UltraMicro and Microcap Opportunities, neither of which currently look swift when benchmarked against funds that invest in vastly larger stocks.
Hancock Horizon US Small Cap (HSCIX) 0.70 2.61 8.6 Hmmm… the managers also run, with limited distinction, Hancock Horizon Growth, a large cap fund.
SunAmerica Small-Cap (SASAX) 0.70 2.51 8.1 Some overlap with the management team for AMG Managers Cadence Emerging Companies, a really solid little institutional fund.


Mid cap rookies Sharpe Ratio Martin Ratio APR vs Peer  
PowerShares S&P MidCap Low Volatility Portfolio (XMLV) 0.99 4.11 10.4 Low vol. Good thought.
Diamond Hill Mid Cap (DHPAX) 0.75 3.22 7.9 In various configurations, members of the team are responsible for six other Diamond Hill funds, some very fine.
Nuance Mid Cap Value (NMAVX) 0.45 2.03 6.7 Two years old; kinda clubbed its competition in 2015. The lead manager handled $10 billion as an American Century manager.
Hodges Small-to-Midcap (HDSMX) 0.43 1.32 5.5 Same team that manages the five-star Hodges Small Cap fund.
Barrow Value Opportunity (BALAX) 0.41 1.58 5.3 David Bechtel talked through the fund’s strategy in a 2014 Elevator Talk.


Large cap rookies Sharpe Ratio Martin Ratio APR vs Peer  
iShares MSCI USA Momentum Factor ETF (MTUM) 0.64 2.68 3.6 Momentum tends to dominate at the ends of bull markets, so this isn’t particularly surprising.
iShares MSCI USA Quality Factor ETF (QUAL) 0.53 2.61 2.5  
Arin Large Cap Theta (AVOLX) 0.52 2.73 4.5 A covered call fund that both M* and Lipper track as if it were simple large cap equity.
SPDR MFS Systematic Core Equity ETF (SYE) 0.48 1.99 6 An active ETF managed by MFS
SPDR MFS Systematic Value Equity ETF (SYV) 0.46 1.8 8.0 And another.

Hmmm … you might notice that the large cap list is dominated by ETFs, two active and two passive. There were a larger number of active funds on the original list but I deleted Fidelity funds (three of them) that were only available for use by other Fidelity managers.

Multi-cap rookies Sharpe Ratio Martin Ratio APR vs Peer  
SPDR MFS Systematic Growth Equity ETF (SYG) 0.74 3.3 10.4 Another active ETF managed by MFS
Segall Bryant & Hamill All Cap (SBHAX) 0.69 2.73 5.4 The lead manager used to run a Munder health care fund. M* treats this as a large growth fund, a category in which it does not excel.
Riverbridge Growth (RIVRX) 0.66 2.43 4.6 The team has been subadvising a Dreyfus Select Managers small cap fund for about five years.
AT Mid Cap Equity (AWMIX) 0.52 1.74 3.5 AT is Atlantic Trust, once known for the Atlantic Whitehall funds. It’s currently limiting itself to rich folks. Pity.
BRC Large Cap Focus Equity (BRCIX) 0.37 1.31 5.3 Institutional only. Pity.

This is another category where we had to dump a bunch of internal-only Fidelity funds. It’s interesting that no passive fund was even near the top of the list, perhaps because the ability to move between size ranges is active and useful?

Global rookies Sharpe Ratio Martin Ratio APR vs Peer  
William Blair Global Small Cap Growth (WGLIX) 0.99 3.99 11.9 Sibling to an excellent but closed international small growth fund. They’re liquidating it anyway (Thanks for the reminder, JoJo).
Vanguard Global Minimum Volatility (VMVFX) 0.96 3.96 9.4 A fund we profiled.
WCM Focused Global Growth (WFGGX) 0.81 3.48 11.2 The team runs eight funds, mostly as sub-advisors, including the five star Focused International Growth fund.
QS Batterymarch Global Dividend (LGDAX) 0.3 1.16 8.1  
Scharf Global Opportunity (WRLDX) 0.3 1.14 4.1 0.50% e.r. The same manager runs four or five Scharf funds, several with exceptional track records.

At the other end of the spectrum, it was durn tough to find strong performance among “rookie” international funds. In the emerging markets arena, for example, just one fund had a positive Martin Ratio: Brown Advisory Emerging Markets Small-Cap (BIANX). Everyone else was down a deep, deep hole.

While we’re not endorsing any of these funds just yet, they’ve distinguished themselves with creditable starts in tough markets. In the months ahead, we’ll be trying to learn more about them on your behalf.

For the convenience of MFO Premium members who are interesting in digging into rookie funds more deeply, Charles created a preset screen for high-achieving younger funds. He offers dozens of data points on each of those funds where we only have room, or need, for a handful here.

Premium Site Update

charles balconyNew to MFO Premium this month are several additions to the MultiSearch Tool, which now can screen our monthly fund database with some 44 performance metrics and other parameters. (Here are links to current Input and Output MultiSearch Parameter Lists.) The new additions include SubType (a kind of super category), exchange-traded fund (ETF) flag, Profiled Funds flag, and some initial Pre-Set Screens.

SubType is a broad grouping of categories. Lipper currently defines 144 categories, excluding money market funds. MFO organizes them into 9 subtypes: U.S. Equity, Mixed Asset, Global Equity, International Equity, Sector Equity, Commodity, Alternative & Other, Bond, and Municipal Bond funds. The categories are organized further into broader types: Fixed Income, Asset Allocation, and Equity funds. The MultiSearch Tool enables screening of up to 9 categories, 3 subtypes, or 2 types along with other criteria.

The Profiled Funds flag enables screening of funds summarized monthly on our Dashboard (screenshot here). Each month, David (and occasionally another member of MFO’s staff), typically provides in-depth analysis of two to four funds, continuing a FundAlarm tradition. Through November 2015, 117 profiles are available on MFO legacy site Funds page. “David’s Take” precariously attempts to distill the profile into one word: Positive, Negative, or Mixed.

The ETF flag is self-explanatory, of course. How many ETFs are in our November database? A lot! 1,716 of the 9,034 unique (aka oldest share class) funds we cover are ETFs, or nearly 19%. The most populated ETF subtype is Sector Equity with 364, followed by International Equity with 343, US Equity with 279, and Bonds with 264. At nearly $2T in assets under management (AUM), ETFs represent 12% of the market. Our screener shows 226 ETFs with more than $1B in AUM. Here is a summary of 3-year performance for top ten ETFs by AUM (click on image to enlarge):

update_1The Pre-Set Screen option is simply a collection of screening criteria. The two initial screens are “Best Performing Rookie Funds” and “Both Great Owl and Honor Roll Funds.” The former generates a list of 160 funds that are between the age of 1 and 2 years old and have delivered top quintile risk adjusted return (based on Martin Ratio) since their inception. The latter generates a list of 132 funds that have received both our Great Owl distinction as well as Honor Roll designation. Here is a summary of 3-year performance for top ten such funds, again by AUM (click on image to enlarge) … it’s an impressive list:

update_2Other Pre-Screens David has recommended include “moderate allocation funds with the best Ulcer Index, small caps with the shortest recovery times, fixed-income funds with the smallest MAXDD …” Stay tuned.

Along with the parameters above, new options were added to existing criteria in the MultiSearch Tool. These include 30, 40, and 50 year Age groups; a “Not Three Alarm” rating; and, a “0% Annual or More” Absolute Return setting.

Using the new “0% Annual or More” criterion, we can get a sense of how tough the past 12 months have been for mutual funds. Of the 8,450 funds across all categories at least 12 months old through November 2015, nearly 60% (4,835) returned less than 0% for the year. Only 36 of 147 moderate allocation funds delivered a positive return, which means nearly 75% lost money … believe it or not, this performance was worse than the long/short category.

A closer look at the long/short category shows 56 of 121 funds delivered positive absolute return. Of those, here are the top five based on risk adjusted return (Martin Ratio) … click on image to enlarge:


AQR Long/Short

AQR’s rookie Long/Short Equity I (QLEIX) has been eye-watering since inception, as can be seen in its Risk Profile (click on images to enlarge):



While I’ve always been a fan of Cliff Asness and the strategies at AQR, I’m not a fan of AQR Funds, since experiencing unfriendly shareholder practices, namely lack of disclosure when its funds underperform … but nothing speaks like performance.

Whitebox Funds

I have also always been a fan of Andrew Redleaf and Whitebox Funds, which we featured in the March 2015 Whitebox Tactical Opportunities 4Q14 Conference Call and October 2013 Whitebox Tactical Opportunities Conference Call. David has remained a bit more guarded, giving them a “Mixed” profile in April 2013 Whitebox Market Neutral Equity Fund, Investor Class (WBLSX), April 2013.

This past month the Minneapolis-based shop decided to close its three open-end funds, which were based on its hedge-fund strategies, less than four years after launch. A person familiar with the adviser offered: “They were one large redemption away from exposing remaining investors to too great a concentration risk … so, the board voted to close the funds.” AUM in WBMIX had grown to nearly $1B, before heading south. According to the same person, Whitebox hedge funds actually attracted $2B additional AUM the past two years and that was where they wanted to concentrate their efforts.

The fund enjoyed 28 months (about as long as QLEIX is old) of strong performance initially, before exiting the Mr. Market bus. Through November 2015, it’s incurred 19 consecutive months of drawdown and a decline from its peak of 24.2%. Depicting its rise and fall, here is a Morningstar growth performance plot of WBMIX versus Vanguard’s Balanced Fund Index (VBINX), as well as the MFO Risk Profile (click on images to enlarge):



Ultimately, Mr. Redleaf and company failed to deliver returns across the rather short life span of WBMIX consistent with their goal of “the best endowments.” Ultimately, they also failed to deliver performance consistent with the risk tolerance and investment timeframe of its investors. Ultimately and unfortunately, there was no “path to victory” in the current market environment for the fund’s “intelligent value” strategy, as compelling as it sounded and well-intended as it may have been.

As always, a good discussion can be found on the MFO Board Whitebox Mutual Funds Liquidating Three Funds, along with news of the liquidations.

Year-end MFO ratings will be available on or about 4th business day, which would be January 7th on both our premium and legacy sites.

Snow Tires and All-Weather portfolios

Leigh Walzer, founder and principal of Trapezoid, LLC. Leigh’s had a distinguished career working in investment management, in part in the tricky field of distressed securities analysis. He plied that trade for seven years with Michael Price and the Mutual Series folks. He followed that with a long stint as a director at Angelo, Gordon & Co., a well-respected alternatives manager and a couple private partnerships. Through it all, Leigh has been insatiably curious about not just “what works?” but, more importantly, “why does it work?” That’s the work now of Trapezoid LLC.

Leigh Walzer, founder and principal of Trapezoid, LLC. Leigh’s had a distinguished career working in investment management, in part in the tricky field of distressed securities analysis. He plied that trade for seven years with Michael Price and the Mutual Series folks. He followed that with a long stint as a director at Angelo, Gordon & Co., a well-respected alternatives manager and a couple private partnerships. Through it all, Leigh has been insatiably curious about not just “what works?” but, more importantly, “why does it work?” That’s the work now of Trapezoid LLC.

By Leigh Walzer

Readers of a certain age will remember when winter meant putting on the snow tires. All-season tires were introduced in 1978 and today account for 96% of the US market. Not everyone is sure this is a good idea; concludes “snow and summer tires provide clear benefits to those who can use them.”

As we begin 2016, most of the country is getting its first taste of winter weather. “Putting on the snow tires” is a useful metaphor for investors who are considering sacrificing performance for safety. Growth stocks have had a great run while the rest of the market sits stagnant. Fed-tightening, jittery credit markets, tight-fisted consumer, commodity recession, and sluggishness outside the US are good reasons for investor caution.

Some clients have been asking if now is a good time to dial back allocations to growth. In other words, should they put the snow tires on their portfolio.

The dichotomy between growth and value and the debate over which is better sometimes approaches theological overtones. Some asset allocators are convinced one or the other will outperform over the long haul. Others believe each has a time and season. There is money to be made switching between growth and value, if only we had 20/20 hindsight about when the business cycle turns.

When has growth worked better than value?

Historically, the race between growth and value has been nearly a dead heat. Exhibit 1 shows the difference in the Cumulative return of Growth and Value strategies over the past twenty years. G/V is a measure of the difference in return between growth and value in a given period Generally speaking, growth performed better in the 90s, a period of loose money up to the internet bust. Value did better from 2000-2007. Since 2007, growth has had the edge despite a number of inflections. Studies going back 50 years suggest value holds a slight advantage, particularly during the stagflation of the 1970s.

Exhibit I


Growth tends to perform better in up-markets. This relationship is statistically valid but the magnitude is almost negligible. Over the past twenty years Trapezoid’s US Growth Index had a beta of 1.015 compared with 0.983 for Value.

Exhibit II


The conventional wisdom is that growth stocks should perform better early to mid-cycle while value stocks perform best late in the business cycle and during recession. That might loosely describe the 90s and early 2000s. However, in the run up the great recession, value took a bigger beating as financials melted down. And when the market rebounded in April 2009, value led the recovery for the first six months.

Value investors expect to sacrifice some upside capture in order to preserve capital during declining markets. Exhibit III, which uses data from about their Large Growth (“LG”) and Large Value (“LV”) fund categories, shows the reality is less clear. In 2000-2005 LV lived up to its promise: it captured 96% of LG’s upside but only 63% of its downside. But since 2005 LV has actually participated more in the downside than LG.

Exhibit III

2001-2005 2006-2010 2011- 2015
LG Upside Capture 105% 104% 98%
LG Downside Capture 130% 101% 106%
LV Upside Capture 101% 99% 94%
LV Downside Capture 82% 101% 111%
LV UC / LG Up Capt 96% 95% 97%
LV DC / LG Dn Capt 63% 100% 104%

Recent trend

In 2015 (with the year almost over as of this writing), value underperformed growth by about 5%. Value funds are overweight energy and underweight consumer discretionary which contributed to the shortfall.

Can growth/value switches be predicted accurately?

In the long haul, the two strategies perform nearly equally. If the weatherman can’t predict the snow, maybe it makes sense to leave the all-season tires on all year.

We can look through the historical Trapezoid database to see which managers had successfully navigated between growth and value. Recall that Trapezoid uses the Orthogonal Attribution Engine to attribute the performance of active equity managers over time to a variety of skills. Trapezoid calculates the contribution to portfolio return from overweighting growth or value in a given period. We call this sV.

Demonstrable skill shifting between growth and value is surprisingly scarce.

Bear in mind that Trapezoid LLC does not call market turns or rate sectors for timeliness. And Trapezoid doesn’t try to forecast whether growth or value will work better in a given period. But we do try to help investors make the most of the market. And we look at the historic and projected ability of money managers to outperform the market and their peer group based on a number of skills.

The Trapezoid data does identify managers who scored high in sV during particular periods. Unfortunately, high sV doesn’t seem to carry over from period to period. As Professor Snowball would say, sV lacks predictive validity; the weatherman who excelled last year missed the big storm this year. However, the data doesn’t rule out the possibility that some managers may have skill. As we have seen, growth or value can dominate for many years, and few managers have sufficient tenure to draw a strong conclusion.

We also checked whether market fundamentals might help investors allocate between growth and value. We are aware of one macroeconomic model (Duke/Fuqua 2002) which claims to successfully anticipate 2/3 of growth and value switches over the preceding 25 years.

One hypothesis is that value excels when valuations are stretched while growth excels when the market is not giving enough credit to earnings growth. In principle this sounds almost tautologically correct. However, implementing an investment strategy is not easy. We devised an index to see how much earnings growth the market is pricing in a given time (S&P500 E/P less 7-year AAA bond yield adjusted for one year of earning growth). When the index is high, it means either the equity market is attractive relative bonds or that the market isn’t pricing in much earnings growth. Conversely, when the index is low it means valuations of growth stocks are stretched and therefore investors should load up on value. We looked at data from 1995-2015 and compared the relative performance of growth and value strategies over the following 12 months. We expected that when the index is high growth would do better.

Exhibit IV


There are clearly times when investors who heeded this strategy would have correctly anticipated investing cycles. We found the index was directionally correct but not statistically significant. Exhibit IV shows the Predictor has been trending lower in 2015 which would suggest that the growth cycle is nearly over.

All-Weather Managers

Since it is hard to tell when value will start working, investors could opt for all-weather managers, i.e. managers with a proven ability to thrive during value and growth periods.

We combed our database for active equity managers who had an sV contribution of at least 1%/year in both the growth era since 1q07 and the value market which preceded it. Our filter excludes a large swath of managers who haven’t been around 9 years. Only six funds passed this screen – an indication that skill at navigating between growth and value is rare. We knocked out four other funds because, using Trapezoid’s standard methodology, projected skill is low or expenses are high. This left just two funds.

Century Shares Trust (CENSX), launched in 1928, is one of the oldest mutual funds in the US. The fund tracks itself against the Russell 1000 Growth Index but does not target a particular sector mix and apply criteria like EV/EBITDA more associated with value. Expenses run 109bps. CENSX’s performance has been strong over the past three years. Their long-term record selecting stocks and sectors is not sufficient for inclusion in the Trapezoid Honor Roll.

exhibit5Does CENSX merit extra consideration because of the outstanding contribution from rotating between growth and value? Serendipity certainly plays a part. As Exhibit V illustrates, the current managers inherited in 1999 a fund which was restricted by its charter to financials, especially insurance. That weighting was very well-suited to the internet bust and recession which followed. They gradually repositioned the portfolio towards large growth. And he has made a number of astute switches. Notably, he emphasized consumer discretionary and exited energy which has worked extremely well over the past year. We spoke to portfolio manager Kevin Callahan. The fund is managed on a bottom-up fundamentals basis and does not have explicit sector targets. But he currently screens for stocks from the Russell 1000 Growth Index and seem reluctant to stray too far from its sector weightings, so we expect growth/value switching will be much more muted in the future.


The other fund which showed up is Cohen & Steers Global Realty Fund (CSSPX). The entire real estate category had positive sV over the past 15-20 years; real estate (both domestic and global) clobbered the market during the value years, gave some back in the run-up to the financial crisis, and has been a market performer since then.

We are not sure how meaningful it is that CSSPX made this list over some other real estate funds with similar focus and longevity. Investors may be tempted to embrace real estate as an all-weather sector. But over the longer haul real estate has had a more consistent market correlation with beta averaging 0.6 which means it participated equally in up and down markets.

More complete information can be found at MFO readers can sign up for a free demo. Please click the link from the Model Dashboard (login required) to the All-Weather Portfolio.

The All-Season Portfolio

Since we are not sure that good historic sV predicts future success and managers with a good track record in this area are scarce, investors might take a portfolio approach to all-season investing.

  1. Find best of breed managers. Use Trapezoid’s OAE to find managers with high projected skill relative to cost. While the Trapezoid demo rates only Large Blend managers (link to the October issue of MFO), the OAE also identifies outstanding managers with a growth or value orientation.
  2. Strike the right balance. Many thoughtful investors believe “value is all you need” and some counsel 100% allocation to growth. Others apply age-based parameters. Based on the portfolio-optimization model I consulted and my dataset, the recommended weighting of growth and value is nearly 50/50. In other words: snow tires on the front, summer tires on the back. (Note this recommendation is for your portfolio, for auto advice please ask a mechanic.) I used 20 years of data; using a longer time frame, value might look better.

Bottom line:

It is hard to predict whether growth or value will outperform in a given year. Demonstrable skill shifting between growth and value is surprisingly scarce. Investors who are content to be passive can just stick to funds which index the entire market. A better strategy is to identify skillful growth and value managers and weight them evenly.

Slogo 2What’s the Trapezoid story? Leigh Walzer has over 25 years of experience in the investment management industry as a portfolio manager and investment analyst. He’s worked with and for some frighteningly good folks. He holds an A.B. in Statistics from Princeton University and an M.B.A. from Harvard University. Leigh is the CEO and founder of Trapezoid, LLC, as well as the creator of the Orthogonal Attribution Engine. The Orthogonal Attribution Engine isolates the skill delivered by fund managers in excess of what is available through investable passive alternatives and other indices. The system aspires to, and already shows encouraging signs of, a fair degree of predictive validity.

The stuff Leigh shares here reflects the richness of the analytics available on his site and through Trapezoid’s services. If you’re an independent RIA or an individual investor who need serious data to make serious decisions, Leigh offers something no one else comes close to. More complete information can be found at MFO readers can sign up for a free demo.

The Alt Perspective: Commentary and news from DailyAlts.

dailyaltsAs they say out here in Los Angeles, that’s a wrap. 2015 has come to a close and we begin anew. But before we get too far into 2016, let’s do a quick recap of some of the activity in the liquid alternatives market that occurred over the past year, starting with a performance review.

Performance Review

Let’s start with traditional asset classes for the full year of 2015, where the average mutual fund for all of the major asset classes (per Morningstar) delivered negative performance on the year:

  • Large Blend U.S. Equity: -1.06%
  • Foreign Equity Large Blend: -1.56%
  • Diversified Emerging Markets: -13.83%
  • Intermediate Term Bond: -0.35%
  • World Bond: -4.09%
  • Moderate Allocation: -1.96%

Now a look at the liquid alternative categories, per Morningstar’s classification. As with the traditional asset classes, none of the alternative categories escaped a negative return on the year:

  • Long/Short Equity: -2.08%
  • Non-Traditional Bonds: -1.84%
  • Managed Futures: -1.06%
  • Market Neutral: -0.39%
  • Multi-Alternative: -2.48%
  • Bear Market: -3.16%

And a few non-traditional asset classes, where real estate generated a positive return:

  • Commodities: -24.16%
  • Multi-Currency: -0.62%
  • Real Estate: 2.39%
  • Master Limited Partnerships: -35.12%

Overall, a less than impressive year across the board with energy leading the way to the bottom.

Asset Flows

Flows into alternative mutual funds and ETFs remained fairly constant over the year in terms of where the flows were directed, with a total of $20 billion of new assets being allocated to funds in Morningstar’s alternative categories. However, non-traditional bond funds, which are not included in Morningstar’s alternatives categories, saw nearly $10 billion of outflows through November.

While the flows appeared strong, only three categories had net positive flows over the past twelve months: Multi-alternative funds, managed futures funds and volatility based funds. The full picture is below (data source: Morningstar):

asset flows

This concentration is not good for the industry, but just as we saw a shift from 2014 to 2015 (non-traditional bond funds were the largest asset gatherer in 2014), the flows will likely shift in 2016. I would expect managed futures to continue to see strong inflows, and both long/short equity and commodities could see a turn back to the positive.

Hot Topics

While there have been a slew of year-end fund launches (we will cover those next month), a dominant theme coming into the end of the year was fund closures. While the Third Avenue Focused Credit Fund announced an abrupt closure of its mutual fund due to significant outflows, the concentration of asset flows to alternative funds is causing a variety of managers to liquidate funds. Most recently, the hedge fund firm Whitebox Advisors decided to close three alternative mutual funds, the oldest of which was launched in 2011. This is a concerning trend, but reminds us that performance still rules.

On the research front, we published summaries of three important research papers in December, all three of which have been popular with readers:

If you would like to keep up with all the news from DailyAlts, feel free to sign up for our daily or weekly newsletter.

All the best for 2016! Have a happy, safe and prosperous year.

Elevator Talk: Randy Swan, Swan Defined Risk (SDRAX/SDRIX)

elevatorSince the number of funds we can cover in-depth is smaller than the number of funds worthy of in-depth coverage, we have decided to offer one or two managers each month the opportunity to make a 200 word pitch to you. That’s about the number of words a slightly-manic elevator companion could share in a minute and a half. In each case, I’ve promised to offer a quick capsule of the fund and a link back to the fund’s site. Other than that, they’ve got 200 words and precisely as much of your time and attention as you’re willing to share. These aren’t endorsements; they’re opportunities to learn more.

randy swanRandy Swan manages SDRAX, which launched at the end of July 2012. He founded Swan Capital Management, which uses this strategy in their separately managed accounts in 1997. Before then, Mr. Swan was a CPA and senior manager for KPMG’s Financial Services Group, primarily working with insurance companies and risk managers. Mr. Swan manages about $27 million in other accounts, including the new Swan Defined Risk Emerging Markets (SDFAX).

“Stocks for the long term” is an attractive claim, give or take two small problems. First, investors live in the short term; their tolerance for pain is somewhere between three days and three years with most sitting toward the shorter end of that range. Second, sharp losses in the short term push the long-term further off; many of the funds that suffered 50% losses in the 2007-09 debacle remain underwater seven years later.

Bright investors know both of those things and try to hedge their portfolios against risk. The questions become (1) what risk do you try to hedge out? and (2) what tools do you choose? The answers include “everything conceivable and several inconceivable risks” and “balanced portfolios” to “expensive, glitch, inexplicably complicated black box schemes.”

Mr. Swan’s answers are (1) the risk of grinding bear markets but not short-term panics and (2) cheap, value-oriented equity exposure and long-dated options. The strategy is, he says, “always invested, always hedged.”

It’s nice to note that the strategy has outperformed both pure equity and balanced strategies, net of fees, since inception. $10,000 invested with Swan in 1997 has now grown to roughly $44,000 while a comparable investment in the S&P500 climbed to $30,300 and a balanced portfolio would have reached $25,000. I’m more struck, though, by the way that Swan generated those returns. The graphic below compares the variability in returns of the S&P and Swan’s strategy over the nearly 19 years he’s run the strategy. Each line represents the performance for one 10-year period (1998-2007, 1999-2008 and so on).

swan chart

The consistency of Swan’s returns are striking: in his worst 10-year run, he averaged 7.5% annually while the best run generated 9%. The S&P returns are, in contrast, highly variable, unpredictable and lower.

Here are Mr. Swan’s 222 words on why you should add SDRAX to your due-diligence list:

We’ve managed this strategy since 1997 as a way of addressing the risks posed by bear markets. We combine tax-efficient, low-cost exposure to the U.S. stock market with long-dated options that protect against bears rather than corrections. We’re vulnerable to short-term declines like August’s correction but we’ve done a great job protecting against bears. That’s a worthwhile tradeoff since corrections recover in months (August’s losses are pretty much wiped out already) but bears take years.

Most investors try to manage risk with diversification but you can’t diversify market risk away. Instead, we choose to directly attack market risk by including assets that have an inverse correlation to the markets. At the same time, we maintain a stock portfolio that equally weights all nine sectors through the Select SPDR ETFs which we rebalance regularly. In the long-term, all of the research we’ve seen says an equal-weight strategy will outperform a cap-weighted one because it forces you to continually buy undervalued sectors. That strategy underperforms at the end of a bull market when index gains are driven by a handful of momentum-driven stocks, but over full market cycles it pays off.

Our maxim is KISS: keep it simple, stupid. Low-cost market exposure, reliable hedges against bear markets, no market timing, no attempts at individual security selection. It’s a strategy that has worked for us.

The fund lost about 4% in 2015. Over the past three years, the fund has returned 5.25% annually, well below the S&P 500’s 16%. With the fund’s structural commitment to keeping 10% in currently-loathed sectors such as energy, utilities and basic materials, that’s neither surprising nor avoidable.

Swan Defined-Risk has a $2500 minimum initial investment on its “A” shares, which bear a sales load, and $100,000 on its Institutional shares, which do not. Expenses on the “A” shares run a stiff 1.58% on assets of $1.4 billion, rather below average, while the institutional shares are 25 basis points less. Load-waived access to the “A” shares is available through Schwab, Fidelity, NFS, & TD Ameritrade. Pershing will be added soon.

Here’s the fund’s homepage. Morningstar also wrote a reasonably thoughtful article reflecting on the difference in August 2015 performance between Swan and a couple of apparently-comparable funds. A second version of the article features an annoying auto-launch video.

Funds in Registration

There are 14 new no-load funds in the pipeline. Most will be available by late February or early March. While the number is not extraordinarily high, their parentage is. This month saw filings on behalf of American Century (three funds), DoubleLine, T. Rowe Price (three) and Vanguard (two).

The most intriguing registrant, though, is a new fund from Seafarer. Seafarer Overseas Value Fund will invest in an all-cap EM stock portfolio. Beyond the bland announcement that they’ll use a “value” approach (“investing in companies that currently have low or depressed valuations, but which also have the prospect of achieving improved valuations in the future”), there’s little guidance as to what the fund’s will be doing.

The fund will be managed by Paul Espinosa. Mr. Espinosa had 15 years as an EM equity analyst with Legg Mason, Citigroup and J.P. Morgan before joining Seafarer in May, 2014. Seafarer’s interest in moving in the direction of a value fund was signaled in November, with their publication of Mr. Espinosa’s white paper entitled On Value in the Emerging Markets. It notes the oddity that while emerging markets ought to be rife with misvalued securities, only 3% of emerging markets funds appear to espouse any variety of a value investing discipline. That might reflect Andrew Foster’s long-ago observer that emerging markets were mostly value traps, where corporate, legal and regulatory structures didn’t allow value to be unlocked. More recently he’s mused that those circumstances might be changing.

In any case, after a detailed discussion of what value investing might mean in the emerging markets, the paper concludes:

This exploration discovered a large value opportunity set with an aggregate market capitalization of $1.4 trillion, characterized by financial metrics that strongly suggest the pervasive presence of discounts to intrinsic worth.

After examining most possible deterrents, this study found no compelling reason that investors would forgo value investing in the emerging markets. On the contrary, this paper documented a potential universe that was both large and compelling. The fact that such an opportunity set remains largely untapped should make it all the more attractive to disciplined value practitioners.

The initial expense ratio has not yet been set, though Seafarer is evangelical about providing their services at the lowest practicable cost to investors, and the minimum initial investment is $2,500.

Manager Changes

Fifty-six funds saw partial or complete turnover in their management teams in the past month. Most of the changes seemed pretty modest though, in one case, a firm’s president and cofounder either walked out, or was shown, the door. Curious.


Back in May, John Waggoner took a buyout offer from USA Today after 25 years as their mutual funds guru. Good news: he’s returning to join InvestmentNews as a senior contributor and mutual funds specialist. Welcome back, big guy!

Briefly Noted . . .

At a Board meeting held on December 11, 2015, RiskX Investments, LLC (formerly American Independence Financial Services, LLC), the adviser to the RX Dynamic Stock Fund (IFCSX formerly, the American Independence Stock Fund), recommended to the Trustees of the Board that the Fund change its investment strategy from value to growth. On whole, that seems like a big honkin’ shift if you were serious about value in the first place but they weren’t: the fund’s portfolio – which typically has a turnover over 200% a year – shifted from core to value to core to value to growth over five consecutive years. That’s dynamic!


“The closure of the 361 Managed Futures Strategy Fund (AMFQX) to investment by new investors that was disclosed by the Fund in Supplements dated September 9, 2015, and September 30, 2015, has been cancelled.” Well, okay then!

On December 31st, Champlain Emerging Markets Fund (CIPDX) announced that it was lowering its expense ratio from 1.85% to 1.60%. With middle-of-the-road performance and just $2 million in assets, it’s worth trying.

It appears that AMG Frontier Small Cap Growth Fund (MSSGX) and AMG TimesSquare Mid Cap Growth Fund (TMDIX) reopened to new investors on January 1. Their filings didn’t say that they reopening; they said, instead, that “With respect to the sub-section ‘Buying and Selling Fund Shares’ in the section ‘Summary of the Funds’ for the Fund, the first paragraph is hereby deleted in its entirety.” The first paragraph explained that the funds were soft-closed.

Effective January 1, ASTON/Cornerstone Large Cap Value Fund (RVALX) will reduce its expense ratio from 1.30% to 1.14% on its retail shares. Institutional shares will see a comparable drop.

Effective as of February 1, 2016, the Columbia Acorn Emerging Markets Fund (CAGAX) and Columbia Small Cap Growth Fund (CGOAX) will be opened to new investors and new accounts.

Effective January 1, 2016, Diamond Hill reduced its management fee for the four-star Diamond Hill Large Cap Fund (DHLAX) from an annual rate of 0.55% to 0.50%.

Effective immediately, the minimum initial investment requirements for the Class I Shares of Falcon Focus SCV Fund (FALCX) are being lowered to $5,000 for direct regular accounts and $2,500 for direct retirement accounts, automatic investment plans and gift accounts for minors.

Here’s why we claim to report nothing grander than “small wins” for investors: the board of Gotham Absolute 500 Fund (GFIVX) has graciously agreed to reduce the management fee from 2.0% to 1.5% and the expense cap from 2.25% to 1.75%. All of this on an institutional long/short fund with high volatility and a $250,000 minimum. The advisor calculates that it actually costs them 5.42% to run the fund. The managers both have over $1 million in each of their four funds.

Grandeur Peak has reduced fees on two of its funds. Grandeur Peak Emerging Markets Opportunities Fund (GPEOX) to 1.95% and 1.70% and Grandeur Peak Global Reach Fund (GPGRX) to 1.60% and 1.35%.

Effective January 4, 2016, Royce Premier Fund (RYPRX) and Royce Special Equity Fund (RYSEX) will reopen to new shareholders. Why, you ask? Each fund’s assets have tumbled by 50% since 2013 as Premier trailed 98% of its peers and Special trailed 92%. Morningstar describes Special as “a compelling small-cap option” and gives it a Gold rating.

Teton Westwood Mid-Cap Equity Fund (WMCRX) has reduced the expense cap for Class I shares of the Fund to 0.80%.

CLOSINGS (and related inconveniences)

Effective as of the close of business on December 31, 2015, Emerald Growth Fund (HSPGX) closed to new investors

The Class A shares of Hatteras Managed Futures Strategies Fund were liquidated in mid-December. The institutional class (HMFIX) remains in operation for now. Given that there’s a $1 million minimum initial investment and far less than $1 million in assets in the fund, I suspect we’ll continue thinning out of liquid-alts category soon.

Effective as of the close of business on January 28, 2016, Vontobel International Equity Institutional (VTIIX) and Vontobel Global Equity Institutional Fund (VTEIX) will soft close. Given that the funds have only $30 million between them, I suspect that they’re not long for this world. 


At the end of February, Aberdeen Small Cap Fund (GSXAX) becomes Aberdeen U.S. Small Cap Equity Fund. Two bits of good news: (1) it’s already a very solid performer and (2) it already invests 93% of its money in U.S. small cap equities, so it’s not likely that that’s going to change. At the same time, Aberdeen Global Small Cap Fund (WVCCX) will become Aberdeen International Small Cap Fund. The news here is mixed: (1) the fund kinda sucks and (2) it already invests more than 80% of its money in international small cap equities, so it’s not likely that that’s going to change either.

Sometime in the first quarter of 2016, Arden Alternative Strategies Fund (ARDNX) becomes Aberdeen Multi-Manager Alternative Strategies Fund, following Aberdeen’s purchase of Arden Asset Management.

Effective on February 1, 2016: AC Alternatives Equity Fund, which hasn’t even launched yet, will change its name to AC Alternatives Long Short Fund. After the change, the fund will no longer be required to invest at least 80% of its portfolio in equities.

As of February 27, 2016, Balter Long/Short Equity Fund (BEQRX) becomes Balter L/S Small Cap Equity Fund.

At an as-yet unspecified date, Capital Innovations Global Agri, Timber, Infrastructure Fund (INNAX) will become RidgeWorth Capital Innovations Global Resources and Infrastructure Fund. Interesting little fund, the subject of an Elevator Talk several months ago.

Gator Opportunities Fund (GTOAX) is on its way to becoming BPV Small Cap Fund, likely by the beginning of summer, 2016. The fund will shed its mid-cap holdings in the process.

At the end of January 2016, Marsico Growth FDP Fund (MDDDX) will become FDP BlackRock Janus Growth Fund. Which is to say, yes, Marsico lost another sub-advisory contract.

Effective December 31, 2015, the Meeder Strategic Growth Fund (FLFGX) changed its name to Global Opportunities Fund.

On February 24, 2016, the T. Rowe Price Diversified Small-Cap Growth Fund (PRDSX) will change its name to the T. Rowe Price QM U.S. Small-Cap Growth Equity Fund. The addition of “QM” in the fund’s name reflects the concept that the fund employs a “quantitative management” strategy.

On March 1, Transamerica Asset Management will make a few tweaks to Transamerica Growth Opportunities (ITSAX). The managers will change (from Morgan Stanley to Alta Capital); likewise the “fund’s investment objective, principal investment strategies, principal risks, benchmark index, portfolio managers [and] name, will change. The fund will also have a lower advisory fee schedule.” The reborn fund will be named Transamerica Multi-Cap Growth.

Effective January 31, 2016, the principal investment strategy of Turner Emerging Growth Fund (TMCGX) shifts from focusing on “small and very small” cap stocks to “small and mid-cap” ones. The fund will also change its name to the Turner SMID Cap Growth Opportunities Fund


All Terrain Opportunity Fund (TERAX) liquidated on December 4, 2015. Why? It was only a year old, had $30 million in assets and respectable performance.

Big 4 OneFund (FOURX) didn’t make it to the New Years. The fund survived for all of 13 months before the managers despaired for the “inability to market the Fund.” It was a fund of DFA funds (good idea) which lost 12% in 12 months and trailed 94% of its peers. One wonders if the adviser should have ‘fessed up the “the inability to manage a fund that was worth buying”?

BPV Income Opportunities Fund liquidated on December 22, 2015, on about a week’s notice.

The Board of Trustees of Natixis Funds determined that it would be in the best interests of CGM Advisor Targeted Equity Fund (NEFGX) that it be liquidated, which will occur on February 17, 2016. Really, they said that: “it’s in the fund’s best interests to die.” The rest of the story is that CGM is buying itself back from Natixis; since Natixis won’t accept outside managers, the fund needed either to merge or liquidate. Natixis saw no logical place for it to merge, so it’s gone.

C Tactical Dynamic Fund (TGIFX) liquidated on December 31, 2015.

Clinton Long Short Equity Fund (WKCAX) liquidates on January 8, 2016.

Columbia has proposed merging away a half dozen of its funds, likely by mid-2016 though the date hasn’t yet been settled.

Acquired Fund Acquiring Fund
Columbia International Opportunities Columbia Select International Equity
Columbia International Value Columbia Overseas Value
Columbia Large Cap Growth II, III, IV and V Columbia Large Cap Growth
Columbia Multi-Advisor Small Cap Value Columbia Select Smaller-Cap Value
Columbia Value and Restructuring Columbia Contrarian Core

On or about March 31, 2016, the ESG Managers Growth Portfolio (PAGAX) will be consolidated into the ESG Managers Growth and Income Portfolio (PGPAX), which will then be renamed Pax Sustainable Managers Capital Appreciation Fund. At the same time, ESG Managers Balanced Portfolio (PMPAX) will be consolidated into the ESG Managers Income Portfolio (PWMAX) which will then be known as Pax Sustainable Managers Total Return Fund. The funds are all sub-advised by Morningstar staff.

Fortunatus Protactical New Opportunity Fund (FPOAX) liquidated on December 31, 2015. Why? The fund launched 12 months ago, had respectable performance and had drawn $40 million in assets. Perhaps combining the name of a 15th century adventurer (and jerk) with an ugly neologism (protactical? really?) was too much to bear.

Foundry Small Cap Value Fund liquidated on December 31, 2015.

Frost Cinque Large Cap Buy-Write Equity Fund (FCBWX) will cease operations and liquidate on or about February 29, 2016.

The tiny, one-star Franklin All Cap Value Fund (FRAVX), a fund that’s about 60% small caps, is slated to merge with huge, two-star Franklin Small Cap Value Fund (FRVLX), pending shareholder approval. That will likely occur at the beginning of April.

Back in 2008, if you wanted to pick a new fund that was certain to succeed, you’d have picked GRT Value. It combined reasonable expenses, a straightforward discipline and the services of two superstar managers (Greg Frasier, who’d been brilliant at Fidelity Diversified International and Rudy Kluiber who beat everyone as manager of State Street Research Aurora). Now we learn that GRT Value Fund (GRTVX) and GRT Absolute Return Fund (GRTHX) will liquidate on or about January 25, 2016. What happened? Don’t know. The fund rocketed out of the gate then, after two years, began to wobble, then spiral down. Both Value and its younger sibling ended up as tiny, failed shells. Perhaps the managers’ attention was riveted on their six hedge funds or large private accounts? Presumably the funds’ fate was sealed by GRT’s declining business fortunes. According to SEC filing, the firm started 2015 with $950 million in AUM, which dropped by $785 million by June and $500 million by September. The declining size of their asset base was accompanied by a slight increase in the number of accounts they were managing, which suggests the departure of a few major clients and a scramble to replace them with new, smaller accounts.

The folks behind the Jacobs/Broel Value Fund (JBVLX) have decided to liquidate the fund based on “its inability to market the Fund and the Adviser’s indication that it does not desire to continue to support the Fund.” Nearly all of the assets in the fund are the managers’ own money, perhaps because others wondered about paying 1.4% for:


The fund will liquidate on January 15, 2016.

On or around January 28, 2016, JOHCM Emerging Markets Small Mid Cap Equity Fund Service Class shares (JOMIX) will liquidate.

The Board of Directors of the Manning & Napier Fund, Inc. has voted to completely liquidate the Focused Opportunities Series (MNFSX) on or about January 25, 2016.

HSBC Growth Fund (HOTAX) will cease its investment operations and liquidate on or about February 12, 2016. Apparently the combination of consistently strong results with a $78 million asset base was not compelling.

McKinley Diversified Income Fund (MCDRX) is merging with Innovator McKinley Income Fund (IMIFX), pending shareholder approval. The reorganization will occur January 29, 2016.

Leader Global Bond Fund (LGBMX) will close, cease operations, redeem all outstanding shares and liquidate, all on January 29, 2016.

Madison Large Cap Growth Fund (MCAAX) merges with and into the Madison Investors Fund (MNVAX) on February 29, 2016. The Board mentions the identical objectives, strategies, risk profile and management as reason for why the merger is logical.

The Newmark Risk-Managed Opportunistic Fund (NEWRX) liquidated on December 31, 2015. The Board attributed the decision to the fund’s small size, rather than to the underlying problem: consistently bad short- and long-term performance.

Nile Frontier and Emerging Fund (NFRNX) liquidated, on about three weeks’ notice, on December 31, 2015.

QES Dynamic Fund (QXHYX) liquidated on December 17, 2015, after a week’s notice.

On January 29, 2016, Redmont Resolute Fund I (RMREX) becomes Redmont Dissolute Fund as it, well, dissolves.

Royce has now put the proposals to merge Royce European Small-Cap Fund (RESNX) and Global Value (RIVFX) into Royce International Premier Fund (RYIPX) to their shareholders. The proposal comes disturbingly close to making the argument that, really, there isn’t much difference among the Royce funds. Here is Royce’s list of similarities:

  • the same objective;
  • the same managers;
  • the same investment approach;
  • the same investment universe, small-cap equities;
  • the same sort of focused portfolio;
  • all provide substantial exposure to foreign securities;
  • the same policy on hedging;
  • the same advisory fee rates;
  • the same restrictions on investments in developing country securities; and
  • almost identical portfolio turnover rates.

Skeptics have long suggested that that’s true of the Royce funds in general; they have pretty much one or two funds that have been marketed in the guise of 20 distinct funds.

Third Avenue Focused Credit Fund (TFCVX) nominally liquidated on December 9, 2015. As a practical matter, cash-on-hand was returned to shareholders and the remainder of the fund’s assets were placed in a trust. Over the next year or so, the adviser will attempt to find buyers for its various illiquid holdings. The former fund’s shareholders will receive dribs and drabs as individual holdings are sold “at reasonable prices.”

Valspresso Green Zone Select Tactical Fund liquidated on December 30, 2015.

On December 2, 2015, Virtus Disciplined Equity Style, Virtus Disciplined Select Bond and Virtus Disciplined Select Country funds were liquidated.

Whitebox is getting out of the mutual fund business. They’ve announced plans to liquidate their Tactical Opportunities (WBMAX), Market Neutral Equity (WBLSX) and Tactical Advantage (WBIVX) funds on or about January 19, 2016.

In Closing . . .

In case you sometimes wonder, “Did I learn anything in the past year?” Josh Brown offered a great year-end compendium of observations from his friends and acquaintances, fittingly entitled “In 2015, I learned that …” Extra points if you can track down the source of “Everything’s amazing and nobody’s happy.”

And as for me, thanks and thanks and thanks! Thanks to the 140 or so folks who’ve joined MFO Premium as a way of supporting everything we’re doing. Thanks to the folks who’ve shared books, both classic (Irrational Exuberance, 3e) and striking (Spain: The Centre of the World, 1519-1682) and chocolates. I’m so looking forward to a quiet winter’s evening to begin them. Thanks to the folks who’ve read us and written to us, both the frustrated and the effusive. Thanks to my colleagues, Charles, Ed and Chip, who do more than I could possibly deserve. Thanks to the folks on the discussion board, who keep it lively and civil and funny and human. Thanks to the folks who’ve volunteered to help me learn to be halfway a businessperson, Sisyphus had it easier.

And thanks, especially, to all of you who’ll be here again next month.

We’ll look for you.


September 1, 2015

By David Snowball

Dear friends,

They’re baaaaaack!

My students came rushing back to campus and, so far as I can tell, triggered some sort of stock market rout upon arrival. I’m not sure how they did it, but I’ve learned not to underestimate their energy and manic good spirits.

They’re a bright bunch, diverse in my ways. While private colleges are often seen as bastion of privilege, Augustana was founded to help the children of immigrants make their way in a new land. Really that mission hasn’t much changed in the past 150 years: lots of first-generation college students, lots of students of color, lots of kids who shared the same high school experience. They weren’t the class presidents so much as the ones who quietly worked to make sure that things got done.

It’s a challenge to teach them, not because they don’t want to learn but because the gulf between us is so wide. By the time they were born, I was already a senior administrator and a full-blown fuddy duddy. But we’re working, as always we do, to learn from each other. Humility is essential, both a sense of humor and cookies help.

augie a

Your first and best stop-loss order

The week’s events have convinced us that you all need to learn how to execute a stop-loss order to protect yourself in times like these. A stop-loss order is an automatic, pre-established command which kicks in when markets gyrate and which works to minimize your losses. Generally they’re placed through your broker (“if shares of X fall below $12/share, sell half my holdings. If it falls below $10, liquidate the position”) but an Observer Stop Loss doesn’t require one. Here’s how it works:

  • On any day in which the market falls by enough to make you go “sweet Jee Zus!”
  • Step Away from the Media
  • Put Down your Phone
  • Unhand that Mouse
  • And Do Nothing for seven days.

Well, more precisely, “do nothing with your portfolio.” You’re more than welcome to, you know, have breakfast, go to the bathroom, wonder what it’s going to take for anyone to catch the Cardinals, figure out what you’re going to do with that ridiculous pile of tomatoes and all that.

My Irish grandfather told me that the worst time to fix a leaky roof is in a storm. “You’ll be miserable, you might break your neck and you’ll surely make a hames of it.” (I knew what Gramps meant and didn’t get around to looking up the “hames” bit until decades later when I was listening to the thunder and staring at a growing damp spot in the ceiling.)

roof in the rain

The financial media loves financial cataclysm to the same extent, and for the same reason, that The Weather Channel loves superstorms. It’s a great marketing tool for them. It strokes their egos (we are important!). And it drives ratings.

Really, did you think this vogue for naming winter storms came from the National Weather Service? No, no, no.  “Winter Storm Juno” was straight from the marketing folks at TWC.

If CNBC’s ratings get any worse, I’m guessing that we’ll be subjected to Market Downturn Alan soon enough.

By and large, coverage of the market’s recent events has been relentlessly horrible. Let’s start with the obvious: if you invested $10,000 into a balanced portfolio on August 18, on Friday, August 28 you had $9,660.

That’s it. You dropped 3.4%.

(Don’t you feel silly now?)

The most frequently-invoked word in headlines? “Bloodbath.”

MarketWatch: What’s next after market’s biggest bloodbath of the year ? (Apparently they’re annual events.)

ZeroHedge: US Market Bouncing Back After Monday’s Bloodbath (hmm, maybe they’re weekly events?)

Business Insider: Six horrific stats about today’s market bloodbath. (“Oil hit its lowest level since March 2009.” The horror, the horror!)

ZeroHedge: Bloodbath: Emerging Market Assets Collapse. (Ummm … a $10,000 investment in an emerging markets balanced fund, FTEMX in this case, would have “collapsed” to $9872 over those two weeks.)

RussiaToday: It’s a Bloodbath. (Odd that this is the only context in which Russia Today is willing to apply that term.)

By Google’s count, rather more than 64,000 market bloodbaths in the media.

Those claims were complemented by a number of “yeah, it could get a lot worse” stories:

NewsMax: Yale’s Shiller, “Even bigger” plunge may follow.

Brett Arends: Dow 5,000? Yes, it could happen. (As might a civilization-ending asteroid strike or a Cubs’ World Series win.)

Those were bookended with celebratory but unsubstantiated claims (WSJ: U.S. stock swings don’t shake investors; Barry Ritholz: Mom and pop outsmart Wall Street pros) that “mom ‘n’ pop” stood firm.

Bottom line: nothing you read in the media over the past couple weeks improved either your short- or long-term prospects. To the contrary, it might well have encouraged you (or your clients) to do something emotionally satisfying and financially idiotic. The markers of panic and idiocy abound: Vanguard had to do the “all hands on deck” drill in which portfolio managers and others are pulled in to manage the phone banks, Morningstar’s site repeatedly froze, the TD Ameritrade and Scottrade sites couldn’t execute customer orders, and prices of thousands of ETFs became unmoored from the prices of the securities they held. We were particularly struck by trading volume for Vanguard’s Total Stock Market ETF (VTI).

VTI volume graph

That’s a 600% rise from its average volume.

Two points:

  1. Winter is coming. Work on your roof now!

    Some argue that a secular bear market started last week. (Some always say that.) Some serious people argue that a sharp jolt this year might well be prelude to a far larger disruption later next year. Optimists believe that we are on a steadily ascending path, although the road will be far more pitted than in recent memory.

    Use the time you have now to plan for those developments. If you looked at your portfolio and thought “I didn’t know it could be this bad this fast,” it’s time to rethink.

    Questions worth considering:

    • Are you ready to give up Magical Thinking yet? Here’s the essence of Magical Thinking: “Eureka! I’ve found it! The fund that makes over 10% in the long-term and sidesteps turbulence in the short-term! And it’s mine. Mine! My Preciousssss!” Such a fund does not exist in the lands of Middle-Earth. Stop expecting your funds to act as if they do.
    • Do you have more funds in your portfolio than you can explain? Did you look at your portfolio Monday and think, honestly puzzled, “what is that fund again?”
    • Do you know whether traditional hybrid funds, liquid alt funds or a slug of low-volatility assets is working better as your risk damper? Folks with either a mordant sense of humor or stunted perspective declared last week that liquid alts funds “passed their first test with flying colors.” Often that translated to: “held up for one day while charging 2.75% for one year.”
    • Have you allocated more to risky assets than you can comfortably handle? We’re written before about the tradeoffs embedded in a stock-light strategy where 70% of the upside for 50% of the downside begins to sound less like cowardice and more like an awfully sweet deal.
    • Are you willing to believe that the structure of the fixed income market will allow your bond funds to deliver predictable total returns (current income plus appreciation) over the next five to seven years? If critics are right, a combination of structural changes in the fixed-income markets brought on by financial reforms and rising interest rates might make traditional investment-grade bond funds a surprisingly volatile option.

    If your answer is something like “I dunno,” then your answer is also something like “I’m setting myself up to fail.” We’ll try to help, but you really do need to set aside some time to plan (goals –> resources –> strategies –>tactics) with another grown-up. Bring black coffee if you’re Lutheran, Scotch if you aren’t.

  2. If you place your ear tightly against the side of any ETF, you’re likely to hear ticking.

    My prejudices are clear and I’ll repeat them here. I think ETFs are the worst financial innovation since the Ponzi scheme. They are trading vehicles, not investment vehicles. The Vanguard Total Stock Market ETF has no advantage over the Vanguard Total Stock Market Index fund (the tiny expense gap is consumed in trading costs) except that it can be easily and frequently traded. The little empirical research available documents the inevitable: when given a trading vehicle, investors trade. And (the vast majority of) traders lose.

    Beyond that, ETFs cause markets to move in lockstep: all securities in an ETF – the rock solid and the failing, the undervalued and the overpriced – are rewarded equally when investors purchase the fund. If people like small cap Japanese stocks, they bid up the price of good stocks and bad, cheap and dear, which distorts the ability of vigilantes to enforce some sort of discipline.

    And, as Monday demonstrates, ETFs can fail spectacularly in a crisis because the need for instant pricing is inconsistent with the demands of rational pricing. Many ETFs, CEFs and some stocks opened Monday with 20-30% losses, couldn’t coordinate buyers and sellers fast enough and that caused a computer-spawned downward price spiral. Josh Brown makes the argument passionately in his essay “Computers are the new dumb money” and followed it up with the perhaps jubilant report that some of the “quants I know told me the link was hitting their inboxes all day from friends and colleagues around the industry. A few desk traders I talk to had some anecdotes backing my assumptions up. One guy, a ‘data scientist’, was furiously angry, meaning he probably blew himself up this week.”

    As Chris Dietrich concludes in his August 29 Barron’s article, “Market Plunge Provides Harsh Lessons for ETF Investors”

    For long-term investors unsure of their trading chops, or if uncertainty reigns, mutual funds might be better options. Mutual fund investors hand over their money and let the fund company do the trading. The difference is that you get the end-of-day price; the price of an ETF depends on when you sold or bought it during the trading day. “There are benefits of ETFs, including transparency and tax efficiency, but those come at a cost, which is that is you must be willing to trade,” says Dave Nadig, director of ETFs at FactSet Research Systems. “If you don’t want to be trading, you should not be using ETFs.”

The week’s best

Jack Bogle, Buddhist. Jack Bogle: “I’ve seen turbulence in the market. This is not real turbulence. Don’t do something. Just stand there.” (Thanks for johnN for the link.) Vanguard subsequently announced, “The Inaction Plan.”

All sound and fury, signifying nothing. Jason Zweig: “The louder and more forcefully a market pundit voices his certainty about what is going to happen next, the more likely it is that he will turn out to be wrong.”

Profiting from others’ insanity

Anyone looking at the Monday, 8/24, opening price for, say, General Electric – down 30% within the first few seconds – had to think (a) that’s insanity and (b) hmmm, wonder if there’s a way to profit from it? It turns out that the price of a number of vehicles – stocks, a thousand ETFs and many closed-end funds – became temporarily unmoored from reality. The owners of many ETFs, for example, were willing to sell $10 worth of stock for $7, just to get rid of it.

The folks at RiverNorth are experts at arbitraging such insanity. They track the historical discounts of closed-end funds; if a fund becomes temporarily unmoored, they’ll consider buying shares of it. Why? Because when the panic subsides, that 30% discount might contract by two-thirds. RiverNorth’s shareholders have the opportunity to gain from that arbitrage, whether or not the general direction of the stock market is up or down.

I spoke with Steve O’Neill, one of RiverNorth’s portfolio managers, about the extent of the market panic. Contrary to the popular stories about cool-headed investors, Steve described them as “vomiting up assets” at a level he hadn’t seen since the depth of the financial meltdown when the stability of the entire banking sector was in question.

In 2014, RiverNorth reopened their flagship RiverNorth Core Opportunity (RNCOX) fund after a three-year closure. We’ll renew our profile of this one-of-a-kind product in our October issue. In the meanwhile, interested parties really should …

rivernorth post card

RiverNorth is hosting a live webcast with Q&A on September 17, 2015 at 3:15pm CT / 4:15pm ET. Their hosts will be Patrick Galley, CIO, Portfolio Manager, and Allen Webb, Portfolio Specialist. Visit to register.

Update: Finding a family’s first fund 

Families First FundIn August, we published a short guide to finding a family first fund. We started with the premise that lots of younger (and many not-so-younger) folks were torn between the knowledge that they should do something and the fear that they were going to screw it up. To help them out, we talked about what to look for in a first fund and proposed three funds that met our criteria: solid long term prospects, a risk-conscious approach, a low minimum initial investment and reasonable expenses.

How did the trio do in August? Not bad.

James Balanced: Golden Rainbow GLRBX


A bit better than its conservative peers; so far in 2015, it beats 83% of its peers.

TIAA-CREF Lifestyle Conservative TSCLX

– 2.3%

A bit worse than its conservative peers; so far in 2015, it beats 98% of its peers.


– 3.1%

A bit better than its moderate peers; so far in 2015, it beats about 75% of its peers.

 Several readers wrote to commend Manning & Napier Pro-Blend Conservative (EXDAX) as a great “first fund” candidate as well.  We entirely agree. Unlike TIAA-CREF and Vanguard, it invests in individual securities rather than other funds. Like them, however, it has a team-managed approach that reduces the risk of a fund going awry if a single person leaves. It has a splendid 20 year record. We’ve added it to our original guide and have written a profile of the fund, which you can get to below in our Fund Profiles section.

edward, ex cathedraWe Are Where We Are, Or, If The Dog Didn’t Stop To Crap, He Would Have Caught The Rabbit

“I prefer the company of peasants because they have not been educated sufficiently to reason incorrectly.”

               Michel de Montaigne

At this point in time, rather than focus on the “if only” questions that tend to freeze people in their tracks in these periods of market volatility, I think we should consider what is important. For most of us, indeed, the vast majority of us, the world did not end in August and it is unlikely to end in September.  Indeed, for most Americans and therefore by definition most of us, the vagaries of the stock market are not that important.

What then is important? A Chicago Tribune columnist, Mary Schmich, recently interviewed Edward Stuart, an economics professor at Northeastern Illinois University as a follow-up to his appearance on a panel on Chicago Public Television’s “Chicago Tonight” show. Stuart had pointed out that the ownership of stock (and by implication, mutual funds) in the United States is quite unequal. He noted that while the stock market has done very well in recent years, the standard of living of the average American citizen has not done as well. Stuart thinks that the real median income for a household size of four is about $40,000 …. and that number has not changed since the late 70’s. My spin on this is rather simple – the move up the economic ladder that we used to see for various demographic groups – has stopped.

If you think about it, the evidence is before us. How many of us have friends whose children went to college, got their degrees, and returned home to live with their parents while they hunted for a job in their chosen field, which they often could not find? When one drives around city and suburban streets, how many vacancies do we see in commercial properties?  How many middle class families that used to bootstrap themselves up by investing in and owning apartment buildings or strip malls don’t now? What is needed is a growing economy that offers real job prospects that pay real wages. Stuart also pointed out that student debt is one of the few kinds of debt that one cannot expunge with bankruptcy.

As I read that piece of Ms. Schmick’s and reflected on it, I was reminded of another column I had read a few months back that talked about where we had gone off the rails collectively. The piece was entitled “Battle for the Boardroom” by Joe Nocera and was in the NY Times on May 9, 2015. Nocera was discussing the concept of “activist investors” and “shareholder value” specifically as it pertained to Nelson Peltz, Trian Investments, and a proxy fight with the management and board of DuPont.  And Nocera pointed out that Trian, by all accounts, had a good record and was often a constructive force once it got a board seat or two.

Nocera’s concern, which he raised in a fashion that went straight for the jugular, was simple. Have we really reached the point where the activist investor gets to call the tune, no matter how well run the company? What is shareholder value, especially in a company like DuPont? Trian’s argument was that DuPont was not getting a return on its spending on research and development? Yet R&D spending is what made DuPont, given the years it takes to often produce from scientific research a commercial product. Take away the R&D spending argued Nocera, and you have not just a poorer DuPont, but also a poorer United States. He closed by talking with and quoting Martin Lipton, a corporate attorney who has made a career out of disparaging corporate activists. Lipton said, “Activism has caused companies to cut R&D, capital investment, and, most significantly, employment,” he said. “It forces companies to lay off employees to meet quarterly earnings.”

“It is,” he concluded, “a disaster for the country.”

This brings me to my final set of ruminations. Some years ago, my wife and I were guests at a small dinner party at the home of a former ambassador (and patriot) living in Santa Fe.  There were a total of six of us at that dinner. One of the other guests raised the question as to whether any of us ever thought about what things would have been like for the country if Al Gore, rather than George W. Bush, had won the presidential election. My immediate response was that I didn’t think about such things as it was just far too painful to contemplate.

In like vein, having recently read Ron Suskind’s book Confidence Men, I have been forced to contemplate what it would have meant for the country if President-elect Barack Obama had actually followed through with the recommendations of his transition advisors and appointed his “A” Economic Team. Think about it – Paul Volcker as Secretary of the Treasury, the resurrection of Glass-Steagall, the break-up of the big investment banks – it too is just too painful to contemplate.  Or as the line from T.H. White’s Once and Future King goes, “I dream things that never were, and ask why not?”

Now, a few thoughts about the carnage and how to deal with it.  Have a plan and stick to it. Do not panic, for inevitably all panic does is lead to self-inflicted wounds. Think about fees, but from the perspective of correlated investments. That is, if five large (over $10B in assets) balanced funds are all positively correlated in terms of their portfolios, does it really make sense not to own the one with the lowest expense ratio (and depending on where it is held, taxes may come into play)? Think about doing things where other people’s panic does not impact you, e.g., is there a place for closed end funds in a long-term investment portfolio? And avoid investments where the bugs have not been worked out, as the glitches in pricing and execution of trades for ETF’s have shown us over the last few weeks.

There is a wonderful Dilbert cartoon where the CEO says “Asok, you can beat market averages by doing your own stock research. Asok then says, “So … You believe every investor can beat the average by reading the same information? “Yes” says the CEO. Asok then says, “Makes you wonder why more people don’t do it.” The CEO closes saying, “Just lazy, I guess.”

Edward A. Studzinski

charles balconyChecking in on MFO’s 20-year Great Owls

MFO first introduced its rating system in the June 2013 commentary. That’s also when the first “Great Owl” funds were designated. These funds have consistently delivered top quintile risk adjusted returns (based on Martin Ratio) in their categories for evaluation periods 3 years and longer. The most senior are 20-year Great Owls. These select funds have received Return Group ranking of 5 for evaluation periods of 3, 5, 10, and 20 years. Only about 50 funds of the 1500 mutual funds aged 20 years or older, or about 3%, achieve the GO designation. An impressive accomplishment.

Below are the current 20-year GOs (excluding muni funds for compactness, but find complete list here, also reference MFO Ratings Definitions.)


Of the original 20-year GO list of 47 funds still in existence today, only 19 remain GOs. These include notables: Fidelity GNMA (FGMNX), PIMCO Foreign Bond – USD-Hedged I (PFORX), James Balanced: Golden Rainbow R (GLRBX), T. Rowe Price Capital Appreciation (PRWCX), Vanguard Wellington Inv (VWELX), Meridian Growth Legacy (MERDX), and Hennessy Gas Utility Investor (GASFX).

The current 20-year GOs also include 25 Honor Roll funds, based on legacy Fund Alarm ranking system. Honor Roll funds have delivered top quintile absolute returns in its category for evaluation periods of 1, 3, and 5 years. These include: AMG Managers Interm Dur Govt (MGIDX), PIMCO Foreign Bond – USD-Hedged I (PFORX), James Balanced: Golden Rainbow R (GLRBX), T. Rowe Price Capital Appreciation (PRWCX), and T. Rowe Price Mid-Cap Growth (RPMGX).

A closer look at performance of the original list of 20-year GOs, since they were introduced a little more than two years ago, shows very satisfactory performance overall, even with funds not maintaining GO designation. Below is a summary of Return Group rankings and current three-year performance.
Of the 31 funds in tables above, only 7 have underperformed on a risk adjusted basis during the past three years, while 22 have outperformed.

Some notable outperformers include: Vanguard Wellesley Income Inv (VWINX), Oakmark International I (OAKIX), Sequoia (SEQUX), Brown Capital Mgmt Small Co Inv (BCSIX), and T. Rowe Price New Horizons (PRNHX).

And the underperformers? Waddell & Reed Continental Inc A (UNCIX), AMG Yacktman (YACKX), Gabelli Equity Income AAA (GABEX), and Voya Corporate Leaders Trust (LEXCX).

A look at absolute returns shows that 10 of the 31 underperformed their peers by an average of 1.6% annualized return, while the remaining 21 beat their peers by an average of 4.8%.

Gentle reminder: MFO ratings are strictly quantitative and backward looking. No accounting for manager or adviser changes, survivorship bias, category drift, etc.

Will take a closer look at the three-year mark and make habit of posting how they have fared over time.

New Voices at the Observer: The Tale of Two Leeighs

We’re honored this month to be joined by two new contributors: Sam Lee and Leigh Walzer.

Sam LeeSam is the founder of Severian Asset Management, Chicago. He is also former editor of Morningstar analyst and editor of their ETF Investor newsletter. Sam has been celebrated as one of the country’s best financial writers (Morgan Housel: “Really smart takes on ETFs, with an occasional killer piece about general investment wisdom”) and as Morningstar’s best analyst and one of their best writers (John Coumarianos: “Lee has written two excellent pieces [in the span of a month], and his showing himself to be Morningstar’s finest analyst”). Sam claims to have chosen “Severian” for its Latinate gravitas.

We’ll set aside, for now, any competing observations. For example, we’ll make no mention of the Severian Asset Management’s acronym. And certainly no reflections upon the fact that Severian was the name of the Journeyman torturer who serves as narrator in a series of Gene Wolfe’s speculative fiction. Nor that another Severian was a popular preacher and bishop. Hmmm … had I mentioned that one of Sam’s most popular pieces is “Losing My Religion”?

You get a better sense of what Sam brings to the table from his discussion of his approach to things as an investment manager:

Investing well is hard. We approach the challenge with a great deal of humility, and try to learn from the best thinkers we can identify. One of our biggest influences is Warren Buffett, who stresses that predictions about the future should be based on an understanding of economic fundamentals and human nature, not on historical returns, correlations and volatilities. He stresses that we should be skeptical of the false precision and unwarranted sense of control that come with the use of quantitative tools, such as Monte Carlo simulations and Markowitz optimizations. We take these warnings seriously.

Our approach is based on economic principles that we believe are both true and important:

  • First and foremost, we believe an asset’s true worth is determined by the cash you can pull out of it discounted by the appropriate interest rate. Over the long run, prices tend to converge to intrinsic value … Where we differ with Buffett and other value investors is that we do not believe investment decisions should be made solely on the basis of intrinsic value. It is perfectly legitimate to invest in a grossly overpriced asset if one knows a sucker will shortly come along to buy it … The trick is anticipating what the suckers will do.
  • Second, we believe most investors should diversify. As Buffett says, “diversification is protection against ignorance.” This should not be interpreted as a condemnation of the practice. Most investors are ignorant as to what the future holds. Because most of us are ignorant and blind, we want to maximize the protection diversification affords.
  • Third, we believe risk and reward are usually, but not always, positively related … Despite equities’ attractive long-term returns, investors have managed to destroy enormous amounts of wealth while investing in them by buying high and selling low. To avoid this unfortunate outcome, we scale your equity exposure to your behavioral makeup, as well as your time horizon and goals.
  • Fourth, the market makes errors, but exploiting them is hard.

We prefer to place actively managed funds (and other high-tax-burden assets) in tax-deferred accounts. In taxable accounts, we prefer tax-efficient, low-cost equities, either held directly or through mutual funds. Many exchange-traded funds are particularly tax-advantaged because they can aggressively rid themselves of low cost-basis shares without passing on capital gains to their investors.

In my experience, Sam’s writing is bracingly direct, thoughtful and evidence-driven. I think you’ll like his work and I’m delighted by his presence. Sam’s debut offering is a thoughtful and data rich profile of AQR Style Premia Alternative (QSPIX). You’ll find a summary and link to his profile under Observer Fund Profiles.

Leigh WalzerLeigh Walzer is now a principal of Trapezoid LLC and a former member of Michael Price’s merry band at the Mutual Series funds. In his long career, Leigh has brought his sharp insights and passion for data to mutual funds, hedge funds, private equity funds and even the occasional consulting firm.

We had a chance to meet during June’s Morningstar conference, where he began to work through the logic of his analysis of funds with me. Two things were quickly clear to me. First, he was doing something distinctive and interesting. As base, Leigh tried to identify the distinct factors that might qualify as types of managerial skill (two examples would be stock selection and knowing when to reduce risk exposure) and then find the data that might allow him to take apart a fund’s performance, analyze its component parts and predict whether success might persist. Second, I was in over my head. I asked Leigh if he’d be willing to share sort of bite-sized bits of his research so that folks could begin to understand his system and test the validity of its results. He agreed.

Here’s Leigh’s introduction to you all. His first analytic piece debuts next month.

Mutual Fund Observer performs a great service for the investment community. I have found information in these pages which is hard to obtain anywhere else. It is a privilege to be able to contribute.

I founded Trapezoid a few years ago after a long career in the mutual fund and hedge fund industry as an analyst and portfolio manager. Although I majored in statistics at Princeton many moons ago and have successfully modelled professional sports in the past, most of my investing was in credit and generally not quantitative in nature. As David Snowball mentioned earlier, I spent 7 years working for Mutual Shares, led by Michael Price. So the development of the Orthogonal Attribution Engine marks a return to my first passion.

I have always been interested in whether funds deliver value for investors and how accurately allocators and investors understand their managers.  My freshman economics course was taught by Burton Malkiel, author of a Random Walk Down Wall Street, who preached that the capital markets were pretty efficient. My experience in Wall Street and my work at Orthogonal have taught me this is not always true.  Sometimes a manager or a strategy can significantly outperform the market for a sustained period.  Of course, competitors react and capital flows until an equilibrium is achieved, but not nearly as quickly as Malkiel assumes.

There has been much discussion over the years about the active–passive debate.  John Bogle was generous in his time reviewing my work.  I generally agree with Jack and he is a giant in the industry to whom we all owe a great deal.  For those who are ready to throw in the towel of active investing, Bogle makes two (related) assumptions which need to be critically reviewed:

  1. Even if an active manager outperforms the average, he is likely to revert to the mean.
  2. Active managers with true skill (in excess of their fee structure) are hard to identify, so investors are better off with an index fund

I try to measure skill in a way which is more accurate (and multi-faceted) than Bogle’s definition and I look at skill as a statistical process best measured over an extended period of time. I try to understand how the manager is positioned at every point in time, using both holdings and regression data, and I try to understand the implications of his or her decisions.

My work indicates that the active-passive debate is less black and white than you might discern from the popular press or the marketing claims of mutual fund managers. The good news for investors is there are in fact many managers who have demonstrated skill over an extended period of time. Using statistical techniques, it is possible to identify managers likely to outperform in the future. There are some funds whose expected return over the next 12 months justifies what they charge. There are many other managers who show investment skill, but not enough to justify their expense structure.

Feel free to check out the website at which is currently in beta test. Over 30,000 funds are modelled; users who register for demo access can see certain metrics measuring historic manager skill and likelihood of future success on a subset of the fund universe.

I look forward to sharing with you insights on specific funds in the coming months and provide MFO readers a way to track my results. Equally important, I hope to give you new insights to help you think about the role of actively managed funds in your portfolio and how to select funds. My research is still a work in process. I invite the readership of MFO to join me in my journey and invite feedback, suggestions, and collaboration.  You may contact me at [email protected].

We’re very much looking forward to October and Leigh’s first essay. Thanks to both. I think you’ll enjoy their good spirits and insight.

Top developments in fund industry litigation

fundfoxFundfox, launched in 2012, is the mutual fund industry’s only litigation intelligence service, delivering exclusive litigation information and real-time case documents neatly organized, searchable, and filtered as never before. For the complete list of developments last month, and for information and court documents in any case, log in at and navigate to Fundfox Insider.

Court Decisions & Orders

  • In the shareholder litigation regarding gambling-related securities held by the American Century Ultra Fund, the Eighth Circuit affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of American Century, agreeing that the shareholder could not bring suit against the fund adviser because the fund had declined to do so in a valid exercise of business judgment. Defendants included independent directors. (Seidl v. Am. Century Cos.)
  • Setting the stage for a rare section 36(b) trial (assuming no settlement), a court denied parties’ summary judgment motions in fee litigation regarding multiple AXA Equitable funds. The court cited only “reasons set forth on the record.” (Sanford v. AXA Equitable Funds Mgmt. Group, LLC; Sivolella v. AXA Equitable Life Ins. Co.)
  • A court gave its final approval to (1) a $24 million partial settlement of the state-law class action regarding Northern Trust‘s securities lending program, and (2) a $36 million settlement of interrelated ERISA claims. The state-law class action is still proceeding with respect to plaintiffs who invested directly in the program. (Diebold v. N. Trust Invs., N.A.; La. Firefighters’ Ret. Sys. v. N. Trust Invs., N.A.)
  • In the long-running fee litigation regarding Oakmark funds that had made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, the Seventh Circuit affirmed a lower court’s grant of summary judgment for defendant Harris Associates. The appeals court cited the lower court’s findings that (1) “Harris’s fees were in line with those charged by advisers for other comparable funds” and (2) “the fees could not be called disproportionate in relation to the value of Harris’s work, as the funds’ returns (net of fees) exceeded the norm for comparable investment vehicles.” Plaintiffs have filed a petition for rehearing en banc. (Jones v. Harris Assocs.)
  • Extending the fund industry’s dismal record on motions to dismiss section 36(b) litigation, a court denied PIMCO‘s motion to dismiss an excessive-fee lawsuit regarding the Total Return Fund. Court: “Throughout their Motion, Defendants grossly exaggerate ‘the specifics’ needed to survive a 12(b)(6) motion, essentially calling for Plaintiff to prove his case now, before discovery.” (Kenny v. Pac. Inv. Mgmt. Co.)
  • A court granted the motion to dismiss a state-law and RICO class action alleging mismanagement by a UBS investment adviser, but without prejudice to refile the state-law claims as federal securities fraud claims. (Knopick v. UBS Fin. Servs., Inc.)

The Alt Perspective: Commentary and news from DailyAlts.

dailyaltsAs we all now know, August was anything but calm. Despite starting that way, the month delivered some tough love in the last two weeks, just when we were all supposed to be relaxing with family and friends. Select Morningstar mutual fund categories finished the month with the following returns:

  • Large Blend (US Equity): -6.07%
  • Intermediate-Term Bond: -0.45%
  • Long/Short Equity: -3.57%
  • Nontraditional Bonds: -0.91%
  • Managed Futures: -2.52%

The one surprise of the five categories above is Managed Futures. This is a category that typically does well when markets are in turmoil and trending down. August proved to be an inflection point, and turned out to be challenging in what was otherwise a solid year for the strategies.

However, let’s take a look at balanced portfolio configurations. Using the above category returns, at traditional long-only 60/40 blend portfolio (60% stocks / 40% bonds) would have returned -3.82% in August, while an alternative balanced portfolio of 50% long/short equity, 30% nontraditional bonds and 20% managed futures would have returned -2.56%. Compare these to the two categories below:

  • Moderate Allocation: -4.17%
  • Multialternative: -2.22%

Moderate Allocation funds, which are relatively lower risk balance portfolios, turned in the lowest of the balanced portfolio configurations. The Multialternative category of funds, which are balanced portfolios made up of mostly alternative strategies, performed the best, beating the traditional 60/40 portfolio, the 50/30/20 alternative portfolio and the Moderate Allocation category. Overall, it looks like alternatives did their job in August.

August Highlights

Believe it or not, Vanguard launched its second alternative mutual fund in August. The new Vanguard Alternative Strategies Fund will invest across several alternative investment strategies, including long/short equity and event driven, and will also allocate some assets to currencies and commodities. Surprisingly, Vanguard will be managing the fund in-house, but does that the ability to outsource some or all of the management of the fund. Sticking with its low cost focus, Vanguard will charge a management fee of 0.18% – a level practically unheard of in the liquid alternatives space.

In a not quite so surprising move, Catalyst Funds converted its fourth hedge fund into a mutual fund in August with the launch of the Catalyts/Auctos Multi Strategy Fund. In this instance, the firm did go one step beyond prior conversions and actually acquired the underlying manager, Auctos Capital Management. One key benefit of the hedge fund conversion is the fact that the fund can retain its performance track record, which dates back to 2008.

Finally, American Century (yes, that conservative, mid-western asset management firm) launched a new brand called AC Alternatives under which it will manage a series of alternative mutual funds. The firm currently has three funds under the new brand, with two more in the works. Similar to Vanguard, the firm launched a market neutral fund back in 2005, and a value tilted version in 2011. The third fund, an alternative income fund, is new this year.

Let’s Get Together

Two notable acquisitions occurred in August. The first is the acquisition of Arden Asset Management, a long-time institutional fund-of-hedge funds manager, by Aberdeen. The latter has been on the acquisition trail over the past several years, with a keen eye on alternative investment firms. Through the transaction, Arden will get global distribution, while Aberdeen will pick up very specific hedge fund due diligence, manager research and portfolio construction capabilities. Looks like a win-win.

The second transaction was the acquisition of 51% of the Australian-based unconstrained fixed income shop Kapstream Capital by Janus for a cool $85 million. Janus also has the right to purchase the remainder of the firm, which has roughly $6 billion under management. Good for Kapstream as the valuation appears to be on the high end, but perhaps Bill Gross needed some assistance managed his unconstrained portfolios.

The Fall

A lot happens in the Fall. Back to school. Football. Interest rate hike. Changing leaves. Halloween. Thanksgiving. Federal debt ceiling. Maybe there is enough for us all to take our minds off the markets for just a bit and let things settle down. Time will tell, but until next month, enjoy the Labor Day weekend and the beginning of a new season.

Observer Fund Profiles:

Each month the Observer provides in-depth profiles of between two and four funds.  Our “Most Intriguing New Funds” are funds launched within the past couple years that most frequently feature experienced managers leading innovative newer funds.  “Stars in the Shadows” are older funds that have attracted far less attention than they deserve. 

AQR Style Premia Alternative (QSPIX). AQR’s new long-short multi-strategy fund takes factor investing to its logical extreme: It applies four distinct strategies–value, momentum, carry, and defensive–across stock, bond, commodity, and currency markets. The standard version of the fund targets a 10% volatility and a 0.7 Sharpe ratio while maintaining low to no correlation with conventional portfolios. In its short life, the fund has delivered in spades. Please note, this profile was written by our colleague, Sam Lee.

Manning & Napier Pro-Blend Conservative (EXDAX): this fund has been navigating market turbulences for two decades now. Over the course of the 21st century, it’s managed to outperform the Total Stock Market Index with only one-third of the stocks and one-third of the volatility. And you can start with just $25!  

TCW/Gargoyle Hedged Value (TFHVX/TFHIX):  if you understand what you’re getting – a first-rate value fund with one important extra – you’re apt to be very happy. If you see “hedged” and think “tame,” you’ve got another thing coming.

Launch Alert: Falcon Focused SCV (FALCX)

falcon capital managementThe fact that newly-launched Falcon Focused SCV has negligible assets (it’s one of the few funds in the world where I could write a check and become the fund’s largest shareholder) doesn’t mean that it has negligible appeal.

The fund is run by Kevin Silverman whose 30 year career has been split about equally between stints on the sell side and on the buy side.  He’s a graduate of the University of Wisconsin’s well-respect Applied Securities Analysis Program . Early in his career he served as an analyst at Oakmark and around the turn of the century was one of the managers of ABN AMRO Large Cap Growth Fund. He cofounded Falcon Capital Management in April 2015 and is currently one of the folks responsible for a $100 million small cap value strategy at Dearborn Partners in Chicago. They’ve got an audited 14 year record.

I’m endlessly attracted to the potential of small cap value investing. The research, famously French and Fama’s, and common sense concur: this should be the area with the greatest potential for profits. It’s huge. It’s systemically mispriced because there’s so little analyst coverage and because investors undervalue value stocks. Growth stocks are all cool and sexy and you want to own them and brag to all your friends about them. Value stocks are generally goofed up companies in distressed industries. They’re boring and a bit embarrassing to own; on whole, they’re sort of the midden heap of the investing world.

The average investor’s unwillingness or inability to consider them raises the prospect that a really determined investor might find exceptional returns. Kevin and his folks try to build 5 to 10 year models for all of their holdings, then look seriously at years four and five. The notion is that if they can factor emotion out of the process (they invoke the pilot’s mantra, “trust your instruments”) and extend their vision beyond the current obsession with this quarter and next quarter, they’ll find opportunities that will pay off handsomely a few years from now. Their target is to use their models to construct a portfolio that has the prospect for returns “in the mid-20s over the next three years.” Mathematically, that works out to a doubling in just over three years.

I’m not sure that the guys can pull it off but they’re disciplined, experienced and focused. That puts them ahead of a lot of their peers.

The initial expense ratio, after waivers, is 1.25%. The no-load Institutional shares carry a $10,000 minimum, which is reduced to $5000 for tax-advantaged accounts and those set up with an automatic investing plan. The fund’s website is still pretty sparse (okay, just under “pretty sparse”), but you can find a bit more detail and one pretty panorama at the adviser’s website.

Launch Alert: Grandeur Peak Global Stalwarts Fund (GGSOX/GGSYX)

grandeur peakGrandeur Peak launched two “alumni” funds on September 1, 2015. Grandeur Peak’s specialty is global micro- and small-cap stocks, generally at the growth end of the spectrum. If they do a good job, their microcap stocks soon become small caps, their small caps become midcaps, and both are at risk of being ejected from the capitalization-limited Grandeur Peak funds.

Grandeur Peak was approached by a large investor who recognized the fact that many of those now-larger stocks were still fundamentally attractive, and asked about the prospect of a couple “alumni” funds to hold them. Such funds are attractive to advisors since you’re able to accommodate a much larger asset base when you’re investing in $10 billion stocks than in $200 million ones.

One investor reaction might be to label Grandeur Peak as sell-outs. They’ve loudly touted two virtues: a laser-like focus and a firm-wide capacity cap at $3 billion, total. With the launch of the Stalwarts funds, they’re suddenly in the mid-cap business and are imagining firmwide AUM of about $10 billion.

Grandeur Peak, however, provided a remarkable wide-ranging, thoughtful defense of their decision. In a letter to investors, dated July 15, they discuss the rationale for and strategies embodied by three new funds:

Grandeur Peak Global Micro Cap Fund (GPMCX): A micro-cap strategy primarily targeting companies in the $50M-350M market cap range across the globe; very limited capacity.

Grandeur Peak Global Stalwarts Fund (GGSOX/GGSYX): A small/mid-cap (SMID) strategy focused on companies above $1.5B market cap across the globe.

Grandeur Peak International Stalwarts Fund (GISOX/GISYX): A small/mid-cap strategy focused on companies above $1.5B market cap outside of the U.S.

They argue that they’d always imagined Stalwarts funds, but didn’t imagine launching them until the firm’s second decade of operation. Their success in identifying outstanding stocks and drawing assets brought high returns, a lot of attention and a lot of money. While they hoped to be able to soft-close their funds, controlling inflows forced a series of hard closes instead which left some of their long-time clients adrift. By adding the Stalwarts funds as dedicated vehicles for larger cap names (the firm already owns over 100 stocks in the over $1.5 billion category), they’re able to provide continuing access to their investors without compromising the hard limits on the micro- and nano-cap products. Here’s their detail:

As you know, capacity is a very important topic to us. We believe managing capacity appropriately is another critical competitive advantage for Grandeur Peak. We plan to initially close the Global Micro Cap Fund at around $25 million. We intend to keep it very small in order to allow the Fund full access to micro and nanocap companies …

Looking carefully at the market cap and liquidity of our holdings above $1.5 billion in market cap, the math suggests that we could manage up to roughly $7 billion across the Stalwarts family without sacrificing our investment strategy or desired position sizes in these names. This $7 billion is in addition to the roughly $3 billion that we believe we can comfortably manage below $1.5 billion in market cap.

Our existing strategies will remain hard closed as we are committed to protecting these strategies and their ability to invest in micro-cap and small-cap companies. We are very aware that many good small cap firms lose their edge by taking in too many assets and being forced to adjust their investment style. We will not do this! We are taking a more unique approach by partitioning the lower capacity, less liquid names and allowing additional assets in the higher capacity, liquid stocks where the impact will not be felt by the smaller-cap funds.

The minimum initial investment is $2000 for the Investor share class, which will be waived if you establish the account with an automatic investment plan. Unlike Global Micro Cap, there is no waiver of the institutional minimum available for the Stalwarts. Each fund will charge 1.35%, retail, after waivers. You might want to visit the Global Stalwarts or International Stalwarts homepages for details.

Funds in Registration

There are 17 new funds in registration this month. Funds in registration with the SEC are not available for sale to the public and the advisors are not permitted to talk about them, but a careful reading of the filed prospectuses gives you a good idea of what interesting (and occasionally appalling) options are in the pipeline. Funds currently in registration will generally be available for purchase in November.

Two of the funds will not be available for direct purchase: T. Rowe Price is launching Mid Cap and Small Cap index funds to use with 529 plans, funds-of-funds and so on. Of the others, there are new offerings from two solid boutiques: Driehaus Turnaround Opportunities will target “distressed” investing and Brown Advisory Equity Long/Short Fund will do about what you expect except that the filings bracket the phrase Equity Long/Short. That suggests that the fund’s final name might be different. Harbor is launching a clone of Vanguard Global Equity. A little firm named Gripman is launched a conservative allocation fund (I wish them well) and just one of the funds made my eyes roll. You’ll figure it out.

Manager Changes

We tracked down 60 or 70 manager changes this month; the exact number is imprecise because one dude was leaving a couple dozen Voya funds which we reduced to just a single entry. We were struck by the fact that about a dozen funds lost women from the management teams, but it appears only two funds added a female manager.

Sympathies to Michael Lippert, who is taking a leave from managing Baron Opportunity (BIOPX) while he recovers from injuries sustained in a serious bicycle accident. We wish him a speedy recovery.


A slightly-goofed SEC filing led us to erroneously report last month that Osterweis Strategic Investment (OSTVX) might invest up to 100% in international fixed-income. A “prospectus sticker” now clarifies the fact that “at the fund level OSTVX is limited to 50% foreign.” Thanks to the folks at Osterweis for sharing the update with us. Regrets for any confusion.

Morningstar giveth: In mid-August, Morningstar initiated coverage of two teams we’ve written about. Vanguard Global Minimum Volatility (VMVFX) received a Bronze rating, mostly because it’s a Vanguard fund. Morningstar praises the low expenses, Vanguard culture and the “highly regarded–and generally successful–quantitative equity group.” The fund’s not quite two years old but has a solid record and has attracted $1.1 billion in assets.

Vulcan Value Partners (VVPLX) was the other Bronze honoree. Sadly, Morningstar waited until after the fund had closed before recognizing it. The equally excellent Vulcan Value Partners Small Cap (VVPSX) fund is also closed, though Morningstar has declined to recognize it as a medalist fund.

Morningstar taketh away: Fidelity Capital Appreciation (FDCAX) is no longer a Fanny Fifty Fund: it has been doing too well. There’s an incentive fee built into the fund’s price structure; if performance sucks, the e.r. drops. If performance soars, the e.r. rises.

Rewarding good performance sounds to the novice like a good idea. Nonetheless, good performance has had the effect of disqualifying FDCAX as a “Fantastic” fund. Laura Lutton explains why, in “These Formerly ‘Fantastic’ Funds Now Miss the Mark.

In 2013, the fund outpaced that index by 2.47 percentage points, upping the expense ratio by 4 basis points to 0.81%. This increase moved the fund’s expenses beyond the category’s cheapest quintile…

Uhhh … yup. 247 basis points of excess return in exchange for 4 basis points of expense is clearly not what we expect of Fantastic funds. Out!

From Ira’s “What the hell is that?” file: A rare T Rowe flub

Ira Artman, a long-time friend of the Observer and consistently perceptive observer himself, shared the following WTF performance chart from T. Rowe Price:

latin america fund

Good news: T. Rowe Price Latin America (PRLAX) is magic! It’s volatility-free emerging market fund.

Bad news: the chart is rigged. The vertical axis is compressed so eliminate virtually all visible volatility. There’s a sparky discussion of the chart on our discussion board that provides both uncompressed versions of the chart and the note that the other T. Rowe funds did not receive similarly scaled axes. Consensus on the board: someone deserves a spanking for this one.

Thanks to Ira for catching and sharing.

Briefly Noted . . .

CRM Global Opportunity Fund (CRMWX) is becoming CRM Slightly-Less-Global Opportunity Fund, in composition if not in name. Effective October 28, the fund is changing its principal investment strategy from investing “a majority” of its assets outside the US to investing “at least 40%” internationally, less if markets get ugly. Given that the fund’s portfolio is just 39% global now (per Morningstar), I’m a little fuzzy on why the change will make a difference.


Seafarer’s share class model is becoming more common, which is a good thing. Seafarer, like other independent funds, needs to be available on brokerage platforms like Schwab and Scottrade; those platforms allow for lower cost institutional shares so long as the minimum exceeds $100,000 and higher cost retail shares with baked-in 12(b)1 fees to help pay Schwab’s platform fees. Seafarer complied but allows a loophole: they’ll waive the minimum on the institutional shares if you (a) buy it directly from them and (b) set up an automatic investing plan so that you’re moving toward the $100,000 minimum. Whether or not you reach it isn’t the consideration. Seafarer’s preference is to think of their low-cost institutional class as their “universal share class.”

Grandeur Peak is following suit. They intend to launch their new Global Micro Cap Fund by year’s end, then to close it as soon as assets hit $25 million. That raises the real prospect of the fund being available for a day or two. During that time, though, they’ll offer institutional shares to retail investors who invest directly with them. They write:

We want the Global Micro Cap Fund to be available to both our retail and institutional clients, but without the 0.25% 12b-1 fee that comes with the Investor share class. Our intention is to make the Institutional class available to all investors, and waive the minimum to $2000 for regular accounts and $100 for UTMA accounts.

Invesco International Small Company Fund will reopen to all investors on September 11, 2015. Morningstar has a lot of confidence in it (the fund is “Silver”) and it has a slender asset base right now, $330 million, down from its peak of $700 million before the financial crisis. The fund has been badly out of step with the market in recent years, which is reflected in the fact that it has one of its peer group’s best ten-year record and worst five-year records. Since neither the team nor the strategy has changed, Morningstar remains sanguine.

Matthews Pacific Tiger Fund (MAPTX) has reopened to new investors.

Effective July 1, 2015 the shareholder servicing fee for the Investor Class Shares of each of the Meridian Funds was reduced from 0.25% to 0.05%. Somehow I missed it. Sorry for the late notice. The Investor shares continue to sport their bizarre $99,999 minimum initial investment.

Wells Fargo Advantage Index Fund (WFILX) reopens to new investors on October 1. It’s an over-priced S&P 500 Index fund. Assuming you can dodge the front load, the 0.56% expense ratio is a bit more than triple Vanguard’s (0.17% for Investor shares of Vanguard 500, VFINX). That difference adds up: over 10 years, a $10,000 investment in WFILX would have grown to $19,800 while the same money in VFINX grew to $20,700.

CLOSINGS (and related inconveniences)

Acadian Emerging Markets (AEMGX) is slated to close to new investors on October 1. The adviser is afraid that the fund’s ability to execute its strategy will be impaired “if the size of the Fund is not limited.” The fund has lost an average of 3.7% annually for the current market cycle, through July 2015. You’d almost think that losing money, trailing the benchmark and having higher-than-normal volatility would serve as automatic brakes limiting the size of the portfolio.” Apparently not so much.

M.D. Sass 1-3 Year Duration U.S. Agency Bond Fund (MDSHX) is closing the fund’s retail share class and converting them to institutional shares. It’s an okay fund in a low return category, which means expenses matter. Over the past three years, the retail shares trail 60% of their peer group while the institutional shares lead 60% of the group. The conversion will give existing retail shareholders a bit of a boost and likely cut the adviser’s expenses by a bit.


Effective August 27, 2015 361 Global Managed Futures Strategy Fund (AGFQX) became the 361 Global Counter-Trend Fund. I wish them well, but the new prospectus language is redolent of magic wands and sparkly dust: “counter-trend strategy follows an investment model designed to perform in volatile markets, regardless of direction, by taking advantage of fluctuations.  Using a combination of market inputs, the model systematically identifies when to purchase and sell specific investments for the Fund.” What does that mean? What fund isn’t looking to identify when to buy or sell specific investments?

American Independence Laffer Dividend Growth Fund (LDGAX) has … laughed its last laff? Hmmm. Two year old fund run by Laffer Investments, brainchild of Arthur B. Laffer, the genius behind supply-side economics. Not, as it turns out, a very good two year old fund.  At the end of July, American Independence merged with FolioMetrix LLC to form RiskX Investments. Somewhere in the process, the fund was declared to be surplus.

Effective September 1, 2015, the name of the Anchor Alternative Income Fund (AAIFX) will be changed to Armor Alternative Income Fund.

Effective August 7, 2015, Eaton Vance Tax-Managed Small-Cap Value Fund became Eaton Vance Tax-Managed Global Small-Cap Fund (ESVAX).

The Hartford Emerging Markets Research Fund is now Hartford Emerging Markets Equity Fund (HERAX) while The Hartford Small/Mid Cap Equity Fund has become Hartford Small Cap Core Fund (HSMAX).  HERAX is sub-advised by Wellington. Back in May they switched out managers, with the new guy bringing a more-driven approach so they’ve also added “quantitative investing” as a risk factor in the prospectus.  For HSMAX, midcaps are now out.

In mid-November, three Stratton funds add “Sterling Capital” to their names: Stratton Mid Cap Value (STRGX) becomes Sterling Capital Stratton Mid Cap Value. Stratton Real Estate (STMDX) and Stratton Small Cap Value (STSCX) get the same additions.

Effective September 17, 2015, ROBO-STOXTM Global Robotics and Automation Index ETF (ROBO) will be renamed ROBO GlobalTM Robotics and Automation Index ETF. If this announcement affects your portfolio, consider getting therapy and a Lab puppy.


American Beacon is pretty much cleaning out the closet. They’ve announced liquidation of their S&P 500 Index Fund, Small Cap Index Fund, International Equity Index Fund, Emerging Markets Fund, High Yield Bond Fund, Intermediate Bond Fund, Short-Term Bond Fund and Zebra Global Equity Fund (AZLAX). With regard to everything except Zebra, the announcement speaks of “large redemptions which are expected to occur by the end of 2015” that would shrink the funds by so much that they’re not economically viable. American Beacon started as the retirement plan for American Airlines, was sold to one private equity firm in 2008 and then sold again in 2015. It appears that they lost the contract for running a major retirement plan and are dumping most of their vanilla funds in favor of their recent ventures into trendier fare. The Zebra Global Equity Fund was a perfectly respectable global equity fund that drew just $5 million in assets.

In case you’re wondering whatever happened to the Ave Maria Opportunity Fund, it was eaten by the Ave Maria Catholic Values Fund (AVEMX) at the end of July.

Eaton Vance announced liquidation of its U.S. Government Money Market Fund, around about Halloween, 2015. As new SEC money market regs kick in, we’ve seen a lot of MMFs liquidate.  

hexavestEaton Vance Hexavest U.S. Equity Fund (EHUAX) is promoted to the rank of Former Fund on or about September 18, 2015, immediately after they pass their third anniversary.  What is a “hexavest,” you ask? Perhaps a protective garment donned before entering the magical realms of investing? Hmmm … haven’t visited WoW lately, so maybe. Quite beyond that it’s an institutional equity investment firm based in Montreal that subadvises four (oops, three) funds for Eaton Vance.  Likely the name derived from the fact that the firm had six founders (Greek, “hex”) who wore vests.

Rather more quickly, Eaton Vance also liquidated Parametric Balanced Risk Fund (EAPBX). The Board announced the liquidation on August 11; it was carried out August 28. And you could still say they might have been a little slow on the trigger:


The Eudora Fund (EUDFX) has closed and will liquidate on September 10, 2015.

Hundredfold Select Equity Fund (SFEOX) has closed and will discontinue its operations effective October 30, 2015. It’s the sort of closure about which I think too much. On the one hand, the manager (described on the firm’s Linked-In page as “an industry visionary”) is a good steward: almost all of the money in the fund is his own (over $1 million of $1.8 million), he doesn’t get paid to manage it, his Simply Distribute Foundation helps fund children’s hospitals and build orphanages. On the other hand, it’s a market-timing fund of funds will an 1100% turnover which has led the fund to consistently capture much more of the downside, and much less of the upside, than its peers. And, in a slightly disingenuous move, the Hundredfold Select website has already been edited to hide the fact that the Select Equity fund even exists.

Ticker symbols are sometimes useful time capsules, helping you unpack a fund’s evolution. Matthews Asian Growth and Income is “MACSX” because it once was their Asian Convertible Securities fund. Hundredfold Select is “SFEOX” because it once was the Direxion Spectrum Funds: Equity Opportunity fund.

KKM Armor Fund (RMRAX) was not, it appears, bullet-proof. Despite a 30% gain in August 2015, the 18 month old, $8 million fund has closed and will liquidate on September 24, 2015. RMRAX was one of only two mutual funds in the “volatility” peer group. The other is Navigator Sentry Managed Volatility (NVXAX). I bet you’re wondering, “why on earth would Morningstar create a bizarre little peer group with only two funds?” The answer is that there are a slug of ETFs that allow you to bet changes in the level of market volatility; they comprise the remainder of the group. That also illustrates why I prefer funds to ETFs: encouraging folks to speculate on volatility changes is a fool’s errand.

The Modern Technology Fund (BELAX) has closed and will liquidate on September 25, 2015.

There’s going to be one less BRIC in the wall: Goldman Sachs has announced plans to merge Goldman Sachs BRIC Fund (GBRAX) into their Emerging Markets Equity Fund (GEMAX) sometime in October.  The Trustees unearthed a new euphemism for “burying this dog.” They want “to optimize the Goldman Sachs Funds.” The optimized line-up removes a fund that, over the past five years, turned $10,000 into $8,500 by moving its assets into a fund that turned $10,000 into $10,000.

In an interesting choice of words, the Board of Directors authorized the “winding down” Keeley Alternative Value Fund (KALVX) and the Keeley International Small Cap Value Fund (KISVX). By the time you read this, the funds will already have been quite unwound. The advisor gave Alternative Value about four years to prove its … uhh, alternative value (it couldn’t). It gave International Small Cap all of eight months. Founder John Keeley passed away in June at age 75. The firm had completed their transition planning just a month before his passing.

PIMCO Tax Managed Real Return Fund (PXMDX) will be liquidated on or about October 30, 2015.  In addition, three PIMCO ETFs are getting deposited in the circular file: 3-7 Year U.S. Treasury Index (FIVZ), 7-15 Year U.S. Treasury Index (TENZ) and Foreign Currency Strategy Active (FORX) ETFs all disappear on September 30, 2015. “This date may be changed without notice at the discretion of the Trust’s officers.” Their average daily trading volume was just a thousand or two shares.

Ramius Hedged Alpha Fund (RDRAX) will undergo “termination, liquidation and dissolution,” all on September 4, 2015.


A reminder to all muddled Lutherans: your former Aid Association for Lutherans (AAL) Funds and/or your former Lutheran Brother Funds, which merged to become your Thrivent Funds, aren’t exactly thriving. The latest evidence is the decision to merge Small Value and Small Growth into Thrivent Small Cap, Mid Cap Value and Mid Cap Growth into Thrivent Mid Cap Stock and Natural Resources and Technology into Thrivent Large Cap Growth

Toroso Newfound Tactical Allocation Fund (TNTAX) has closed and will liquidate at the end of September, 2015.  The promise of riches driven by “a proprietary, volatility-adjusted and momentum driven model” never quite panned out for this tiny fund-of-ETFs.

In Closing . . .

Warren Buffett turned 85 on Sunday. I can only hope that we all have his wits and vigor when we reach a similar point in our lives. To avoid copyright infringement and the risk of making folks ears bleed, I didn’t sing “happy birthday” but I celebrate his life and legacy.

As you read this, I’m boring at bunch of nice folks in Cincinnati to tears. I was asked to chat with the folks at the Ultimus Fund Services conference about growth in uncertain times. It’s a valid concern and I’ll try to share in October the gist of the argument. In late August, a bright former student of mine, Jonathon Woo, had me visit with some of his colleagues in the mutual fund research group at Edward Jones. I won’t tell you what I said to them (it was all Q&A and I rambled) but what I should have said about how to learn (in this case about the prospect of an individual mutual fund) from talking with others. And, if the market doesn’t scramble things up again, we’ll finally run the stuff that’s been in the pipeline for two months.

We’re grateful to the folks who continue to support the Observer, both financially and with an ongoing stream of suggestions. Thanks to Tyler for his recent advice, and to Rick, Kirk, William, Beatrice, Courtney, Thaddeus, Kevin, Virginia, Sunil, and Ira (a donor advised fund – that’s so cool) for their financial support. You guys rock! A number of planning firms have also reaching out with support, kind words and suggestions. So thanks to Wealth Care, LLC, Evergreen Asset Management, and Integrity Financial Planning.  I especially need to track down our friends at Evergreen Asset Management for some beta testing questions. Too, we can’t forget the folks whose support comes from the use of our Amazon Affiliate link. Way to go on finding those back-to-school supplies!

I don’t mean to frighten anyone before Halloween, but historically September and October are the year’s most volatile months. Take a deep breath, try to do a little constructive planning on quiet days, pray for the Cubs (as I write, they’re in third place but with a record that would have them leading four of the six MLB divisions), cheer for the Pirates, laugh at the dinner table and remember that we’re thinking of you.

As ever,


July 1, 2015

By David Snowball

Dear friends,

We really hope you enjoy the extra start-of-summer profundity that we’ve larded (excuse the expression) into this issue. We took advantage of the extra time afforded by the June 30th leap second and the extra light generated that night by the once-in-two-millennia conjunction of Venus and Jupiter to squeeze in a family-sized portion of insight into this month’s issue.

And it all started with Morningstar.


Mania at the McCormick!

Morningstar’s annual investor conference is always a bit of a zoo. Two thousand people jam together in a building the size of a shopping mall, driven by a long schedule and alternating doses of caffeine (6:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.) and alcohol (thereafter). There are some dozens of presentations, ranging from enormously provocative to freakish, mostly by folks who have something to sell but, for the sake of decorum, are trying not to mention that fact.

Okay: the damned thing’s a lot bigger than any shopping mall except the Mall of America. MoA has about 4.2 million square feet total, McCormick is around 3.4 million. We were in the West Building, whose main ballroom alone runs to 100,000 square feet. 500,000 square feet of exhibition space, 250,000 of meeting space, with something like 60 meeting rooms. That building alone cost about $900 million, and McCormick has three others.

What follows are three sets of idiosyncratic observations: mine, Charles and Ed’s. I’ve linked to Morningstar’s video, where available. The key is that their videos auto-launch, which can be mightily annoying. Be ready for it.

Jeremy Grantham: The World Will End, You’ve Just Got to be Patient for a Bit

Grantham, one of the cofounders of GMO, a highly respected institutional investment firm originally named Grantham, Mayo, van Otterloo, is regularly caricatured as a perma-bear. He responds to the charge by asserting “I’m not a pessimist. You’re simply optimists.”

Grantham argues that we’re heading for a massive stock market crash (something on the order of a 60% fall), just not for a while yet. GMO’s study of asset bubbles found that asset prices regularly become detached from reality but they’re not subject to crashing until they exceed their normal levels by about two standard deviations.  Roughly speaking, that translates to asset prices that are higher than they are 95% of the time. Right now, we’re about 1.5 standard deviations above average. If current trends continue – and Grantham does expect stocks to follow the path of least resistance, higher – then we’ll reach the two standard deviation mark around the time of the presidential election.

Merely being wildly overvalued doesn’t automatically trigger a crash (in the UK, home prices reached a three standard deviation peak – 99.7% – before imploding) but it’s extremely rare for such a market not to find a reason to crash. And when the crash comes, the market typically falls at about twice the rate that it rose.

As an aside, Grantham also notes that no stock market crash has occurred until after average investors have been dragged into the party’s frenzied last hours, too late to make much money but just in time to have their portfolios gutted (again). While optimism, measured by various investor attitude surveys, is high, it’s not manic. Yet.

So, we’ve got a bit to savor ill-garnered gains and to reassure ourselves that this time we’ll be sharp, discerning and well on our way to safety ere the crash occurs.

Oddly, Grantham expects a crash because capitalism does work, but regulation (mostly) does not. Under capitalism, capital flows to the area of greatest opportunity: if your lemonade stand is able to draw a million in revenue today, you can be pretty much guaranteed that there will be a dozen really cool lemonade stands in your neighborhood within the week. As a result, your profit will decline. More stands will be built, and profits will continue declining, until capitalists conclude that there’s nothing special in the lemonade stand biz and they resume the search for great opportunities. Today’s record corporate profit margins must draw new competitors in to drive those excess profits down, or capitalism is failing.

Grantham argues that capitalism is failing for now. He blames the rise of “stock option culture” and a complicit U.S. fed for the problem. Up to 80% of executive compensation now flows from stock options, which are tied to short-term performance of a company’s stock rather than long-term performance of the company. People respond to the incentives they’re given, so managers tend toward those actions which increase the value of their stock options. Investing in the company is slow, uncertain and risky, and so capital expenditures (“capex”) by publicly-traded firms is falling. Buying back stock (overpriced or not) and issuing dividends is quick, clean and safe, and so that sort of financial engineering expands. Interest rates at or near zero even encourage the issuance of debt to fund buybacks (“Peter, meet Paul”). It would be possible to constrain the exercise of options, but we choose not to. And so firms are not moving capital into new ventures or into improving existing capabilities which, in the short run, continues to underwrite record profit margins.

David Marcus: We’re in the Bottom of the Third

All value investing starts with fundamentally, sometimes appallingly, screwed-up companies that have the potential to do vastly better than they’ve been doing. The question is whether anything will unleash those potential gains. That’s not automatically true; 50 to a hundred publicly-traded companies go bankrupt each year as do something like 30,000 private ones.

On whole, investors would prefer that the firms they invest in not go belly up. In the U.S., they’ve got great leverage to encourage corporate restructurings – spinoffs, mergers, acquisitions, division closures – which might serve to release that locked-up potential. We also have a culture that, for better and worse, endorses the notion of maximizing shareholder (rather than stakeholder or community) value.

Traditionally the U.S. has been one of the few places that countenanced, much less encouraged, frequent corporate dislocations. Europeans encourage a stakeholder model focused on workers’ interests and Asians have a tradition of intricately interwoven corporate interests where corporations share a web of directorships and reciprocal investments in each other.

David Marcus manages Evermore Global Value (EVGBX) and tries to do so in the spirit of his mentor, Michael Price. As one of Price’s Mutual Series managers, he specialized in “special situations” investing, a term that describes the whole array of “rotten company teetering between damnation and salvation” thing. Later, as a private investor in Europe, he saw the beginnings of a change in corporate culture; the first intimations that European managers were willing to make tentative moves toward a shareholder-focused culture. In December 2009, he launched the Evermore funds to exploit that unrecognized change.

The first three years were trying: his flagship fund lost 10% over the period and trailed 95% of its peers. When we spoke several years ago, Mr. Marcus was frustrated but patient: he likened his portfolio to a spring that’s already been compressed a lot but, instead of releasing, was getting compressed even more. In the past three years, the spring rebounded: top third relative returns, 15% annualized ones, with two stretches at the very top of the global equity heap.

Mr. Marcus’s portfolio remains Euro-centric, about 66% against his peers’ 30%, but he foresees a rotation. The 2008 financial meltdown provided an opportunity for European corporate insiders to pursue a reform agenda. International members started appearing on corporate boards, for instance, and managers were given leeway to begin reducing inefficiency. ThyssenKrupp AG, a German conglomerate, had 27 separate IT departments operating with inconsistent policies and often incompatible software. They’ve whittled that down to five and are pursuing the crazy dream of just one IT department. Such moves create a certain momentum: at first, restructuring seems impossible, then a minor restructuring frees up a billion in capital and managers begin to imagine additional work that might reap another billion and a half. As the great Everett Dirksen once reflected, “A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking about real money.” Mr. Marcus believes that Europeans are pursuing such reforms with greater vigor but without wasting capital “on crappy IPOs” that continue to dog the U.S. market.

A bigger change might be afoot in Asia and, in particular, in Japan. Corporate executives are, for the first time, beginning to unwind the complex web of cross-ownership which had traditionally been a one-way move: you invest in another corporation but never, ever sell your stake. Increasingly, managers see those investments as “cash cows,” the source of additional capital that might be put to better use.

Ironically, the same social forces that once held capital captive might now be working to free it. Several new Japanese stock indexes attempt to recognize firms that are good stewards of shareholder capital. The most visible is the Nikkei 400 ROE index, which tracks companies “with high appeal for investors, which meet requirements of global investment standards, such as efficient use of capital and investor-focused management perspectives.” Failure to qualify for inclusion has been deeply embarrassing for some management teams, which subsequently reoriented their capital allocations. Nomura Securities launched a competing index focusing on companies that use dormant cash to repurchase shares, though the effects of that are not yet known.

Mr. Marcus’s sense that the ground might be shifting is shared by several outstanding managers. Andrew Foster of Seafarer (SFGIX) has speculated that conditions favorable to value investing (primarily institutions that might serve as catalysts to unlock value) are evolving in the emerging markets. Messrs. Lee and Richyal at JOHCM International Select Fund (JOHAX) have directly invoked the significance of the Nikkei ROE Index in their Japan investing. Ralf Scherschmidt at Oberweis International Opportunities (OBIOX) has made a career of noticing that investors fail to react promptly to such changes; he tries to react to news promptly then wait patiently for others to begin believing that change is really. All three are five-star funds.

I’ll continue my reviews in August. For now, here are Charles’s quick takes.

Morningstar Investment Conference 2015 Notes


In contrast to the perfect pre-autumnal weather of last year’s ETF conference, Chicago was hot and muggy this past week, where some 2000 attendees gathered for Morningstar’s Investment Conference located at the massive, sprawling, and remote McCormick Place.

Morningstar does a great job of quickly publishing conference highlights and greatly facilitates press … large press room wired with high-speed internet, ample snacks and hot coffee, as well as adjacent media center where financial reporters can record fund managers and speakers then quickly post perspectives, like Chuck Jaffe’s good series of audio interviews.

On the MFO Discussion Board, David attempts to post nightly his impressions and linkster Ted relays newly published conference articles. To say the event is well covered would be a colossal understatement.


Nonetheless, some impressions for inclusion in this month’s commentary …

If you are a financial adviser not catering to women and millennials, your days are numbered.

On women. Per Sallie Krawcheck, former president of BAC’s Global Wealth division and currently chair of the Ellevate network, which is dedicated to economic engagement of women worldwide, women live six to eight years longer than men … 80% of men die married, while 80% of women die unmarried … 70% of widows leave their financial advisers within a year of their husband’s death.

While women will soon account for majority of US millionaires, most financials advisors don’t include spouses in the conversation. The issue extends to the buy side as well. In a pre-conference session entitled, “Do Women Investors Behave Differently Than Men,” panels cited that women control 51% investable wealth and currently account for 47% of high net worth individuals, yet professional women money managers account for only 5% of assets under management. How can that be?

The consequence of this lack of inclusion is “lack of diversification, higher risk, and money left on table.” Women, they state, value wealth preservation many times more than men. One panelist actually argues that women are better suited to handle the stress hormone cortisol since they need not suffer adverse consequences of interaction with testosterone.

While never said explicitly, I could not help but wonder if the message or perhaps question here is: If women played a greater role in financial institutions and at the Fed in years leading up to 2007, would we have avoided the financial or housing crises?  

On millennials. Per Joel Brukenstein of Financial Planning Magazine and creator of Technology Tools for Today website, explains that the days of financial advisors charging 1% annual fee for maintaining a client portfolios of four or five mutual funds are no longer sustainable … replaced with a proliferation of robo-advisors, like Schwab Intelligent Portfolios, which charges “no advisory fees, no account service fees, no commissions, period.”

Ditto, if your services are not available on a smart phone. Millennials are beyond internet savvy and mobile … all data/tools must be accessible via the cloud.

Mr. Brukenstein went so far as to suggest that financial advisors not offering services beyond portfolio management should consider exiting the business.


Keynote highlights. Jeremy Grantham, British-born co-founder of Boston-based asset management firm GMO, once again reiterated his belief that US stocks are 30 – 60% overvalued, still paying for overvaluation sins of our fathers … the great bull run of 1990, which started in 1987, finished in 2000, and was right on the heels of the great bull run of the 1980s. No matter that investors have suffered two 50% drawdowns the past 15 years with the S&P 500 and only received anemic returns, “it will take 25 years to get things right again.” So, 10 more years of suffering I’m afraid.

He blames Greenspan, Bernanke, and Yellen for distorting valuations, the capital markets, the zero interest rate policy … leading to artificially inflated equity prices and a stock-option culture that has resulted in making leaders of publically traded companies wealthy at the expense of capital investment, which would benefit the many. “No longer any room for city or community altruism in today’s capitalism … FDR’s social contract no more.”

All that said he does not see the equity bubble popping just yet … “no bubble peaks before abnormal buyers and deals come to market.” He predicts steady raise until perhaps coming presidential election.

Mr. Grantham is not a believer in efficient market theory. He views the cycles of equity expansion and contraction quite inefficiently driven by career risk (never be wrong on your own …), herding, momentum, extrapolation, excursions from replacement value, then finally, arbitrage and mean reversion at expense of client patience. Round and round it goes.


David Kelly, JP Morgan’s Chief Global Strategist whose quarterly “Guide To Markets” now reaches 169 thousand individuals in 25 countries, also does not see a bear market on horizon, which he believes would be triggered by one or more of these four events/conditions: recession, commodity spike, aggressive fed tightening, and/or extreme valuation. He sees none of these.

He sees current situation in Greece as a tragedy … Germany was too tough during recession. Fortunately, 80% of Greek debt is held by ECB, not Euro banks, so he sees no lasting domino effect if it defaults.

On the US economy, he sees it “not booming, but bouncing back.” Seven years into recovery, which represents the fourth longest expansion dating back to 1900. “Like a Yankees/Red Sox game … long because it is slow.”

He disputes Yellen’s position that there is slack in the economy, citing that last year 60 million people were hired … an extraordinary amount. (That is the gross number; subtract 57 million jobs left, for a net of 3 million.) The biggest threat to continued expansion is lack of labor force, given retiring baby boomers, 12.5% of population with felony convictions, scores addicted to drug, and restrictions on foreign nationals, which he calls the biggest tragedy: “We bring them in. They want to be here. We educate them. They are top of class. Then, we send them home. It’s crazy. We need immigration reform to allow skilled workers to stay.”

Like Grantham, he does see QE helping too much of the wrong thing at this point: “Fertilizer for weeds.”

On oil, which he views like potatoes – a classic commodity: “$110 is too much, but $40 is too low.” Since we have “genetically evolved to waste oil,” he believes now is good time to get in cause “prices have stabilized and will gradually go up.”

Like last fall, he continues to see EM cheap and good long term opportunity. Europe valuations ok … a mid-term opportunity.

He closed by reminding us that investors need courage during bear markets and brains during bull markets.


Breakout sessions. Wasatch’s Laura Geritz was stand-out panelist in break-out session “Are Frontier Markets Worth Pursuing?” She articulates her likes (“Active manager’s dream asset class … capital held dear by phenomenal FM management teams … investments by strong subsidiaries, like Nestle … China’s investment in FM … ”) and dislikes (“No practical index … current indices remain too correlated due to lack of diversification … lack of market liquidity …”). She views FM as strictly long-term investment proposition with lots of ups and downs, but ultimately compelling. If you have not listened to her interview with Chuck Jaffe, you should.

Another break-out session, panelists discussed the current increasing popularity of “ESG Investing.” (ESG stands for environmental, social, and governance. ESG funds, currently numbering more than 200, apply these criteria in their investments.) “Ignore increasingly at your own peril … especially given that women and millennials represent the biggest demographic on horizon.” Interestingly, data suggest such funds do just as well if not slightly better than the overall market.

Lengthening Noses

edward, ex cathedraBy Edward Studzinski

“A sign of celebrity is that his name is often worth more than his services.”

Daniel J. Boorstin

So the annual Morningstar Conference has come and gone again, with couple thousand attendees in town hoping to receive the benefit of some bit of investment or business wisdom. The theme of this year’s conference appears to have been that the world of investors now increasingly is populated by and belongs to “Gen X’ers” and “Millennials.” Baby Boomers such as yours truly, are a thing of the past in terms of influence as well as a group from whom assets are to be gathered. Indeed, according to my colleagues, advisors should be focused not on the current decision maker in a client family but rather the spouse (who statistically should outlive) or the children. And their process of decision making will most likely be very different than that of the patriarch. We can see that now, in terms of how they desire to communicate, which is increasingly less by the written word or in face to face meetings.

In year’s past, the conference had the flavor of being an investment conference. Now it has taken on the appearance of a marketing and asset allocation advice event. Many a person told me that they do not come to attend the conference and hear the speakers. Rather, they come because they have conveniently assembled in one place a large number of individuals that they have been interested either in meeting or catching up with. My friend Charles’ observation was that it was a conference of “suits” and “skirts” in the Exhibitors’ Hall. Unfortunately I have the benefit of these observations only second and third hand, as for the first part of the week I was in Massachusetts and did not get back to Chicago until late Wednesday evening. And while I could have made my way to events on Thursday afternoon and Friday morning, I have found it increasingly difficult to take the whole thing seriously as an investment information event (although it is obviously a tremendous cash cow for Morningstar). Given the tremendous success of the conference year in and year out, one increasingly wonders what the correct valuation metric is to be applied to Morningstar equity. Is it the Google of the investment and financial services world? Nonetheless, given the focus of many of the attendees on the highest margin opportunities in the investment business and the way to sustain an investment management franchise, I wonder if, notwithstanding how she said it, whether Senator Elizabeth Warren is correct when she says that “the game is rigged.”

Friday apparently saw two value-oriented investors in a small panel presenting and taking Q&A. One of those manages a fund with $20 Billion in assets, which is a larger amount of money than he historically has managed. Charging a 1% fee on that $20B, his firm is picking up $200 Million in revenue from that one fund alone, notwithstanding that they have other funds. Historically he has been more of a small-midcap manager, with a lot of special situations but not to worry, he’s finding lots of things to invest in, albeit with 40% or so in cash or cash equivalents. The other domestic manager runs two domestic funds as the lead manager, with slightly more than $24 Billion in assets, and for simplicity’s sake, let’s call it a blended rate of 90 basis points in fees. His firm is seeing than somewhat in excess of $216 Million in revenue from the two funds. Now let me point out that unless the assets collapse, these fees are recurring, so in five years, there has been a billion dollars in revenue generated at each firm, more than enough to purchase several yachts. The problem I have with this is it is not a serious discussion of the world we are in at present. Valuation metrics for stocks and bonds are at levels approaching if not beyond the two standard deviation warning bells. I suppose some of this is to be expected, as if is a rare manager who is going to tell you to keep your money. However, I would be hard pressed at this time if running a fund, to have it open. I am actually reminded of the situation where a friend sent me to her family’s restaurant in suburban Chicago, and her mother rattled off the specials of the evening, one of which was Bohemian style duck. I asked her to go ask the chef how the duck looked that night, and after a minute she came back and said, “Chef says the duck looks real good tonight.” At that point, one of the regulars at the bar started laughing and said, “What do you think? The chef’s going to say, oh, the duck looks like crap tonight?”

Now, if I could make a suggestion in Senator Warren’s ear, it would be that hearings should be held about what kind of compensation in the investment management field is excessive. When the dispersion between the lowest paid employee and the highest results in the highest compensated being paid two hundred times more than the lowest, it seems extreme. I suppose we will hear that not all of the compensation is compensation, but rather some reflects ownership and management responsibilities. The rub is that many times the so-called ownership interests are artificial or phantom.

It just strikes that this is an area ripe for reform, for something in the nature of an excess profits tax to be proposed. After all, nothing is really being created here that redounds to the benefit of the U.S. economy, or is creating jobs (and yes Virginia, carried interest for hedge funds as a tax advantage should also be eliminated).

We now face a world where the can increasingly looks like it cannot be kicked down the road financially for either Greece or Puerto Rico. And that doesn’t even consider the states like Illinois and Rhode Island that have serious underfunded pension issues, as well as crumbling infrastructures. So, I say again, there is a great deal of risk in the global financial system at present. One should focus, as an investor, in not putting any more at risk than one could afford to write off without compromising one’s standard of living. Low interest rates have done more harm than good, for both the U.S. economy and the global economy. And liquidity is increasingly a problem, especially in the fixed income markets but also in stocks. Be warned! Don’t be one of the investors who has caught the disease known as FOMO or “Fear of Missing Out.”

It’s finally easy being green

greeterThe most widely accepted solution to Americans’ “retirement crisis” – our lifelong refusal to forego the joy of stuff now in order to live comfortably later – is pursuing a second (or third or fifth) career after we’ve nominally retired. Some of us serve as school crossing guards, greeters, or directors of mutual fund boards, others as consultants, carpenters and writers. Honorable choices, all.

But what if you could make more money another way, by selling cigarettes directly to adolescents in poor countries?  There’s a booming market, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is working globally to be sure that folks keep smoking, and your customers do get addicted. A couple hours a day with a stand near a large elementary school or junior high and you’re golden.

Most of us would say “no.” Many of us would say “HELL NO.” The thought of imperiling the lives and health of others to prop up our own lifestyle just feels horribly wrong.

The question at hand, then, is “if you aren’t willing to participate directly in such actions, why are you willing to participate indirectly in them through your investments?” Your decision to invest in, for example, a tobacco company lowers their cost of capital, increases their financial strength and furthers their business. There’s no real dodging the fact: you become a part-owner of the corporation, underwrite its operations and expect to be well compensated for it.

And you are doing it. In the case of Phillip Morris International (PM), for example, 30% of the firm’s stock is owned by ten investment companies:


Capital World & Capital Research are the advisors to the American Funds. Barrow sub-advises funds for, among others, Vanguard and Touchstone.

That exercise can be repeated with a bunch of variations: what role would you like to play in The Sixth Great Extinction, the impending collapse of the Antarctic ice sheet, or the incineration of young people in footwear factories? In the past, many of us defaulted to one of two simple positions: I don’t have a choice or I can’t afford to be picky.

The days when socially-responsible investing was the domain of earnest clergy and tree-hugging professors are gone. How gone?  Here’s a quick quiz to help provide context: how many dollars are invested through socially-screened investment vehicles?

  1. A few hundred million
  2. A few billion
  3. A few tens of billions
  4. A few hundred billion
  5. A few trillion
  6. Just enough to form a really satisfying plug with which to muffle The Trump.

The answer is “E” (though I’d give credit, on principle, for “F”). ESG-screened investments now account for about one-sixth of all of the money invested in the U.S. —over $6.5 trillion— up by 76% since 2012. In the U.S. alone there are over 200 open-end funds and ETFs which apply some variety of environmental, social and governance screens on their investors’ behalf.

There are four reasons investors might have for pursuing, or avoiding, ESG-screened investments. They are, in brief:

  1. It changes my returns. The traditional fear is that by imposing screening costs and limiting one’s investable universe, SRI funds were a financial drag on your portfolio. There have been over 1200 academic and professional studies published on the financial effects, and a dozen or so studies of the studies (called meta-analyses). The uniform conclusion of both academic and professional reviews is that SRI screens do not reduce portfolio returns. There’s some thin evidence of improved performance, but I wouldn’t invest based on that.
  2. It changes my risk profile. The traditional hope is that responsible firms would be less subject to “headline risk” and less frequently involved in litigation, which might make them less risky investments. At least when examining SRI indexes, that’s not the case. TIAA-CREF examined a quarter century’s worth of volatility data for five widely used indexes (Calvert Social Index, Dow Jones Sustainability U.S. Index, FTSE4Good US Index, MSCI KLD 400 Social Index, and MSCI USA IMI ESG Index) and concluded that there were no systematic differences between ESG-screened indexes and “normal” ones.
  3. It allows me to foster good in the world. The logic is simple: if people refuse to invest in a company, its cost of doing business rises, its products become less economically competitive and fewer people buy them. Conversely, if you give managers access to lots of capital, their cost of capital falls and they’re able to do more of whatever you want them to do. In some instances, called “impact investing,” you actually direct your manager to put money to work for the common ground through microfinance, underwriting housing construction in economically-challenged cities and so on.
  4. It’s an expression of an important social value. In its simplest form, it’s captured by the phrase “I’m not giving my money to those bastards. Period.” Some critics of SRI have made convoluted arguments in favor of giving your money to the bastards on economic grounds and then giving other money to social causes or charities. The argument for investing in line with your beliefs seems to have resonated most strongly with Millennials (those born in the last two decades of the 20th century) and with women. Huge majorities in both groups want to align their portfolio with their desires for a better world.

Our bottom line is this: you can invest honorably without weakening your future returns. There is no longer any credible doubt about it. The real problems you face are (1) sorting through the welter of funds which might impose both positive and negative screens on a conflicting collection of 20 different issues and (2) managing your investment costs.

We’ve screened our own data to help you get started. We divided funds into two groups: ESG Stalwarts, funds with long records and stable teams, and Most Intriguing New ESG Funds, those with shorter records, smaller asset bases and distinctly promising prospects. We derived those lists by looking for no-load options open to retail investors, then looking for folks with competitive returns, reasonable expenses and high Sharpe ratios over the full market cycle that began in October 2007.

ussifIn addition, we recommend that you consult the exceedingly cool, current table of SRI funds maintained by the Forum for Sustainable and Responsible Investment. The table, which is sadly not sortable, provides current performance data and screening criteria for nearly 200 SRI funds. In addition, it has a series of clear, concise summaries of each fund on the table.

ESG Stalwarts

Domini International Social Equity DOMIX International core
1.6% E.R. Minimum investment $2,500
What it targets. DOMIX invests primarily in mid to large cap companies in Europe, Asia, and the rest of the world. Their primary ESG focus is on two objectives:  universal human dignity and environmental sustainability. They evaluate all prospective holdings to assess the company’s response to key sustainability challenges.
Why it’s a stalwart. DOMIX is a five star fund by Morningstar’s rating and, by ours, both a Great Owl and an Honor Roll fund that’s in the top 1-, 3-, and 5-year return group within its category.


Parnassus Endeavor PARWX Large growth
0.95% E.R. Minimum investment $2,000
What it targets. PARWX invests in large cap companies with “outstanding workplaces” with the rationale that those companies regularly perform better. They also refuse to invest in companies involved in the fossil fuel industry.
Why it’s a stalwart. The Endeavor Fund is an Honor Roll fund that returned 5.7% more than its average peer over the last full market cycle. It’s also a five-star fund, though it has never warranted Morningstar’s attention.  It used to be named Parnassus Workplace.


Eventide Gilead ETGLX Mid-cap growth
1.5% E.R. Minimum investment $1,000
What it targets. ETGLX invests in companies having the “ability to operate with integrity and create value for customers, employees, and other stakeholders.” They seek companies that reflect five social and environmental value statements included in their prospectus.
Why it’s a stalwart. The Eventide Gilead Fund is a Great Owl and Honor Roll fund that’s delivered an APR 9% higher than its peers since its inception in 2008. It’s also a five-star fund and was the subject of an “emerging managers” panel at Morningstar’s 2015 investment conference.


Green Century Balanced  GCBLX Aggressive hybrid
1.48% E.R. Minimum investment $2,500
What it targets. GCBLX seeks to invest in stocks and bonds of environmentally responsible companies. They screen out companies with poor environmental records and companies in industries such as fossil fuels, tobacco, nuclear power and nuclear energy.
Why it’s a stalwart. Green Century Balanced fund has delivered annual returns 1.8% higher than its average peer over the past full market cycle. The current management team joined a decade ago and the fund’s performance has been consistently excellent, both on risk and return, since. It’s been in the top return group for the 1-, 3-, and 10-year periods.


CRA Qualified Investment Retail  CRATX Intermediate-term government bond
0.83% E.R. Minimum investment $2,500
What it targets. It invests in high credit quality, market-rate fixed-income securities that finance community and economic development including affordable homes, environmentally sustainable initiatives, job creation and training programs, and neighborhood revitalization projects.
Why it’s a stalwart. There’s really nothing quite like it. This started as an institutional fund whose clientele cared about funding urban revitalization through things like sustainable neighborhoods and affordable housing. They’ve helped underwrite 300,000 affordable rental housing units, $28 million in community healthcare facilities, and $700 million in state home ownership initiatives. For all that, their returns are virtually identical to their peer group’s.


Calvert Ultra-Short Income CULAX Ultra-short term bond
0.79% E.R. Minimum investment $2,000
What it targets. CULAX invests in short-term bonds and income-producing securities using ESG factors as part of its risk and opportunity assessment. The fund avoids investments in tobacco sector companies.
Why it’s a stalwart. The Calvert Ultra-Short Income fund has delivered annual returns 1% better than its peers over the last full market cycle. That seems modest until you consider the modest returns that such investments typically offer; they’re a “strategic cash alternative” and an extra 1% on cash is huge.


Most intriguing new ESG funds

Eventide Healthcare & Life Sciences ETNHX Health – small growth
1.63% E.R. Minimum investment $1,000
What it targets. All three Eventide funds, including one still in registration, look for firms that treat their employees, customers, the environment, their communities, suppliers and the broader society in ways that are ethical and sustainable.
Why it’s intriguing. It shares both a manager and an investment discipline with its older sibling, the Gilead fund. Gilead’s record is, on both an absolute- and risk-adjusted returns basis, superb.  Over its short existence, ETNHX has delivered returns 11.8% higher than its average peer though it has had several sharp drawdowns when the biotech sector corrected.


Matthews Asia ESG MASGX Asia ex-Japan
1.45% E.R. (Prospectus, 4/30/2015) Minimum investment $2,500
What it targets. The managers are looking for firms whose practices are improving the quality of life, making human or business activity less destructive to the environment, and/or promote positive social and economic developments.
Why it’s intriguing. Much of the global future hinges on events in Asia, and no one has broader or deeper expertise the Matthews. Matthew Asia is differentiated by their ability to identify opportunities in the 90% of the Asian universe that is not rated by data service providers such as MSCI ESG. They start with screens for fundamentally sound businesses, and then look for those with reasonable ESG records and attractive valuations.


Saturna Sustainable Equity SEEFX Global large cap
0.99% E.R. (Prospectus, 3/27/2015) Minimum investment $10,000
What it targets. SEEFX invests in companies with sustainable characteristics: larger, more established, consistently profitable, and financially strong, and with low risks in the areas of the environment, social responsibility and corporate governance. They use an internally developed ESG rating system.
Why it’s intriguing. Saturna has a long and distinguished track record, through their Amana funds, of sharia-compliant investing. That translates to a lot of experience screening on social and governance factors and a lot of experience on weighing the balance of financial and ESG factors. With a proprietary database that goes back a quarter century, Saturna has a lot of tested data to draw on.


TIAA-CREF Social Choice Bond TSBRX Intermediate term bond
0.65% E.R. Minimum investment $2,500
What it targets. “Invests in corporate issuers that are leaders in their respective sectors according to a broad set of Environment, Social, and Governance factors. Typically, environmental assessment categories include climate change, natural resource use, waste management and environmental opportunities. Social evaluation categories include human capital, product safety and social opportunities. Governance assessment categories include corporate governance, business ethics and government & public policy.”
Why it’s intriguing. TIAA-CREF has long experience in socially responsible investing, driven by the demands of its core constituencies in higher ed and non-profits. In addition, the fund has low expenses and solid returns. TSBRX has offered annual returns 1.3% in excess of its peers since its inception in 2013.


Pax MSCI International ESG Index  PXINX International core
0.80% E.R. Minimum investment $1,000
What it targets. MSCI looks at five issues – environment, community and society, employees and supply chain, customers – including the quality and safety record of a company’s products, and governance and ethics – in the context of each firm’s industry. As a result, the environmental expectations of a trucking company would differ from those of, say, a grocer.
Why it’s intriguing. Passive options are still fairly rare and Pax World is a recognized leader in sustainable investing. It’s a four-star fund and it has steadily outperformed both its Morningstar peer group and the broader MSCI index by a couple percent annually since inception.


Calvert Emerging Markets Equity CVMAX EM large cap core
1.78% E.R. Minimum investment $2,000

What it targets: the fund uses a variety of positive screens to look for firms with good records on global sustainability and human rights while avoiding tobacco and weapons manufacturers.

Why it’s intriguing: So far, this is about your only EM option. Happily, it’s beaten its peers by nearly 5% since its inception just over 18 months ago. “Calvert … manages the largest family of mutual funds in the US that feature integrated environmental, social, and governance research.”

In the wings, socially responsible funds still in registration with the Securities and Exchange Commission which will be available by early autumn include:

Thornburg Better World Fund will seek long-term capital growth. The plan is to invest in international “companies that demonstrate one or more positive environmental, social and governance characteristics.” Details in this month’s Funds in Registration feature.

TIAA-CREF Social Choice International Equity Fund will seek a favorable long-term total return, reflected in the performance of ESG-screened international stocks. MSCI will provide the ESG screens and the fund will target developed international markets. This fund, and the next, will be managed by Philip James (Jim) Campagna and Lei Liao. The managers’ previous experience seems mostly to be in index funds.

TIAA-CREF Social Choice Low Carbon Equity Fund will seek a favorable long-term total return, reflected in the performance of ESG-screened US stocks. MSCI will provide the ESG screens, which will be supplemented by screens looking for firms with “demonstrate leadership in managing and mitigating their current carbon emissions and (2) have limited exposure to oil, gas, and coal reserves.”

Trillium All Cap Fund will seek long term capital appreciation by investing in an all-cap portfolio of “stocks with high quality characteristics and strong environmental, social, and governance records.” Up to 20% of the portfolio might be overseas. The fund will be managed by Elizabeth Levy and Stephanie Leighton of Trillium Asset Management. Levy managed Winslow Green Large Cap from 2009-11, Leighton managed ESG money at SunLife of Canada and Pioneer.

Trillium Small/Mid Cap Fund will seek long term capital appreciation by investing in a portfolio of small- to mid-cap “stocks with high quality characteristics and strong environmental, social, and governance records.” Small- to mid- is defined as stocks comparable in size to those in the S&P 1000, a composite of the S&P’s small and mid-cap indexes. Up to 20% of the portfolio might be overseas. The fund will be managed by Laura McGonagle and Matthew Patsky of Trillium Asset Management. Trillium oversees about $2.2 billion in assets. McGonagle was previously a research analyst at Adams, Harkness and Hill and is distantly related to Professor Minerva McGonagall. Patsky was Director of Equity Research for Adams, Harkness & Hill and a manager of the Winslow Green Solutions Fund.

kermitWe, now more than ever in human history, have a chance to make a difference. Indeed, we can’t avoid making a difference, for good or ill. In our daily lives, that might translate to helping our religious community, coaching youth sports, serving meals at a center for the marginally secure or turning our backs on that ever-so-manly Cadillac urban assault vehicle, the Escalade.

That’s all inconvenient, a bit limiting and utterly right, and so we do it. ESG advocates argue that we’ve reached the point where we can do the same things with our portfolios: we can make a difference, encourage good behavior and affirm important personal values, all with little or no cost to ourselves. It seems like a deal worth considering.

The league’s top rebounders

rodmanEven the best funds decline in value during either a correction or a bear market. Indeed, many of the best decline more dramatically than their peers because the high conviction, high independence portfolios that are signs of their distinction also can leave them exposed when things turn bad. The disastrous performance of the Dodge & Cox funds during the 2007-09 crash is a case in point.

The real question isn’t “will it fall?” We know the answer. The real question is “will the fall be so bad that I’ll get stupid and insist on selling at a painful loss (again), probably just before a rebound?” Two rarely discussed statistics address that question. The first is recovery time, which simply measures the number of months that it’s taken each fund to recover from its single worst drawdown. The second is the Ulcer Index, one of Charles’s favorite metrics if only because of the name, which was designed by Peter Martin to factor–in both the depth and duration of a fund’s drawdown.

For those casting about for tummy-calming options, we screened for funds that had been around for a full market cycle, then looked at funds which have the shortest recovery times and, separately, the lowest Ulcer Indexes over the current market cycle. That cycle started in October 2007 when the broad market peaked and includes both the subsequent brutal crash and ferocious rebound. Our general sense is that looking at performance across such a cycle is better than focusing on some arbitrary number of years (e.g., 5, 10 or 15 year results).

The first table highlights the funds with the fastest rebounders in each of six popular categories.


Top two funds (recovery time in months)

Best Great Owl (recovery time in months)

Conservative allocation

Berwyn Income BERIX (10)

Permanent Portfolio PRPFX (15)

RidgeWorth Conserv Alloc SCCTX (20)

Moderate allocation

RiverNorth Core Opportunity RNCOX (18)

Greenspring GRSPX (22)

Westwood Income Opp WHGIX (24)

Aggressive allocation

LKCM Balanced LKBAX (28)

PIMCO StocksPlus Long Duration PSLDX (34)

PIMCO StocksPlus Long Duration PSLDX (34)

Large cap core

Yacktman Focused YAFFX (20)

Yacktman YAKKX (21)

BBH Core Select BBTEX (35)

Mid cap core

Centaur Total Return TILDX (22)

Westwood SMidCap WHGMX (23)

Weitz Partners III WPOPX (28)

Small cap core

Royce Select RYSFX (18)

Dreyfus Opportunistic SC DSCVX (22)

Fidelity Small Cap Discovery FSCRX (25)

International large core

Forester Discovery INTLX (4)

First Eagle Overseas SOGEX (34)

Artisan International Value ARTKX (37)

The rebound or recovery time doesn’t directly account for the depth of the drawdown. It’s possible, after all, for an utterly nerve-wracking fund to power dive then immediately rocket skyward again, leaving your stomach and sleep behind.  The Ulcer Index figures that in: two funds might each dive, swoop and recover in two months but the one dove least earned a better (that is, lower) Ulcer Index score.

Again, these calculations are looking at performance over the course of the current market cycle only.


Top two funds (Ulcer Index)

Best Great Owl (Ulcer Index)

Conservative allocation

Manning & Napier Pro-Blend Conservative EXDAX (2.4)

Nationwide Investor Destinations Conserv NDCAX (2.5)

RidgeWorth Conservative Allocation (2.8)

Moderate allocation

Vantagepoint Diversifying Strategies VPDAX (2.4)

Westwood Income Opportunity WHGIX (3.2)

Westwood Income Opportunity WHGIX (3.2)

Aggressive allocation

Boston Trust Asset Management BTBFX (8.0)

LKCM Balanced LKBAX (8.0)

PIMCO StocksPlus Long Duration PSLDX (15.6)

Large cap core

Yacktman Focused YAFFX (8.7)

First Eagle U.S. Value FEVAX (9.0)

BBH Core Select BBTEX (9.9)

Mid cap core

Centaur Total Return TILDX (9.4)

FMI Common Stock FMIMX (9.9)

Weitz Partners III WPOPX (12.9)

Small cap core

Natixis Vaughan Nelson SCV NEFJX (11)

Royce Select RYSFX (11.1)

Fidelity Small Cap Discovery FSCRX (11.1)

International large core

Forester Discovery INTLX (4)

First Eagle Overseas SGOVX (10)

Sextant International SSIFX (13.7)

Artisan International Value ARTKX (14.9)

How much difference does paying attention to risk make? Fully half of all international large cap funds are still underwater; 83 months after the onset of the crash, they have still not made their investors whole. That roster includes all of the funds indexed to the MSCI EAFE, the main index of large cap stocks in the developed world, as well as actively-managed managed funds from BlackRock, Goldman Sachs, Janus, JPMorgan and others.

In domestic large caps, both the median fund on the list and all major market index funds took 57 months to recover.

Bottom Line: the best time to prepare for the rain is while the sun is still shining. While you might not feel that a portfolio heavy on cash or short-term bonds meets your needs, it makes sense for you to investigate – within whatever asset classes you choose to pursue – funds likely to inflict only manageable amounts of pain. Metrics like recovery time and Ulcer Index should help guide those explorations.

FPA Perennial: Time to Go.

renoFPA Perennial (FPPFX) closed to new investors on June 15, 2015. The fund that re-opens to new investors at the beginning of October will bear no resemblance to it. If you are a current Perennial shareholder, you should leave now.

Perennial and its siblings, FPA Paramount (FPRAX) and the closed-end Source Capital (SOR), were virtual clones, managed by Steve Geist and Eric Ende. While the rest of FPA were hard-core absolute value guys, G&E ran splendid small- to mid-cap growth funds, fully invested in very high-quality companies, negligible turnover, drifting between small and mid, growth and blend. Returns were consistent and solid. Greg Herr was added to the team several years ago.

In 2013, FPA made the same transition at Paramount that’s envisaged here: the managers left, a new strategy was imposed and the portfolio was liquidated. Domestic growth became global value. Only the name remained the same.

With Perennial, not even the name will remain.

  1. All of the managers are going. Mr. Geist retired in 2014 and Ende, at age 70, is moving toward the door. Mr. Herr is leaving to focus on Paramount. They are being replaced by Greg Nathan. Mr. Nathan is described as “the longest serving analyst for the Contrarian Value Strategy, including FPA Crescent Fund (FPACX).”
  2. The strategy is going. Geist and Ende were small- to mid-cap growth. The new fund will be all-cap value. It will be the US equity manifestation of the stock-picking strategy used in Crescent, Paramount and International Value. It is a perfectly sensible strategy, but it bears no resemblance to the one for which the fund is known.
  3. The portfolio is going. FPA warns that the change “will result in significant long-term capital gains.” Take that warning seriously.  Morningstar calculates your potential capital gains exposure at 63%, that is, 63% of the fund’s NAV is a result of so far untaxed capital gains. If the portfolio is liquidated, you could see up to $36/share in taxable distributions.  

    How likely is a hit of that magnitude? We can compare Paramount’s portfolio before and after the 2013 transition. Of the 31 stocks in Paramount’s portfolio:

    27 positions were entirely eliminated
    2 positions (WABCO and Zebra Technologies) were dramatically reduced
    1 position (Aggreko plc) was dramatically expanded
    1 position (Maxim Integrated Products) remained roughly equal

    During that transition, the fund paid out about 40% of its NAV in taxable gains including two large distributions over the course of two weeks at year’s end.

    Certainly the tax hit will vary based on your cost basis, but if your cost basis is high – $35/share or more – you might be better getting out before the big tax hit comes.

  4. The name is going. The new fund will be named FPA S. Value Fund.

I rather like FPA’s absolute value orientation and FPA U.S. Value may well prove itself to be an excellent fund in the long-term. In the short term, however, it’s likely to be a tax nightmare led in an entirely new direction by an inexperienced manager. If you bought FPPFX because you likely want what Geist & Ende did, you might want to look at Motley Fool Great America (TMFGX). It’s got a similar focus on quality growth, low turnover and small- to mid-cap domestic stocks. It’s small enough to be nimble and we’ve identified it as a Great Owl Fund for its consistently excellent risk-adjusted returns.

The mills of justice turn slowly, but grind exceedingly fine.

The SEC this month announced sanctions against two funds for misdeeds that took place five to seven years ago while a third fund worked to get ahead of SEC concerns about its advisor.

On June 17, 2015, the SEC issued penalties to Commonwealth Capital Management and three former three independent members of its mutual fund board. The basic argument is that, between 2008 and 2010, the adviser fed crap to the board and they blindly gobbled it up. (Why does neither half of their equation surprise me?) The SEC’s exact argument is that the board provided misleading information about the fund to the directors and the independent directors failed to exercise reasonable diligence in examining the evidence before approving a new investment contract. The fund in question was small and bad; it quickly added “extinct” to its list of attributes.

On June 22, 2015, the Board of Trustees of the Vertical Capital Income Fund (VCAPX) terminated the investment advisory agreement with Vertical Capital Asset Management, LLC. The fund’s auditor has also resigned. The Board’s vaguely phrased concern is that VCAM “lacks sufficient resources to meet its obligations to the Fund, and failed to adequately monitor the actions of its affiliate Vertical Recovery Management in its duties as the servicing agent of the mortgage notes held by the Fund.”

On June 23, 2015, the SEC reached a settlement with Pekin Singer Strauss Asset Management (PSS), advisor to the Appleseed Fund (APPLX) and portfolio managers William Pekin and Joshua Strauss.  The SEC found “that the securities laws were violated in 2009 and 2010 when PSS did not conduct timely internal annual compliance reviews or implement and enforce certain policies and procedures.” PSS also failed to move clients from the higher-cost investor shares to the lower-cost institutional ones. No one admits or denies anything, though PSS were the ones who detected and corrected the share class issue on their own.

Morningstar, once a fan of the fund, has placed them “under review” as they sort out the implications. That’s got to sting since Appleseed so visibly positions itself as a socially-responsible fund.

Top developments in fund industry litigation

Fundfox LogoFundfox, launched in 2012, is the mutual fund industry’s only litigation intelligence service, delivering exclusive litigation information and real-time case documents neatly organized, searchable, and filtered as never before. For the complete list of developments last month, and for information and court documents in any case, log in at and navigate to Fundfox Insider.


  • The court gave its final approval to a $9.475 million settlement in the ERISA class action that challenged MassMutual‘s receipt of revenue-sharing payments from third-party mutual funds. (Golden Star, Inc. v. Mass Mut. Life Ins. Co.)


  • Calamos filed a motion to dismiss excessive-fee litigation regarding its Growth Fund. Brief: “Plaintiffs advance overwrought policy critiques of the entire mutual fund industry, legally inapt comparisons between services rendered to a retail mutual fund (such as the [Growth] Fund) and those provided to an institutional account or as sub-adviser, and conclusory assertions that the Fund grew over time but did not reduce its fees that are just the sort of allegations that courts in this Circuit have consistently dismissed for more than 30 years.” (Chill v. Calamos Advisors LLC.)
  • Parties filed dueling motions for summary judgment in fee litigation regarding eight Hartford mutual funds. Plaintiffs’ section 36(b) claims, first filed in 2011, previously survived Hartford’s motion to dismiss. The summary judgment briefs are unavailable on PACER. (Kasilag v. Hartford Inv. Fin. Servs. LLC; Kasilag v. Hartford Funds Mgmt. Co.)
  • New York Life filed a motion to dismiss excessive-fee litigation regarding four of its MainStay funds. Brief: Plaintiffs’ complaint “asserts in conclusory fashion that Defendant New York Life Investment Management LLC (‘NYLIM’) received excessive fees for management of four mutual funds, merely because NYLIM hired subadvisors to assist with its duties and paid them a portion of the total management fee. But NYLIM’s employment of this manager/subadvisor structure—widely utilized throughout the mutual fund industry and endorsed by NYLIM’s regulator—cannot itself constitute a breach of NYLIM’s fiduciary duty under Section 36(b) of the Investment Company Act . . . .” (Redus-Tarchis v. N.Y. Life Inv. Mgmt., LLC.)

The Alt Perspective: Commentary and news from DailyAlts.

dailyaltsSurvey Says…

The spring is the season for surveys and big opinion pieces. Perhaps it is the looming summer vacations of readers that prompt companies to survey the market for opinions and views on particular topics before everyone heads out of the office for a long break. Regardless, the survey results are in, the results have been tallied and in the world of liquid alternatives, it appears that the future looks good.

Two industry surveys that were completed recently are cited in the articles below. The first provides the results of a survey of financial advisors about their allocations to alternative investments, and notes that more than half of the financial advisors surveyed think that their clients should allocate between 6% and 15% to alternative investments – a significant increase from today’s levels.

The second report below provides big picture industry thinking from Citi’s Business Advisory Services unit, and projects the market for liquid alternatives to double over the next five years, increasing to more than $1.7 trillion in assets.

While industry surveys and big picture industry reports can often over-project the optimism and growth of a particular product group, the directional trends are important to watch. And in this case, the trends continue to be further growth of the liquid alternatives market, both here in the U.S. and abroad.

Monthly Liquid Alternative Flows

Consistent with the reports above, investors continued to allocate to alternative mutual funds and ETFs in May of this year. Investors allocated a net total of $2 billion to the space in May, a healthy increase from April’s level of $723 million, and a return to levels we saw earlier in the year.

While only two categories had positive inflows last month, this month has four categories with positive inflows. Once again, multi-alternative funds that combine multiple styles of investing, and often multiple asset managers, all into a single fund had the most significant inflows. These funds pulled in $1.8 billion in net new assets. Managed futures are once again in second place with just over $520 million in new inflows.

While the outflows from long/short equity funds have moved closer to $0, they have yet to turn positive this year. With equity market conditions as they are, this has the potential to shift to net inflows over the coming months. Commodity funds continued to struggle in May, but investors kicked it up a notch and increased the net outflows to more than $1.5 billion, more than a double from April’s level.


Diversification and one stop shopping continue to be an important theme for investors. Multi-alternative fund and managed futures funds provide both. Expect asset flows to liquid alternatives to continue on their current course of strong single-digit to low double-digit growth. Should the current Greek debt crisis or other global events cause the markets to falter, investors will look to allocate more to liquid alternatives.

New Fund Launches

We have seen 66 new funds launched this year, up from 53 at the end of April. This includes alternative beta funds as well as non-traditional bond funds, both of which provide investors with differentiated sources of return. In May, we logged 13 new funds, with nearly half being alternative beta funds. The remaining funds cut across multi-alternative, non-traditional bonds and hedged equity.

Two of the funds that were launched in May were unconstrained bond funds, one of the more popular categories for asset inflows in 2014. This asset category is meant to shield investors from the potential rise in interest rates and the related negative impact of bond prices. Both Virtus and WisdomTree placed a bet on the space in May with their new funds that give the portfolio managers wide latitude to invest across nearly all areas of the global fixed income market on a long and short basis.

While significant assets have flowed into this category of funds over the past several years, the rise in interest rates has yet to occur. This may change come September, and at that point we will find out if the unconstrained nature of these funds is helpful.

For more details on new fund launches, you can visit our New Funds 2015 page.

Observer Fund Profiles:

Each month the Observer provides in-depth profiles of between two and four funds.  Our “Most Intriguing New Funds” are funds launched within the past couple years that most frequently feature experienced managers leading innovative newer funds.  “Stars in the Shadows” are older funds that have attracted far less attention than they deserve. 

Eventide Healthcare & Life Sciences (ETNHX): Morningstar’s 2015 conference included a laudatory panel celebrating “up and coming” funds, including the five star, $2 billion Eventide Gilead. At yet as I talked with the Eventide professionals the talk kept returning to the fund that has them more excited, Healthcare. The fund looks fascinating and profitable. Unfortunately, we need answers to two final questions before publishing the profile. We’re hopeful of having those answers in the first couple days of July; we’ll notify the 6000 members of our mailing list as soon as the profile goes live

Launch Alert

Thornburg Developing World (THDAX) is one of the two reasons for being excited about Artisan Developing World (ARTYX). Artisan’s record for finding and nurturing outstanding management teams is the other.

Lewis Kaufman managed Thornburg Developing World from inception through early 2015. During that time, he amassed a remarkable record for risk-sensitive performance.  A $10,000 investment at inception would have grown to $15,700 on the day of Mr. Kaufman’s departure, while his peers would have earned $11,300. Morningstar’s only Gold-rated emerging markets fund (American Funds New World Fund NEWFX) would have clocked in at $13,300, a gain about midway between mediocre and Mr. Kaufmann.

By all of the risk and risk/return measures we follow, he achieved those gains with lower volatility than did his peers.


Mr. Kaufman pursues a compact, primarily large-cap portfolio. He’s willing to invest in firms tied to, but not domiciled in, the emerging markets. And he has a special interest in self-funding companies; that is, firms that generate free cash flow sufficient to cover their operating and capital needs. That allows the firms insulate themselves from both the risk of international capital flight and dysfunctional capital markets that are almost a defining feature of the emerging markets. Andrew Foster of Seafarer Overseas Growth & Income (SFGIX) shares that preference for self-funding firms and it has been consistently rewarding.

There are, of course, two caveats. First, Thornburg launched after the conclusion of the 2007-09 market crisis. That means that it only dealt with one sharply down quarter (3Q2011) and it trailed the pack then. Second, Thornburg’s deep analyst core doubtless contributed to Mr. Kaufmann’s success. It’s unclear how reliance on a smaller team will affect him.

In general, Artisan’s new funds have performed exceptionally well (the current E.M. product, which wasn’t launched in the retail market, is the exception). Artisan professes only ever to hire “category killers,” then gives them both great support and great autonomy. That process has worked exceptionally well. I suggested on our discussion board “that immediately upon launch, our short-list of emerging markets funds quite worth your money’ will grow by one.” I’m pretty comfortable with that prediction.

Artisan Developing World (ARTYX) has a 1.5% initial expense ratio and a $1,000 investment minimum.

Funds in Registration

There are eight new funds in registration this month. Funds in registration with the SEC are not available for sale to the public and the advisors are not permitted to talk about them, but a careful reading of the filed prospectuses gives you a good idea of what interesting (and occasionally appalling) options are in the pipeline. Funds currently in registration will generally be available for purchase in September or early October.

Two funds sort of pop out:

RiverNorth Marketplace Lending Fund will invest in loans initiated by peer-to-peer lenders such as LendingClub and It’s structured as a non-listed closed-end fund which will likely offer only periodic liquidity; that is, you might be able to get out just once a month or so. The portfolio’s characteristics should make it similar to high-yield bonds, offering the chance for some thrills and interest rate insulation plus high single-digit returns. It’s a small market; about $7 billion in loans were made last year, which makes it most appropriate to a specialist boutique firm like RiverNorth.

Thornburg Better World will be an international fund with strong ESG screens. Thornburg’s international funds are uniformly in the solid-to-outstanding range, though the departure of Lewis Kaufmann and some of his analysts for Artisan certainly make a dent. That said, Thornburg’s analyst core is large and well-respected and socially-responsible investing has established itself as an entirely mainstream strategy.

Manager Changes

This month there were only 38 funds reporting partial or complete changes in their management teams. This number is slightly inflated by the departure of Wayne Crumpler from eleven American Beacon funds. The most notable changes include Virginie Maisonneuve’s departure from another PIMCO fund, and Thomas Huber stepping down from T. Rowe Price Growth & Income. The good news is that he’s remaining at T. Rowe Price Dividend Growth where he’s had a longer record and more success.


In May we ran The Dry Powder Gang, a story highlighting successful funds that are currently holding exceptionally high levels of cash. After publication, we heard from two advisors who warned that their funds’ cash levels were dramatically lower than we’d reported: FMI International (FMIJX) and Tocqueville International Value (TIVFX).

The error came from, and remains in, the outputs from Morningstar’s online fund screener.  Here is Morningstar’s report of the most cash-heavy international funds, based on a June 30 2015 screening:


Cool, except for the fact the Brown is 9% cash, not 66%; FMI is 20%, not 62%; AQR is 7%, not 56% … down to Tocqueville which is 6%, not 38%.

Where do those lower numbers come from? Morningstar, of course, on the funds’ “quote” and “portfolio” pages.

We promptly corrected our misreport and contacted Morningstar. Alexa Auerbach, a kind and crafty wizard there, explained the difficulty: the cash levels reported in the screener are “long rescaled” numbers. If a fund has both long and short positions, which is common in international funds which are hedging their currency exposures, Morningstar recalculates the cash position as a percentage of the fund’s long portfolio. “So,” I asked, “if a fund was 99% short and 1% long, including a 0.3% cash position, the screener would report a 30% cash stake?” Yep.

When I mentioned that anomaly to John Rekenthaler, Morningstar’s resident thunderer and former head of research, he was visibly aroused. “Long-rescaled? I thought I’d killed that beast five years ago!” And, grabbing a cudgel, he headed off again in the direction of IT.

I’ll let you know how the quest goes. In the interim, we will, and you should, be a bit vigilant to checking curious outputs from the software.

Trust but Verify

On December 9, 2014, BlackRock president Larry Fink told a Bloomberg TV interviewer, “I am absolutely convinced we will have a day, a week, two weeks where we will have a dysfunctional market. It’s going to create some sort of panic, create uncertainty again.” That’s pretty much the argument that Ed and I have made, in earlier months, about ongoing liquidity constraints and an eventual crisis. It’s a reasonably widespread topic of conversation about serious investment professionals, as well as the likes of us.

Fink’s solution was electronic bond trading and his fear was not the prospect of the market crisis but, rather, of regulators reacting inappropriately. In the interim, BlackRock applied for permission to do inter-fund lending: if one of their mutual funds needed cash to meet redemptions, they could take a short-term loan from a cash-rich BlackRock fund in lieu of borrowing from the banks or hastily selling part of the portfolio. It is a pretty common provision.

Which you’d never know from one gold bug’s conclusion that Fink sounded “BlackRock’s Warning: Get Your Money Out Of All Mutual Funds.” It’s the nature of the web that that same story, generally positioned as “What They Don’t Want You to Know,” appeared on a dozen other websites, some with remarkably innocuous names. Those stories stressed that the problem would last “days or even weeks,” which is not what Fink said.

Briefly Noted . . .

On June 4, 2015, John L. Keeley, Jr., the president and founder of Keeley Asset Management and a portfolio manager to several of the Keeley funds passed away at a still-young 75. He’s survived by his wife of 50+ years and a large family. His rich life, good works and premature departure remind us all of the need to embrace our lives while we can, rather than dully plodding through them.

Conestoga SMid Cap Fund (CCSMX) just gained, with shareholder approval, a 12(b)1 fee. (Shareholders are a potentially valuable source of lanolin.) Likewise, the Hennessy Funds are asking shareholders to raise their costs via a 12(b)1 fee on the Investor Class of the Hennessy Funds.

grossIn the “let’s not be too overt about this” vein, Janus quietly added a co-manager to Janus Unconstrained Global Bond (JUCAX).  According to the WSJ, Janus bought the majority stake in an Australian bond firm, Kapstream Capital Pty Ltd., then appointed Kapstream’s founder to co-manage Unconstrained Bond.  Kumar Palghat, the co-manager in question, is a former PIMCO executive who managed a $22 billion bond portfolio for PIMCO’s Australian division. He resigned in 2006, reportedly to join a hedge fund.

It’s intriguing that Gross, who once managed $1.8 trillion, is struggling with one-tenth of one percent of that amount. Janus Unconstrained is volatile and underwater since launch. Its performance trails that of PIMCO Unconstrained (PFIUX), the BarCap Aggregate, its non-traditional bond peer group, and most other reasonable measures.

PIMCO has announced reverse share-splits of 2:1 or 3:1 for a series of its funds: PIMCO Commodity Real Return Strategy Fund (PCRAX), PIMCO RAE Fundamental Advantage PLUS Fund (PTFAX), PIMCO Real Estate Real Return Strategy Fund (PETAX) and PIMCO StocksPLUS Short Fund (PSSAX). Most of the funds have NAVs in the neighborhood of $2.50-4.00. At that level, daily NAV changes of under 0.25% don’t get reflected (they round down to zero) until a couple consecutive unreported changes pile up and trigger an unusually large one day move.

canadaO Canada! Your home and native land!! Vanguard just noticed that Canada exists and that it is (who knew?) a developed market. As a result, the Vanguard Developed Markets Index Fund will now track the FTSE Developed All Cap ex US Index rather than the FTSE Developed ex North America Index. The board has also approved the addition of the Canadian market to the Fund’s investment objective. Welcome, o’ land of pines and maples, stalwart sons and gentle maidens!

Vanguard’s Emerging Markets, Pacific and European stock index funds will also get new indexes, some time late in 2015. Vanguard’s being intentionally vague on the timing of the transition to try to prevent front-running by hedge funds and others. In each case, the new index will include a greater number of small- to mid-cap names. The Emerging Markets index will, in addition, include Chinese “A” shares. One wonders if recent events are causing them to reconsider?

Villere Balanced Fund (VILLX) and Villere Equity Fund (VLEQX) may, effective immediately, lend securities – generally, that means “to short sellers” – “in order to generate return.”


AMG Yacktman (YACKX) and AMG Yacktman Focused (YAFFX) both reopened to new investors on June 22, 2015. The reopening engendered a lively debate on our discussion board. One camp pointed out that these are top 1% performers over the past 10- and 15-year periods. The other mentioned that they’re bottom 10% performers over the past 3- and 5-year periods. The question of asset bloat (about $20 billion between them) came up as did the noticeable outflows ($4 billion between them) in the last several years. There was a sense that the elder Mr. Yacktman was brilliant and a phenomenally decent man but, really, moving well into the “elder” ranks. Son Steve, who has been handling the funds’ day-to-day operations for 15 years is … hmmm, well, a piece of work.

The Barrow Funds, Barrow Value Opportunity Fund (BALAX/BALIX) and Barrow Long/Short Opportunity Fund (BFLSX/BFSLX) are converting from two share classes to one. The investor share class closed to new purchases on June 2 and merged into the institutional share class on June 30. At that same time, the minimum investment requirement for the institutional shares dropped from $250,000 to $2,500.  The net effect is that Barrow gets administrative simplicity and their investors, current and potential, get a price break.

Effective immediately, the name of the Hatteras Hedged Strategies Fund has changed to Hatteras Alternative Multi-Manager Fund (HHSIX).  Here’s the “small wins” part: they’ve sliced their minimum initial investment from $150 million to $1 million! Woo hoo! And here’s the tricky part: the fund has only $97 million in assets which implies that the exalted minimum was honored mostly in the breach.

The Royce Funds reduced their advisory fees for their European Smaller-Companies Fund, Global Value, International Smaller-Companies, International Micro-Cap and International Premier funds on July 1, 2015. The reductions are about 15 basis points, which translates to a drop in the funds’ expense ratios of about 10%.

Nota bene: the Royce Funds make me crazy. After a series of liquidations in April, there are 22 funds left which will drop to 21 in a couple of months. Of those, two have above average returns for the past five years while 16 trail at least 80% of their peers. The situation over the past decade is better, but not much. If you screen out the sucky, high risk and economically unviable Royce funds, you get down to about five: Global Financial Services and a bunch that existed before Legg Mason bought the firm and got them to start churning out new funds.

Effective June 1, 2015, the Schroder U.S. Opportunities Fund (SCUIX), which had been closed to new investors, will become available for purchase by investors generally. Actually with a $250,000 investment minimum, it “became available for purchase by really rich investors generally.”

CLOSINGS (and related inconveniences)

Effective as of the close of business on July 15, 2015, Brown Advisory Small-Cap Fundamental Value Fund (BIAUX) will stop accepting new purchases through most broker-dealer firms.

Eaton Vance Atlanta Capital Horizon Growth Fund (EXMCX) announced its plan to close to new investors on July 13, 2015. I wouldn’t run for your checkbook just yet. The fund has only $34 million in assets and has trailed pretty much everybody in its peer group, pretty much forever:


INTECH U.S. Core Fund (JDOAX) closed to new investors on June 30, 2015. Why, you ask? Good question. It’s a small fund that invests in large companies with a doggedly mediocre record. Not “bad,” “mediocre.” Over the past decade, it’s trailed the S&P 500 by 0.11% annually with no particular reduction of volatility. The official reason: “because Janus Capital and the Trustees believe continued sales are not in the best interests of the Fund.”


The Calvert Social Index Fund is now Calvert U.S. Large Cap Core Responsible Index Fund (CSXAX). At the same time, the adviser reduced the fund’s expense ratio by nearly one-third, from 0.75% down to 0.54% for “A” shares.  

Effective June 2, 2015, Columbia LifeGoal Growth Portfolio, a fund of funds, became Columbia Global Strategic Equity Fund (NLGIX). At the same time the principal investment strategies were revised (good plan! It trails 90% of its peers over the past 1, 3 and 5 years) to eliminate a lot of the clutter about how much goes into which Columbia fund. The proviso that the fund will invest at least “40% of its net assets in foreign currencies, and equity and debt securities” implies a currency-hedged portfolio.

FPA Perennial (FPPFX) has closed for a few months while it becomes an entirely different fund using the same name.

Effective immediately, the name of the Hatteras Hedged Strategies Fund has changed to Hatteras Alternative Multi-Manager Fund (HHSIX). 

On August 31, 2015: iShares MSCI USA ETF (EUSA) becomes iShares MSCI USA Equal Weighted ETF. We’ll leave it to you to figure out how they might be changing the portfolio.

Natixis Diversified Income Fund (IIDPX) becomes Loomis Sayles Multi-Asset Income Fund on August 31, 2015. The investment strategy gets tweaked accordingly.

-er, don’t panic! A handful of Royce funds have lost their –ers. On June 15, Royce International Smaller-Companies Fund became Royce International Small-Cap Fund (RYGSX), European Smaller-Companies Fund became European Small-Cap Fund (RISCX) and Royce Financial Services Fund became Royce Global Financial Services Fund (RYFSX). In the former two cases, the managers wanted to highlight the fact that they focused on a stock’s capitalization rather than the size of the underlying firm. In the latter case, RYFSX has about five times the international exposure of its peers. Given that excellent performance (top 2% over the past decade) and a distinctive portfolio (their market cap is one-twentieth of their peers) hasn’t drawn assets, I suppose they’re hoping that a new name will. At the very least, with eight funds – over a third of their lineup – renamed in the past three months, that’s the way they’re betting.

Oppenheimer Flexible Strategies Fund (QVOPX) becomes Oppenheimer Fundamental Alternatives Fund on August 3, 2015. There’s no change in the fund’s operation, so apparently “strategies” are “alternatives,” just not trendy alternatives.

On June 22, 2015, the Sterling Capital Strategic Allocation Conservative Fund (BCGAX) morphed into Sterling Capital Diversified Income Fund. Heretofore it’s been a fund of Sterling funds. With the new name comes the ability to invest in other funds as well.

In case you hadn’t noticed, on June 18, 2015, the letters “TDAM” were replaced by the word “Epoch” in the names of a bunch of funds: Epoch U.S. Equity Shareholder Yield Fund, Epoch U.S. Large Cap Core Equity Fund, Epoch Global Equity Shareholder Yield Fund, Epoch Global All Cap Fund, and Epoch U.S. Small-Mid Cap Equity Fund. The funds, mostly bad, have two share classes each and have authorization to launch eight additional share classes. Except for U.S. Small-Mid Cap, they have $3-6 million in assets.

Effective July 31, 2015 Virtus Global Dividend Fund (PGUAX), a perfectly respectable fund with lots of global infrastructure exposure, becomes Virtus Global Infrastructure Fund.

Effective August 28, 2015, the West Shore Real Return Income Fund (NWSFX) becomes West Shore Real Return Fund. They’re also changing their objective from “capital growth and current income” to “preserving purchasing power.” They’ve pretty much completely rewritten their “principal strategies” text so that it’s hard to know how exactly the portfolio will change, though the addition of a risk statement concerning the use of futures and other derivatives does offer a partial answer. I’ve been genially skeptical of the fund for a long while. Their performance chart doesn’t materially reduce that skepticism:


At a reader’s behest, I spoke at length with one of the managers whose answers seemed mostly circular and who was reluctant to share information about the fund. He claimed that they have a great record as a private strategy, that they’ve shown to the board, but that they’re not interested in sharing with others. His basic argument was: “we don’t intend to make information about the fund, our strategies or insights available on the web. Our website is just a pick-up point for the prospectus. We expect that people will either know us already or will follow our success and be drawn.” At the end of the call, he announced that he and co-manager James Rickards were mostly the public faces of the fund and that the actual work of managing it fell to the third member of the trio. Mr. Rickards has since left to resume his career as doom-sayer.


Aftershock Strategies Fund (SHKIX/SHKNX) has closed and will discontinue its operations effective July 6, 2015.

You’ll need to find an alternative to AMG FQ Global Alternatives Fund (MGAAX), which is in the process of liquidating. Apparently they’re liquidating (or solidifying?) cash:

mgaaxFinal shutdown should occur by the end of July.

Elessar SCV Fund has morphed into the Emerald Small Cap Value Fund (ELASX)

Franklin Templeton has delayed by a bit the liquidation of Franklin Global Allocation Fund (FGAAX). The original date of execution was June 30 but “due to delays in liquidating certain portfolio securities,” they anticipate waiting until October 23. That’s a fascinating announcement since it implies liquidity problems though that’s not listed as an investment risk in the prospectus.

Guggenheim Enhanced World Equity Fund “ceased operations, liquidated its assets, and distributed the liquidation proceeds to shareholders of record at the close of business on June 26, 2015.”

Salient recently bought the Forward Funds complex “in an effort to build scale in the rapidly growing liquid alternatives space.” The brilliance of the deal is debatable (Forward favors liquid alts investing, but only three of its 30 funds – Select Emerging Markets Dividend, Credit Analysis Long/Short (whose founding managers were sacked a year ago) and High Yield Bond – have outperformed their peers since inception). As it turns out, Forward Small Cap Equity Fund (FFSCX) and Forward Income & Growth Allocation Fund (AOIAX) fell into neither of those camps: good or alternative. Both are scheduled to be liquidated on August 12, 2015.

HSBC RMB Fixed Income Fund (HRMBX), an exceptionally strong EM bond fund with no investors, will be liquidated on or about July 21, 2015.

MainStay ICAP Global Fund (ICGLX) will be liquidated on or about September 30, 2015. Small, middling performer, culled from the herd.

Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words. Other times a picture leaves me speechless. Such is the case with the YTD price chart for Merk Currency Enhanced U.S. Equity Fund (MUSFX).


Yuh. That’s a one-day spike of about 60%, followed by a 60% fall the next day for a net loss of a third over two days, at which point the fund was no longer “pursuing its investment objective.” The fund is scheduled to be liquidated July 15.

Montibus Small Cap Growth Fund (SGWAX) joins the legion of the dearly departed on August 24, 2015.

Nationwide HighMark Balanced Fund (NWGDX) will, pending shareholder approval, vanish on or about October 23, 2015. At about the same time Nationwide HighMark Large Cap Growth (NWGLX) is slated to merge into Nationwide Large Cap Core Equity while Nationwide HighMark Value (NWGTX) gets swallowed by Nationwide Fund (NWFAX). The latter has been rallying after getting a new manager in 2013, so we’ll be hopeful that this is a gain for shareholders.

At the end of July, shareholders will vote on a proposal to merge the small and sad Royce Select Fund (RYSFX) into the much larger and sadder Royce 100 (RYOHX). The proxy assures investors that “the Funds have identical investment objectives, employ substantially similar principal investment strategies to pursue those investment objectives, and have the same portfolio managers,” which raises the question of why they launched Select in the first place.

The previously announced liquidation of the half million dollar Rx Tax Advantaged Fund (FMERX) has been delayed until July 31, 2015. 

On or about August 25, 2015, the Vantagepoint Model Portfolio All-Equity Growth Fund (VPAGX) becomes Vantagepoint Model Portfolio Global Equity Growth Fund and increases its equity exposure to non-U.S. securities by adding an international index fund to its collection. The fund has about a billion in assets. Who knew?

Relationships come and relationships go. One of the few proprieties that my students observe relationshipsis, if you’ve actually met and gone out in person, you should be willing to break up in person. Breaking up by text is, they agreed, cruel and cowardly. I suspect that they’re unusually sympathetic with the managers of Wells Fargo Advantage Emerging Markets Local Bond Fund (WLBAX) and Wells Fargo Advantage Emerging Markets Equity Select Fund (WEMTX). “At a telephonic meeting held on June 15, 2015, the Board of Trustees unanimously approved the liquidation of the Funds.” Cold, dude. If you’d like to extend your sympathies, best send the text before July 17, 2015.

Wilmington Mid-Cap Growth Fund (AMCRX) will liquidate on or about August 3, 2015. Being “not very good” (they’ve trailed two-thirds of their peers for the past five and ten years) didn’t stop them from accumulating a quarter billion in assets but somehow the combination wasn’t enough to keep them around. Wilmington Small-Cap Strategy Fund (WMSIX), a small institutional fund with a pretty solid record and stable management, goes into the vortex that same day.

In Closing . . .

Thank you, once again, to those whose support keeps the lights on at the Observer. To Diane & Tom, Allen & Cleo, Hjalmar, Ed (cool and mysterious email address, sir!): we appreciate you!  A great, big thanks to those who use the Observer’s Amazon link for all their Amazon purchases. Your consistency, and occasional exuberant purchase, continues to help us beat our normal pattern of declining revenue in the summer months. We’d also be remiss if we forgot to thank the faithful Deborah and Greg, our honorary subscribers and PayPal monthly contributors. Many thanks to you both.

Lots to do for August. We’ve been watching the folks at the Turner Funds thrash about, both in court and in the marketplace. We’ll try to give you some perspective on what some have called The Fall of the House of Turner. In addition, we’d like to look at the question, “where should you start out?” That is, if you or a young friend of yours is a 20-something with exceedingly modest cash flow but a determination to build a sensible, durable foundation, which funds might serve as your (or their) best first investment: conservative, affordable, sensible.

And, too, I’ve got to prepare for a couple presentations: a talk with some of the young analysts at Edward Jones in St. Louis and with the folks attending Ultimus Fund Solution’s client conference at the end of August and beginning of September. If I find something fun, you’ll be the second to know!

As ever,


June 1, 2015

By David Snowball

Dear friends,

They’re gone. Five hundred and twenty-six Augie students who we’ve jollied, prodded, chided, praised, despaired of and delighted in for the past four years have been launched on the rest of you. They’re awfully bright-eyed, occasionally in reflection of the light coming from their cell phone screens. You might suspect that they’re not listening, but if you text them, they’ll perk right up.

This is usually the time for graduation pictures but I’ve never found those engaging since they reflect the dispersion of our small, close-knit community. I celebrate rather more the moments of our cohesion; the times when small and close were incredibly powerful.

Augie’s basketball team finished second in the nation in 2015, doing rather better in our division than the Kentucky Mildcats did in theirs, eh? We did not play in a grand arena but instead in a passionate one: Carver Gymnasium, home of the Carver Crazies. It was a place where the football team (the entire football team) jammed the sidelines of every game, generally shoulder to shoulder with the women’s basketball team and the choir, all shouting … hmmm, deprecations at opposing players.


When the team boarded buses at 5:00 a.m. for the trip east to compete in the Final Four, they were cheered off by hundreds of students and staff who stood in happy gaggles in the dark. A day later, hundreds more boarded buses and jammed in cars to follow them east. And when they came home, one win shy of a championship, they were greeted with the sound of trumpets and cheers.

And while the basketball players won’t go to the NBA, a fair number – over half of our juniors – will go to med school. And so perhaps we’ll yet meet the Kentuckians at an NBA contest as our guys patch together theirs.

I rather like kids, maddened though we make each other.


No, FOMO is not that revolutionary white spray foam that’s guaranteed to remove the toughest pet stains from your carpet; neither is it a campaign rallying cry (“FOMO years! FOMO years!”).

FOMO is “fear of missing out” and it’s one of the more plausible explanations for the market’s persistent rise. There’s an almost-universal agreement that financial assets are, almost without exception, overpriced. Some (bonds) are more badly overpriced than others (small Japanese stocks), but that’s about the best defense that serious investors make of current conditions: they’re finding pockets of relative value rather than much by way of absolute value.

The question is: why are folks hanging around when they know this is going to end badly (again)? The surprising answer is, because everyone else is hanging around. It’s a logic reminiscent of those anxious moments back in our early high school years. We’d get invited to a party (surprise!), it would be great for a while then it would begin to drag. But really, you couldn’t be the first kid to leave. First off, everyone would notice and brand you as a wuss, or worse. Second, while it was late, all the cool kids were still around and that meant, you know, that something cool might happen.

And so you lingered until just after that kid from the football team threw up near the food, one of the girls used “the F word” kinda in your face and someone – no one knows who – knocked over the nice table lamp which really pissed off Emily’s dad. Then everyone was anxious to squeeze as quickly through the door as possible. On whole, the night would have been a lot better if you’d left just a little earlier but still …

It’s like that for professional investors, too. Reuters columnist James Saft points to research that shows professionals falling victim to the same pressures:  

Call it status anxiety, call it greed or just call it clever momentum trading, but the fear of missing out is an under-appreciated force in financial markets. No one likes to miss out on a good thing, especially when they see their friends, neighbors and rivals cashing in.

Much of this may be driven by concerns about relative wealth, or how much you have compared to those in your group, a force explored in a 2007 paper by Peter DeMarzo and Ilan Kramer of Stanford University and Ron Kaniel of Duke University. They found that even when traders understand that prices are too high they may stay in the market because they fear losing out as the overvaluation persists and extends.

Investors want to keep pace with their peers, and fear not having as much wealth. That raises, in a certain way, the risk of selling into a bubble. That status and group-motivated anxiety can blind investors towards other, seemingly obvious risks. (“The power of the fear of missing out,” 05/29/2015.)

You might think of it as a financial manifestation of Newton’s first law of motion: “unless acted upon by an outside force, an object in motion tends to stay in motion in the same direction and speed.” It’s sometimes called “the law of inertia.” One technical analyst, looking at the “pattern we have seen for much of 2015, namely choppy with a slight upward bias,” opined that despite “an increasing number of clouds gathering on the horizon  …  the path of least resistance likely remains to the upside.”

And so the smart money people remain, anxiously, present. Business Insider reporter Linette Lopez, covering the huge SALT Las Vegas hedge fund conference, observes that leading hedge fund strategists:

Across the board … believe asset prices are too high. Mostly bonds, sometimes stocks. Still, everyone is long the market. No one wants to be the first person out of the market as long as they’re making money. This is a huge issue on Wall Street, and everyone at this conference is now looking for a warning signal. (“We’ve already seen the beginning of the quake that could be coming,” 05/06/2015) – didn’t discuss h.f. fees (steadily rising) or h.f. performance (steadily lagging)…

In the same week that the hedgies were meeting in Las Vegas, the Buffett Believers gathered in Omaha. There renowned value investors, such as Jean-Marie Eveillard, now a senior advisor to First Eagle funds, fret that the market was overvalued, kept alive by artificial stimulus that’s coming to an end. Eveillard says investors don’t seem to be factoring that in. “Either everyone is thinking I will just keep dancing until the music stops, or they don’t see the risks that I do.” (“At Berkshire annual meeting, Warren Buffett hosts cautious investors,” 05/02/2015.)

In an interview with Reuters, Joel Tillinghast – one of Fidelity’s two best managers – captured the yin and yang of it:

“I think [the level of the financial markets are] colossally artificial, but I don’t see it ending. How long can we party with our bad selves?” Mr. Tillinghast asked. “You want to know so you can party on until five minutes before it ends.” (“Top Fidelity stockpicker: Financial markets are ‘colossally artificial,’” 05/26/2015)

We raised last month the notion of a “roach motel,” where getting in is easy and getting out is impossible. In the case of bugs, the problem is stickum. In the case of investors, it’s liquidity. At base, you may find that there’s no one willing to pay anything even vaguely like what you think your holdings are worth. Kevin Kinsella, president of a venture capital firm, notes that investors have been making 30% per quarter on privately traded shares, like Uber.

Given the various stratospheric private valuations some of these unicorn companies are reaching, there will be no trade buyers, and it is doubtful whether a sane investment bank would take such companies public at these market caps.

Investors historically delude themselves by concocting rationales as to why the insanity will continue, why it is completely reasonable and why an implosion won’t happen to them. They are always wrong. 

How will it end? When interest rates ultimately start to tick up and vast pools of capital begin to shift toward fixed income away from equities. It’s a historic cyclical shift. When the music stops and everyone needs to scramble for their chair, there will be a lot of fannies left hanging out there.

Predicting that this will happen is easy; predicting exactly when, not so easy. But my prediction is that it is not far off. (“Tech Boom 2015: What’s Driving Investor Insanity?Forbes, 05/21/2015)

Michael Novogratz, head of the $67 billion Fortress hedge fund operation, shared that concern at the SALT gathering:

“I’m going to argue that I think something has fundamentally changed.” He is worried because even though managers know assets are expensive, they are still long. This is a recipe for a difficult exit once all they want to close their positions. The liquidity will disappear and assets will reprice. As legendary trader Stanley Druckenmiller said, assets need a lot of volume and money to go up and much less to crash.  (Michael Novogratz CEO of Fortress Investments Is Worried About The Markets)

The question is, what’s a fund investor to do? Five things come to mind:

  1. Do a quick check on your asset allocation and risk exposure. Any idea of how long a core equity fund might remain underwater; that is, how many months it takes for a fund to rebound from a bad decline? I scanned MFO’s premium fund screener for large-cap core funds that had been around 10 years or more. The five best funds took, on average, over two years to rebound. The average large cap fund took 58 months, on average, to recover from their maximum drawdown. Here’s the test: look at your portfolio value today and ask whether you’re capable of waiting until April, 2020 to ever see a number that high again. That’s the worst case for a large cap stock portfolio. For a conservative asset allocation, the recovery time is a year or two. For a moderate portfolio, three or so years. At base, decide now how long you can wait and adjust accordingly.
  2. Join the Dry Powder Gang. We profiled, last month, a couple dozen entirely admirable funds that are holding substantial cash stakes. Some have been badly punished for their caution, both by investors and raters, but all have strong, stable management teams, coherent strategies and a record of deploying cash when prices get juicy.
  3. Allocate some to funds that have won in up and down markets. They’re rare. Daren Fonda at Barron’s recommends “[f]unds such as FPA Crescent (FPACX) and First Eagle Global (SGENX) have flexible strategies and defensive-minded managers.”  Charles identified a handful of long-term stalwarts in his April 2015 essay “Identifying Bear-Market Resistant Funds During Good Times.” Among the notable funds (not all open to new investors) he highlighted:
  4. Cautiously approach the alt-fund space. There are some alt funds which have a plausible claim to thrive on volatility. We’ve profiled RiverPark Structural Alpha (RSAFX), for instance, and our colleagues at regularly highlight intriguing options.
  5. Try to leave when everyone else heads out, too. The Latin word for those massive exits was “vomitaria” which would make you …

Liquidity Problem – What Liquidity Problem?edward, ex cathedra

By Edward A. Studzinski

“Moon in a barrel: you never know just when the bottom will fall out.”


So as David Snowball mentioned in his May commentary, I have been thinking about the potential consequences of illiquidity in the fixed income market. Obviously, if you have a portfolio in U.S. Treasury issues, you assume you can turn it into cash overnight. If you can’t, that’s a potential problem. That appears to be a problem now – selling $10 or $20 million in Treasuries without moving the market is difficult. Part of the problem is there are not a lot of natural buyers, especially at these rates and prices. QE has given the Federal Reserve their fill of them. Banks have to hold them as part of the Dodd-Frank capital requirements, but are adding to their holdings only when growing their assets. And those people who always act in the best interests of the United States, namely the Chinese, have been liquidating their U.S. Treasury portfolio. Why? As they cut rates to stimulate their economy, they are trying to sterilize their currency from the effects of those rate cuts by selling our bonds, part of their foreign reserve holdings. Remember, the goal of China is to supplant, with their own currency, the dollar as a reserve currency, especially in Asia and the developing world. And our Russian friends have similarly been selling their Treasury holdings, but in that instance using the proceeds to purchase gold bullion to add to their reserves.

Who is there to buy bonds today? Bond funds? Not likely. If you are a fund manager and thought a Treasury bond was a cash equivalent, it is not. But if there are redemptions from your fund, there is a line of credit to use until you can sell securities to cover the redemptions, right? And it is a committed line of credit, so the bank has to lend on it, no worries! In the face of a full blown market panic, with the same half dozen banks in the business of providing lines of credit to the fund industry, where will your fund firm fall in the pecking order of mutual fund holding companies, all of whom have committed lines of credit? It now becomes more understandable why the mutual fund firms with a number of grey hairs still around, have been raising cash in their funds, not just because they are running out of things to invest in that meet their parameters. It also gives you a sense as to who understands their obligations to their shareholder investors.

We also saw this week, through an article in The Wall Street Journal, that there is a liquidity problem in the equity markets as well. There are trading volumes at the open. There are trading volumes, usually quite heavy, at the end of the day. The rest of the time – there is no volume and no liquidity. So if you thought you had protected yourself from another tsunami by having no position in your fund composed of more than three days average volume of a large or mega cap stock, surprise – you have again fought the last war. And heaven help you if you decide to still sell a position when the liquidity is limited and you trigger one or more parameters for the program and quant traders.

zen sculptureAs Lenin asked, “What is to be done?” Jason Zweig, whom I regard as the Zen Philosopher King of financial columnists, wrote a piece in the WSJ on May 23, 2015 entitled “Lessons From A Buffett Believer.” It is a discussion about the annual meeting of Markel Corporation and the presentation given by its Chief Investment Officer, Tom Gayner. Gayner, an active manager, has compiled a wonderful long-term investment record. However, he also has a huge competitive advantage. Markel is a property and casualty company that consistently underwrites at a profitable combined ratio. Gayner is always (monthly) receiving additional capital to invest. He does not appear to trade his portfolio. So the investors in Markel have gotten a double compounding effect both at the level of the investment portfolio and at the corporation (book value growth). And it has happened in a tax-efficient manner and with an expense ratio in investing that Vanguard would be proud of in its index funds.

As an aside, I would describe Japanese small cap and microcap companies as Ben Graham heaven, where you can still find good businesses selling at net cash with decent managements. Joel Tillinghast, the Fidelity Low-Priced Stock Fund manager that David mentions above, claims that small caps in Japan and Korea are two of the few spots of good value left. And, contrary to what many investment managers in Chicago and New York think, you are not going to find them by flying into Tokyo for three days of presentations at a seminar hosted by one of the big investment banks in a luxury hotel where everyone speaks English.

I recently was speaking with a friend in Japan, Alex Kinmont, who has compiled a very strong record as a deep value investor in the Japanese market, in particular the small cap end of the market. We were discussing the viability of a global value fund and whether it could successfully exist with an open-ended mutual fund as its vehicle. Alex reminded me of something that I know but have on occasion forgotten in semi-retirement, which is that our style of value can be out of favor for years. Given the increased fickleness today of mutual fund investors, the style may not fit the vehicle. Robert Sanborn used to say the same thing about those occasions when value was out of favor (think insanity). But Robert was an investment manager who was always willing to put the interests of his investors above the interests of the business.

Alex made another point which is more telling, which is that Warren Buffett has been able to do what is sensible in investing successfully because he has permanent capital. Not for him the fear of redemptions. Not for him the need to appear at noon on the Gong Show on cable to flog his investment in Bank America as a stroke of genius. Not for him the need to pander to colleagues or holding company managers more worried about their bonuses than their fiduciary obligations. Gayner at Markel has the same huge competitive advantage. Both of them can focus on the underlying business value of their investments over the long term without having to worry about short-term market pricing volatility.

What does this mean for the average fund investor? You have to be very careful, because what you think you are investing in is not always what you are getting. You can see the whole transformation of a fund organization if you look carefully at what Third Avenue was and how it invested ten years ago. And now look at what its portfolios are invested in with the departure of most of the old hands.

The annual Morningstar Conference happens in a few weeks here in Chicago. Steve Romick of FPA Advisors and the manager of FPA Crescent will be a speaker, both at Morningstar and at an Investment Analysts Society of Chicago event. Steve now has more than $20B in assets in Crescent. If I were in a position to ask questions, one of them would be to inquire about the consequences of style drift given the size of the fund. Another would be about fees, where the fee breakpoints are, and will they be adjusted as assets continue to be sought after.

I believe in 2010, Steve’s colleague Bob Rodriguez did a well-deserved victory lap as a keynote speaker at Morningstar and also as well at another Investment Analysts Society of Chicago meeting. And what I heard then, both in the presentation and in the q&a by myself and others then has made me wonder, “What’s changed?” Of course, this was just before Bob was going on a year’s sabbatical, leaving the business in the hands of others. But, he said we should not expect to see FPA doing conference calls, or having a large marketing effort. And since all of their funds at that time, with the exception of Crescent, were load funds I asked him why they kept them as load funds? Bob said that that distribution channel had been loyal to them and they needed to be loyal to it, especially since it encouraged the investors to be long term. Now all the FPA Funds are no load, and they have marketing events and conference calls up the wazoo. What I suspect you are seeing is the kind of generational shift that occurs at organizations when the founders die or leave, and the children or adopted children want to make it seem like the success of the organization and the investment brilliance is solely due to them. For those of us familiar with the history of Source Capital and FPA, and the involvement of Charlie Munger, Jim Gipson, and George Michaelis, this is to say the least, disappointing.

Does Your Fund Manager Consistently Beat the Stock Market?

I saw the headline at Morningstar and had two immediate thoughts: (1) uhh, no, and (2) why on earth would I care since “beating the stock market” is not one of my portfolio objectives?

Then I read the sub-title: “Probably not–but you shouldn’t much care.”

“Ah! Rekenthaler!” I thought. And I was right.

John recounts a column by Chuck Jaffe, lamenting the demise of the star fund manager.  Rekenthaler’s questions are (1) are they actually gone? And (2) should you care? The answers are “yes” and “no, not much,” respectively.

Morningstar researchers looked to determine how long “winning streaks” last; that is, for how many consecutive years might a fund manager beat his or her benchmark. Over the past 10 years, none of the 1000 U.S. stock funds have beaten the S&P500 for more than six years. Ten funds managed six year streaks, but four of those were NASDAQ 100 index funds. Worse yet, active managers performed worse than simple luck would dictate.

charles balconyOutliers

outliers“At the extreme outer edge of what is statistically plausible” is how Malcom Gladwell defines an outlier in his amazing book, Outliers: The Story of Success (2008).

The MFO Rating System ranks funds based on risk adjusted return within their respective categories across various evaluation periods. The rankings are by quintile. Those in the top 20 percentile are assigned a 5, while those in the bottom 20 percentile are assigned a 1.

The percentile is not determined from simple rank ordering. For example, say there are 100 funds in the Large Growth category. The 20 funds with the highest risk adjusted return may not necessarily all be given a 5. That’s because our methodology assumes fund performance will be normally distributed across the category, which means terms like category mean and standard deviation are taken into account.

It’s similar to grading tests in school using a bell curve and, rightly or wrongly, is in deference to the random nature of returns. While not perfect, this method produces more satisfactory ranking results than the simple rank order method because it ensures, for example, that the bottom quintile funds (Return Group 1) have returns that are so many standard deviations below the mean or average returning funds (Return Group 3). Similarly, top quintile funds (Return Group 5) will have returns that are so many standard deviations above the mean.


All said, there remain drawbacks. At times, returns can be anything but random or “normally” distributed, which was painfully observed when the hedge fund Long-Term Capital Management (LTCM) collapsed in 1998. LTCM used quant models with normal distributions that underestimated the potential for extreme under performance. Such distributions can be skewed negatively, creating a so-called “left tail” perhaps driven by a market liquidity crunch, which means that the probability of extreme under-performance is higher than depicted on the left edge of the bell curve above.

Then there are outliers. Funds that over- or under-perform several standard deviations away from the mean. Depending on the number of funds in the category being ranked, these outliers can meaningfully alter the mean and standard deviation values themselves. For example, if a category has only 10 funds and one is an outlier, the resulting rankings could have the outlier assigned Return Group 5 and all others relegated to Return Group 1.

The MFO methodology removes outliers, anointing them if you will to bottom or top quintile, then recalculates rankings of remaining funds. It keeps track of the outliers across the evaluation periods ranked. Below please find a list of positive outliers, or extreme over-performers, based on the latest MFO Ratings of some 8700 funds, month ending April 2015.

The list contains some amazing funds and warrants a couple observations:

  • Time mitigates outliers, which seems to be a manifestation of reversion to the mean, so no outliers are observed presently for periods beyond 205 or so months, or about 17 years.
  • Outliers rarely repeat across different time frames, sad to say but certainly not unexpected as observed in In Search of Persistence.
  • Outliers typically protect against drawdown, as evidenced by low Bear Decile score and Great Owl designations (highlighted in dark blue – Great Owls are assigned to funds that have earned top performance rank based on Martin for all evaluation periods 3 years or longer).

The following outliers have delivered extreme over-performance for periods 10 years and more (the tables depict 20 year or life metrics, as applicable):



Here are the outliers for periods 5 years and more (the tables depict 10 year or life metrics, as applicable):



Finally, the outliers for periods 3 years and more (the tables depict 5 year or life metrics, as applicable):



Top developments in fund industry litigation

fundfoxFundfox, launched in 2012, is the mutual fund industry’s only litigation intelligence service, delivering exclusive litigation information and real-time case documents neatly organized, searchable, and filtered as never before. For the complete list of developments last month, and for information and court documents in any case, log in at and navigate to Fundfox Insider.


The Tenth Circuit vacated a district court’s order that had granted class certification in the prospectus disclosure lawsuit regarding the Oppenheimer California Municipal Bond Fund, finding that “[t]he district court’s class certification order at issue here did not analyze either the Rule 23(a) or 23(b) factors.” Defendants include independent directors. (In re Cal. Mun. Fund.)

New Lawsuits

A new securities fraud class action targets four Virtus funds, alleging that defendants misrepresented the performance track record of the funds’ “AlphaSector” strategy (created by an unaffiliated sub-adviser). Defendants include independent directors. (Youngers v. Virtus Inv. Partners, Inc.)

A new antitrust lawsuit alleges that Waddell & Reed and Ivy Funds “financed and aided” Al Haymon’s illegal efforts to monopolize professional boxing. (Golden Boy Promotions LLC v. Haymon.)


Davis filed a reply brief in support of its motion to dismiss fee litigation regarding its New York Venture Fund. (In re Davis N.Y. Venture Fund Fee Litig.)

PIMCO filed a reply brief in support of its motion to dismiss fee litigation regarding its Total Return Fund (Kenny v. Pac. Inv. Mgmt. Co.)

Having lost in district court, plaintiffs filed their opening appellate brief defending their state-law claims regarding investments of Vanguard mutual fund assets in foreign gambling businesses. Defendants include independent directors. (Hartsel v. Vanguard Group, Inc.)

Amended Complaint

Plaintiffs filed a second amended complaint in fee litigation regarding four MainStay funds issued by New York Life. (Redus-Tarchis v. N.Y. Life Inv. Mgmt., LLC.)


Having lost on appeal, Putnam filed an answer to fraud and negligence claims, filed by the insurer of a swap transaction, regarding Putnam’s collateral management services to a CDO. (Fin. Guar. Ins. Co. v. Putnam Advisory Co.)

The Alt Perspective: Commentary and news from DailyAlts

dailyaltsEvery month Brian J. Haskin, founder, publisher and editor of DailyAlts shares news, perspective and commentary on the alt-space with the Observer’s readers. DailyAlts is the only website with a sole focus on liquid alternative investments.  They seek to provide a centralized source for high quality news, research and other information on one of the most dynamic and fastest growing segments of the investment industry. We’re always grateful for Brian’s commentary and he welcomes folks to drop by DailyAlts for more news in great depth. For now, the highlights:

The Access Revolution

There is an access revolution taking place in today’s investment world, especially with alternative investments. It started a number of years ago with platforms such as Kickstarter and Kiva, where everyday citizens could help others get their new idea off the ground. Today, individual investors can access a broad array of investments with just a few clicks of the mouse:

  • Private equity via closed-end mutual funds
  • Real estate lending and investing through crowdsourcing platforms
  • Angel investing via online venture capital portals
  • Private lending via online lending platforms

The list goes on, but the good news is that individual investors have far greater choice today than they did just a few years ago.

Much of the change taking place is due to changes in securities regulations that permit advertising and public promotion of private investment offerings. Other changes are driven by capital flowing to new technology-driven platforms and the broader use of existing investment vehicles.

Just this past month we had two new private equity offerings come to market in closed-end interval funds, one from Altegris / StepStone / KKR and the other from Pomona Capital / Voya:

While these are not pure liquid alternatives (they don’t have daily liquidity, thankfully), they fall into the “near” liquid grouping. And furthermore, they give the mass-affluent access to investments that have never been available for as little as $25,000.

Expect to see more products such as these from the big name financial firms, as well as more access to alternatives through online investment portals. There is a revolution taking place.

Now, onto the liquid part of the alternatives market.

Monthly Liquid Alternative Flows

Investors allocated a total of $982 million to actively managed alternative mutual funds and ETFs in April, according to Morningstar’s most recent asset flows report, but pulled $259 million from passively managed alternative funds. Net flows totaled $723 million for the month, down from the healthy $2.8 billion of net new asset flows seen in March.

Interestingly, only two categories had positive flows in April: Multi-alternative funds and managed futures. Clearly a sign that advisors and investors are looking for either a one-stop shop for an alternatives allocation, or are looking to allocate to wholly uncorrelated strategies alongside equity and fixed income allocations. Managed futures strategies are generally expected to perform well during times of crisis, such as during the 2008 credit crisis, and when there are strong directional trends in markets, such as those we have seen in the past year with oil prices and the US dollar.

April 2015 flows

Last year was the year of non-traditional bonds, while 2015 is looking much stronger for several other strategies. Volatility based funds topped the charts for 12-month growth rates, with managed futures and multi-alternative funds not too far behind. And despite strong growth in 2014, non-traditional bond funds are only modestly keeping their head above water with a 12-month growth rate of 2.6%.

12 Month Growth Rate

Based on growth rates and asset flows, diversification appears to be the primary focus of investors and allocators. In 2014, long/short equity fought against the $7.8 billion of outflows from the MainStay Marketfield Fund and still posted $6.4 billion of net inflows for the year. 2015 is looking quite different. Year-to-date, the long/short equity category is down $1.5 billion. While market neutral strategies can provide low levels of correlation with the equity markets, investors appear to be moving away from these strategies in favor of managed futures, volatility and multi-alternative funds.

Expect asset flows to liquid alternatives to continue on their current course of strong single-digit to low double-digit growth. Should markets falter, investors will look to allocate more to liquid alternatives.

New Fund Launches

We have seen 53 new funds launched this year, including alternative beta funds. In May, we logged 12 new funds, with nearly half being alternative beta funds. The remaining funds cut across multi-alternative, market neutral, non-traditional bonds, volatility and commodities. 

Two intriguing funds in the volatility space came to market in May:

These two funds are different because they provide direct exposure to the VIX Index, whereas other VIX related products are indexed to futures contracts on the VIX, and thus can have very high holding costs over the course of a month. Some time is needed on the new AccuShares ETFs, but if VIX is your game, these are worth keeping an eye on.

For more details, you can visit our New Funds 2015 page to see a full listing.

Observer Fund Profiles:

Each month the Observer provides in-depth profiles of between two and four funds. Our “Most Intriguing New Funds” are funds launched within the past couple years that most frequently feature experienced managers leading innovative newer funds. “Stars in the Shadows” are older funds that have attracted far less attention than they deserve.

JOHCM International Select II (JOHAX): it’s the single best performing international large growth fund in existence over the past 1, 3 and 5 years. It’s got five stars. It’s a Great Owl. You’ve probably never heard of it and it’s closing in mid-July. Now does any of that offer a compelling reason to add it to your portfolio?

Elevator Talk: Jon Angrist, Cognios Market Neutral Large Cap

elevator buttonsSince the number of funds we can cover in-depth is smaller than the number of funds worthy of in-depth coverage, we’ve decided to offer one or two managers each month the opportunity to make a 200 word pitch to you. That’s about the number of words a slightly-manic elevator companion could share in a minute and a half. In each case, I’ve promised to offer a quick capsule of the fund and a link back to the fund’s site. Other than that, they’ve got 200 words and precisely as much of your time and attention as you’re willing to share. These aren’t endorsements; they’re opportunities to learn more.

Market-neutral funds are, on whole, dumb investments. They’re funds with complex strategies, high expenses and low returns which provide questionable protection for their investors. By way of simple illustration, the average market-neutral fund charges 1.70% while returning 1.25% annually over the past five years. Right: 60% of the portfolio’s (modest) returns go to the adviser in the form of fees, 40% go to you.

About the best you can say for them is that, as a group, they lost only a little money in 2008: about 0.3%. The worst you can say is that they also lost a little money in 2009. And then a little more in 2010. And yet again in 2011 before their … uh, ferocious rebound led to a 0.18% gain in 2012.

Into the mess steps Jon Angrist, Brian J. Machtley and the folks at Cognios Capital. In 2008, Messrs. Angrist and Machtley co-founded Cognios (from the Latin for “to learn” or “to inquire”) which manages about $325 million, mostly for high net worth individuals. Mr. Angrist, the lead manager, has experience managing investments through limited partnerships (Helzberg Angrist Capital), private equity firms (Harvest Partners) and mutual funds (Buffalo Microcap Fund, now called Buffalo Emerging Opportunities BUFOX).

Cognios argues that most market-neutral managers misconstruct their portfolios. Most managers simply balance their short and long books: if 5% gets invested in an attractively valued car company then another 5% is devoted to shorting an unattractively valued car company. The problem is that an over-priced company might well be more volatile than an underpriced one, which means that the portfolio ceases to be market-neutral. The twist at Cognios, then, is to use quant tools to construct an attractive large cap portfolio while changing the relative sizes of the long and short books to neutralize beta. Cognios Market Neutral Large Cap describes itself as providing a “beta-adjusted market neutral” portfolio.

In a Beta-adjusted market neutral portfolio the size of the short book can be larger or smaller than the size of the long book. If the Beta of the long book is higher than the Beta of the short book, the short book needs to be larger than the size of the long book in order to remove all of the market’s broad movements (i.e., to remove the market’s Beta) … Even though the portfolio will be net short on an absolute dollar basis in [this] example (i.e., more shorts than longs) … [it] both would be market neutral on a Beta-adjusted basis.

So far, this seems to be a profitable strategy. Below is the comparative performance of Cognios (blue line) since inception, against its market neutral peer group.


Here are Jon’s 264 words on why this might become a standout strategy:

Jon AngristBrian and I have been working in value investing for most of our careers and about three years ago, as we looked at the mutual fund universe, we saw a huge gap in market neutral offerings for individual investors. Even today, there are less than 40 market neutral mutual funds (not share classes). In today’s market environment, I believe a market neutral allocation, beta market neutral in particular, is a critical diversification tool in an investor’s overall asset allocation as it is the only strategy that strives to remove the impact of the market and macro events from the return of the strategy. Unlike most market neutral strategies that target risk-free rates of return, our fund targets equity-like returns over full market cycles because, in my opinion, if an investor wants Treasury-like returns why wouldn’t he/she just buy Treasuries?

There was a real need in the market for which our strategy could provide a solution if packaged in a mutual fund wrapper and because we only invest in large, liquid companies in the S&P 500, we didn’t have to change our strategy in order to deploy it in a mutual fund. Investors and their advisors are looking for strategies that seek to reduce volatility, standard deviation and downside risk in a portfolio, which is the primary objective of our fund. This fund has made it possible for a wide range of investors to access the same strategy that we provide to our institutional clients in other structures. As investors in our own fund, we have a very strong conviction about what we are doing.

Cognios Market Neutral Large Cap (COGMX/COGIX) has a $1000 minimum initial investment for its retail class and $100,000 for the institutional class. Both are modest in comparison to the $25 million minimum for a separately managed account. Expenses are capped at 1.95% on the investor shares, at least through early 2016. The fund has about gathered about $16 million in assets since its December 2012 launch. More information can be found at the fund’s homepage. There’s also a quick slideshow on a third-party website that walks through the basics of the fund’s strategy.

Funds in Registration

New mutual funds must be registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission before they can be offered for sale to the public. The SEC has a 75-day window during which to call for revisions of a prospectus; fund companies sometimes use that same time to tweak a fund’s fee structure or operating details.

Funds in registration this month are eligible to launch in July or August and some of the prospectuses do highlight that date.

This month our research associate David Welsch tracked down eight no-load retail funds in registration, which represents our core interest. Of those, four carry ESG screens (two from TIAA-CREF and two from Trillium) and three represent absolute value or absolute return strategies, while one is a short-term bond index. Interesting cluster of interests.

Manager Changes

This month 66 funds reported partial or complete changes in their management teams, a number slightly inflated by a dozen partial team changes in the AB (formerly AllianceBernstein) retirement date funds. The most striking were the imminent departures of PIMCO’s global equities CIO Virginie Maisonneuve plus several equity managers and analysts as PIMCO pulls back on their attempt to make a mark in pure equity investing. There was, in addition, announcement of the planned departure of Robert Mohn, Domestic Chief Investment Officer of Columbia Wanger Asset Management and Vice President of Wanger Advisors Trust who will step down in the fourth quarter of 2015. The change was announced for Wanger USA (WUSAX) but will presumably ripple through a series of Columbia Acorn funds eventually. In addition, Matt Paschke of the Leuthold Funds is taking a leave of absence to pursue personal interests for a bit. He’s a good and level-headed guy and we wish him well.


Andrew Foster, manager of Seafarer Overseas Growth & Income (SFGIX), was the guest on a sort-of video interview with Morningstar’s Jason Stipp in mid-May. The interview, entitled “Seeking Sustainable Growth in Emerging Markets,” covers much of the same ground as our recent conference call with Mr. Foster. One difference is that he spoke at greater length about China in his conversation with Mr. Stipp. I’ve designed it as a “sort of” video call because Jason was on-camera while Andrew was on a phone, with his picture superimposed on the screen.

Seafarer, with a three year record and five star rating, seems to have found its footing in the marketplace. The fund now boasts over a quarter billion in well-deserved assets.

Briefly Noted . . .

Ted, The Linkster and long-time stalwart of our discussion board, cheers for Dodge & Cox shareholders. He shared a USA Today story “3 AOL Investors Bag a Quick $200M” that calculates the gain to D&C shareholders from Verizon’s bid to acquire AOL. The Dodge & Cox funds own 15% of the outstanding shares of AOL, which netted them $95,000,000 in a single day. Sadly, the D&C funds are so big that AOL contributed just a fraction of a percent to returns that day. Iridian Asset Management and BlackRock finished second and third in total gains.

bclintonTed also reports that the famously frugal Vanguard Group decided to chuck $200,000 at Bill Clinton in exchange for a 2012 speech for Vanguard’s institutional clients. That’s not an exceptional amount to hear from the former First Saxophonist; The Washington Post shows Bill pocketing $105 million for 542 speeches from the time he left the White House until the time Hilary Rodham-Clinton left the State Department. That comes to an average of $194,000 which suggests that Vanguard might have gotten just a bit flabby on their cost containment with this talk. The record might have been $300,000 paid by Dell that same year.


Hmmm … does “nothing really bad has happened yet” qualify as a win? Other than that, we’ve got the reopening of BlackRock Event Driven Equity Fund (BALPX) on or about July 27, 2015. Bad news: BALPX is tiny, expensive and sucks. Good news: they brought in a new manager in early May, 2015. Mark McKenna left Harvard’s endowment team and joined BlackRock last year to run an event-driven hedge fund. He’s now been moved here. The other bad news: Harvard’s performance was surprisingly poor during McKenna’s tenure, which doesn’t say McKenna was responsible for the poor performance, just that he didn’t live up to the vaunted Harvard standard. As a result, this is a small win.

CLOSINGS (and related inconveniences)

American Century Small Cap Value Fund sort of closed on May 1. In an increasingly common move, the adviser left the door open for those who invest directly with the fund and for “certain financial intermediaries selected by American Century.”

ASTON/River Road Dividend All Cap Value Fund (ARDEX) and ASTON/Fairpointe Mid Cap Fund (CHTTX) have each been soft-closed. Each management team has a second fund still open.

Effective June 12, 2015, $4.2 billion Diamond Hill Long-Short Fund (DIAMX) will close to most new investors. The fund has exceptional returns for an exceptional period. Its 3-, 5- and 10-year records cluster around the 25th percentile of all long-short funds. Potential investors need to take two factors into consideration when deciding whether to jump in: (1) performance is driven primarily by the strength of its long portfolio and (2) the lead manager for the long portfolio, Chuck Bath, is stepping aside. He’ll remain as a sort of backup manager but wants to focus his attention on Diamond Hill Large Cap. There’s no easy way of guessing how much his reorientation will cost the fund, so proceed thoughtfully if at all.

Effective as of the close of business on July 15, 2015, the $2.8 billion, five-star JOHCM International Select Fund (JOHIX) will be soft-closed. As friend Marjorie Pannell points out, the fund is an MFO Great Owl with eye-popping performance:

1 year – top 1% – (1 out of 339 funds) 
3 year – top 1% – (1 out of 293 funds) 
5 year – top 1% – (1 out of 277 funds)

Vulcan Value Partners (VVLPX) closed on June 1, rather later than originally planned. Out of respect for manager C.T. Fitzpatrick’s excellent long-term record here and at the Longleaf Funds, we sent out a notice of the extended window of opportunity to the 6000 or so folks on our email list.The $14 billion T. Rowe Price Health Sciences Fund (PRHSX) closed to new investors on June 1, 2015. Morningstar covered the fund avidly until the departure of star manager Kris Jenner. Over 13 years, Jenner nearly doubled the annualized returns of his benchmark. He left with two analysts, leaving the remaining analyst to take the reins. There was about $6 billion in the fund when Jenner (and Morningstar) left. Since then the fund has been much more T. Rowe Price-like: it has converted consistent, modest outperformance and risk consciousness into a fine record under manager Taymour Tamaddon.


Barrow All-Cap Core Fund (BALAX) is now Barrow Value Opportunity Fund and Barrow All-Cap Long/Short Fund (BFLSX) has been renamed Barrow Long/Short Opportunity Fund. Morningstar hasn’t caught up with the change yet.

Brown Capital Management Mid-Cap Fund is now Brown Capital Management Mid Company Fund (BCSMX). Rather than investing in mid-cap stocks, the fund will target mid-sized companies: those with total operating revenues of $500 million to $10 billion.

Catalyst Absolute Total Return Fund, will undergo a name and objective change to Catalyst Intelligent Alternative Fund in July.

Over the course of the past month, The Hartford Emerging Markets Research Fund (HERAX) was … uhh, tweaked a bit so that it has a new investment mandate, lower management fee (though no break on the bottom line expense ratio), new manager (Cheryl Duckworth is out, David Elliott of Wellington is in) and new name, Hartford Emerging Markets Equity Fund. One striking element of the change was the introduction of a new “related accounts performance” table, which shows how Mr. Elliott’s other EM porfolios perform before and after deductions for Hartford’s sales charges and expenses. Since inception, Elliott’s portfolio has returned 6.9% which crushes his benchmark’s 3.6%. Deduct sales charges and expenses and investors would pocket only 3.9%. That is, 56% of the manager’s raw performance gets routed to The Hartford and 44% goes to his investors. Other than for that, it was pretty much status quo in Hartford.

Roxbury/Mar Vista Strategic Growth Fund was recently rechristened as the Mar Vista Strategic Growth Fund (MVSGX) while Roxbury/Hood River Small-Cap Growth Fund became Hood River Small-Cap Growth Fund (HRSMX). Both are tiny but have really solid records. Heck, in Hood River’s case, it has a top tier 3-, 5- and 10 year record

On July 1, 2015, the T. Rowe Price Strategic Income Fund (PRSNX) will change its name to the T. Rowe Price Global Multi-Sector Bond Fund.

Effective May 30, 2015, the name of Turner Spectrum Fund was changed to Turner Titan II Fund. . Under its new dispensation, the fund “invests primarily in equity securities of companies with large capitalization ranges across major industry sectors using a long/short strategy in seeking to capture alpha, reduce volatility, and preserve capital in declining markets.”

On May 1, 2015, the European Equity Fund (VEEEX) became the Global Strategic Income Fund. Morningstar continues its membership in the European equity peer group despite the fact that, well, it ain’t.


It was a bad month for both alternative strategy and bond funds. Of the 23 funds that went extinct this month, five pursued alternative strategies, four were fixed-income funds – mostly international – and two were stock/bond hybrids.

361 Market Neutral Fund (ALSQX) underwent “termination, liquidation and dissolution” on May 29, 2015. The fund had an all-star management team, spotty record and trivial asset base.

As of March 9, 2015, AllianzGI Opportunity Fund merged into AllianzGI Small-Cap Blend Fund (AZBAX). The topic came up in a mid-May SEC filing, so I thought I’d mention.

Ancora Equity Fund (ANQIX) will be liquidated and dissolved on or about June 26, 2015.

Ave Maria Opportunity Fund (AVESX), a tiny small-value fund with a lot of faith in energy stocks, will merge into Ave Maria Catholic Values Fund (AVEMX) at the end of July.

Catalyst Event Arbitrage Fund (CEAAX), which was a good hedge fund and a bad mutual fund, will be liquidated on June 15, 2015.

Clear River Fund (CLRVX) will liquidate on June 30, 2015. No, I’ve never heard of it, either. The closest to a fun fact about the fund is that it never managed to finish any calendar year with above-average returns relative to its Morningstar peer group.

A new speed record: The Trustees of Context Capital Funds launched the Context Alternative Strategies Fund (CALTX) with two managers and seven sub-advisers in March, 2014. Performance started out as mediocre but by December turned ugly. Having been patient for more than a year(!), the Trustees dismissed their two managers on May 18, then filed a prospectus supplement on Friday, May 29, 2015 that announced the liquidation of the fund on the next business day, Monday, June 1, 2015. That liquidation leaves Context with one fund, Context Macro Opportunities (CMOTX), which nominally launched in December, hasn’t traded yet, has $100,000 in assets and a $1,000,000 minimum.

Encompass Fund (ENCPX) liquidated on May 27, 2015. They launched about seven years ago, convinced that it was time to focus on materials stocks. They were right, then they were very wrong; the fund tended to finish in the top 1% or the bottom 1% of its noticeably volatile natural resources peer group. At the end, they had $2 million in AUM and were dead last in their peer group. The managers and trustees, to their great credit if not to their personal gain, held about half of the fund’s total assets.

That said, the managers wrote a thoughtful and appropriate eulogy for the fund in their last letter to shareholders.

We want the shareholders to know that we resigned with a keen sense of disappointment. After posting exceptional returns in 2009 and 2010, we were optimistic that the Fund’s overweight in precious and industrial metals would continue to enable Encompass to excel. However, the last 4 years were difficult ones for resource companies and the Fund has underperformed. We did increase exposure to the energy sector in late 2013 and early 2014. Those stocks performed very well until oil prices shocked investors by declining more than 50% in the second half of 2014.

More recently we increased the Fund’s exposure to the health care, cybersecurity and airline industries with good results. However, the resource companies have continued to weigh on overall portfolio performance even though exposure to metals has been significantly reduced.

When we launched Encompass in mid-2006, we believed the time was right for a diversified mutual fund that emphasized resource companies. For several years we were proven right, but despite fundamentals that historically have been good for metals companies, the last few years have been very challenging. The Fund has not been able to grow and thus we came to the very difficult decision that we should resign as Manager. The Fund’s independent Trustees considered various alternatives and concluded that the Fund should be liquidated.

We have begun liquidating the Fund’s holdings, and intend to complete the process in the next couple of weeks. Of course, we are attempting to maximize the proceeds for the benefit of shareholders.

Guggenheim Enhanced World Equity Fund (GEEWX) will liquidate on June 26, 2015. $6 million in assets with a 600% annual turnover which, I presume, is the “enhancement” implied by the name.

Innealta Capital Global All Asset Opportunity Fund (ROMAX) will discontinue operations on June 19th. The fund managed to rake in just about $3 million in its two years of high expense/high turnover/low returns operations.

In mid-July, Jamestown Balanced Fund (JAMBX) will ask its shareholders for permission to merge into Jamestown Equity Fund (JAMEX). The rationale is that the funds have “similar investment objectives, investment strategies and risk factors,” which is true give or take the nearly 50% higher volatility that investors in the equity fund experience over investors in the balanced one.

The trustees of the fund have authorized the liquidation of the Pioneer Emerging Markets Local Currency Debt Fund (LCEMX) which will occur on August 7, 2015. To put the decision in context: over the past couple years, investing in emerging markets bonds (the orange line) has been a bad idea, investing in EM bonds denominated in local currencies (green) has been a worse idea and investing in the Pioneer fund (blue) has been a thorough disaster.


On the upside, with only $10 million in assets, no one much was hurt. As of the last SAI, the manager hadn’t invested a single dinar, rupee or pataca in the fund so his portfolio was pretty much unscathed.

The Listed Private Equity Plus Fund become unlisted on May 18, 2015.

On May 15, 2015, the Loomis Sayles International Bond Fund was liquidated. A subsequent SEC filing helpfully notes: “The Fund no longer exists, and as a result, shares of the Fund are no longer available for purchase or exchange.”

PIMCO is retreating from the equity business with the liquidation of PIMCO Emerging Multi-Asset (PEAAX), PIMCO EqS® Emerging Markets (PEQAX) and PIMCO EqS Pathfinder (PATHX) funds, all on July 14, 2015. Pathfinder, with nearly $900 million in assets, was supposed to be a vehicle to showcase the talents of two Franklin Mutual Series managers who defected to PIMCO. That didn’t play out during the fund’s five year history, arguably because it was better positioned for down markets than for rising ones. PEAAX was a small, sucky fund of PIMCO funds. PEQAX was a slightly less small, slightly less sucky fund that was supposed to be the star vehicle for an imported GSAM team. Oops.

Rx Tax Advantaged Fund (FMERX) will liquidate soon. It managed to parlay high expenses and a low-return asset class (muni bonds) into a tiny, money-losing proposition.

Templeton Constrained Bond Fund (FTCAX) goes the way of the dodo bird on August 27, 2015 which “may be delayed if unforeseen circumstances arise.” I can’t for the life of me figure out what the “constraint” in the fund name referred to. The prospectus announces:

Under normal market conditions, the Fund invests at least 80% of its net assets in “bonds.” Bonds include debt obligations of any maturity, such as bonds, notes, bills and debentures.

The constraint is that the bond fund must buy “bonds”? The last portfolio report shows them at 90% cash in a $10 million portfolio.

Touchstone International Fixed Income Fund (TIFAX), in recognition of “its small size and limited growth potential,” will liquidate on July 21, 2015. “An overweight to peripheral and speculative issuers” helped performance, right up to the moment when it didn’t:


Okay, they really, really mean it this time: The Turner Funds determined to close and liquidate the Turner Titan Fund (TTLFX), effective on or about June 19, 2015. The Fund had previously been scheduled to close and liquidate on or about June 1, 2015. That’s followed its closure at the end of 2014 and previously announced plans to liquidate in mid-March and late April.

V2 Hedged Equity Fund (VVHEX/VVHIX), responding to “an anticipated decline in Fund assets,” liquidated in early May.

I appreciate thoroughness: “Effective April 30, 2015, the Virtus Global Commodities Stock Fund … was liquidated. The Fund has ceased to exist and is no longer available for sale. Accordingly, the prospectus and SAI are no longer valid.” Any questions?

In Closing . . .

Thanks, as always, to the folks who support the Observer. To Binod, greetings and good luck with the rising waters in Houston. We feel for you! Thanks to Joe for the thumbs-up on our continuing redesign of the Observer’s site; it’s always good to get an endorsement from a pro! Tom, thank you, we’re so glad that you find our site useful. Thanks, finally, to the folks who’ve bookmarked the Observer’s link to Amazon. Normally our Amazon revenue tails off dramatically at mid-year. So far this season, it’s held up reasonably well and we’re grateful.

green manWe’ll look for you at Morningstar. I’ll be the one dressed like a small oak. It’s a ploy! John Rekenthaler (Bavarian for “thunder talker,” I think) recently mused “I don’t actually get invited to parties, but if I did, I’d be chatting with the potted plants.” I figure that with proper foliage I might lure the Great Man into amiable conversation.

If any of you would like to join Hedda, Jake, (maybe) Tadas and the good folks from the Queens Road funds (they’ve promised me fresh peanuts) in diverting my attention and saving John from my interminable prattle, please do drop us a note and we’ll set up a time to meet. The Observer folks should be around the conference from early Wednesday until well past its Friday close.

As always, we’ll post daily conference highlights on MFO’s discussion board. (No, I don’t tweet and you can’t make me.) If you miss them there, we’ll share them in our July issue. In addition, we have profiles of some new ESG/green funds – equity, income and hybrid – on tap. We’ll explain why in July!

As ever,



May 1, 2015

By David Snowball

Dear friends,

It’s May, a sweet and anxious time at college. The End is tantalizingly close; just two weeks remain in the academic year and, for many, in their academic career.  Both the trees on the Quad and summer wardrobes are bursting out. The days remaining and the brain cells remaining shrink to a precious few. We all wonder where another year (my 31st here) went, holding on to its black-robed closing days even as we long for the change of pace and breathing space that summer promises.

Augustana College

For investors too summer holds promise, for days away and for markets unhinged. Perhaps thinking a bit ahead while the hinges remain intact might be a prudent course and a helpful prologue to lazy, hazy and crazy.

The Dry Powder Crowd

A bunch of fundamentally solid funds have been hammered by their absolute value orientation; that is, their refusal to buy stocks when they believe that the stock’s valuations and the underlying corporation’s prospects simply do not offer a sufficient margin of safety for the risks they’re taking, much less compelling opportunities. The mere fact that a fund sports just one lonely star in the Morningstar system should not disqualify it from serious consideration. Many times a low star rating reflects the fact that a particular style or perspective is out-of-favor, but the managers were unwilling to surrender their discipline to play to what’s popular.

That strikes us as admirable.

Sometimes a fund ends up with a one-star rating simply because it’s too independent to fit into one of Morningstar’s or Lipper’s predetermined boxes.

We screened for one-star equity funds with over 20% cash. From that list we looked for solid, disciplined funds whose Morningstar ratings have taken a pounding. Those include:



3 yr return


ASTON/River Road Independent Value (ARIVX)



Brilliant run from 2006-2011 when even his lagging years saw double digit absolute returns. Performance since has been sad; his peers have been rising 15% annually while ARIVX has been under 4%. The manager’s response is unambiguous: “As the rise in small cap prices accelerates and measures of valuation approach or exceed past bubble peaks, we believe it is now fair to characterize the current small cap market as a bubble.” After decades of small cap investing, he’s simply unwilling to chase bubbles so the fund is 80% cash.

Fairholme Allocation (FAAFX)



Mr. Berkowitz is annoyed with you for fleeing his funds a couple years ago. In response he closed the funds then reopened them with dramatically raised minimums. His funds manage frequent, dramatic losses often followed by dramatic gains. Just not as often lately as leaders surge and contrarian bets falter. He and his associates have about $70 million in the fund.

FPA Capital (FPPTX)



The only Morningstar medalist (Silver) in the group, FPA manages this as an absolute value small- to mid-cap fund. The manager of this closed fund has been onboard since 2007 and like many like-minded investors is getting whacked by holding both undervalued energy stocks and cash.

Intrepid Small Cap, soon to be Intrepid Endeavor (ICMAX)



Same story as with FPA and Aston: in response to increasingly irrational activity in small cap investing (e.g., the numbers of firms being acquired at record high earnings levels), Intrepid is concentrated in a handful of undervalued sectors and cash.  AUM has dropped from $760 million in September 2012 to $420 million now, of which 70% is cash.

Linde Hansen Contrarian Value (LHVAX)



Messrs. Linde and Hansen are long-term Lord Abbett managers. By their calculation, price to normalized earnings have, since 2014, been at levels last seen before the 2007-09 crash. That leaves them without many portfolio candidates and without a willingness to buy for the sake of buying: “We believe the worst investing mistakes happen when discipline is abandoned and criteria are stretched (usually in an effort to stay fully invested or chasing indexes). With that perspective in mind, expect us to be patient.”

The Cook & Bynum Fund (COBYX)



The phrase “global concentrated absolute value” does pretty much capture it: seven stocks, three sectors, huge Latin exposure and 40% cash. The guys have posted very respectable returns in four of their five years with the fund: double-digit absolute returns or top percentile relative ones. A charging market left them with fewer and fewer attractive options, despite long international field trips in pursuit of undiscovered gems. Like many of the other funds above, they have been, and likely will again be, a five star fund.

Frankly, any one of the funds above has the potential to be the best performer in your portfolio over the next five years especially if interest rates and valuations begin to normalize.

The challenge of overcoming cash seems so titanic that it’s worth noting, especially, the funds whose managers have managed to marry substantial cash strong with ongoing strong absolute and relative returns. These funds all have at least 20% cash and four- or five-star ratings from Morningstar, as of April 2015.



3 yr return


Diamond Hill Small Cap (DHSCX)



The manager builds the portfolio one stock at a time, doing bottom-up research to find undervalued small caps that he can hold onto for 5-10 years. Mr. Schindler has been with the fund as manager or co-manager since inception.

Eventide Gilead (ETGLX)



Socially responsible stock fund with outrageous fees (1.55%) for a fund with a straightforward strategy and $1.6 billion in assets, but its returns are top 1-2% across most trailing time periods. Morningstar felt compelled to grump about the fund’s volatility despite the fact that, since inception, the fund has not been noticeably more volatile than its mid-cap growth peers.

FMI International (FMIJX)



In May 2012 we described this as “a star in the making … headed by a cautious and consistent team that’s been together for a long while.” We were right: highly independent, low turnover, low expense, team-managed. The fund has a lot of exposure to US multinationals and it’s the only open fund in the FMI family.

Longleaf Partners Small Cap (LLSCX)



Mason Hawkins and Staley Cates have been running this mid-cap growth fund for decades. It’s now closed to new investors.

Pinnacle Value (PVFIX)



Our March 2015 profile noted that Pinnacle had the best risk-return profile of any fund in our database, earning about 10% annually while subjecting investors to barely one-third of the market’s volatility.

Putnam Capital Spectrum (PVSAX)



At $10.7 billion in AUM, this is the largest fund in the group. It’s managed by David Glancy who established his record as the lead manager for Fidelity’s high yield bond funds and its leveraged stock fund.

TETON Westwood Mighty Mites (WEMMX)



There’s a curious balance here: huge numbers of stocks (500) and really low turnover in the portfolio (14%). That allows a $1.3 billion fund to remain almost exclusively invested in microcaps. The Gabelli and Laura Linehan have been on the fund since launch.

Tweedy, Browne Global Value (TBGVX)



I’m just endlessly impressed with the Tweedy funds. These folks get things right so often that it’s just remarkable. The fund is currency hedged with just 9% US exposure and 4% turnover.

Weitz Partners III Opportunity (WPOPX)



Morningstar likes it (see below), so who am I to question?

Fans of large funds (or Goodhaven) might want to consult Morningstar’s recommended list of “Cash-Heavy Funds for the Cautious Investor” which includes five names:



3 yr return


FPA Crescent (FPACX)



The $20 billion “free range chicken” has been managed by Mr. Romick since 1993. Its cash stake reflects FPA’s institutional impulse toward absolute value investing.

Weitz Partners Value (WPVLX)



Perhaps Mr. Weitz was chastened by his 53% loss in the 2007-09 market crises, which he entered with a 10% cash buffer.

Weitz Hickory (WEHIX)



On the upside, WEHIX’s 56% drawdown does make its sibling look moderate by comparison.

Third Avenue Real Estate Value (TAREX)



This is an interesting contrast to Third Avenue’s other equity funds which remain fully invested; Small Cap, for example, reports under 1% cash.

Goodhaven (GOODX)



I don’t get it. Morningstar is enamored with this fund despite the fact that it trails 99% of its peers. Morningstar reported a 19% cash stake in March and a 0% stake now. I have no idea of what’s up and a marginal interest in finding out.

It’s time for an upgrade

The story was all over the place on the morning of April 20th:

  • Reuters: “Carlyle to shutter its two mutual funds”
  • Bloomberg: “Carlyle to close two mutual funds in liquid alts setback”
  • Ignites: “Carlyle pulls plug on two mutual funds”
  • ValueWalk: “Carlyle to liquidate a pair of mutual funds”
  • Barron’s: “Carlyle closing funds, gold slips”
  • MFWire dutifully linked to three of them in its morning link list

Business Insider gets it closest to right: “Private equity giant Carlyle Group is shutting down the two mutual funds it launched just a year ago,” including Carlyle Global Core Allocation Fund.

What’s my beef? 

  1. Carlyle doesn’t have two mutual funds, they have one. They have authorization to launch the second fund, but never have. It’s like shuttering an unbuilt house. Reuters, nonetheless, solemnly notes that the second fund “never took off [and] will also be wound down,” implying that – despite Carlyle’s best efforts, it was just an undistinguished performer.
  2. The fund they have isn’t the one named in the stories. There is no such fund as Carlyle Global Core Allocation Fund, a fund mentioned in every story. Its name is Carlyle Core Allocation Fund(CCAIX/CCANX). It’s rather like the Janus Global Unconstrained Bond Fund that, despite Janus’s insistence, didn’t exist at the point that Mr. Gross joined the team. “Global” is a description but not in the name.
  3. The Carlyle fund is not newsworthy. It’s less than one year old, it has a trivial asset base ($50 million) and has not yet made a penny ($10,000 at inception is now $9930).

If folks wanted to find a story here, a good title might be “Another big name private investor trawls the fund space for assets, doesn’t receive immediate gratification and almost immediately loses interest.” I detest the practice of tossing a fund into the market then shutting it in its first year; it really speaks poorly of the adviser’s planning, understanding and commitment but it seems distressingly common.

What’s my solution?

Upgrade. Most news outlets are no longer capable of doing that for you; they simply don’t have the resources to do a better job or to separate press release from self-serving bilge from news so you need to do it for yourself.

Switch to Bloomberg TV from, you know, the screechy guys. If it’s not universally lauded, it does seem broadly recognized as the most thoughtful of the financial television channels.

Develop the habit of listening to Marketplace, online or on public radio. It’s a service of American Public Media and I love listening to Kai Ryssdal and crew for their broad, intelligent, insightful reporting on a wide range of topics in finance and money.

Read the Saturday Wall Street Journal, which contains more sensible content per inch than any other paper that lands on my desk. Jason Zweig’s column alone is worth the price of admission. His most recent weekend piece, “A History of Mutual-Fund Doors Opening and Closing,” is outstanding, if only because it quotes me.  About 90% of us would benefit from less saturation with the daily noise and more time to read pieces that offer a bit of perspective.

Reward yourself richly on any day when your child’s baseball score comes immediately to mind but you can honestly say you have no earthly clue what the score of the Dow Jones is. That’s not advice for casual investors, that’s advice for professionals: the last thing on earth that you want is a time horizon that’s measured in hours, days, weeks or months. On that scale the movement of markets is utterly unpredictable and focusing on those horizons will damage you more deeply and more consistently than any other bad habit you can develop.

Go read a good book and I don’t mean financial porn. If your competitive advantage is seeing things that other people (uhh, the herd) don’t see, then you’ve got to expose yourself to things other people don’t experience. In a world increasingly dominated by six inch screens, books – those things made from trees – fit the bill. Bill Gates recommends The Bully Pulpit, by Doris Kearns Goodwin. Goodwin “studies the lives of America’s 26th and 27th presidents to examine a question that fascinates me: How does social change happen?” That is, Teddy Roosevelt and William Taft. Power down your phone while you’re reading. The aforementioned Mr. Zweig fusses that “you can’t spend all day reading things that train your brain to twitch” and offers up Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow. Having something that you sip, rather than gulp, does help turn reading from an obligation to a calming ritual. Nina Kallen, a friend, insurance coverage lawyer in Boston and one of the sharpest people we know, declares Roger Fisher and William Ury’s Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In to be “life-changing.” In her judgment, it’s the one book that every 18-year-old should be handed as part of the process of becoming an adult. Chip and I have moved the book to the top of our joint reading list for the month ahead. Speaking of 18-year-olds, it wouldn’t hurt if your children actually saw you reading; perhaps if you tell them they wouldn’t like it, they’d insist on joining you.

charles balconyHow Good Is Your Fund Family? An Update…

Baseball season has started. MLB.TV actually plays more commercials than it used to, which sad to say I enjoy more than the silent “Commercial Break In Progress” screen, even if they are repetitive.

One commercial is for The Hartford Funds. The company launched a media campaign introducing a new tagline, “Our benchmark is the investor℠,” and its focus on “human-centric investing.”


Its website touts research they have done with MIT on aging, and its funds are actually sub-advised by Wellington Management.

A quick look shows 66 funds, each with some 6 share classes, and just under $100B AUM. Of the 66, most charge front loads up to 5.5% with an average annual expense ratio of just over 1%, including 12b-1 fee. And, 60 have been around for more than 3 years, averaging 15 years in fact.

How well have their funds performed over their lifetimes? Just average … a near even split between funds over-performing and under-performing their peers, including expenses.

We first started looking at fund family performance last year in the piece “How Good Is Your Fund Family?” Following much the same methodology, with all the same qualifications, below is a brief update. Shortly, we hope to publish an ongoing tally, or “Fund Family Score Card” if you will, because … during the next commercial break, while watching a fund family’s newest media campaign, we want to make it easier for you to gauge how well a fund family has performed against its peers.

The current playing field has about 6200 US funds packaged and usually marketed in 225 families. For our tally, each family includes at least 5 funds with ages 3 years or more. Oldest share class only, excluding money market, bear, trading, and specialized commodity funds. Though the numbers sound high, the field is actually dominated by just five families, as shown below:


It is interesting that while Vanguard represents the largest family by AUM, with nearly twice its nearest competitor, its average annual ER of 0.22% is less than one third either Fidelity or American Funds, at 0.79% and 0.71%, respectively. So, even without front loads, which both the latter use to excess, they are likely raking in much more in fees than Vanguard.

Ranking each of the 225 families based on number of funds that beat their category averages produces the following score card, by quintile, best to worst:


Of the five families, four are in top two quintiles: Vanguard, American Funds, Fidelity, and T. Rowe Price.  In fact, of Vanguard’s 145 funds, 119 beat their peers. Extraordinary. But BlackRock is just average, like Hartford.

The difference in average total return between top and bottom fund families on score card is 3.1% per year!

The line-ups of some of the bottom quintile families include 100% under-performers, where every fund has returned less than its peers over their lifetimes: Commonwealth, Integrity, Lincoln, Oak Associates, Pacific Advisors, Pacific Financial, Praxis, STAAR. Do you think their investors know? Do the investors of Goldman Sachs know that their funds are bottom quintile … written-off to survivorship bias possibly?

Visiting the website of Oberweis, you don’t see that four of its six funds under-performed. Instead, you find: TWO FUNDS NAMED “BEST FUND” IN 2015 LIPPER AWARDS. Yes, its two over-performers.

While the line-ups of some top quintile families include 100% over-performers: Cambiar, Causeway, Dodge & Cox, First Eagle, Marsico, Mirae, Robeco, Tocqueville.

Here is a summary of some of the current best and worst:


While not meeting the “five funds” minimum, some other notables: Tweedy Browne has 4 of 4 over-performers, and Berwyn, FMI, Mairs & Power, Meridian, and PRIMECAP Odyssey all have 3 of 3.

(PRIMECAP is an interesting case. It actually advises 6 funds, but 3 are packaged as part of the Vanguard family. All 6 PRIMECAP advised funds are long-term overperformers … 3.4% per year across an average of 15 years! Similarly with OakTree. All four of its funds beat their peers, but only 2 under its own name.)

As well as younger families off to great starts: KP, 14 of 14 over-performers, Rothschild 7 of 7, Gotham 5 of 5, and Grandeur Peak 4 of 4. We will find a way to call attention to these funds too on the future “Fund Family Score Card.”

Ed is on assignment, staking out a possible roach motel

Our distinguished senior colleague Ed Studzinski is a deep-value investor; his impulse is to worry more about protecting his investors when times turn dark than in making them as rich as Croesus when the days are bright and sunny. He’s been meditating, of late, on the question of whether there’s anything a manager today might do that would reliably protect his investors in the case of a market crisis akin to 2008.

roach motelEd is one of a growing number of investors who are fearful that we might be approaching a roach motel; that is, a situation where it’s easy to get into a particular security but where it might be impossible to get back out of it when you urgently want to.

Structural changes in the market and market regulations have, some fear, put us at risk for a liquidity crisis. In a liquidity crisis, the ability of market makers to absorb the volume of securities offered for sale and to efficiently match buyers and sellers disappears. A manager under pressure to sell a million dollars’ worth of corporate bonds might well find that there’s only a market for two-thirds of that amount, the remaining third could swiftly become illiquid – that is, unmarketable – securities.

David Sherman, president of Cohanzick Asset Management and manager of two RiverPark’s non-traditional bond funds addressed the issue in his most recent shareholder letter. I came away from it with two strong impressions:

There may be emerging structural problems in the investment-grade fixed-income market. At base, the unintended consequences of well-intended reforms may be draining liquidity from the market (the market makers have dramatically less cash and less skin in the game than they once did) and making it hard to market large fixed-income sales. An immediate manifestation is the problem in getting large bond issuances sold.

Things might get noticeably worse for folks managing large fixed-income portfolios. His argument is that given the challenges facing large bond issues, you really want a fund that can benefit from small bond issues. That means a small fund with commitments to looking beyond the investment-grade universe and to closing before size becomes a hindrance.

Some of his concerns are echoed on a news site tailored for portfolio managers, An article entitled “Have managers lost sight of liquidity risk?” argues:

A liquidity drought in the bond space is a real concern if the Fed starts raising rates, but as the Fed pushes off the expected date of its first hike, some managers may be losing sight of that danger. That’s according to Fed officials, who argue that if a rate hike catches too many managers off their feet, the least they can expect is a taper tantrum similar to 2013, reports Reuters. The worst-case-scenario is a full-blown liquidity crisis.

The most recent investor letter from the managers of Driehaus Active Income Fund (LCMAX) warns that recent structural changes in the market have made it increasingly fragile:

Since the end of the credit crisis, there have been a number of structural changes in the credit markets, including new regulations, a reduced size of broker dealer trading desks, changes in fund flows, and significant growth of larger index-based mutual funds and ETFs. The “new” market environment and players have impacted nearly all aspects of the market, including trading liquidity. The transfer of risk is not nearly as orderly as it once was and is now more expensive and volatile … one thing nearly everyone can agree on is that liquidity in the credit markets has decreased materially since the credit crisis.

The federal Office of Financial Research concurs: “Markets have become more brittle because liquidity may be less available in a downturn.” Ben Inker, head of GMO’s asset allocation group, just observed that “the liquidity in [corporate credit] markets has become shockingly poor.”

More and more money is being stashed in a handful of enormous fixed income funds, active and passive. In general, those might be incredibly regrettable places to be when liquidity becomes constrained:

Generally speaking, you’re going to need liquidity in your bond fund when the market is stressed. When the market is falling apart, the ETFs are the worst place to be, as evidenced by their underperformance to the index in 2008, 2011 and 2013. So yes, you will have liquidity, but it will be in something that is cratering.

What does this mean for you?

  1. Formerly safe havens won’t necessarily remain safe.
  2. You need to know what strategy your portfolio manager has for getting ahead of a liquidity crunch and for managing during it. The Driehaus folks list seven or eight sensible steps they’ve taken and Mr. Sherman walks through the structural elements of his portfolio that mitigate such risks.
  3. If your manager pretend not to know what the concern is or suggests you shouldn’t worry your pretty little head about it, fire him.

In the interim, Mr. Studzinski is off worrying on your behalf, talking with other investors and looking for a safe(r) path forward. We’re hoping that he’ll return next month with word of what he’s found.

Top developments in fund industry litigation

Fundfox LogoFundfox, launched in 2012, is the mutual fund industry’s only litigation intelligence service, delivering exclusive litigation information and real-time case documents neatly organized and filtered as never before. For the complete list of developments last month, and for information and court documents in any case, log in at and navigate to Fundfox Insider.


  • The SEC charged BlackRock Advisors with breaching its fiduciary duty by failing to disclose a conflict of interest created by the outside business activity of a top-performing portfolio manager. BlackRock agreed to settle the charges and pay a $12 million penalty.
  • In a blow to Putnam, the Second Circuit reinstated fraud and negligence-based claims made by the insurer of a swap transaction. The insurer alleges that Putnam misrepresented the independence of its management of a collateralized debt obligation. (Fin. Guar. Ins. Co. v. Putnam Advisory Co.)

New Appeals

  • Plaintiffs have appealed the lower court’s dismissal of an ERISA class action regarding Fidelity‘s practices with respect to the so-called “float income” generated from plan participants’ account transactions. (In re Fid. ERISA Float Litig.)


  • Plaintiffs filed their opposition to Davis‘s motion to dismiss excessive-fee litigation regarding the New York Venture Fund. Brief: “Defendants’ investment advisory fee arrangements with the Davis New York Venture Fund . . . epitomize the conflicts of interest and potential for abuse that led Congress to enact § 36(b). Unconstrained by competitive pressures, Defendants charge the Fund advisory fees that are as much as 96% higher than the fees negotiated at arm’s length by other, independent mutual funds . . . for Davis’s investment [sub-]advisory services.” (In re Davis N.Y. Venture Fund Fee Litig.)
  • Plaintiffs filed their opposition to PIMCO‘s motion to dismiss excessive-fee litigation regarding the Total Return Fund. Brief: “In 2013 alone, the PIMCO Defendants charged the shareholders of the PIMCO Total Return Fund $1.5 billion in fees, awarded Ex-head of PIMCO, Bill Gross, a $290 million bonus and his second-in-command a whopping $230 million, and ousted a Board member who dared challenge Gross’s compensation—all this despite the Fund’s dismal performance that trailed 70% of its peers.” (Kenny v. Pac. Inv. Mgmt. Co.)
  • In the purported class action regarding alleged deviations from two fundamental investment objectives by the Schwab Total Bond Market Fund, the Investment Company Institute and Independent Directors Council filed an amici brief in support of Schwab’s petition for rehearing (and rehearing en banc) of the Ninth Circuit’s 2-1 decision allowing the plaintiffs’ state-law claims to proceed. Brief: “The panel’s decision departs from long-standing law governing mutual funds and creates confusion and uncertainty nationwide.” Defendants include independent directors. (Northstar Fin. Advisors, Inc. v. Schwab Invs.)

Amended Complaint

  • Plaintiffs filed a new complaint in the fee litigation against New York Life, adding a fourth fund to the case: the MainStay High Yield Opportunities Fund. (Redus-Tarchis v. N.Y. Life Inv. Mgmt., LLC.)


  • P. Morgan filed an answer in an excessive-fee lawsuit regarding three of its bond funds. (Goodman v. J.P. Morgan Inv. Mgmt., Inc.)

The Alt Perspective: Commentary and News from Daily Alts

dailyaltsThe spring has brought new life into the liquid alternatives market with both March and April seeing robust activity in terms of new fund launches and registrations, as well as fund flows. Touching on new fund flows first, March saw more than $2 billion of new asset flow into alternative mutual funds and ETFs, while US equity mutual funds and ETFs had combined outflows of nearly $6 billion.

At the top of the inflow rankings were international equity and fixed income, which provides a clear indication that investors were seeking both potentially higher return equity markets (non-US equity) and shelter (fixed income and alternatives). With increased levels of volatility in the markets, I wouldn’t be surprised to see this cash flow trend continue on into April and May.

New Funds Launched in April

We logged eight new liquid alternative funds in April from firms such as Prudential, Waycross, PowerShares and LoCorr. No particular strategy stood out as being dominant among the eight funds as they ranged from long/short equity and alternative fixed income strategies, to global macro and multi-strategy. A couple highlights are as follows:

1) LoCorr Multi-Strategy Fund – To date, LoCorr has done a thoughtful job of brining high quality managers to the liquid alts market, and offers funds that cover managed futures, long/short commodities, long/short equity and alternative income strategies. In this new fund, they bring all of these together in a single offering, making it easier for investors to diversify with a single fund.

2) Exceed Structured Shield Index Strategies Fund – This is the first of three new mutual funds that provide investors with a structured product that is designed to protect downside volatility and provide a specific level of upside participation. The idea of a more defined outcome can be appealing to a lot of investors, and will also help advisors figure out where and how to use the fund in a portfolio.

New Funds Registered in April

Fund registrations are where we see what is coming a couple months down the road – a bit like going to the annual car show to see what the car manufacturers are going to be brining out in the new season. And at this point, it looks like June/July will be busy as we counted 9 new alternative fund registration in April. A couple interesting products are listed below:

1) Hatteras Market Neutral Fund – Hatteras has been around the liquid alts market for quite some time, and with this fund will be brining multiple managers in as sub-advisors. Market neutral strategies are appealing at times when investors are looking to take risk off the table yet generate returns that are better than cash. They can also serve as a fixed income substitute when the outlook is flat to negative for the fixed income market.

2) Franklin K2 Long Short Credit Fund – K2 is a leading fund of hedge fund manager that works with large institutional investors to invest in and manage portfolios of hedge funds. The firm was acquired by Franklin Templeton back in 2012 and has so far launched one alternative mutual fund. The fund will be managed by multiple sub-advisors and will allocate to several segments of the fixed income market. 

Debunking Active Share

High active share does not equal high alpha. I’ll say that again. High active share does not equal high alpha. This is the finding in a new AQR white paper that essentially proves false two of the key tenents of a 2009 research paper (How Active is Your Fund Manager? A New Measure That Predicts Performanceby Martijn Cremers and Antti Petajisto. These two tenents are:

1) Active Share predicts fund performance: funds with the highest Active Share significantly outperform their benchmarks, both before and after expenses, and they exhibit strong performance persistence.

2) Non-index funds with the lowest Active Share underperform their benchmarks.

AQR explains that other factors are in play, and those other factors actually explain the outperformance that Cremers and Petajisto found in their work. You can read more here: AQR Deactivates Active Share in New White Paper.

And finally, for anyone considering the old “Sell in May and Go Away” strategy this month, be sure to have a read of this article, or watch this video. Or, better yet, just make a strategic allocation to a few solid alternative funds that have some downside protection built into them.

Feel free to stop by for more coverage of liquid alternatives.

Observer Fund Profiles:

Each month the Observer provides in-depth profiles of between two and four funds. Our “Most Intriguing New Funds” are funds launched within the past couple years that most frequently feature experienced managers leading innovative newer funds. “Stars in the Shadows” are older funds that have attracted far less attention than they deserve.

Seafarer Overseas Growth & Income (SFGIX/SIGIX): Our contention has always been that Seafarer represents one of the best possible options for investors interested in approaching the emerging markets. A steadily deepening record and list of accomplishments suggests that we’re right.

Towle Deep Value Fund (TDVFX): This fund positions itself a “an absolute value fund with a strong preference for staying fully invested.” For the past 33 years, Mr. Towle & Co. have been consistently successful at turning over more rock – in under covered small caps and international stocks alike – to find enough deeply undervalued stocks to populate the portfolio and produce eye-catching results.

Conference Call Highlights: Seafarer Overseas Growth & Income

Seafarer logoHere are some quick highlights from our April 16th conversation with Andrew Foster of Seafarer.

Seafarer’s objective: Andrew’s hope is to outperform his benchmark (the MSCI EM index) “slowly but steadily over time.” He describes the approach as a “relative return strategy” which pursues growth that’s more sustainable than what’s typical in developing markets while remaining value conscious.

Here’s the strategy: you need to start by understanding that the capital markets in many EM nations are somewhere between “poorly developed” and “cruddy.” Both academics and professional investors assume that a country’s capital markets will function smoothly: banks will make loans to credit-worthy borrowers, corporations and governments will be able to access the bond market to finance longer-term projects and stocks will trade regularly, transparently and at rational expense.

None of that may safely be assumed in the case of emerging markets; indeed, that’s what might distinguish an “emerging” market from a developed one. The question becomes: what are the characteristics of companies that might thrive in such conditions.

The answer seems to be (1) firms that can grow their top line steadily in the 7-15% per annum range and (2) those that can finance their growth internally. The focus on the top line means looking for firms that can increase revenues by 7-15% without obsessing about similar growth in the bottom line. It’s almost inevitable that EM firms will have “stumbles” that might diminish earnings for one to three years; while you can’t ignore them, you also can’t let them drive your investing decisions. “If the top line grows,” Andrew argues, “the bottom line will follow.” The focus on internal financing means that the firms will be capable of funding their operations and plans without needing recourse to the unreliable external sources of capital.

Seafarer tries to marry that focus on sustainable moderate growth “with some current income, which is a key tool to understanding quality and valuation of growth.” Dividends are a means to an end; they don’t do anything magical all by themselves. Dividends have three functions. They are:

An essential albeit crude valuation tool – many valuation metrics cannot be meaningfully applied across borders and between regions; there’s simply too much complexity in the way different markets operate. Dividends are a universally applicable measure.

A way of identifying firms that will bounce less in adverse market conditions – firms with stable yields that are just “somewhat higher than average” tend to be resilient. Firms with very high dividend yields are often sending out distress signals. 

A key and under-appreciated signal for the liquidity and solvency of a company – EMs are constantly beset by liquidity and credit shocks and unreliable capital markets compound the challenge. Companies don’t survive those shocks as easily as people imagine. The effects of liquidity and credit crunches range from firms that completely miss their revenue and earnings forecasts to those that drown themselves in debt or simply shutter. Against such challenges dividends provide a clear and useful signal of liquidity and solvency.

It’s certainly true that perhaps 70% of the dispersion of returns over a 5-to-10 year period are driven by macro-economic factors (Putin invades-> the EU sanctions-> economies falter-> the price of oil drops-> interest rates fall) but that fact is not useful because such events are unforecastable and their macro-level impacts are incalculably complex (try “what effect will European reaction to Putin’s missile transfer offer have on shadow interest rates in China?”). 

Andrew believes he can make sense of the ways in which micro-economic factors, which drive the other 30% of dispersion, might impact individual firms. He tries to insulate his portfolio, and his investors, from excess volatility by diversifying away some of the risk, imagining a “three years to not quite forever” time horizon for his holdings and moving across a firm’s capital structure in pursuit of the best risk-return balance.

While Seafarer is classified as an emerging markets equity fund, common stocks have comprised between 70-85% of the portfolio. “There’s way too much attention given to whether a security is a stock or bond; all are cash flows from an issuer. They’re not completely different animals, they’re cousins. We sometimes find instruments trading with odd valuations, try to exploit that.” As of January 2015, 80% of the fund is invested directly in common stock; the remainder is invested in ADRs, hard- and local-currency convertibles, government bonds and cash. The cash stake is at a historic low of 1%.

Thinking about the fund’s performance: Seafarer is in the top 3% of EM stock funds since launch, returning a bit over 10% annually. With characteristic honesty and modesty, Andrew cautions against assuming that the fund’s top-tier rankings will persist in the next part of the cycle:

We’re proud of performance over the last few years. We have really benefited from the fact that our strategy was well-positioned for anemic growth environments. Three or four years ago a lot of people were buying the story of vibrant growth in the emerging markets, and many were willing to overpay for it. As we know, that growth did not materialize. There are signs that the deceleration of growth is over even if it’s not clear when the acceleration of growth might begin. A major source of return for our fund over 10 years is beta. We’re here to harness beta and hope for a little alpha.

That said, he does believe that flaws in the construction of EM indexes makes it more likely that passive strategies will underperform:

I’m actually a fan of passive investing if costs are low, churn is low, and the benchmark is soundly constructed. The main EM benchmark is disconnected from the market. The MSCI EM index imposes filters for scalability and replicability in pursuit of an index that’s easily tradable by major investors. That leads it to being not a really good benchmark. The emerging markets have $14 trillion in market capitalization; the MSCI Core index captures only $3.8 trillion of that amount and the Total Market index captures just $4.2 trillion. In the US, the Total Stock Market indexes capture 80% of the market. The comparable EM index captures barely 25%.

Highlights from the questions:

As a practical matter, a 4-5% position is “huge for us” though he has learned to let his winners run a little longer than he used to, so the occasional 6% position wouldn’t be surprising.

A focus on dividend payers does not imply a focus on large cap stocks. There are a lot of very stable dividend-payers in the mid- to small-cap range; Seafarer ranges about 15-20% small cap and 35-50% midcap.

The fundamental reason to consider investing in emerging markets is because “they are really in dismal shape, sometimes the horrible things you read about them are true but there’s an incredibly powerful drive to give your kids a better life and to improve your life. People will move mountains to make things better. I followed the story of one family who were able to move from a farmhouse with a dirt floor to a comfortable, modern townhouse in one lifetime. It’s incredibly inspiring, but it’s also incredibly powerful.”

With special reference to holdings in Eastern Europe, you need to avoid high-growth, high-expectation companies that are going to get shell-shocked by political turmoil and currency devaluation. It’s important to find companies that have already been hit and that have proved that they can survive the shock.

Bottom line: Andrew has a great track record built around winning by not losing. His funds have posted great relative returns in bad markets and very respectable absolute returns in frothy ones. While he is doubtless correct in saying that the fund was unique well-suited to the current market and that it won’t always be a market leader, it’s equally correct to say that this is one of the most consistently risk-conscious, more consistently shareholder-sensitive and most consistently rewarding EM funds available. Those are patterns that I’ve found compelling.

We’ve also updated our featured fund page for Seafarer.

Funds in Registration

New mutual funds must be registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission before they can be offered for sale to the public. The SEC has a 75-day window during which to call for revisions of a prospectus; fund companies sometimes use that same time to tweak a fund’s fee structure or operating details.

Funds in registration this month are eligible to launch in late June and some of the prospectuses do highlight that date.

This month our research associate David Welsch tracked down 14 no-load retail funds in registration, which represents our core interest. By far the most interest was stirred by the announcement of three new Grandeur Peak funds:

  • Global Micro Cap
  • International Stalwarts
  • Global Stalwarts

The launch of Global Micro Cap has been anticipated for a long time. Grandeur Peak announced two things early on: (1) that they had a firm wide strategy capacity of around $3 billion, and (2) they had seven funds in the works, including Global Micro, which were each allocated a set part of that capacity. Two of the seven projected funds (US Opportunities and Global Value) remain on the drawing board. President Eric Huefner remarks that “Remaining nimble is critical for a small/micro cap manager to be world-class,” hence “we are terribly passionate about asset capping across the firm.” 

The surprise comes with the launch of the two Stalwarts funds, whose existence was previously unanticipated. Folks on our discussion board reacted with (thoughtful) alarm. Many of them are GP investors and they raised two concerns: (1) this might signal a change in corporate culture with the business managers ascendant over the asset managers, and (2) a move into larger capitalizations might move GP away from their core area of competence.

Because they’re in a quiet period, Eric was not able to speak about these concerns though he did affirm that they’re entirely understandable and that he’d be able to address them directly after launch of the new funds.

Mr. Gardiner, Guardian Manager, at work

Mr. Gardiner, Guardian Manager, at work

While I am mightily amused by the title GUARDIAN MANAGER given to Robert Gardiner to explain his role with the new funds, I’m not immediately distressed by these developments. “Stalwarts” has always been a designation for one of the three sorts of stocks that the firm invests in, so presumably these are stocks that the team has already researched and invested in. Many small cap managers find an attraction in these “alumni” stocks, which they know well and have confidence in but which have outgrown their original fund. Such funds also offer a firm the ability to increase its strategy capacity without compromising its investment discipline. I’ll be interested in hearing from Mr. Heufner later this summer and, perhaps, in getting to tap of Mr. Gardiner’s shield.

Manager Changes

A lot of funds were liquidated this month, which means that a lot of managers changed from “employed” to “highly motivated investment professional seeking to make a difference.” Beyond that group, 43 funds reported partial or complete changes in their management teams. The most striking were:

  • The departure of Independence Capital Asset Partners from LS Opportunity Fund, about which there’s more below.
  • The departure of Robert Mohn from both Columbia Acorn Fund (ACRNX) and Columbia Acorn USA (AUSAX) and from his position as their Domestic CIO. Mr. Mohn joined the fund in late 2003 shortly after the retirement of the legendary Ralph Wanger. He initially comanaged the fund with John Park (now of Oakseed Opportunity SEEDX) and Chuck McQuaid (now manager of Columbia Thermostat (CTFAX). Mr. Mohn is being succeeded by Zachary Egan, President of the adviser, and the estimable Fritz Kaegi, one of the managers of Columbia Acorn Emerging Markets (CAGAX). They’ll join David Frank who remained on the fund.


Centaur Total Return (TILDX) celebrated its 10-year anniversary in March, so I wish we’d reported the fact back then. It’s an interesting creature. Centaur started life as Tilson Dividend, though Whitney Tilson never had a role in its management. Mr. Tilson thought of himself (likely “thinks of himself”) as a great value investor, but that claim didn’t play out in his Tilson Focus Fund so he sort of gave up and headed to hedge fund land. (Lately he’s been making headlines by accusing Lumber Liquidators, a company his firm has shorted, of deceptive sales practices.) Mr. Tilson left and the fund was rechristened as Centaur.

Centaur’s record is worth puzzling over.  Morningstar gives it a ten-year ranking of five stars, a three-year ranking of one star and three stars overall. Over its lifetime it has modestly better returns and vastly lower risks than its peers which give it a great risk-adjusted performance.


Mostly it has great down market protection and reasonable upmarket performance, which works well if the market has both ups and downs. When the market has a whole series of strong gains, conservative value investors end up looking bad … until they look prescient and brilliant all over again.

There’s an oddly contrarian indicator in the quick dismissal of funds like Centaur, whose managers have proven adept and disciplined. When the consensus is “one star, bunch of worthless cash in the portfolio, there’s nothing to see here,” there might well be reason to start thinking more seriously as folks with a bunch of …

In any case, best anniversary wishes to manager Zeke Ashton and his team.

Briefly Noted . . .

American Century Investments, adviser to the American Century Funds, has elected to support the America’s Best Communities competition, a $10 million project to stimulate economic revitalization in small towns and cities across the country. At this point, 50 communities have registered first round wins. The ultimate winner will receive a $3 million economic development grant from a consortium of American firms.

In the interim, American Century has “adopted” Wausau, Wisconsin, which styles itself “the Chicago of the north.” (I suspect many of you think of Chicago as “the Chicago of the north,” but that’s just because you’re winter wimps.) Wausau won $35,000 which will be used to develop a comprehensive plan for economic revival and cultural enrichment. American Century is voluntarily adding another $15,000 to Wausau’s award and will serve as a sort of consultant to the town as they work on preparing a plan. It’s a helpful gesture and worthy of recognition.

LS Opportunity Fund (LSOFX) is about to become … well, something else but we don’t know what. The fund has always been managed by Independence Capital Asset Partners in parallel with ICAP’s long/short hedge fund. On April 23, 2015, the fund’s board terminated ICAP’s contract because of “certain portfolio management changes expected to occur within the sub-adviser.” On April 30, the board named Prospector Partners LLC has the fund’s interim manager, presumably with the expectation that they’ll be confirmed in June as the permanent replacement for ICAP. Prospector is described as “an investment adviser registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission with its principal offices [in] Guilford, CT. Prospector currently provides investment advisory services to corporations, pooled investment vehicles, and retirement plans.” Though they don’t mention it, Prospector also serves as the adviser to two distinctly unexciting long-only mutual funds: Prospector Opportunity (POPFX) and Prospector Capital Appreciation (PCAFX). LSOFX is a rated by Morningstar as a four-star fund with $170 million in assets, which makes the change both consequential and perplexing. We’ll share more as soon as we can.

Northern Global Tactical Asset Allocation Fund (BBALX) has added hedging via derivatives to the list of its possible investments: “In addition, the Fund also may invest directly in derivatives, including but not limited to forward currency exchange contracts, futures contracts and options on futures contracts, for hedging purposes.”

Gargoyle is on the move. RiverPark Funds is in the process of transferring control of RiverPark Gargoyle Hedged Value Fund (RGHVX) to TCW where it will be renamed … wait for it … TCW/Gargoyle Hedged Value Fund. It’s a solid five star fund with $73 million in assets. That latter number is what has occasioned the proposed move which shareholders will still need to ratify.

RiverPark CEO Morty Schaja notes that the strategy has spectacular long-term performance (it was a hedge fund before becoming a mutual fund) but that it’s devilishly hard to market. The fund uses two distinct strategies: a quantitatively driven relative value strategy for its stock portfolio and a defensive options overlay. While the options provide income and some downside protection, the fund does not pretend to being heavily hedged much less market neutral. As a result, it has a lot more downside volatility than the average long-short fund (it was down 34% in 2008, for example, compared with 15% for its peers) but also a more explosive upside (gaining 42% in 2009 against 10% for its peers). That’s not a common combination and RiverPark’s small marketing team has been having trouble finding investors who understand and value the combination. TCW is interested in developing a presence in “the liquid alts space” and has a sales force that’s large enough to find the investors that Gargoyle is seeking.

Expenses will be essentially unchanged, though the retail minimum will be substantially higher.

Zacks Small-Cap Core Fund (ZSCCX) has raised its upper market cap limit to $10.3 billion, which hardly sounds small cap at all.  That’s the range of stocks like Staples (SPLS) and L-3 Communications (LLL) which Morningstar classifies as mid-caps.


Touchstone Merger Arbitrage Fund (TMGAX) has reopened to a select subset of investors: RIAs, family offices, institutional consulting firms, bank trust departments and the like. It’s fine as market-neutral funds go but they don’t go very far: TMGAX has returned under 2% annually over the past three years.  On whole, I suspect that RiverPark Structural Alpha (RSAFX) remains the more-attractive choice.

CLOSINGS (and related inconveniences)

Effective May 15, 2015, Janus Triton (JGMAX) and Janus Venture (JVTAX) are soft closing, albeit with a bunch of exceptions. Triton fans might consider Meridian Small Cap Growth, run by the team that put together Triton’s excellent record.

Effective at the close of business on May 29, 2015, MFS International Value Fund (MGIAX) will be closed to new investors

Effective June 1, 2015, the T. Rowe Price Health Sciences Fund (PRHSX) will be closed to new investors. 

Vulcan Value Partners (VVLPX) has closed to new investors. The firm closed its Small Cap strategy, including its small cap fund, in November of 2013, and closed its All Cap Program in early 2014. Vulcan closed, without advance notice, its Large Cap Programs – which include Large Cap, Focus and Focus Plus in late April. All five of Vulcan Value Partners’ investment strategies are ranked in the top 1% of their respective peer groups since inception.


Effective April 30, 2015, American Independence Risk-Managed Allocation Fund (AARMX) was renamed the American Independence JAForlines Risk-Managed Allocation Fund. The objective, strategies and ticker remained the same. Just to make it unsearchable, Morningstar abbreviates it as American Indep JAFrl Risk-Mgd Allc A.

Effective on June 26, 2015 Intrepid Small Cap Fund (ICMAX) becomes Intrepid Endurance Fund and will no longer to restricted to small cap investing. It’s an understandable move: the fund has an absolute value focus, there are durned few deeply discounted small cap stocks currently and so cash has built up to become 60% of the portfolio. By eliminating the market cap restriction, the managers are free to move further afield in search of places to deploy their cash stash.

Effective June 15, 2015, Invesco China Fund (AACFX) will change its name to Invesco Greater China Fund.

Effective June 1, 2015, Pioneer Long/Short Global Bond Fund (LSGAX) becomes Pioneer Long/Short Bond Fund. Since it’s nominally not “global,” it’s no longer forced to place at least 40% outside of the U.S. At the same time Pioneer Multi-Asset Real Return Fund (PMARX) will be renamed Pioneer Flexible Opportunities.

As of May 1, 2015 Royce Opportunity Select Fund (ROSFX) became Royce Micro-Cap Opportunity Fund. For their purposes, micro-caps have capitalizations up to $1 billion. The Fund will invest, under normal circumstances, at least 80% of its net assets in equity securities of companies with stock market capitalizations up to $1 billion. In addition, the Fund’s operating policies will prohibit it from engaging in short sale transactions, writing call options, or borrowing money for investment purposes.

At the same time, Royce Value Fund (RVVHX) will be renamed Royce Small-Cap Value Fund and will target stocks with capitalizations under $3 billion. Royce Value Plus Fund (RVPHX) will be renamed Royce Smaller-Companies Growth Fund with a maximum market cap at time of purchase of $7.5 billion.


AlphaMark Small Cap Growth Fund (AMSCX) has been terminated; the gap between the announcement and the fund’s liquidation was three weeks. It wasn’t a bad fund at all, three stars from Morningstar, middling returns, modest risk, but wasn’t able to gain enough distinction to become economically viable. To their credit, the advisor stuck with the fund for nearly seven years before succumbing.

American Beacon Small Cap Value II Fund (ABBVX) will liquidate on May 12. The advisor cites a rare but not unique occurrence to explain the decision: “after a large redemption which is expected to occur in April 2015 that will substantially reduce the Fund’s asset size, it will no longer be practicable for the Manager to operate the Fund in an economically viable manner.”

Carlyle Core Allocation Fund (CCAIX) and Enhanced Commodity Real Return (no ticker) liquidate in mid-May.  

The Citi Market Pilot 2030 (CFTYX) and 2040 (CFTWX) funds each liquidated on about one week’s notice in mid-April; the decision was announced April 9 and the portfolio was liquidated April 17. They lasted just about one year.

The Trustees have voted to liquidate and terminate Context Alternative Strategies Fund (CALTX) on May 18, 2015.

Contravisory Strategic Equity Fund (CSEFX), a tiny low risk/low return stock fund, will liquidate in mid-May. 

Dreyfus TOBAM Emerging Markets Fund (DABQX) will be liquidated on or about June 30, 2015.

Franklin Templeton is thinning down. They merged away one of their closed-end funds in April. They plan to liquidate the $38 million Franklin Global Asset Allocation Fund (FGAAX) on June 30. Next the tiny Franklin Mutual Recovery Fund (FMRAX) is looking, with shareholder approval, to merge into the Franklin Mutual Quest Fund (TEQIX) likely around the end of August.

The Jordan Fund (JORDX) is merging into the Meridian Equity Income Fund (MRIEX), pending shareholder approval. The move is more sensible than it looks. Mr. Jordan has been running the fund for a decade but has little to show for it. He had five strong years followed by five lean ones and he still hasn’t accumulated enough assets to break even. Minyoung Sohn took over MRIEX last October but has only $26 million to invest; the JORDX acquisition will triple the fund’s size, move it toward financial equilibrium and will get JORDX investors a noticeable reduction in fees.

Leadsman Capital Strategic Income Fund (LEDRX) was liquidated on April 7, 2015, based on the advisor’s “representations of its inability to market the Fund and the Adviser’s indication that it does not desire to continue to support the Fund.” They lost interest in it? Okay, on the one hand there was only $400,005 in the fund. On the other hand, they launched it exactly six months before declaring failure and going home. I’m perpetually stunned by advisors who pull the plug after a few months or a year. I mean, really, what does that say about the quality of their business planning, much less their investment acumen?

I wonder if we should make advisers to new funds post bail? At launch the advisor must commit to running the fund for no less than a year (or two or three). They have to deposit some amount ($50,000? $100,000?) with an independent trustee. If they close early, they forfeit their bond to the fund’s investors. That might encourage more folks to invest in promising young funds by hedging against one of the risks they face and it might discourage “let’s toss it against the wall and see if anything sticks” fund launches.

Manning & Napier Inflation Focus Equity Series (MNIFX) will liquidate on May 11, 2015.

Merk Hard Currency ETF (formerly HRD) has liquidated. Hard currency funds are, at base, a bet against the falling value of the US dollar. Merk, for example, defines hard currencies as “currencies backed by sound monetary policy.” That’s really not been working out. Merk’s flagship no-load fund, Merk Hard Currency (MERKX), is still around but has been bleeding assets (from $280M to $160M in a year) and losing money (down 2.1% annually for the past five years). It’s been in the red in four of the past five years and five of the past ten. Here’s the three-year picture.


Presumably if investors stop fleeing to the safe haven of US Treasuries there will be a mighty reversal of fortunes. The question is whether investors can (or should) wait around until then. Can you say “Grexit”?

Effective May 1, 2015, Royce Select Fund I (RYSFX) will be closed to all purchases and all exchanges into the Fund in anticipation of the fund being absorbed into the one-star Royce 100 Fund (ROHHX). Mr. Royce co-manages both but it’s still odd that they buried a three-star small blend fund into a one-star one.

The Turner Funds will close and liquidate the Turner Titan Fund (TTLFX), effective on or about June 1, 2015. It’s a perfectly respectable long/short fund in which no one had any interest.

The two-star Voya Large Cap Growth Fund (ILCAX) is slated to be merged into the three-star Voya Growth Opportunities Fund (NLCAX). Same management team, same management fee, same performance: it’s pretty much a wash.

In Closing . . .

The first issue of the Observer appeared four years ago this month, May 2011. We resolved from the outset to try to build a thoughtful community here and to provide them with insights about opportunities and perspectives that they might never otherwise encounter. I’m not entirely sure of how well we did, but I can say that it’s been an adventure and a delight. We have a lot yet to accomplish and we’re deeply hopeful you’ll join us in the effort to help investors and independent managers alike. Each needs the other.

Thanks, as ever, to the folks – Linda, who celebrates our even temperament, Bill and James – who’ve clicked on our elegantly redesigned PayPal link. Thanks, most especially, to Deb and Greg who’ve been in it through thick and thin. It really helps.

A word of encouragement: if you haven’t already done so, please click now on our Amazon link and either bookmark it or set it as one of the start pages in your browser. We receive a rebate equivalent to 6-7% of the value of anything you purchase (books, music, used umbrellas, vitamins …) through that link. It costs you nothing since it’s part of Amazon’s marketing budget and if you bookmark it now, you’ll never have to think about it again.

We’re excited about the upcoming Morningstar conference. All four of us – Charles, Chip, Ed and I – will be around the conference and at least three of us will be there from beginning to end, and beyond. Highlights for me:

  • The opportunity to dine with the other Observer folks at one of Ed’s carefully-vetted Chicago eateries.
  • Two potentially excellent addresses – an opening talk by Jeremy Grantham and a colloquy between Bill Nygren and Steve Romick
  • A panel presentation on what Morningstar considers off-the-radar funds: the five-star Mairs & Power Small Cap (MSCFX, which we profiled late in 2011), Meridian Small Cap Growth (MSGAX, which we profiled late in 2014) and the five-star Eventide Gilead Fund (ETAGX, which, at $1.6 billion, is a bit beyond our coverage universe).
  • A frontier markets panel presented by some “A” list managers.
  • The opportunity to meet and chat with you folks. If you’re going to be at Morningstar, as exhibitor or attendee, and would like a chance to chat with one or another of us, drop me a note and we’ll try hard to set something up. We’d love to see you.

As ever,