Funds in Registration

Wow. Finally, a lot of intriguing new investment opportunities. David Sherman, whose RiverPark Short-Term High Yield (RPHYX) fund has both a one-star rating and the universe’s best Sharpe ratio (by a lot) over the past five years, is launching a CrossingBridge Low Duration. Polen Capital, which runs three splendid funds – large growth, global and international – is adding a small cap offering. Thrivent, which has very solid, low-profile funds, offers up a no-load, no-minimum international fund with 0.09% expenses. And Mark Wynegar, whose Tributary Small Company Fund (FOSCX) has a great record for low risk, low turnover, low drama performance, adds a small-to-midcap fund to his portfolio.

And, oh yeah, you can also track Continue reading →

Briefly Noted . . .

On April 20, 2017, UMB announced that it signed an agreement to sell Scout Investments and Reams Asset Management to Carillon Tower Adviser, a wholly owned subsidiary of Raymond James. In announcing its 2016 creation, James described Carillon as “new company to provide transparency and create efficiencies among its asset management firms.” As I note in our story on the Morningstar interviews, Carillon wasn’t particularly transparent and the guy representing Scout was curt to the point of being rude.

Sentinel Asset Management has agreed to sell its mutual funds to Touchstone. Details aren’t yet available.

The previously announced plan to Continue reading →

Snowball’s potato portfolio

I like gardening rather more than I like investing. I garden because it’s joyful, healthy and engaging. Most recently, I planted my first potato patch with four artisanal varieties of tubers, one each of russet, gold, red and blue. That meant adding a considerable quantity of organics and a bit of sand to a 4×4 south-facing patch that had been mostly weeds. You’re also supposed to “hill up” potatoes as they grow but I couldn’t, for the life of me, figure out quite what that meant in the context of an open patch of earth. Instead, I collected grass clippings (a safe practice since I don’t chem my lawn) and kept everything but the leaves buried.  I’m stunned and delighted to report that it actually worked. I dug around in October and there was, like, food in the ground! Continue reading →

Launch Alert 2: RiverPark Commercial Real Estate Fund (RCRIX)

On Monday, October 3, RiverPark Funds launched RiverPark Commercial Real Estate Fund (RCRIX). Like several of RiverPark’s funds, RCRIX began life as a hedge fund. Unlike any of its predecessors, though, it is being structured as an interval fund.

What does that mean? Morty Schaja explains the investment case:

The Fund’s objective is to seek current income and capital appreciation consistent with the preservation of capital by investing predominantly in the approximately $600 billion commercial mortgage backed securities (“CMBS”) market that is secured by income-producing commercial real estate assets predominantly in the United States.

Continue reading →

February 1, 2016

Dear friends,

It’s the BOJ’s fault. Or the price of oil’s. Perhaps the Fed. Probably China. Possibly Putin. Likely ISIL (or Assad). Alternately small investors. ( assures us it’s definitely not the effect of rapid, block-trading of ETFs on the market, though.) It’s all an overreaction or, occasionally, a lagging one. Could be fears of recession or even fears of fears.

We don’t like randomness. That’s why conspiracy theories are so persistent: they offer simple, satisfying explanations for otherwise inexplicable occurrences. We want explanations and, frankly, the financial media are addicted to offering them. The list in that opening paragraph captures just some of the explanations offered by talking heads to explain January’s turbulence. Those same sages have offered prognostications for the year ahead, ranging from a “cataclysmic” 40% decline and advice to “sell everything” to 7-11% gains, the latter from folks who typically foresee 7-11% gains.

As I drove to campus the other day, watching a huge flock of birds take wing and wheel and listening to financial analysis, it occurred to me that these guys had about as much prospect of understanding the market as they do of understanding the birds’ ballet.

Open confession is good for the soul.

I have two confessions.

First, I can’t find the source of the quotation that serves as the title of this essay. I keep hitting a wall as “Scottish proverb,” with no further discussion. All too often that translates to “some hack at The Reader’s Digest in 1934 made it up and added ‘Scottish proverb’ to dignify the insight.”

Second, until I began this essay, I had only the vaguest idea of how my portfolio had done in 2015. I preach a single doctrine: make a good plan, execute the plan, get on with your life.

Make a good plan: My retirement portfolio is largely hostage to Augustana College. As part of a Retirement Plan Redesign task force a few years ago, we discovered that the college’s plan was too complicated (it offered over 800 funds) and too lax (under 30% of our employees contributed anything beyond the college’s 10% contribution).  The research was clear and we followed it: we dramatically reduced the fund of investment choices so that in each asset class folks had one active fund and one passive fund, installed a lifecycle fund as the default option, the college went from a flat contribution to a modestly more generous one based on a matching system, we auto-enrolled everyone in a payroll deduction which started at 4%, and automatically escalated their contributions annually until they reached 10%. It was, of course, possible to opt out but we counted on the same laziness that kept folks from opting in to keep them from opting out.

We were right. Ninety-some percent of employees now contribute to their own retirements, the amount of money sitting in money markets for years is dramatically reduced, the savings rate is at a record and more accounts seem to contain a mix of assets.

Yay for everyone but me! In pursuit of the common good, I helped strip out my own access to the Fidelity and T. Rowe Price funds that were central to my plan. Those funds are now in a “can’t add more” account and continue to do quite well. Both growth funds (Fidelity Growth Discovery, T. Rowe Price Blue Chip Growth) and international small caps (Fidelity Japan Smaller Companies, T. Rowe Price International Discovery) were thriving, while my substantial emerging markets exposure and a small inflation hedge hurt. In these later years of my career at the college, the vast bulk of my retirement contributions are going into a combination of the CREF Stock Account (60% of my portfolio, down 0.9% in 2015, up 10.5% annually over the past three years), TIAA Real Estate Account (25% of my portfolio, up 8% in 2015, up 10% annually over the past three years) and a TIAA-CREF Retirement Income fund (15% of the portfolio, flat in 2015, up 4.5% over three years) for broad-based fixed income exposure.

My non-retirement account starts with a simple asset allocation:

  • 50% growth / 50% income
  • Within growth, 50% domestic equities, 50% foreign
  • Within domestic, 50% smaller companies, 50% larger
  • Within foreign, 50% developed, 50% emerging
  • Within income, 50% conservative, 50% venturesome.

I know that I could optimize the allocation by adjusting the exact levels of exposure to each class, but I don’t need the extra complexity in my life. In most of my funds, the managers have some wiggle room so that they’re not locked into a single narrow asset class. That makes managing the overall asset allocation a bit trickier, but manageable.

The roster of funds, ranked from my largest to smallest positions:

FPA Crescent FPACX

A pure play on active management.  Mr. Romick is willing to go anywhere and frequently does. He’s been making about 6% a year and has done exceptionally well mitigating down markets. The fund lost 2% in 2015, its third loss in 20 years.

T. Rowe Price Spectrum Income RPSIX

A broadly diversified fund of income funds. Low cost, low drama. It’s been making about 4% in a low-rate environment. The fund lost 2% in 2015, its third loss, and its second-worst, in a quarter century.

Artisan International Value ARTKX

A fund that I’ve owned since inception and one of my few equity-only funds. It’s made about 7% a year and its long-term performance is in the top 1% of its peer group. Closed to new investors.

RiverPark Short-Term High Yield RPHYX

An exceedingly conservative cash-substitute for me. I’m counting on it to beat pure cash by 2-3% a year, which it has regularly managed. Up about 1% in 2015. Closed to new investors.

Seafarer Overseas Growth & Income SFGIX

An outstanding EM equity fund that splits its exposure between pure EM stocks and firms domiciled in developed markets but serving emerging ones. Up about 10% since launch while its peers are down 18%. Down 4% in 2015 while its peers were down 14%.

Artisan Small Cap Value ARTVX

(sigh) More below.

Matthews Asian Growth & Income MACSX

Traditionally one of the least volatile ways to invest in the world’s most dynamic economies. I started here when Mr. Foster, Seafarer’s manager, ran the fund. When he launched Seafarer, I placed half of my MACSX position in his new fund. MACSX has continued to be a top-tier performer but might fall victim to a simplification drive.

RiverPark Strategic Income RSIVX

Mr. Sherman, the RPHYX manager, positions this as “one step out the risk-return spectrum” from his flagship fund. His expectation was to about double RPHYX’s return. He was well on his way to do exactly that until three bad investments and some market headwinds derailed performance over the past six months. Concern is warranted.

Matthews Asian Strategic Income MAINX

The argument here is compelling: the center of the financial universe is shifting to Asia but most investors haven’t caught up with that transition. Matthews is the best Asia-centered firm available in the US retail market and Ms. Kong, the manager, is one of their brightest stars. The fund made a lot of money in its first year but has pretty much broken even over the next three. Sadly, there’s no clear benchmark to help answer the question, “is that great or gross?”

Grandeur Peak Global Reach GPROX

The flagship fund for Grandeur Peak, a firm specializing in global small and microcap growth investing.  The research is pretty clear that this is about the only place where active managers have a persistent edge, and none have had greater success than G.P. The fund was up 8% in 2014 and down 0.6% in 2015, outstanding and respectable performances, respectively.

Northern Global Tactical Asset Allocation BBALX

Northern aspires to be a true global hybrid fund offering low-cost access to global stocks, bonds and alternatives. It looks terrible benchmarked against its US-centered peers but I’m not sure that’s an argument against it.

Grandeur Peak Global Microcap GPMCX

This was simply too intriguing to pass up: G.P. wanted  a tiny fund to invest in the world’s tiniest companies, potentially explosive firms that would need to grow a lot even to become microcaps. It was open by subscription only to current GP shareholders and hard-closed at $27.5 million even before it opened.

ASTON/River Road Long Short ARLSX

This is a very small position, started mostly because I like the guys’ clear thinking and disciplined approach. Having even a small amount in a fund lends me to pay more attention to it, which was the goal. Other than for 2014, it typically finishes in the top third of L/S funds.

Execute the plan. So what did I do in 2015? Added Grandeur Peak Global Microcap and set up a monthly auto-invest. I also (finally!) transferred my Seafarer holdings from Scottrade directly to Seafarer where I took advantage of their offer to make lower-cost institutional shares available to retail investors who met the retail minimum and established an auto-investing plan. Otherwise, it was mostly stay the course and invest monthly.

What’s up for 2016? Artisan Small Cap Value is on the chopping block. Assets in the fund are down nearly 90% from peak, reflecting year after wretched year of underperformance. This is one of my oldest holdings, I’ve owned it since the late 1990s and have substantial embedded capital gains. Three issues are pushing me toward the door:

  1. The managers seem to have fallen into a value trap. Their discipline is explicitly designed to avoid “value traps,” but their dogged commitments to energy and industrials seem to have ensnared them.
  2. They don’t seem to be able to get out. Perhaps I’m jaundiced, but their shareholder communications haven’t been inspiring. The theme is “we’re not going to change our discipline just because it’s not working right now.” My fear is that “disciplined” transitions too easily into “bunkered down.” I experienced something similar with Ron Muhlenkamp of Muhlenkamp Fund (MUHLX), which was brilliant for 15 years then rigidly rotten for a decade. Mr. Muhlenkamp’s mantra was “we’re not sacrificing our long-term discipline for short-term gains” which sounded grand and worked poorly. I know of few instances where once-great funds rebound from several consecutive years in the basement. The question was examined closely by Leigh Walzer of Trapezoid in his December 2015 essay, When Good Managers Go Bad.
  3. Lead manager Scott Satterwhite is retiring in October. The transition has been underway for a long while now but (a) it’s still epochal and (b) performance during the transition has not been noticeable better.

I may surrender to Ed’s desire to have me simplify my portfolio. (Does he simplify his? No, not so far as I can tell.) That might mean moving the MACSX money into Seafarer. Maybe closing out a couple smaller holdings because they’re not financially consequential. My asset allocation is a bit overweight in international stocks right now, so I’m probably going to move some into domestic smaller caps. (Yes, I know. I’ve read the asset class projections but my time horizon is still longer than five to seven years.) And making some progress in debt reduction (I took out a home equity loan to handle some fairly-pressing repairs) would be prudent.

Get on with life. I’m planning on resuming my War on Lawns this spring. I’m having a Davenport firm design a rain garden, an area designed to slow the rush of water off my property during storms, for me and I’ll spend some weeks installing it. I’ll add a bunch of native plants, mostly pollinator-friendly, to another corner once overrun by lawn. Together, I think they’ll make my space a bit more sustainable. Baseball season (which my son interprets as “I need expensive new stuff” season) impends. I really need to focus on strengthening MFO’s infrastructure, now that more people are depending on it. And my academic department continues to ask, “how can we change our teaching to help raise diverse, first-generation college students to that same level of achievement that we’ve traditionally expected?” That’s exhausting but exciting because I think, done right, we can make a huge difference in the lives of lots of bright kids who’ve been poorly served in some of their high schools. As a kid whose parents never had the opportunity to finish high school (World War Two interrupted their teen years), my faith in the transformative power of teaching remains undimmed.

It’ll be a good year.

Emerging markets: About as cheap as it gets

In the course of our conversation about Leuthold Core Investment (LCORX), Doug Ramsay shared the observation that emerging markets stocks are painfully cheap. Leuthold’s chart, below, shows the price/earnings ratio based on five-year normalized earnings for E.M. stocks from 2004 to now. Valuations briefly touched a p/e of 31 in 2007 then fell to 8 within a year. As we end January 2016, prices for E.M. stocks hover within a point of their market-crisis lows.

emerging markets

And still Leuthold’s not investing in them. Their E.M. exposure in Core and Global (GLBLX) are both near all-time lows because their analytics don’t (yet) show signs of a turnaround. Still, Mr. Ramsay notes, “they look impossibly cheap.”

Investing in five-star funds? It’s not as daft as you’d think

We asked the good folks at Morningstar if they’d generate a list of all five-star funds from ten years ago, then update their star ratings from five years ago and today. I’d first seen this data several years ago when it had been requested by a Wall Street Journal reporter and shared with us. The common interpretation is “it’s not worth it, since five-star funds aren’t likely to remain five-star funds.”

I’ve always thought that was the wrong concern. Really, I’m less concerned about whether my brilliant manager remains absolutely brilliant than whether he turns wretched. Frankly, if my funds kept bouncing between “reasonable,” “pretty good” and “really good,” I’d be thrilled. That is, if they stay in the three- to five-star range over time, that’s perfectly respectable.

Chip took the data and converted it into a pivot table. (Up until then, I thought “pivot table” was just another name for a “lazy Susan.” Turns out it’s actually a data visualization tool. Who knew?)


Here’s how to read it. There were 354 five-star funds in 2005. Of those, only 16 fell to one-star by 2010. You can see that in the top-center box. Of those 16 one-star funds, none rebounded to five stars by 2015 and only two made it back to four stars. On the upside, 187 of the original 354 remained four- or five-star funds across the whole time period and 245 of 354 never dropped below three stars.

We clearly need to do some refinement of the data to see whether a few categories are highly resilient (for example, single-state muni bond funds might never change their star ratings) and, thus, skewing the results. On whole, though, it seems clear that “first to worst” is a pretty low probability outcome and “first to kinda regrettable” isn’t hugely more likely.

The original spreadsheet is in the Commentary section at MFO Premium, for what interest that holds.

edward, ex cathedraThis Time It Really Is Different!

“Every revolution evaporates and leaves behind only the slime of a new bureaucracy.”


So, time now for something of a follow-up to my suggestion of a year ago that a family unit should own no more than ten mutual funds. As some will recall, I was instructed by “She Who Must Be Obeyed” to follow my own advice and get our own number of fund investments down from the more than twenty-five where it had been. We are now down to sixteen, which includes money market funds. My first observation would be that this is not as easy to do as I thought it would be, especially when you are starting from something of an ark approach (one of these, two of those). It is far easier to do when you start to build your portfolio from scratch, when you can be ruthless about diversification. That is, you don’t really need two large cap growth or four value funds. You may only add a new fund if you get rid of an old fund. You are quite specific about setting out the reasons for investing in a fund, and you are equally disciplined about getting rid of it when the reasons for owning it change, e.g. asset bloat, change in managers, style drift, no fund managers who are in Boston, etc., etc.

Which brings me to a point that I think will be controversial – for most families, mutual fund ownership should be concentrated in tax-exempt (retirement accounts) if taxes matter. And mutual fund ownership in retirement accounts should emphasize passive investments to maximize the effects of lower fees on compounding. It also lessens the likelihood of an active manager shooting himself or herself in the foot by selling the wrong thing at the wrong time because of a need to meet redemptions, or dare I suggest it, panic or depression overwhelm the manager’s common sense in maintaining an investment position (which often hits short seller specialists more than long only investors, but that is another story for another day).

The reasons for this will become clearer as holdings come out for 12/31 and 3/31, as well as asset levels (which will let you know what redemptions are – the rumor is that they are large). It will also become pretty clear as you look at your tax forms from your taxable fund accounts and are wondering where the money will come from to pay the capital gains that were triggered by the manager’s need to raise funds (actually they probably didn’t need to sell to meet redemptions as they all have bank lines of credit in place to cover those periods when redemptions exceed cash on hand, but …..).

The other thing to keep in mind about index funds that are widely diversified (a total market fund for instance) – yes, it will lag on the upside against a concentrated fund that does well. But it will also do better on the downside than a concentrated fund that does not do well. Look at it this way – a fifty stock portfolio that has a number of three and four per cent positions, especially in the energy or energy services sector this past year, that has seen those decline by 50% or more, has a lot of ground to make up. A total stock market portfolio that has a thousand or more positions – one or two or twenty or thirty bad stocks, do not cripple it. And in retirement accounts, it is the compounding effect that you want. The other issue of course is that the index funds will stay fully invested in the indices, rather than be caught out underinvested because they were trying to balance out exiting positions with adding positions with meeting redemptions. The one exception here would be for funds where the inefficiencies of an asset class can lead to a positive sustainable alpha by a good active manager – look for that manager as one to invest with in either taxable or tax-exempt accounts.

China, China, China, All the Time

In both the financial print press and the financial media on television and cable, much of the “blame” for market volatility is attributed to nervousness about the Chinese economy, the Chinese stock market, in fact everything to do with China. There generally appear to be two sorts of stories about China these days. One recurring theme is that they are novices at capital markets, currencies, as well as dealing with volatility and transparency in their markets, and that this has exacerbated trends in the swings in the Shanghai market, which has spread to other emerging markets. Another element of this particular them is that China’s economy is slowing and was not transparent to begin with, and that lack of growth will flow through and send the rest of the world into recession. Now, mind you, we are talking about economic growth that by most accounts, has slowed from high single digits recently (above 7%) to what will be a range going forward of low to still mid-single digits (4 – 7%).

I think a couple of comments are in order about this first theme. One, the Shanghai market has very much been intended as a punter’s market, where not necessarily the best companies are listed (somewhat like Vancouver in Canada twenty-odd years ago). The best companies in China are listed on the Hong Kong market – always have been, and will continue to be for the foreseeable future. The second thing to be said is that if you think things happen in China by accident or because they have lost control, you don’t understand very much about China and its thousands of years of history. Let’s be realistic here – the currency is controlled, interest rates are controlled, the companies are controlled, the economy is controlled – so while there may be random events and undercurrents going on, they are probably not the ones we are seeing or are worried about.

This brings me to the second different theme you hear about China these days, which is that China and the Chinese economy have carried the global economy for the last several years, and that even last year, their contribution to the world economy was quite substantial. I realize this runs counter to stories that you hear emanating from Washington, DC these days, but much that you hear emanating from Washington now is quite surreal. But let’s look at a few things. China still has $3 trillion dollars of foreign exchange reserves. China does not look to be a debtor nation. China has really not a lot of places left to spend money domestically since they have a modern transportation infrastructure and, they have built lots of ghost cities that could be occupied by a still growing population. And while China has goods that are manufactured that they would like to export, the rest of the world is not in a buying mood. A rumor which I keep hearing, is that they have more than 30,000 metric tons of gold reserves with which to back their currency, should they so choose (by comparison, the US as of October 2014 was thought to have about 4,200 metric tons in Fort Knox).

For those familiar with magic shows and sleight of hand tricks, I think this is what we are seeing now. Those who watch the cable financial news shows come away with the impression that the world is ending in the Chinese equity markets, and that will cause the rest of the world to end as well. So while you are watching that, let’s see what you are missing. We have a currency that has become a second reserve currency to the world, supplanting the exclusive role of the U.S. dollar as countries that are commodity economies now price their commodities and do trade deals in Chinese currency. And, notwithstanding that, the prices of commodities have fallen considerably, we continue to see acquisition and investment in the securing of commodities (at fire sale prices) by China. And finally, we have a major expansion by China in Africa, where it is securing arable land to provide another bread basket for itself for the future, as well as an area to send parts of it population.

And let me suggest in passing that the one place China could elect to spend massively in their domestic economy is to build up their defense establishment far beyond what they have done to date. After all, President Reagan launched a massive arms build-up by the US during his terms in office, which in effect bankrupted the Soviets as they tried to keep up. One wonders whether we would or could try to keep up should China elect to do the same to us at this point.

So, dear readers, I will leave it to you to figure out which theme you prefer, although I suspect it depends on your time horizon. But let me emphasize again – looking at the equity markets in China means looking at the wrong things. By the end of this year, we should have a better sense of whether the industrial economy is China has undergone a rather strong recovery, driven by the wealth of a growing middle class (which is really quite entrepreneurial, and which to put it into context, should be approaching by the end of this year, 400M in size). And it will really also become clear that much of the capital that has been rumored to be “fleeing” China has to be split out to account for that which is investment in other parts of the world. Paying attention to those investment outflows will give you some insight as to why China still thinks of and refers to itself as, “The Middle Kingdom.”

— by Edward A. Studzinski

Looking for Bartolo Colon

by Leigh Walzer

Bartolo Colon is a baseball pitcher; he is the second oldest active major leaguer.  Ten years ago he won the coveted Cy Young award. Probably no investment firm has asked Colon for an endorsement but maybe they should. More on this shortly.


A reader in Detroit who registered but has not yet logged into  writes: “We find little use for back tested or algorithmic results [and prefer an] index-based philosophy for clients.” 

Index funds offer a great approach for anyone who lacks the time or inclination to do their homework. We expect they will continue to gain share and pressure the fees of active managers.

Trapezoid does not advocate algorithmic strategies, as the term is commonly used. Nor do we oppose them. Rather, we rigorously test portfolio managers for skill. Our “null hypothesis” is that a low-cost passive strategy is best. We look for managers which demonstrate their worth, based on skill demonstrated over a sufficient period of time. Specifically, Honor Roll fund classes must have a 60% chance of justifying their expenses. Less than 10% of the fund universe satisfies this test.  Trapezoid does rate some quantitative funds, and we wrote in the November edition of Mutual Fund Observer about some of the challenges of evaluating them.

We do rely on quantitative methods, including back testing, to validate our tests and hone our understanding of how historic skill translates into future success.


A wealth manager (and demo client) from Denver asks our view of his favorite funds, Vulcan Value Partners (VVPLX). Vulcan was incepted December 2009.Prior to founding Vulcan, the manager, C.T. Fitzpatrick, worked for many years at Southeastern under famed value investor O. Mason Hawkins.  Currently it is closed to new investors.

Should investors abandon all their confidence when a good manager retires and passes the baton? Should investors give the fund a mulligan when a poor performer is replaced? Probably not.

VVPLX has performed very well in its 6 years of history. By our measure, investors accumulated an extra 20% compared to index funds based on the managers’ stock selection skill alone. We mentioned it favorably in the October edition of MFO.

Vulcan’s expense structure is 1.08%, roughly 90bps higher than an investor would require to hold a comparable ETF. Think of that as the expense premium to hire an active manager. Based on data through October, we assigned VVPLX a 55% probability of justifying its active expense premium. (This is down from 68% based on our prior evaluation using data through July 2015 and places them outside the Honor Roll.)

The wealth manager questioned why we classify VVPLX as large blend?  Vulcan describes itself as a value manager and the portfolio is heavily weighted toward financial services.

VVPLX is classified as large blend because, over its history, it has behaved slightly more like the large blend aggregate than large value. We base this on comparisons to indices and active funds. One of our upcoming features identifies the peer funds, both active and passive, which most closely resemble a given fund. For a majority of our funds, we supplement this approach by looking at historic holdings. We currently consider factors like the distribution of forward P/E ratios over time. Our categorization and taxonomy do not always conform to services like Morningstar and Lipper, but we do consider them as a starting point, along with the manager’s stated objective.  We frequently change classifications and welcome all input. While categories may be useful in screening for managers, we emphasize that the classifications have no impact on skill ratings, since we rely 100% on objective criteria such as passive indices.

The client noted we identified a few managers following similar strategies to VVPLX who were assigned higher probabilities. How is this possible considering VVPLX trounced them over its six-year history?

Broadly speaking, there are three reasons:

  • Some of the active managers who beat out VVPLX had slightly lower expenses.
  • While VVPLX did very well since 2010, some other funds have proven themselves over much longer periods. We have more data to satisfy ourselves (and our algorithms) that the manager was skillful and not just lucky. 
  • VVPLX’s stock selection skill was not entirely consistent which also hurts its case. From April to October, the fund recorded negative skill of approximately 4%. This perhaps explain why management felt compelled to close the fund 4/22/15.

Exhibit I

    Mgr. Tenure   sS*   sR* Proj.  Skill (Gross) Exp.   ∆   ± Prob.  
Boston Partners All-Cap Value Fund [c] BPAIX 2005   1.4%   0.3% 0.88% 0.80%(b)   23   1.5% 56.1
Vulcan Value Partners Fund VVPLX 2010   3.8%   1.5% 1.19% 1.08%  .25   1.8% 55.2
  1. Annualized contribution from stock selection or sector rotation over manager tenure
  2. Expenses increased recently by 10bps as BPAIX’s board curtailed the fee waiver
  3. Closed to new investors

Exhibit II: Boston Partners All-Cap Value Fund

exhibit ii

Exhibit I compares VVPLX to Boston Partners All-Cap Value Fund. BPAIX is on the cusp of value and blend, much like VVPLX. Our model sees a 56.1% chance that the fund’s skill over the next 12 months will justify its expense structure. According to John Forelli, Senior Portfolio Analyst, the managers screen from a broader universe using their own value metrics. They combine this with in-depth fundamental analysis. As a result, they are overweight sectors like international, financials, and pharma relative to the Russell 3000 (their avowed benchmark.) Boston Partners separately manages approximately $10 billion of institutional accounts which closely tracks BPAIX.

Any reader with the demo can pull up the Fund Analysis for VVPLX.  The chart for BPAIX is not available on the demo (because it is categorized in Large Value) so we present it in Exhibit II.  Exhibit III presents a more traditional attribution against the Russell 3000 Value Fund. Both exhibits suggest Boston Partners are great stock pickers. However, we attribute much less skill to Allocation because our “Baseline Return” construes they are not a dyed-in-the-wool value fund.

VVPLX has shown even more skill over the manager’s tenure than BPAIX and is expected to have more skill next year[1]. But even if VVPLX were open, we would prefer BPAIX due to a combination of cost and longer history. (BPAIX investors should keep an eye on expenses: the trustees recently reduced the fee waiver by 10bps and may move further next year.)

Trapezoid has identified funds which are more attractive than either of these funds. The Trapezoid Honor Roll consists of funds with at least 60% confidence. The methodology behind these findings is summarized at here.

[1] 12 months ending November 2016.


Our review of VVPLX raises a broader question. Investors often have to choose between a fund which posted stellar returns for a short period against another whose performance was merely above average over a longer period.

niese and colonFor those of you who watched the World Series a few months ago, the NY Mets had a number of very young pitchers with fastballs close to 100 miles per hour.  They also had some veteran pitchers like John Niese and the 42-year-old ageless wonder Bartolo Colon who couldn’t muster the same heat but had established their skill and consistency over a long period of time. We don’t know whether Bartolo Colon drank from the fountain of youth; he served a lengthy suspension a few years ago for using a banned substance. But his statistics in his 40s are on par with his prime ten year ago.  

exhibit iii

Unfortunately, for every Bartolo Colon, there is a Dontrelle Willis. Willis was 2003 NL Rookie of the year for the Florida Marlins and helped his team to a World Series victory. He was less effective his second year but by his third year was runner up for the Cy Young award. The “D-Train” spent 6 more years in the major leagues; although his career was relatively free of injuries, he never performed at the same level.

Extrapolating from a few years of success can be challenging. If consistency is so important to investors, does it follow that a baseball team should choose the consistent veterans over the promising but less-tested young arms?

Sometimes there is a tradeoff between expected outcome (∆) and certitude (±).  The crafty veteran capable of keeping your team in the game for five innings may not be best choice in the seventh game of the World Series; but he might be the judicious choice for a general manager trying to stretch his personnel budget. The same is true for investment managers. Vulcan may have the more skillful management team. But considering its longevity, consistency, and expense Boston Partners is the surer bet.


How long a track record is needed before an investor can bet confident in a portfolio manager? This is not an easy question to answer.

Skill, even when measured properly, is best evaluated over a long period.

In the December edition of MFO (When_Good_Managers_Go_Bad) we profiled the Clearbridge Aggressive Growth fund which rode one thesis successfully for 20 years. Six years of data might tell us less about them than a very active fund.   

Here is one stab at answering the question.  We reviewed the database to see what percentage of fund made the Trapezoid Honor Roll as a function of manager tenure. 

exhibit ivRecall the Trapezoid Honor Roll consists of fund classes for which we have 60% confidence that future skill will justify expense structure.  In Exhibit IV the Honor Roll fund classes are shown in blue while the funds we want no part of are in yellow.  16% of those fund classes where the manager has been on the job for twenty-five years make the Honor Roll compared with just 2% for those on the job less than three years.  The relationship is not a smooth line, but generally managers with more longevity give us more data points allowing us to be more confident of their skill.. or more likely persuade us they lack sufficient skill. 

There is an element of “survivorship” bias in this analysis. Every year 6% of funds disappear; generally, they are the smallest or worst performers. “All-stars” managers are more likely to survive for 20 years. But surprisingly a lot of “bad” managers survive for a long time. The percentage of yellow funds increases just as quickly as the blue.

exhibit vIt seems reasonable to ask why so many “bad” managers survive in a Darwinian business. We surveyed the top 10. (Exhibit V) We find that in the aggregate they have a modicum of skill, but nowhere sufficient to justify what they charge.  We can say with high confidence all these investors would be better off in index funds or (ideally) the active managers on the Trapezoid honor roll.

exhibit vi'We haven’t distinguished between a new manager who takes over an old fund and a brand new fund. Should investors abandon all their confidence when a good manager retires and passes the baton? Should investors give the fund a mulligan when a poor performer is replaced?  Probably not.  From a review of 840 manager changes with sufficient data (Exhibit VI), strong performers tend to remain strong which suggests we may gain confidence by considering the track record of the previous manager.

The “rookie confidence” problem is a challenge for investors. The average manager tenure is about six years and only a quarter of portfolio managers have been on the job longer than 10 years. It is also a challenge for asset managers marketing a new fund or a new manager of an existing fund.  Without a long track record, it is hard to tell if a fund is good – investors have every incentive to stick with the cheaper index fund.  Asset managers incubate funds to give investors a track record but studies suggest investors shouldn’t take much comfort from incubated track records. (Richard Evans, CFA Digest, 2010.) We see many sponsors aggressively waiving fees for their younger funds.  Investors will take comfort when the individuals have a prior track record at another successful fund.  C.T. Fitzpatrick’s seventeen years’ experience under Mason Hawkins seems to have carried over to Vulcan.

BOTTOM LINE:  It is hard to gain complete trust that any active fund is better than an index fund. It is harder when a new captain takes the helm, and harder yet for a brand new fund. The fund with the best five-year record is not necessarily the best choice. Veteran managers are over represented in the Trapezoid Honor Roll — for good reason.

Unlike investing, baseball will always have rookies taking jobs from the veterans. But in 2016 we can still root for Bartolo Colon.

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.

Why are investors so bad at picking alternatives?

By Sam Lee, principal of Severian Asset Management and former editor of Morningstar ETF Investor.

Gateway (GATEX) is the $8 billion behemoth of the long-short equity mutual fund category, and one of the biggest alternative mutual funds. I’ve long marveled at this fund’s size given its demonstrable lack of merit as a portfolio diversifier. Over the past 10 years the fund has behaved like an overpriced, underperforming 40% stock, 60% cash portfolio. Its R-squared over this period to the U.S. stock market index is 0.85.

Not only is its past performance damning, but little in the substance of the strategy suggests performance will radically change. Gateway owns a basket of stocks designed to track the S&P 500, with a slight dividend tilt. On this portfolio the managers sell calls on the S&P 500, capping the potential upside of the fund in exchange for a premium up front, and simultaneously buy puts, capping the potential downside of the fund at the cost of a premium up front. By implementing this “collar” strategy, the managers protect the portfolio from extreme ups and downs.

There is another way to soften volatility: Own less equities and more cash—which is pretty much what this fund achieves in a roundabout manner.

Portfolio theory says that an investment is only attractive to the extent that it improves the risk-adjusted return of a portfolio. That means three things matter for each asset: expected return, expected volatility, and expected correlation with other assets in the portfolio. The first two are intuitive, but many investors neglect the correlation piece. A low return, high volatility asset can be an excellent investment if it has a low enough correlation with the rest of the portfolio.

Consider an asset that’s expected to return 0% with stock-like volatility and a perfectly negative correlation to the stock market (meaning it moves in the opposite direction of the market without fail). Many investors, looking at the asset’s standalone returns and volatility, would be turned off. Someone fluent in portfolio theory would salivate. Assume the expected excess return of the stock market is 5%. If you own the stock market and the negatively correlated asset in equal measure, the portfolio’s expected excess return halves to 2.5% and its expected volatility drops to 0%. Apply some leverage to double the portfolio’s return and you end up with a 5% expected excess return with no volatility.

In practice, many investors do not assess assets from the portfolio perspective. They fixate on standalone return and volatility. Much of the time this is a harmless simplification. But it can go wrong when assessing alternatives, such as with Gateway. Judged by its Sharpe ratio and other risk-adjusted measures, Gateway looks like a reasonable investment. Judged by its ability to enhance a portfolio’s risk-adjusted return, it falls flat.

I don’t believe individual investors are responsible for Gateway’s size. If anything, institutional investors (particularly RIAs) are to blame. You would think that supposedly sophisticated investors would not fall into this trap. But they do. A large part of the blame belongs to committee-driven investment processes, which dominate institutional money management. When a committee is responsible for a portfolio, they often hire consultants. These consultants in turn promise to help members of the committee avoid getting fired or sued.

In this context, the consultants like to create model portfolios that have predefined allocations to investment types—X% in large growth, Y% in small-cap value, Z% in long-short equity, and so on—and then find suitable managers within those categories. When picking those managers, they tend to focus on return and volatility as well as performance relative to peers. If not done carefully, a fund like Gateway gets chosen, despite its utter lack of diversifying power.

SamLeeSam Lee and Severian Asset Management

Sam is the founder of Severian Asset Management, Chicago. He is also former 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”). He has been quoted by The Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, Financial Advisor, MarketWatch, Barron’s, and other financial publications.  

Severian works with high net-worth partners, but very selectively. “We are organized to minimize conflicts of interest; our only business is providing investment advice and our only source of income is our client fees. We deal with a select clientele we like and admire. Because of our unusual mode of operation, we work hard to figure out whether a potential client, like you, is a mutual fit. The adviser-client relationship we want demands a high level of mutual admiration and trust. We would never want to go into business with someone just for his money, just as we would never marry someone for money—the heartache isn’t worth it.” Sam works from an understanding of his partners’ needs to craft a series of recommendations that might range from the need for better cybersecurity or lower-rate credit cards to portfolio reconstruction. 


Smallest, Shortest, Lowest

charles balconyDavid invariably cuts to the chase when it comes to assessing mutual funds. It’s a gift he shares with us each month.

So, in evolving the MFO Premium site, he suggested we provide lists of funds satisfying interesting screening criteria to help users get the most from our search tools.

Last month we introduced two such lists: “Best Performing Rookie Funds” and “Dual Great Owl & Honor Roll Funds.”

This month our MultiSearch screener incorporates three more: “Smallest Drawdown Fixed Income Funds,” “Shortest Recovery Time Small Caps,” and “Lowest Ulcer Moderate Allocation Funds.”

Smallest Drawdown Fixed Income Funds generates a list of Fixed Income (e.g., Bond, Muni) funds that have experienced the smallest levels of Maximum Drawdown (MAXDD) in their respective categories. More specifically, they are in the quintile of funds with smallest MAXDD among their peers.

Looking back at performance since the November 2007, which represents the beginning of the current full market cycle, we find 147 such funds. Two top performing core bond funds are TCW Core Fixed-Income (TGCFX) and RidgeWorth Seix Total Return (SAMFX). The screen also uncovered notables like First Pacific Advisors’ FPA New Income (FPNIX) and Dan Ivascyn’s PIMCO Income (PIMIX).

Here are some risk/return metrics for these Fixed Income funds (click on images to enlarge):

TCW Core Fixed-Income (TGCFX) and RidgeWorth Seix Total Return (SAMFX)
First Pacific Advisors’ FPA New Income (FPNIX)

Shortest Recovery Time Small Caps generates a list of Small Cap (Small Core, Small Value, Small Growth) funds that have incurred shortest Recovery Times (number of months a fund retracts from previous peak) in their respective categories.

For Full Cycle 5, this screen produces 62 such funds through December 2015. Among the best performing funds with shortest Recovery Times, under 30 months, only one remains open and/or accessible: Queens Road Small Cap Value (QRSVX). It was profiled by David in April 2015.

Here’s a short list and risk/return numbers for QRSVX across various timeframes:

Queens Road Small Cap Value (QRSVX)

Lowest Ulcer Moderate Allocation Funds
 generates a list of Mixed Asset Moderate Allocation funds that have incurred the lowest Ulcer Indices in their respective categories. 

Topping the list (fund with lowest UI) is James Balanced: Golden Rainbow (GLRBX), profiled last August :

The Alt Perspective: Commentary and news from DailyAlts.

dailyaltsWe can all be thankful that January 2016 is over. I am at a point in my life where I don’t really enjoy rollercoaster rides, of any sort, as much as I did when I was younger. And this past month has been nothing short of a financial rollercoaster. In many ways, however, it shouldn’t have been a surprise that investors decided to take some air out of the balloon.

In a grand experiment, the central banks around the world have been pumping hot air into the global market balloon since November 2008. But the U.S. Fed officially took its foot off the gas pedal and applied a bit of light pressure to the brakes with its scant rate rise in December. And on top of that, China’s slowdown has raised concerns of contagion, and its equity markets have taken the brunt of that concern.

With all of the re-adjustments of market expectations and valuations currently taking place, 2016 may turn out to be quite a good year to be invested in alternatives.

Performance Review

Let’s start with traditional asset classes for the month of January 2015, where the average mutual fund for all of the major equity markets (per Morningstar) delivered negative performance in the month:

  • Large Blend U.S. Equity: -6.95%
  • Small Blend U.S. Equity: -9.18%
  • Foreign Equity Large Blend: -7.32%
  • Diversified Emerging Markets: -6.46%
  • Intermediate Term Bond: 0.94%
  • World Bond: -0.03%
  • Moderate Allocation: -4.36%

Now a look at the liquid alternative categories, per Morningstar’s classification. Only Managed Futures and Bear Market funds generated positive returns in January, as one would expect. Long/Short Equity was down more than expected, but with small cap stocks being down just over 9%, it is not a surprise. Multi-alternative funds held up well, as did market neutral funds.

  • Long/Short Equity: -4.18%
  • Non-Traditional Bonds: -1.15%
  • Managed Futures: 2.34%
  • Market Neutral: -0.22%
  • Multi-Alternative: -1.65%
  • Bear Market: 11.92%

And a few non-traditional asset classes, where none escaped January’s downdraft:

  • Commodities: -3.01%
  • Multi-Currency: -0.49%
  • Real Estate: -5.16%
  • Master Limited Partnerships: -9.77%

Overall, a mixed bag for January.

Asset Flows

One of the more surprising aspects of 2015 was the concentration of asset flows into multi-alternative funds and managed futures funds. All other categories of funds, except for volatility funds, experienced outflows over the full twelve months of 2015, as documented in the below chart:

asset flows

And despite the massive outflows from non-traditional bonds, the category remains the largest with more than $135 billion in assets. This compares to commodities at $67 billion and multi-alternative at $56 billion.

Hot Topics

Only six new liquid alternative funds were launched in January – four were long/short equity funds, one was a managed futures fund and the sixth was a non-traditional bond fund. Of the six funds, two were ETFs, and fairly innovative ETFs at that. We wrote about their structure in an article titled, Reality Shares Builds Suite of Dividend-Themed ETFs.

On the research front, we published summaries of two important research papers in January, both 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.

I’ll be back next month, and until then, let’s hope the rollercoaster ride that started in January has come to an end.

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.

Cognios Market Neutral Large Cap (COGMX): this tiny fund does what its category is supposed to do, but never has. It makes good money even when the market stinks.

Leuthold Core Investment (LCORX): We celebrate the 20th anniversary of Leuthold Core, a singularly disciplined and adaptive fund. Just one more year and it will be old enough to drink! We’re hopeful that the markets don’t give it, or us, reason to.

RiverNorth Opportunities (RIV): This is the closed-end fund for serious investors who know there’s a lot of money to be made in the irrational pricing of closed-end funds, but who don’t have the time or expertise to construct such a portfolio on their own.

Launch Alert: Davenport Balanced Income (DBALX)

Most folks haven’t heard of the Davenport Funds, which is understandable but also too bad. Davenport & Company is an employee-owned investment adviser that’s headquartered in Richmond, VA. They’ve been around since 1863 and now “custodies more than $20 billion in assets.” They manage five no-load funds, all somewhere in the solid-to-excellent range. Their newest fund, Davenport Balanced Income, launched on December 30, 2015.

Three things worth knowing:

  1. The equity portion of the portfolio mirrors the holdings of the Davenport Value and Income Fund (DVIPX). All Davenport funds target firms with exceptionally high levels of insider equity ownership. Value & Income, in particular, targets three investment themes: Dividend Aristocrats, High Yielders with Capital Appreciation Potential and deep-value Contrarian/Special Situations.
  2. Value and Income has performed exceedingly well. The fund just celebrated its fifth anniversary. Morningstar places it in the top 4% of all large value funds since inception. Perhaps more importantly, it significantly outperformed its peers in 2015 and again in 2016’s choppy first month. Since inception, its returns have been about a third higher than its equity income peers while all measures of its volatility have been lower. Based on the conventional measures of risk-adjusted return (Sharpe, Martin and Sortino ratios or Ulcer Index), it’s a Top 20 equity income fund.
  3. The equity allocation is fluid, ranging from 25 to 75% of assets. The balance between the two sleeves is determined by the managers’ analysis of “economic trends, changes in the shape of the yield curve and sector analysis.” The income portion of the portfolio is invested for stability rather than appreciation.

John Ackerly, one of Davenport’s directors, claims they have “a long history of developing funds that manage downside risk and produce positive returns … over full market cycles.” The equity portion of the fund is managed by Davenport’s Investment Policy Committee; the fixed-income portion by two of the guys who manage their fixed-income separate accounts. Their managers have, on average, 30 years of experience. Expenses are capped at 1.25%. The minimum initial investment is $5,000 for regular accounts and $2,000 for tax-advantaged ones. More details are at Davenport Asset Management, with the funds linked under the Strategies tab.

Manager Changes

There’s always churn in the manager ranks. This month we tracked down changes at 67 equity or balanced funds. While no cry out “sea change!”, three fairly well-known Fidelity managers – Peter Saperstone, Adam Kutas and Charles Myers – are having their responsibilities changed. Mr. Kutas drops Latin America to focus on EMEA. Mr. Myers takes a six-month leave of absence starting in March. Mr. Saperstone has been steadily moving away for months. I also discovered that I don’t recognize the names of any of the Janus managers (except, of course, Mr. Gross).


Speaking of Mr. Gross, his Janus Unconstrained Bond (JUCAX) fund’s performance chart looks like this:


So far the fund has been above water for about one month, April 2015, since Mr. Gross came on board. That said, it certainly shows a dogged independence compared to its nontraditional bond peers (the orange line). And it does look a lot better than Miller Income Opportunity Fund (LMCJX), Legg Mason’s retirement gift to former star Bill Miller. Mr. Miller co-manages the fund with his son. Together they’ve managed to lose about 24% for their investors in the same period that Mr. Gross dropped two or three.


Briefly Noted . . .

berwyn fundsThere was a great thread on our discussion board about the fate of the Berwyn Funds. The Berwyn funds are advised by The Killen Group. The founder, Robert E. Killen, turned 75 and has chosen to sell his firm to the Chartwell Investment Partners. The fear is that Chartwell will use this as an opportunity to vacuum up assets. Their press release on the acquisition reads, in part:

“This transaction creates an investment management firm with annual revenues approaching $50 million and more than $10 billion in assets under management, as part of our well-defined strategy for growing our Chartwell Investment Partners business into a world-class asset manager,” TriState Capital Chief Executive Officer James F. Getz said. “We have an exceptional opportunity to combine Killen’s highly credible investment performance, particularly by the Morningstar five-star rated Berwyn Income Fund, with our proven national financial services distribution model to meaningfully accelerate growth in client assets….”

The fate of Berwyn’s small no-load shareholders seems unresolved.

Thanks, in passing but as always, to The Shadow, the indomitable Ted and the folks on our discussion board. They track down more cool stuff, and think more interesting thoughts, than about any group I know. I browse their work daily and learn a lot.

GoodHaven Fund (GOODX) is reorganizing itself. The key change is that it will have a new board of trustees, rather than relying on a board provided by the Professionally Managed Portfolios trust.

Effective at the end of January, 2016, the Innealta Capital Country Rotation (ICCNX) and Capital Sector Rotation (ICSNX) funds no longer include “consistent with the preservation of capital” as part of their investment objectives.

Manning & Napier has agreed to acquire a majority interest in Rainier Investment Management, the investment adviser to the Rainier Funds. 

Effective February 1, 2016, the T. Rowe Price Mid-Cap Index Fund and the T. Rowe Price Small-Cap Index Fund were added as options for all of the T. Rowe Price Retirement Fund. 


Buffalo Emerging Opportunities Fund (BUFOX) and the Buffalo Small Cap Fund (BUFSX) have re-opened to new investors. They were closed for three and six years, respectively. Both funds posted wretched performance in 2014 and 2015 which might be a sign of disciplined investors out of step with an undisciplined market.

The Fairholme Focused Income (FOCIX) and Allocation (FAAFX) funds have reduced their minimum initial investment from $25,000 to $10,000.

Effective January 29, 2016, the redemption fee for the TCM Small Cap Growth Fund (TCMSX) was removed and the fund reduced its minimum initial investment from $100,000 to $2,500. It’s actually a pretty solid little small-growth fund.

Tweedy, Browne Global Value Fund II -Currency Unhedged (the “Fund”) reopened to new investors on February 1, 2016.

Effective as of January 1, 2016, the Valley Forge Fund’s (VAFGX) advisor, Boyle Capital Management, LLC, has voluntarily agreed to waive the full amount of its management fee. The voluntary waiver may be discontinued at any time. It was always a cute, idiosyncratic little fund run by a guy named Bernie Klawans. The sort of fund that had neither a website nor an 800 number. Bernie passed away at age 90, having run the fund until the last six months of his life. His handpicked successor died within the year. The Board of Trustees actually ran the fund for six months. Their eventual choice for a new manager did okay for a year, then performance fell off a cliff in the middle of 2014.


It’s never recovered and the fund is down to $7 million in assets, down by two-thirds since Mr. Klawan’s passing.

Vanguard Treasury Money Market Fund (VUSXX) has re-opened to all investors without limitations. It’s been charging four basis points and returning one basis point a year for the past three.

CLOSINGS (and related inconveniences)

AQR Style Premia Alternative Fund and AQR Style Premia Alternative LV Fund will both close to new investors on March 31, 2016. AQR’s Diversified Arbitrage Risk Parity and Multi-Strategy Alternative funds closed in 2012 and 2013. Sam Lee did a really strong analysis of the two Style Premia funds in our September 2015 issue.

Ziegler Strategic Income Fund (ZLSCX) has liquidated its Investor share class and has converted the existing Investor Class accounts into institutional accounts.


The American Independence funds announced five name changes, including shortening American Independence to AI.

Old Name New Name
American Independence JAForlines Risk-Managed Allocation AI JAForlines Risk-Managed Allocation
American Independence International Alpha Strategies AI Navellier International
American Independence Boyd Watterson Core Plus AI Boyd Watterson Core Plus
American Independence Kansas Tax-Exempt Bond AI Kansas Tax-Exempt Bond
American Independence U.S. Inflation-Indexed AI U.S. Inflation-Protected

Aston Small Cap Fund (ATASX) – formerly Aston TAMRO Small Cap – is soon-to-be AMG GW&K Small Cap Growth Fund.

On January 28, 2016, Centre Global Select Equity Fund became Centre Global ex-U.S. Select Equity Fund (DHGRX). Not entirely sure why “Global ex-US” isn’t “International,” but maybe they had some monogrammed stationery that they didn’t want to throw out.

Effective on February 19, 2016, Columbia Intermediate Bond Fund (LIBAX) becomes Columbia Total Return Bond Fund

On February 1, 2016, Ivy Global Real Estate Fund (IREAX) became Ivy LaSalle Global Real Estate Fund, and Ivy Global Risk-Managed Real Estate Fund changed to Ivy LaSalle Global Risk-Managed Real Estate Fund (IVRAX). For the past three years, both funds have been sub-advised by Lasalle Investment Management. IVRAX has performed splendidly; IREAX, not so much.

Silly reader. You thought it was Touchstone Small Cap Core Fund. Actually it’s just Touchstone Small Cap Fund (TSFAX). Now, anyway.


“Because of the difficulty encountered in distributing the Fund’s shares,” 1492 Small Cap Core Alpha Fund (FNTSX) will liquidate on February 26, 2016. The fact that it’s not very good probably contributed to the problem.

American Beacon Retirement Income and Appreciation Fund and American Beacon Treasury Inflation Protected Securities Fund ( ) will be liquidated and terminated on March 31, 2016. Presumably that’s part of the ongoing house-cleaning as American Beacon tries to reposition itself as a sort of alternatives manager.

Anfield Universal Fixed Income Fund (AFLEX) liquidated two of its share classes (A1 and R) on February 1, 2016. Rather than moving those investors into another share class, they received a check in the mail and a tax bill. Odd. 

ASTON/TAMRO International Small Cap Fund (AROWX) liquidated on February 1, 2016. On the one hand, it only had $2 million in assets. On the other, the adviser pulled the plug after just a year. The manager, Waldemar Mozes, is a bright guy with experience at Artisan and Capital Group. He jokingly described himself as “the best fund manager ever to come from Transylvania.” We wish him well.

Columbia Global Inflation-Linked Bond Plus Fund liquidated after very short notice, on January 29, 2016.

Gator Opportunities Fund (GTOAX) thought it had to hang on until March 21, 2016. The board has discovered that a swifter execution would be legal, and now it’s scheduled to disappear on February 15, 2016.

Hodges Equity Income Fund (HDPEX) will merge into Hodges Blue Chip Equity Income Fund (currently named the Hodges Blue Chip 25 Fund HDPBX) at the end of March, 2016.

Its board simultaneously announced new managers for, and liquidation of, KF Griffin Blue Chip Covered Call Fund (KFGAX). The former occurred on January 6, the latter is slated for February 16, 2016.

Madison Large Cap Growth Fund (MCAAX) merges into Madison Investors (MNVAX) on February 29, 2016,

Don’t blink: McKinley Non-U.S. Core Growth Fund (MCNUX) will be gone by February 5, 2016. It was an institutional fund with a minimum investment of $40 million and assets of $37 million, so ….

Midas Magic (MISEX) and Midas Perpetual Portfolio (MPERX) are both slated to merge into Midas Fund (MIDSX). In reporting their taxable distributions this year, Midas announced that “One of Midas’ guiding principles is that we will communicate with our shareholders and prospective investors as candidly as possible because we believe shareholders and prospective investors benefit from understanding our investment philosophy and approach.” That makes it ironic that there’s no hint about why they’ve folding a diversified equity fund and a tactical allocation fund into a gold portfolio with higher fees than either of the other two.

We previously noted the plan to merge the Royce European Small-Cap and Global Value funds into Royce International Premier, pending shareholder approval. The sheep baa’ed shareholders approved the mergers, which will be executed sometime in February, 2016.

On March 24, 2016, Sentinel Mid Cap Fund (SNTNX) will be absorbed by Sentinel Small Company Fund (SAGWX), which have “identical investment objectives and similar investment strategies.” That’s a clear win for the investors, give or take any actual interest in investing in mid-caps. At the same time, Sentinel Sustainable Mid Cap Opportunities Fund (WAEGX) will be absorbed into Sentinel Sustainable Core Opportunities Fund (MYPVX).

TeaLeaf Long/Short Deep Value Fund (LEFAX) closed on January 25 and liquidated on January 29, 2016.

I’m okay with the decision to liquidate UBS U.S. Equity Opportunity Fund (BNVAX): it’s a tiny fund that’s trailed 98% of its peers over the past decade. The UBS board decided you needed to hear their reasoning for the decision, which they included in a section entitled:

Rationale for liquidating the Fund

Based upon information provided by UBS Asset Management (Americas) Inc., the Fund’s investment advisor, the Board determined that “it is in the best interests of the Fund and its shareholders to liquidate and dissolve the Fund pursuant to a Plan of Liquidation (the “Plan”). To arrive at this decision, the Board considered factors that have adversely affected, and will continue to adversely affect, the ability of the Fund to conduct its business and operations in an economically viable manner.”

Quick note to the board: that’s not a rationale. It’s a conclusion (“it’s in your best interest”) and a cryptic passage about the process “we considered factors.”

The Board of Trustees of Monetta Trust has concluded “that it would be in the best interests of the Fund and its shareholders” to liquidate Varsity/Monetta Intermediate Bond Fund (MIBFX), which will occur on February 18, 2016.

Vivaldi Orinda Hedged Equity Fund (OHEAX) is victim of its advisor’s “strategic decision to streamline its product offerings.” The fund will liquidate on February 26, 2016.

Voya Emerging Markets Equity Dividend Fund (IFCAX) will liquidate on April 8, 2016.

In Closing . . .

Please do double-check to see if you’ve set our Amazon link as a bookmark or starting tab in your browser. From Christmas 2014 to Christmas 2015, Amazon’s sales rose 60% but our little slice of the pie fell by 15% in the same period. We try not to be too much of a pesterance on the subject, but the Amazon piece continues as a financial mainstay so it helps to mention it.

If you’re curious about how the Amazon Associates program works, here’s the short version: if you enter Amazon using our link, an invisible little piece of text (roughly: “for the benefit of MFO”) follows you. When you buy something, that tag is attached to your order and we receive an amount equivalent to 6% or so of the value of the stuff ordered. It’s invisible and seamless from your perspective, and costs nothing extra. Sadly the tag expires after a day so if you put something in your cart on Guy Fawkes Day and places the order on Mardi Gras, the link will have expired.

Thanks, too, to the folks whose ongoing support makes it possible for us to keep the lights on (and even to upgrade them to LEDs!). That includes the growing cadre of folks using MFO Premium but also Paul R and Jason B, our most faithful subscribers Deb and Greg, the good folks at Andrei Financial and Gardey Financial and Carl R. (generous repeat offenders in the “keep MFO going” realm).

We’re about 90% done on a profile of the “new” LS Opportunity Fund (LSOFX), so that’s in the pipeline for March. Readers and insiders both have been finding interesting options for us to explore which, with Augustana’s spring break occurring in February, I might actually have time to!

We’ll look for you.


January 1, 2016

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.


November 1, 2015

Dear friends,

As you read this, I’ll be wading through a drift of candy wrappers, wondering if my son’s room is still under there somewhere. Weeks ago my local retailers got into the Halloween spirit by setting up their Christmas displays and now I live in terror of the first notes of that first Christmas carol inflicted over storewide and mall-wide sound systems.

But between the two, I pause for thanksgiving and Thanksgiving. I’m thankful for all the things I don’t have: they’re mostly delusion and clutter. I’m thankful for the stores not open on Black Friday (REI most recently) just as I’m thankful for the ones not open on Sundays (Fareway grocery stores, locally); we’ve got to get past the panic and resentment that arises if there’s a whole day without shopping. I’m grateful for those who conspire to keep me young, if only through their contagious craziness. apple pieI’m grateful for gravy, for the sweet warmth of a friend hugged close, for my son’s stunning ability to sing and for all the time my phone is turned off.

And I’m grateful, most continually, for the chance to serve you. It’s a rare honor.

Had I mentioned apple pie with remarkably thick and flaky crust? If not, that’s way up on the list too.

There’s a break in the rain. Get up on the roof!

… a bear market is not the base case for most of Wall Street. Adam Shell, 9/29/15

Duh. Cheerleaders lead cheers.

Good news: the sun is out. The Total Stock Market Index (VTSMX) soared 7.84% in October, offsetting a 7.29% decline in the third quarter. It’s now above water for the year, through Halloween, with a return of 1.8%. Optimists note that we’re now in the best six months of the year for stocks, and they anticipate healthy gains.

Bad news: none of the problems underlying the third quarter decline have changed.

We have no idea of whether the market will soar, stagger or crash over the next six months. Any of those outcomes are possible, none are predictable. Morningstar’s John Rekenthaler argues that the market isn’t priced for an imminent crash (“Are US stocks overripe?” 10/30/2015). BlackRock’s chief strategist agrees. The Leuthold Group says it’s “a bear until proven otherwise” but does allow for the prospect of a nice, tradable bounce (10/7/2015).

A lot of fairly serious adults are making the same argument: crash or not, the U.S. stock market is priced for futility.

GMO estimates (as of 10/14/2015) US real returns close to zero over the next 5-7 years. They estimate that high quality stocks might make 1% a year, small caps will be flat and large caps in general will lose nearly 1% a year. Those estimates assume simple reversions to long-term average profit margins and stock prices, both of which have been goofed by the Fed’s ongoing zero rate policy.

Jack Bogle (10/14/2015, warning: another auto-launch video) likewise thinks you’ll make about zero. His calculation is a rougher version of GMO’s. Investment gains are dividends plus earnings growth. An optimist would say 2% and 6%, respectively. Bogle thinks the 6% is too optimistic and pencils-in 5%. You then inflate or deflate the investment returns by changes in valuations. He notes that a P/E of 15 is about normal, so if you buy when the P/E is below 15 you get a boost. If you buy when the P/E is above 15, you get a penalty. By his calculations, the market P/E is about 20.

So you start with a 7% investment return (2% + 5%) and begin making deductions:

  • P/E contraction would cost 3% then
  • inflation might easily cost 2%, and of course
  • fund fees and expenses cost 1%, after which
  • stupid investor behavior eats 1.5%.

That leaves you with a “real” return of about zero (which at least cuts into your tax bill).

Henry Blodget was the poster child for the abuses of the financial markets in the 1990s. He went on to launch Business Insider, which became the web most popular business news site. It (well, 88% of it) was just sold to the German publisher Axel Springer for $340 million.

Blodget published an essay (10/4/2015) which concluded that we should anticipate “weak” or “crappy” returns for the next decade. The argument is simple and familiar to folks here: stocks are “fantastically expensive relative to most of recorded history.” Vigorous government intervention prevented the phenomenal collapse that would have returned market valuations to typical bear market lows, building the base for a decades-long bull. Zero interest rates and financial engineering conspired to keep stocks from becoming appropriately loathed (though it is clear that many institutional investors are, for better or worse, making structural changes in their endowment portfolios which brings their direct equity exposure down into the single digits).

Adding fuel to the fire, Rob Arnott’s group – Research Affiliates – has entered the debate. They are, mildly put, not optimistic about US stocks. Like Leuthold and unlike Blodget, they’re actually charged with finding way to invest billions ($174 billion, in RA’s case) profitably.

Key points from their latest essay:

  1. “High stock prices, just like high house prices, are harbingers of low returns.
  2. Investing in price-depressed residential rental property in Atlanta is like investing in EM equities today-the future expected long-term yield is much superior to their respective high-priced alternatives.
  3. Many parallels exist between the political/economic environment and the relative valuation of U.S. and EM equities in the periods from 1994 to 2002 and 2008 to 2015.
  4. Our forecast of the 10-year real return for U.S. equities is 1% compared to that of EM equities at 8%, now valued at less than half the U.S. C A P E.”

hole in roof from animalsBottom line: Leuthold – bear’s at the door. GMO – pretty much zero, real, with the prospect of real ugliness after the US election. Bogle – maybe 2% real. Blodget – “crap.” Research Affiliates – 1%.

For most of us, that’s the hole in the roof.  

Recommendation One: fix it now, while the sun’s out and you’re feeling good about life. Start by looking at your Q3 losses and asking, “so, if I lost twice that much in the next year and didn’t get it back until the middle of President Trump’s second term, how much would that affect my life plans?” If you lost 3%, imagine an additional 6% and shrug, then fine. If you lost 17%, deduct another 34% from your portfolio and feel ill, get up on the roof now!  In general, simplify both your life and your portfolio, cut expenses when you can, spend a bit less, save a bit more. As you look at your portfolio, ask yourself the simple questions: what was I thinking? Why do I need that there? Glance at the glidepaths for T. Rowe Price’s retirement date funds to see how really careful folks think you should be invested. If your allocation differs a lot from theirs, you need to know why. If you don’t know your allocation or don’t have one, now would be the time to learn.

Recommendation Two: reconsider the emerging markets. Emerging markets have been slammed by huge capital outflows as investors panic over the prospect that China is broken. Over a trillion dollars in capital has fled in fear. The “in fear” part is useful to you since it likely signals an overshoot. The International Monetary Fund believes that the fears of Chinese collapse are overblown. Josh Brown, writing as The Reformed Broker, raises the prospect of that emerging markets may well have bottomed. No one doubts that another market panic in the U.S. will drive the emerging markets down again.

That having been said, there’s also evidence that the emerging markets may hold the only assets offering decent returns over the remainder of the decade. GMO estimates that EM stocks (4.6% real/year) and bonds (2.8% real/year) will be the two highest-returning asset classes over the next five-to-seven years. Research Affiliates is more optimistic, suggesting that EM stocks are priced to return 7.9% a year with high volatility, about 1.1% in the US and 5.3% in the other developed markets. Leuthold finds their valuations very tempting. Bill Bernstein (auto-launch video, sorry), an endlessly remarkable soul, allows “They are cheap; they are not good and cheap …  It’s important for small investors to realize that you can’t buy low unless you are willing to deal with bad news.”

Look for ways of decoupling from the herd, since the EM herd is a particularly volatile bunch. That means staying away from funds that focus on the largest, most liquid EM stocks since those are often commodity producers and exporters whose fate is controlled by China’s. That may point toward smaller companies, smaller markets and a domestic orientation. It certainly points toward experienced managers. We commend Driehaus Emerging Markets Small Cap Growth (DRESX), Seafarer Overseas Growth & Income (SFGIX and Matthews Asia Strategic Income (MAINX) to you.

A second approach is to consider a multi-asset or balanced fund targeting the emerging markets. We know of just a handful of such funds:

  • AB Emerging Markets Multi-Asset Portfolio (ABAEX), AllianceBernstein.
  • Capital Emerging Markets Total Opportunities Fund (ETOPX) – a boutique manager affiliated with the American Funds. Capital Guardian Trust Company
  • Dreyfus Total Emerging Markets (DTMAX)
  • Fidelity Total Emerging Markets (FTEMX)
  • Lazard Emerging Markets Multi-Asset (EMMIX)
  • PIMCO Emerging Multi Asset (PEAWX) The fund was liquidated on 14 July 2015.
  • TCW Emerging Markets Multi-Asset Opportunities (TGMEX)
  • First Trust Aberdeen Emerging Opportunities (FEO), a closed-end fund.

Of the options available, Fidelity makes a surprisingly strong showing. We’ll look into it further for you.

Adviser Fund Q3 1-year 3-year 10-year
Fidelity FTEMX (11.1) (6.8) 0.0  
AllianceBernstein ABAEX (10.2) (3.3) (1.7)  
Capital Group ETOPX (10.2) (8.9) (3.2)  
Dreyfus DTMAX (13.4) (12.3) (2.7)  
First Trust/ Aberdeen FEO @NAV (11.7) (11.2) (4.1)  
Lazard EMMIX (13.1) (13.0) (4.6)  
TCW TGMEX (10.3) (7.2) n/a  
Benchmarks EM Bonds (6.3) (7.8) (3.7) 6.8
  EM Equity (15.9) (12.2) (2.2) 5.2
  60/40 EM (12.1) (10.4) (2.8) 5.8
  60/40 US (5.6) 1.6 7.5 5.7

Sequoia: “Has anybody seen our wheels? They seem to have fallen off.”

The most famous active fund seems in the midst of the worst screw-up in its history. The fund invested over 30% of its portfolio in a single stock, Valeant Pharmaceuticals (VRX). Valeant made money by buying other pharmaceutical firms, slashing their overhead and jacking up the prices of the drugs they produced. The day after buying to rights to heart medications Nitropress or Isuprel, Valeant increased their prices by six-fold and three-fold, respectively. Hedge funds, and Sequoia, loved it! Everyone else – including two contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination – despised it.

Against the charge that Valeant’s actions are unethical (they put people’s lives at risk in order to reap a windfall profit that they didn’t earn), Sequoia obliquely promises, “When ethical concerns arise, management tends to address them forthrightly, but in the moment.” I have no idea of what “but in the moment” means.

Then, in October, after months of bleeding value, Valeant’s stock did this:

Valeant chart

That collapse, which cost Sequoia shareholders about 6% in a single day, was pursuant to a research report suggesting that Valeant was faking sales through a “phantom pharmacy” it owned. Separately, Federal prosecutors subpoenaed documents related to Valeant’s drug pricing.

Three things stand out:

There’s a serious question about whether Sequoia management drank the Kool-Aid. One intriguing signal that they weren’t maintaining an appropriate distance from Valeant is a tendency, noted by Lewis Braham in a post to our discussion board, for the Sequoia managers to call Valeant CEO Michael D. Pearson, “Mike.” From a call transcript he pointed to:

Mike does not like to issue equity.

… not that Mike would shy away from taking a price increase.

… early on in Mike’s reign …

I think Mike said the company was going to …

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.

On whole, he was “Mike” about three times more often than “Mike Pearson.” He was never “Mr. Pearson” or “the CEO.” There was no other CEO given comparable acknowledgement; in the case of their other investments, it was “Google” or “MasterCard.”

Sequoia’s research sounds a lot like Valeant’s press releases. The most serious accusation against Valeant, Sequoia insists in its opening paragraph, “is false.” That confidence rests on a single judgment: that changes in sales and changes in inventory parallel each other, so there can’t be anything amiss. Ummm … Google “manipulate inventory reporting.” The number of tricks that the accountants report is pretty substantial. The federal criminal investigation of Valeant doesn’t get mentioned. There is no evidence that Sequoia heightened its vigilance as Valeant slowly lost two-thirds of its value. Instead, they merely assert that it’s a screaming buy “at seven times the consensus estimate of 2016 cash earnings.”

Two of their independent directors resigned shortly thereafter. Rather than announcing that fact, Sequoia filed a new Statement of Additional information that simply lists three independent trustees rather than five. According to press reports, Sequoia is not interested in explaining the sudden and simultaneous departure. One director refused to discuss it with reporters; the other simply would not answer calls or letters.

Sequoia vigorously defends both Valeant’s management (“honest and extremely driven”) and its numbers. A New York Times analysis by Gretchen Morgenson is caustic about the firm’s insistence on highlighting “adjusted earnings” which distort the picture of the firm’s health. They are, Morgenson argues, “fantasy numbers.”

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.

The Price of Everything and the Value of Nothing

edward, ex cathedraBy Edward Studzinski

“The pure and simple truth is rarely pure and never simple.”

                             Oscar Wilde

There are a number of things that I was thinking about writing, but given what has transpired recently at Sequoia Fund as a result of its investment in and concentration in Valeant Pharmaceuticals, I should offer some comments and thoughts to complement David’s. Mine are from the perspective of an investor (I have owned shares in Sequoia for more than thirty years), and also as a former competitor.

Sequoia Fund was started back in 1970. It came into its own when Warren Buffett, upon winding up his first investment partnership, was asked by a number of his investors, what they should do with their money since he was leaving the business for the time being. Buffett advised them to invest with the Sequoia Fund. The other part of this story of course is that Buffett had asked his friend Bill Ruane to start the Sequoia Fund so that there would be a place he could refer his investors to and have confidence in how they would be treated.

Bill Ruane was a successful value investor in his own right. He believed in concentrated portfolios, generally fewer than twenty stock positions. He also believed that you should watch those stock investments very carefully, so that the amount of due diligence and research that went into making an investment decision and then monitoring it, was considerable. The usual course of business was for Ruane, Dick Cunniff and almost the entire team of analysts to descend upon a company for a full day or more of meetings with management. And these were not the kind of meetings you find being conducted today, as a result of regulation FD, with company managements giving canned presentations and canned answers. These, according to my friend Tom Russo who started his career at Ruane, were truly get down into the weeds efforts, in terms of unit costs of raw materials, costs of manufacturing, and other variables, that could tell them the quality of a business. In terms of something like a cigarette, they understood what all the components and production costs were, and knew what that individual cigarette or pack of cigarettes, meant to a Philip Morris. And they went into plants to understand the manufacturing process where appropriate.

Fast forward to the year 2000, and yes, there is a succession plan in place at Ruane, with Bob Goldfarb and Carly Cunniff (daughter of Dick, but again, a formidable talent in her own right who would have been a super investor talent if her name had been Smith) in place as President and Executive Vice President of the firm respectively. The two of them represented a nice intellectual and personality balance, complementing or mellowing each other where appropriate, and at an equal level regardless of title.

Unfortunately, fate intervened as Ms. Cunniff was diagnosed with cancer in 2001, and passed away far too early in life, in 2005. Fate also intervened again that year, and Bill Ruane also passed away in 2005.

At that point, it became Bob Goldfarb’s firm effectively, and certainly Bob Goldfarb’s fund. At the end of 2000, according to the 12/31/2000 annual report, Sequoia had 11 individual stock positions, with Berkshire representing 35.6% and Progressive Insurance representing 6.4%. At the end of 2004, according to the 12/31/2004 annual report, Sequoia had 21 individual stock positions, with Berkshire representing 35.3% and Progressive Insurance representing 12.6% (notice a theme here). By the end of 2008, according to the 12/31/2008, Berkshire represented 22.8% of the fund, Progressive was gone totally from the portfolio, and there were 26 individual stock positions in the fund. By the end of 2014, according to the 12/31/2014 report, Sequoia had 41 individual stock positions, with Berkshire representing 12.9% and healthcare representing 21.4%.

So, clearly at this point, it is a different fund than it used to be, in terms of concentration as well as the types of businesses that it would invest in. In 2000 for instance, there was no healthcare and in 2004 it was de minimis. Which begs the question, has the number of high quality businesses expanded in recent years? The answer is probably not. Has the number of outstanding managements increased in recent years, in terms of the intelligence and integrity of those management teams? Again, that would not seem to be the case. What we can say however, is that this is a Goldfarb portfolio, or more aptly, a Goldfarb/Poppe portfolio, distinct from that of the founders.

Would Buffett, if asked today . . . still suggest Sequoia? My suspicion is he would not . . .

An interesting question is, given the fund’s present composition, would Buffett, if asked today for a recommendation as to where his investors should go down the road, still suggest Sequoia? My suspicion is he would not with how the fund is presently managed and, given his public comments advocating that his wife’s money after his demise should go to an S&P 500 index fund.

A fairer question is – why have I held on to my investment at Sequoia? Well, first of all, Bob Goldfarb is 70 and one would think by this point in time he has proved whatever it was that he felt he needed to prove (and perhaps a number of things he didn’t). But secondly, there is another great investor at Ruane, and that is Greg Alexander. Those who attend the Sequoia annual meetings see Greg, because he is regularly introduced, even though he is a separate profit center at Ruane and he and his team have nothing to do with Sequoia Fund. However, Bruce Greenwald of Columbia, in a Value Walk interview in June of 2010 said Buffett had indicated there were three people he would like to have manage his money after he died (this was before the index fund comment). One of them was Seth Klarman at Baupost. Li Lu who manages Charlie Munger’s money was a second, and Greg Alexander at Ruane was the third. Greg has been at Ruane since 1985 and his partnerships have been unique. In fact, Roger Lowenstein, a Sequoia director, is quoted as saying that he knows Greg and thinks Warren is right, but that was all he would say. So my hope is that the management of Ruane as well as the outside directors remaining at Sequoia, wake up and refocus the fund to return to its historic roots.

Why is the truth never pure and simple in and of itself. We have said that you need to watch the changes taking place at firms like Third Avenue and FPA. I must emphasize that one can never truly appreciate the dynamics inside an active management firm. Has a co-manager been named to serve as a Sancho Panza or alternatively to truly manage the portfolio while the lead manager is out of the picture for non-disclosed reasons? The index investor doesn’t have to worry about these things. He or she also doesn’t have to worry about whether an investment is being made or sold to prove a point. Is it being made because it is truly a top ten investment opportunity? But the real question you need to think about is, “Can an active manager be fired, and if so, by whom?” The index investor need not worry about such things, only whether he or she is investing in the right index. But the active investor – and that is why I will discuss this subject at length down the road.

Dancing amidst the elephants: Active large core funds that earn their keep

leigh walzerBy Leigh Walzer

Last month in these pages we reviewed actively managed utility funds. Sadly, we could not recommend any of those funds. Either they charged too much and looked too much like the cheaper index funds or they strayed far afield and failed to distinguish themselves.

We are not here to bury the actively managed fund industry. Trapezoid’s goal is to help investors and allocators identify portfolio managers who have predictable skill and evaluate whether the fees are reasonable. Fees are reasonable if investors can expect with 60% confidence a better return with an active fund than a comparable passive fund. (Without getting too technical, the comparable fund is a time-weighted replication portfolio which tries to match the investment characteristics at a low cost.)

An actively-managed fund’s fees are reasonable if you have at least a 60% prospect of outperforming a comparable passive fund

To demonstrate how this works, we review this month our largest fund category, large blend funds. (We sometimes categorize differently than Morningstar and Lipper. We categorize for investors’ convenience but our underlying ratings process does not rely on performance relative to a peer group.)

We found 324 unique actively-managed large blend funds where the lead manager was on the job at least 3 years.

We recently posted to the website a skill rating for each of these funds. Our “grades” are forward-looking and represent the projected skill decile for each fund over the 12 months ending July 2016.  “A” means top 10%; “J” is bottom 10%. In our back-testing, the average skill for funds rated A in the following year exceeded the skill for B-rated funds, and so on with the funds rated J ranking last. Table I presents the grades for some of the largest funds in the category.  For trapezoid logoexample, the Fidelity Puritan Fund is projected to demonstrate more skill in the coming year than 80-90% of its peer group.

MFO readers who want to see the full list can register for demo access at no cost. (The demo includes a few fund categories and limited functionality.)  Demo users can also see backtesting results.

Table I

Skill Projections for Major US Large Blend Funds

Funds AUM ($bn) Decile
American Funds Inv. Co. of America 69 C
Amer. Funds Fundamental Investors Fund 68 D
Dodge & Cox Stock Fund 56 D
Vanguard Windsor II Fund 44 H
Fidelity Advisor New Insights Fund 26 A
Fidelity Puritan Fund 24 B
Vanguard Dividend Growth Fund 24 H
BlackRock Equity Dividend Fund 22 J
Oakmark Fund 17 B
Davis New York Venture Fund 14 G
John Hancock Disciplined Value Fund 13 E
Invesco Comstock Fund 12 G
JPMorgan US Equity Fund 12 D
Parnassus Core Equity Fund 11 A
JPMorgan US Large-Cap Core Plus Fund 11 A

A few caveats:

  • Our grades represent projected skill, not performance. Gross return reflects skill together with the manager’s positioning. Fund expenses are considered separately.
  • The difference in skill level between an E and F tends to be small while at the extremes the difference between A and B or I and J is larger.
  • Generally, deciles A through E have positive skill while F thru J are negative. The median fund may have skill which is slightly positive. This occurs because of survivorship bias: poorly managed funds are closed or merged out of existence
  • We do not have a financial interest in any of these funds or their advisors

Of course, costs matter. So we ran 1900 large blend fund classes through our Orthogonal Attribution Engine (OAE) to get the probability the investment would outperform its replication portfolio by enough to cover expenses. The good news (for investors and the fund industry) is there are some attractive actively managed funds. Our analysis suggest the fund classes in Table II will outperform passive funds, despite their higher fees.

Table II

Highly-rated Large blend Fund Classes (based on skill through July 2015)

table II

[a]   Morningstar ratings as of 10/20/15. G means gold (e.g. 5G means 5stars and “Gold”), S is silver, B is bronze

[b]   For those of you who like ActiveShare, OAI provides a measure of how active each fund is.  A closet indexer should have an OAI near zero. If we can replicate the fund, even with more complicated techniques, it will also score low. Funds which are highly differentiated can score up to 100.

[c]    Red funds are closed to new investors. Green are limited to institutional investors and retirement plans. Blue are limited to retirement plans

The bad news is that top-rated fund, Vanguard PrimeCap (VPCCX), is closed to new investors. So, too, is Vulcan Value Fund (VVPLX).  Fortunately, the PRIMECAP Odyssey Stock Fund (POSKX) is open and accessible to most investors.  Investors have 66% confidence this fund will generate excess return next year after considering costs. The Primecap funds have done well by overweighting pharma and tech over utilities and financials and have rotated effectively into and out of high-dividend stocks.

In many cases only the institutional or retirement classes are good deals for investors. For example, the Fidelity Advisor New Insights Fund classes I and Z offer 70% confidence; but a new investor who incurs the higher fees/load for classes A, B, C, and T would be less than 55% confident of success. Of course investors who already paid the load should stay the course.

While all these funds are worthy, we have space today to profile just a few funds.

Sterling Capital Special Opportunities Fund (BOPIX, BOPAX, etc.) is just under $1 billion. This fund was once known as BB&T Special Opportunities Equity Fund and was rated five-stars by Morningstar. The rating of the A class later fell to 3 stars and recently regained four-stars. 

Table III

Return Attribution: Sterling Capital Special Opportunities Fund

table III

Special Opps’ gross return was 22% before expenses over the past 3 years. (Table III) Even after fees, returns trounced the S&P500 by over 300bps for the past 3 years and over the past 10 years. The one and 5 year comparisons are less favorable but still positive. Combined skill has been consistently positive over the twelve year history of the fund.

However, that doesn’t tell the whole story. Comparing this to the S&P500 (or the Russell 1000) is neither accurate nor fair. The replicating portfolio – i.e., the one the OAE chooses as the best comparison – is approximately 90% equities (mostly the S&P500 with a smattering of small cap and hedged international which has decreased over time) plus 25% fixed income. The fixed income component surprised us at first, because the portfolio includes no bonds and does not utilize leverage. But the manager likes to write covered calls to generate extra income. We observe he sells about 5% of the portfolio on average about 10 to 20% out of the money. In this way he probably generates premium income of 25bp/yr., which the fixed income component captures well.  As always, the model evaluates the manager based on what he actually does, rather than against his stated benchmark (Russell 1000) or peer group.

Option writing helps explain why his beta is lower (We estimate .89, you will find other figures as low as .84.)  In the eyes of the Orthogonal Attribution Engine, that makes his performance more remarkable. We are not quite so impressed to pay an upfront 5.75% load for BOPAX (Class A), but BOPIX rates well. BOPAX is available no-load and NTF through Schwab and several smaller brokerages.

We had an opportunity to speak to the manager, George Shipp. Table III shows his skill derives much more from stock selection than sector rotation, a view he shared.  We can make a few observations.   He has a team of experienced generalists and a lot of continuity. His operation in Virginia Beach is separate from the other Sterling/BB&T operations in North Carolina.  He also manages Sterling Capital Equity Income (BAEIX), a much larger fund with zero historical overlap. The team follows a stable of companies, mainly industry leaders. They like to buy when the stock is dislocated and they see a catalyst.  The investment process is deliberative. That sounds like a contrarian, value philosophy, but in fact they have an even balance of growth and value investments. We reviewed his portfolio from 5 years ago, several of the top holdings trounced the market. (The exceptions were energy stocks.) Shipp noted he had good timing buying Apple when it was pummeled. He doesn’t specifically target M&A situations, but his philosophy puts the fund in a position to capture positive event risk. It is not unusual for the fund to own the same company more than once.

We also had a chance to speak to the folks at Davis Opportunity Fund (RPEAX). What jumps out about this $530mm fund is their ability to grind out excess return of 1 to 1.25% /yr. for nearly twenty years.  It is no great feat that DGOYX net returns just match the S&P500 for the past 5 years but they managed to do this despite two tailwinds: a 20% foreign allocation (partly hedged) and moderate cash balances. There is an old saw: “You can’t eat relative performance.” But when a fund shows positive relative performance for two decades with some consistency the Orthogonal model concludes the manager is skillful and some of that skill might carry over to the future.   We are willing to pay an incremental 60bp for their institutional class compared with an index fund but we cannot recommend the other share classes. A new co-manager was named in 2013, we see no drop-off in performance since then. (As with Sterling, the team manages a $15bn fund called Davis NY Venture (NYVTX) which does not rate nearly as well; there is some performance correlation between the two funds.)

Their process is geared toward global industry leaders and is somewhat thematic.  OAI of 24 indicates they run a very concentrated portfolio which cannot be easily replicated using passives. (We will talk more about OAI in the future.) Looking back at their portfolio from 5 years ago, their industry weightings were favorable and they did very well with CVS and Google but took hits from Sino Forest (ouch!) and Blount.

In general, the expected skill for a purely passive large blend fund will be close to zero and the probability will be around 50%. (There are exceptions including funds which don’t track well against our indices.)  However, there are a number of quantitatively driven and rules-based funds competing in the large blend space which show skill and some make our list

Table IV

Highly-Rated Large Blend Quantitative Funds

Fund Repr. Class Class Prob Hi-Rated Classes
American Century Legacy Large-Cap Fund ACGOX 72% Instl Inv Adv
PowerShares Buyback Achievers Portfolio PKW 64%  
Wells Fargo Large-Cap Core Fund EGOIX 63% I
Vanguard Structured Broad Market Fund VSBMX 62% I
AMG FQ Tax-Managed US Equity Fund MFQTX 62% Instl
Vanguard Structured Large-Cap Equity Fund VSLPX 61% InstlPlus

We are a little cautious in applying the model to quantitative funds. We know from backtesting that smart managers tend to stay smart, but there is a body of view that good quantitative strategies invite competition and have to be reinvented every few years. Nevertheless, here are the top-rated quant funds. All funds in Table IV carry five-star ratings from Morningstar except ACGOX is rated four-stars)

We had a chance to speak to the team managing American Century Legacy Large Cap (ACGOX), led by John Small and Stephen Pool in Kansas City.  Their approach is to devise models which predict what stock characteristics will work in a given market environment and load up on those stocks. There is some latitude for the managers to override the algorithms. Note this fund is rather small at $23 mm. The fund was evaluated based on data since management started in 2007.  However, the model was overhauled from 2010-2012 and has been tweaked periodically since then as market conditions change. The same team manages three other funds (Legacy Multicap, Legacy Focused, and Veedot); since 2012 they have used the same process, except they apply it to different market sectors.

Bottom Line:

If you are ready to throw in the towel on active funds, you are only 94% right.  There are a few managers who offer investors a decent value proposition. Mostly these managers have sustained good records over long periods with moderate expense levels.   Our thinking on quant funds will evolve over time. Based on our look at American Century Legacy, we suggest investors evaluate these managers based on the ability to react and adapt their quant models rather and not focus too much on the current version of the black box.   Remember to check out our fearless predictions for the entire large blend category at (registration required)

If you have any questions, drop me a line at [email protected]

Five great overlooked little funds

Barron’s recently featured an article by journalist Lewis Braham, entitled “Five great overlooked little funds” (10/17/2015). Lewis, a frequent contributor of the Observer’s discussion board, started by screening for small (>$100 milllion), excellent (top 20% performance over five years) funds, of which he found 173. He then started doing what good journalists do: he dug around to understand when and why size matters, then started talking with analysts and managers. His final list of worthies is:

  • SSgA Dynamic Small Cap(SSSDX) which has been added to Morningstar’s watchlist. A change of management in 2010 turned a perennial mutt into a greyhound. It’s beaten 99% of its peers and charged below average expenses.
  • Hood River Small-Cap Growth(HRSRX) has $97 million but “its 14.1% annualized five-year return beats its peers by 2.3 percentage points a year.” The boutique fund remains small because, the manager avers, “We’re stockpickers, not marketers.”
  • ClearBridge International Small Cap(LCOAX), sibling to a huge domestic growth fund, has a five-year annualized return of 8.5%, which beats 95% of its peers. It has $131 million in assets, 1% of what ClearBridge Aggressive Growth (SHRAX) holds.
  • LKCM Balanced (LKBAX) holds an inexpensive, low-turnover portfolio of blue-chip stocks and high-grade bonds. It’s managed to beat 99% of its peers over the past decade while still attracting just $37 million.
  • Sarofim Equity (SRFMX) is a virtual clone of Dreyfus Appreciation (DGAGX). Both buy ultra-large companies and hold them forever; in some periods, the turnover is 2%. It has a great long-term record and a sucky short-term one.

lewis brahamLewis is also the author of The House that Bogle Built: How John Bogle and Vanguard Reinvented the Mutual Fund Industry(2011), which has earned a slew of positive, detailed reviews on Amazon. He is a graceful writer and lives in Pittsburgh; I’m jealous of both. Then, too, when I Googled his name in search of a small photo for the story I came up with

To which I can only say, “wow.”

Here Mr. Herro, have a smoke and a smile!

After all, science has never been able to prove that smoking is bad for you. Maureen O’Hara, for example, enjoyed the pure pleasure of a Camel:

maureen ohara camel ad

And she passed away just a week ago (24 October 2015), cancer-free, at age 95. And the industry’s own scientists confirm that there are “no adverse effects.”

chesterfield ad

And, really, who’d be in a better position to know? Nonetheless, the Association of National Advertisers warns, this “legal product in this country for over two centuries, manufactured by private enterprise in our free market system” has faced “a fifty-year conspiracy” to challenge the very place of cigarettes in the free enterprise system. The debate has “lost all sense of rationality.”

It’s curious that the industry’s defense so closely mirrors the federal court’s finding against them. Judge Marion Kessler, in a 1700 page finding, concluded that “the tobacco industry has engaged in a conspiracy for decades to defraud or deceive the public … over the course of more than 50 years, defendants lied, misrepresented and deceived the American public … suppress[ed] research, destroyed documents, destroyed the truth and abused the legal system.”

David Herro is the famously successful manager of Oakmark International (OAKIX), as well as 13 other funds for US or European investors. Two of Mr. Herro’s recent statements give me pause.

On climate change: “pop science” and “environmental extremism”

In an interview with the Financial Times, Mr. Herro denounced the 81 corporate leaders, whose firms have a combined $5 trillion market cap, who’d signed on to the White House Climate Pledge (“Fund manager David Herro criticizes corporate ‘climate appeasers,’” 10/21/15). The pledge itself has an entirely uncontroversial premise:

…delaying action on climate change will be costly in economic and human terms, while accelerating the transition to a low-carbon economy will produce multiple benefits with regard to sustainable economic growth, public health, resilience to natural disasters, and the health of the global environment.

As part of the pledge, firms set individual goals for themselves. Coke wants to reduce its carbon footprint by 25%. Facebook promises to power its servers with power from renewables. Bloomberg would like to reduce its energy use by half while achieving an internal rate of return of 20% or more on its energy investments.

To which Mr. Herro roars: “climate appeasers!” They had decided, he charged, to “cave in to pop science and emotion.” Shareholders “should seriously question executives who appease such environmental extremism and zealotry.”

Like others on his island, he engages in a fair amount of arm-flapping. Climate change, he claims, “is not proven by the data.” The project, “How to Talk to Climate Deniers” explains the problem of “proof” quite clearly:

There is no “proof” in science — that is a property of mathematics. In science, what matters is the balance of evidence, and theories that can explain that evidence. Where possible, scientists make predictions and design experiments to confirm, modify, or contradict their theories, and must modify these theories as new information comes in.

In the case of anthropogenic global warming, there is a theory (first conceived over 100 years ago) based on well-established laws of physics. It is consistent with mountains of observation and data, both contemporary and historical. It is supported by sophisticated, refined global climate models that can successfully reproduce the climate’s behavior over the last century.

Given the lack of any extra planet Earths and a few really large time machines, it is simply impossible to do any better than this.

But Mr. Herro has a reply at hand: “Their answer is … per cent of scientists and Big Oil. My answer is data, data, data.

What does that even mean, other than the fact that the undergrad science requirement for business majors at Mr. Herro’s alma mater (lovely UW-Platteville) ought to be strengthened? Is he saying that he’s competent to assess climatological data? That he can’t find any data? (If so, check NASA’s “evidence” page here, sir.) That the data’s not perfect? Duh. That you’ve found the data, data, data straight from the source: talk radio and self-published newsletters? Or that there’s some additional bit not provided by the roughly 14,000 peer-reviewed studies that have corroborated the science behind global warming?

Can you imagine what would happen if you used to same criteria for assessing evidence about investments?

None of which I’d mention except for the fact that Herro decided to expand on the subject in his Financial Times interview which moves the quality of his analysis from the realm of the personal to the professional.

waitbutwhyIn my endless poking around, I came upon a clear, thoughtful, entertaining explanation of global warming that even those who aren’t big into science or the news could read, enjoy and learn from. The site is Wait But Why and it attempts to actually explain things (including sad millennials and procrastination) using, well, facts and humor.

Climate Change is a Thing

Let’s ignore all the politicians and professors and CEOs and filmmakers and look at three facts.

  1. Burning Fossil Fuels Makes Atmospheric CO2 Levels Rise
  2. Where Atmospheric CO2 Levels Go, Temperatures Follow
  3. The Temperature Doesn’t Need to Change Very Much to Make Everything Shitty

In between our essays, you should go peek at the site. If you can understand the designs on the stuff in their gift shop, you really should drop me a note and explain it.

On emerging markets: “never again”

In an interview with the Associated Press (“answers have been edited for clarity”), Mr. Herro makes a statement that’s particularly troubling for the future of the Oakmark funds. The article, “Fund manager touts emerging-market stocks” (10/25/15), explains that much of the success of Oakmark International (OAKIX) was driven by Mr. Herro’s prescient and substantial investment in emerging markets:

If we back up to 1998 or 1999, during the Asian financial crisis, we had 25 or 26% of the portfolio in emerging markets. We built up a huge position and we benefited greatly from that the whole next decade. It was the gift that kept giving.

The position was eventually reduced as he harvested gains and valuations in the emerging markets were less attractive. The logical question is, would the fund be bold enough to repeat the decision that “benefited [them] greatly” for an entire decade. Would he ever go back to 25%.

No, no, no. It could come up to 10 or 15% … but we’ll try to cap it there because, nowadays, people use managers (who are dedicated to emerging markets). And we don’t bill ourselves as an emerging-market manager.

This is to say, his decisions are now being driven by the demands of asset gathering and retention, not by the investment rationale. He’ll cap his exposure at perhaps half its previous peak because “people” (read: large investment advisers) want their investments handled by specialists. Having OAKIX greatly overweighted in EMs, even if they were the best values available, would make the fund harder to sell. And so they won’t do it.

Letting marketability drive the portfolio is a common decision, but hardly an admirable one.

A picture for the Ultimus Client Conference folks

At the beginning of September, I had the opportunity to irritate a lot of nice people who’d gathered for the annual client conference hosted by Ultimus Fund Services. My argument about the fund industry was two-fold:

  1. You’re in deep, deep trouble but
  2. There are strategies that have the prospect of reversing your fortunes.

Sometimes the stuff we publish takes three or four months to come together. Our premium site has a feature called “Works in Progress.” It’s the place that we’ll share stuff that’s not ready for publication here. Between now and year’s end, we’ll be posting pieces of the “how to save yourself” essay bit-by-bit.

But that’s not what most folks at the conference wanted to talk about. No, for 12 hours after my talk, the corporate managers at various fund companies and advisers brought up the same topic: I have no idea of how to work with the Millennials in my office. They have no sense of time, urgency, deadlines or focus. What’s going on with these people? All of that was occasioned by a single, off-hand comment I’d made about the peculiar decisions made by a student of mine.

We talked through the evidence on evolving cultural norms and workplace explanations, and I promised to try to help folks find some useful guidance. I found a great explanation of why yuppies are unhappy in an essay at WaitButWhy, the folks above. After explaining why young folks are delusional, they illustrated the average Millennial’s view of their career trajectory:

millennial expectations

If you’ve been banging your head on the desk for a while now, you should read it. You’ll feel better. Pwc, formerly Price, Waterhouse, Cooper, published an intricate analysis (Millennials at work 2015) of Millennial expectations and strategies for helping them be the best they can be. They also published a short version of their recommendations as How to manage the millennials (2015). Scholars at Harvard and the Wharton School of Business are rather more skeptical, taking the counter-intuitive position that there are few real generational differences. Their sources seem intrigued by the notion of work teams that combine people of different generations, who contrasting styles might complement and strengthen one another.

It’s worth considering.

Jack and John, Grumpy Old Men II

Occasionally you encounter essays that make you think, “Jeez, and I thought I was old and grouchy.” I read two in quick, discouraging succession.

grumpyJack Bogle grouched, “I don’t do international.” As far as I can tell, Mr. Bogle’s argument is “the world’s a scary place, so I’m not going there.” At 86 and rich, that’s an easy and sensible personal choice. For someone at 26 or 36 or 46, it seems incredibly short-sighted. While he’s certainly right that “Outside of the U.S., you can be very disappointed,” that’s also true inside the United States. In an oddly ahistoric claim, Bogle extols our 250 year tradition of protecting shareholders rights; that’s something that folks familiar with the world before the Securities Act of 1934 would find freakishly ill-informed.

A generation Mr. Bogle’s junior, the estimable John Rekenthaler surveyed the debate concerning socially responsible investing (alternately, “sustainable” or “ESG”) and grumped, “The debate about the merits of the genre is pointless.” Why? Because, he concludes, there’s no clear evidence that ESG funds perform differently than any other fund. Exactly! We reviewed a lot of research in “It’s finally easgrouchyy being green” (July 2015). The overwhelming weight of evidence shows that there is no downside to ESG investing. You lose nothing by way of performance. As a result, you can express your personal values without compromising your personal rate of return. If you’re disgusted at the thought that your retirement is dependent on addicting third world children to cigarettes or on clearing tropical forests, you can simply say “no.” We profiled clear, palatable investment choices, the number of which is rising.

The freak show behind the curtain: 25,000 funds that you didn’t even know existed

Whatever their flaws (see above), mutual funds are relatively stable vehicles that produce reasonable returns. Large cap funds, on average and after expenses, have returned 7.1% over the past 15 years which puts them 70 bps behind the S&P 500 for the same period.

But those other 25,000 funds …

Which others? ETFs? Nope. There are just about 1,800 of them – with a new, much-needed Social Media Sentiment Index ETF on the way (whew!) – controlling only $3 trillion. You already know about the 7,700 ’40 Act funds and the few hundred remaining CEFs are hardly a blip (with apologies to RiverNorth, to whom they’re a central opportunity).

No, I mean the other 24,725 private funds, the existence of which is revealed in unintelligible detail in a recent SEC staff report entitled Private Fund Statistics, 4th Quarter 2014 (October 2015). That roster includes:

  • 8,625 hedge funds, up by 1100 since the start of 2013
  • 8,407 private equity funds, up by 1400 in that same period
  • 4,058 “other” private funds
  • 2,386 Section 4 private equity funds
  • 1,789 real estate funds
  • 1,541 qualifying hedge funds
  • 1,327 securitized asset funds
  • 504 venture capital funds
  • 69 liquidity funds
  • 49 Section 3 liquidity funds, these latter two being the only categories in decline

The number of private funds was up by 4,200 between Q1/2013 and Q4/2014 with about 200 new advisers entering the market. They have $10 trillion in gross assets and $6.7 trillion in net assets. (Nope, I don’t know what gross assets are.) SEC-registered funds own about 1% of the shares of those private funds.

If Table 20 of the SEC report is to be credited, almost no hedge ever uses a high-frequency trading strategy. (You’ll have to imagine me at my desk, nodding appreciatively.)

Sadly, the report explains nothing. You get tables of technical detail with nary a definition nor an explanation in sight. “Asset Weighted-Average Qualifying Hedge Fund Investor and Portfolio Liquidity” assures that that fund liquidity at seven days is about 58% while investor liquidity in that same period is about 15%. Not a word anywhere freakshowabout what that means. An appendix defines about 10 terms, no one of which is related to their data reports.

A recent report in The Wall Street Journal does share one crucial bit of information: equity hedge funds don’t actually make money for their investors. The HRFX Equity Hedge Fund Index is, they report, underwater over the past decade. That is, “if you have invested … in this type of fund 10 years ago, you would have less than you started with.” An investment in the S&P 500 would have doubled (“Funds wrong-footed as Glencore, others gain,” 10/31/2015).

About a third of hedge funds fold within three years of launch; the average lifespan is just five years. Unlike the case of mutual funds, size seems no guardian against liquidation. Fortress Investment Group is closing its flagship macro fund by year’s end as major domo Michael Novogratz leaves. Renaissance Capital is closing their $1.3 billion futures fund. Bain Capital is liquidating their Absolute Return Capital fund. Many funds, including staunch investors in Valeant such as William Ackman of Pershing Square, are having their worst year since the financial crisis. As a group, they’re underwater for 2015.

Hedge Fund, n. Expensive and exclusive funds numbering in the thousands, of which only about a hundred might be run by managers talented enough to beat the market with consistency and low risk. “The rest,” says the financial journalist Morgan Housel, “charge ten times the fees of mutual funds for half the performance of index funds, pay half the income-tax rates of taxi drivers, and have triple the ego of rock stars. Jason Zweig, The Devil’s Financial Dictionary (2015)



Matching your funds and your time horizon

The Observer has profiled, and praised, the two RiverPark funds managed by David Sherman of Cohanzick. The more conservative, RiverPark Short Term High Yield (RPHYX/RPHIX, closed), usually makes 300-400 bps over a money market fund with scarcely more volatility. Year-to-date, through Halloween, the fund has returned a bit over 1% in a difficult market. The slightly more aggressive, RiverPark Strategic Income (RSIVX/RSIIX) might be expected to about double its sibling’s return with modest volatility, a feat that it has managed regularly. Strategic has had a performance hiccup lately; leading some of the folks on our discussion board to let us know that they’d headed for the exits.

For me, the questions are (1) is there a systemic problem with the fund? And (2) what’s the appropriate time-frame for assessing the fund’s performance? I don’t see evidence of the former, though we’re scheduled to meet Mr. Sherman in November and will talk more.

On the latter, the Observer’s fund-screener tracks “recovery times” for every fund over 20 time periods. Carl Bacon, in the book, Practical Risk Advanced Performance Measurements (2012), defines recovery time, or drawdown duration, as the time taken to recover from an individual or maximum drawdown to the original level. Recovery time helps investors approximate reasonable holding periods and also assessment periods. If funds of a particular type have recovery times of, say, 18-24 months, then (1) it would be foolish to use them for assets you might need in less than 18-24 months and (2) it would be foolish to panic if it takes them 18-24 months to recover.

Below, for comparison, are the maximum recovery times for the flexible bond funds that Morningstar considers to be the best.

Gold- and Silver-rated Flexible bond funds


Analyst Rating

Recovery Period, in months

2015 returns, through 10/30

Loomis Sayles Bond (LSBDX)




Fidelity Strategic Income (FSICX)




Loomis Sayles Strategic Income (NEZYX)




PIMCO Diversified Income (PDIIX)








Osterweis Strategic Income (OSTIX)




The Observer has decided to license data for our fund screener from Lipper rather than Morningstar; dealing with the sales rep from Morningstar kept making my systolic soar. Within about a week the transition will be complete. The difference you’ll notice is a new set of fund categories and new peer groups for many funds. Here are the recovery times for the top “flexible income” and “multi-sector” income funds, measured by Sharpe ratio over the current full market cycle (11/2007 – present). This screens out any fund that hasn’t been around for at least eight years.



Recovery Period, in months

Full cycle Sharpe ratio

PIMCO Income (PIMIX, a Great Owl)




Osterweis Strategic Income (OSTIX)




Schwab Intermediate Bond (SWIIX)




Neuberger Berman Strategic Income (NSTLX)




Cutler Fixed Income (CALFX)

Flexible income



FundX Flexible Income (INCMX)




Bottom line: Before you succumb to the entirely understandable urge to do something in the face of an unexpected development, it’s essential to ask “am I being hasty?” Measures such as Recovery Time help, both in selecting an investment appropriate to your time horizon and in having reasonable criteria against which to assess the fund’s behavior.

Last fall we were delighted to welcome Mark Wilson, Chief Investment Officer for The Tarbox Group which is headquartered in Newport Beach, California. As founder and chief valet for the website CapGainsValet, Mark provided a remarkable service: free access to both thoughtful commentaries on what proved to be a horror of a tax season and timely data on hundreds of distributions. We’re more delighted that he agreed to join us again for the next few months.

Alive and kicking: The return of Cap Gains Valet

capgainsvaletBy Mark Wilson, APA, CFP®, Chief Valet is up and running again (and still free). CGV is designed to be the place for you to easily find mutual fund capital gains distribution information. If this concept is new to you, have a look at the Articles section of the CGV website where you’ll find educational pieces ranging from beginner concepts to more advanced tax saving strategies.

It’s quite early in the reporting season, but here are some of my initial impressions:

  • Many firms have already posted 2015 estimates. The site already has over 75 firms’ estimates posted so there is already some good information available. This season I’m expecting to post estimates for over 190 fund firms. I’ll continue to cycle through missing firms and update the fund database as new information becomes available. Keep checking in.
  • This year might feel more painful than last year. Based on estimates I’ve found to-date, I’m expecting total distributions to be lower than last year’s numbers. However, if fund performance ends the year near today’s (flat to down) numbers, investors can get a substantial tax bill without accompanying investment gains.
  • It’s already an unusual year. My annual “In the Doghouse” list compiles funds with estimated (or actual) distributions over 20% of NAV. The list will continue to grow as fund firms post information. Already on the list is a fund that distributed over 80%, an index fund and a “tax-managed” fund – oddball stuff!
  • Selling/swapping a distributing fund could save some tax dollars. If you bought almost any fund this year in a taxable account, you should consider selling those shares if the fund is going to have a substantial distribution. (No, fund companies do not want to hear this.) Tax wise, running some quick calculations can help you decide a good strategy. Be careful not to run afoul of the “wash sale” rules.

Of course, the MFO Discussion board (led by TheShadow) puts together its own list of capital gains distribution links. Be sure to check their work out as that list may have some firms that are not included on CGV due to their smaller asset base. Between the two resources, you should be well covered.

I value the input of the MFO community, so if you have any comments to share about, feel free to contact me.

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.

Orders & Decisions

  • A U.S. Magistrate Judge recommended that the court deny First Eagle‘s motion to dismiss fee litigation regarding two of its international equity funds. (Lynn M. Kennis Trust v. First Eagle Inv. Mgmt., LLC)
  • In Jones v. Harris Associates—the fee litigation regarding Oakmark funds in which the U.S. Supreme Court set the legal standard for liability under section 36(b)—the Seventh Circuit denied the plaintiffs’ petition for rehearing en banc in their unsuccessful appeal of the district court’s summary judgment in favor of Harris Associates.
  • J.P. Morgan Investment Management was among six firms named in SEC enforcement actions for short selling violations in advance of stock offerings. J.P. Morgan agreed to pay $1.08 million to settle the charges.
  • Further extending the fund industry’s dismal losing record on motions to dismiss section 36(b) fee litigation, the court denied New York Life‘s motion to dismiss a lawsuit regarding four of its MainStay funds. The court viewed allegations that New York Life delegated “substantially all” of its responsibilities as weighing in favor of the plaintiff’s claim. (Redus-Tarchis v. N.Y. Life Inv. Mgmt., LLC.)
  • After the Tenth Circuit reversed a class certification order in a prospectus disclosure case regarding Oppenheimer‘s California Municipal Bond Fund, the district court reaffirmed the order such that the litigation is once again proceeding as a certified class action. Defendants include independent directors. (In re Cal. Mun. Fund.)
  • Denying Schwab defendants’ petition for certiorari, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the controversial Ninth Circuit decision that allowed multiple state common-law claims to proceed with respect to Schwab’s Total Bond Market Fund. Defendants include independent directors. (Northstar Fin. Advisors, Inc. v. Schwab Invs.)
  • In the same lawsuit, the district court partly denied Schwab‘s motion to dismiss, holding (among other things) that defendants had abandoned their SLUSA preclusion arguments with respect to Northstar’s breach of fiduciary duty claims. (Northstar Fin. Advisors, Inc. v. Schwab Invs.)
  • Two UBS advisory firms agreed to pay $17.5 million to settle SEC charges arising from their purported roles in failing to disclose a change in investment strategy by a closed-end fund they advised.
  • By order of the court, the securities fraud class action regarding four Virtus funds transferred from C.D. Cal. to S.D.N.Y. (Youngers v. Virtus Inv. Partners, Inc.)

New Lawsuits

  • Allianz Global Investors and PIMCO are targets of a new ERISA class action that challenges the selection of proprietary mutual funds for the Allianz 401(k) plan. Complaint: “the Fiduciary Defendants treat the Plan as an opportunity to promote the Allianz Family’s mutual fund business and maximize profits at the expense of the Plan and its participants.” (Urakhchin v. Allianz Asset Mgmt. of Am., L.P.)
  • J.P. Morgan is the target of a new section 36(b) excessive fee lawsuit regarding five of its funds. The plaintiffs rely on comparisons to purportedly lower fees that J.P. Morgan charges to other clients. (Campbell Family Trust v. J.P. Morgan Inv. Mgmt., Inc.)
  • Metropolitan West‘s Total Return Bond Fund is the subject of a new section 36(b) excessive fee lawsuit. The plaintiff relies on comparisons to purportedly lower fees that Metroplitan West charges to other clients. (Kennis v. Metro. W. Asset Mgmt., LLC.)

The Alt Perspective: Commentary and news from DailyAlts.

dailyaltsOctober proved to be less than spooky for the equity market as the S&P 500 Index rose 8.44% over the month, leading major asset classes and alternative investment categories. While bonds and commodities were relatively flat, long/short equity funds topped the list of alternative funds and returned an average of 2.88%, while bear market funds shed 11.30% over the month as stocks rallied. Managed futures funds gave back gains they had made earlier in the year with a loss of 1.82% on average, according to Morningstar, while multi-alternative funds posted gains of 1.33%.  All in all, a mixed bag for nearly everything but long-only equity.

Asset Flows

September turned out to be a month when investors decided that it was time to pull money from actively managed mutual funds and ETFs, regardless of asset class, style or strategy – except for alternatives. Every actively managed category, as reported by Morningstar saw outflows other than alternatives, which had net inflows of $719 million to actively managed funds and another $884 million to passively managed alternative mutual funds and ETFs.

As you will recall, volatility started to spike in August when the Chinese devaluated the Yuan, and the turmoil carried into September. But not all alternative categories saw positive inflows in September – in fact few did. Were it not for trading strategy funds, such as inverse funds, the overall alternatives category would be negative:

  • Trading strategies, such as inverse equity funds, added $1.5 billion
  • Multi-alternative funds picked up $998 million
  • Managed futures funds added $744 million
  • Non-traditional bond funds shed $1.3 billion
  • Volatility based funds lost $551 million

New Fund Filings

AlphaCentric and Catalyst both teamed up with third parties to invest in managed futures or related strategies. AlphaCentric partnered with Integrated Managed Futures Corp for a more traditional, single manager managed futures fund while Catalyst is looking to Millburn Ridgefield Corporation to run a managed futures overlay on an equity portfolio – very institutional like!

Another interesting filing was that from a new company called Castlemaine who plans to launch five new alternative mutual funds – all managed by one individual. That’s just hard to do! Hard to criticize that this point, but we will keep an eye on the firm as they come out with new products later this year.


Finally, there were a couple pieces of interesting research that we uncovered this past month, as follows:

Have a wonderful November, and Happy Thanksgiving to all.

Observer Fund Profiles: RNCOX

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.

RiverNorth Core Opportunity (RNCOX). RiverNorth turns the typical balanced strategy (boring investments, low costs) on its head. At the price of higher pass-through costs, the fund attempts to exploit the occasionally-irrational pricing of the closed-end fund market to add a market-neutral layer of returns to a flexible underlying allocation. That’s work well far more often than it hasn’t.

Launch Alert: T. Rowe Price Emerging Markets Value (PRIJX)

Price launched its Emerging Markets Value fund at the end of September. The manager is Ernest C. Yeung. He started at Price in 2003 as an analyst covering E.M. telecommunication stocks. In 2009 he became a co-manager of the International Small Cap Equity strategy (manifested in the U.S. as Price International Discovery PRIDX), where he was the lead guy on Asian stock selection. Nick Beecroft in Price’s Hong Kong office reports that at the end of 2014, “he began to manage a paper portfolio for the new T. Rowe Price Emerging Markets Value Stock Fund, which he then ran until the fund was launched publicly in September 2015. So Ernest [has] been part of our emerging markets team at T. Rowe for over 12 years.”

The fund will target 50-80 stocks and stock selection will drive both country and sector exposure. Characteristics he’ll look for:

  • low valuation on various earnings, book value, sales, and cash flow metrics, in absolute terms and/or relative to the company’s peers or its own historical norm;
  • low valuation relative to a company’s fundamentals;
  • companies that may benefit from restructuring activity or other turnaround opportunities;
  • a sound balance sheet and other positive financial characteristics;
  • strong or improving position in an overlooked industry or country; and
  • above-average dividend yield and/or the potential to grow dividends.

As Andrew Foster and others have pointed out, value investing has worked poorly in emerging markets. Their argument is that many EM markets, especially Asian ones, have powerful structural impediments to unlocking value. Those include interlocking directorships, control residing in founding families rather than in the corporate management, cross-ownership and a general legal disregard for the rights of minority shareholders. I asked the folks at Price what they thought had changed. Mr. Beecroft replied:

We agree that traditional, fundamental value investing can be challenging in emerging markets. Companies can destroy value for years for all the reasons that you mention. Value traps are prevalent as a result. Our approach deliberately differs from the more traditional fundamental value approach. We take a contrarian approach and actively seek stocks that are out of favour with investors or which have been “forgotten” by the market. We also look for them to have a valuation anchor in the form of a secure dividend yield or book value support. These stocks typically offer attractive valuations and with limited downside risk.

But in emerging markets, just being cheap is not enough. So, we look for a re-rating catalyst. This is where our research team comes in. Re-rating catalysts might be external to the company (e.g., industry structure change, or an improving macro environment) or internal (ROE/ROIC improvement, change in management, improved capital allocation policy, restructuring, etc.). Such change can drive a significant re-rating on the stock.

The emerging markets universe is wide and deep. We are able to find attractive upside potential in stocks that other investors are not always focused on.

The fund currently reports about a quarter million in its portfolio. The initial expense ratio, after waivers, is 1.5%. The minimum initial investment is just $1,000.

Funds in Registration

There are fifteen or so 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. The funds in registration now have a good chance of launching on December 31, which is critical to allowing them to report full-year results for 2016.

There are some interesting possibilities. Joe Huber is launching a mid-cap fund. ASTON will have an Asia dividend one. And Homestead is launching their International II fund, sub-advised by Harding Loevner.

Manager Changes

Chip tracked down 63 manager changes this month, a fairly typical tally. This month continues the trend of many more women being removed from management teams (9) than added to them (1). There were a few notable changes. The outstanding Boston Partners Long/Short Equity Fund (BPLEX) lost one of its two co-managers. Zac Wydra left Beck Mack & Oliver Partners Fund (BMPEX) to become CIO of First Manhattan Corporation. In an unusual flurry, Kevin Boone left Marsico Capital, then Marsico Capital got booted from the Marsico Growth FDP Fund (MDDDX) that Kevin co-managed, then the fund promptly became the FDP BlackRock Janus Growth Fund.

The Navigator: Fund research fast

compassOne of the coolest resources we offer is also one of the least-used: The Navigator. It’s located on the Resources tab at the top-right of each page. If you enter a fund’s name or ticker symbol in The Navigator, it will instantly search 27 sites for information on the fund:


If you click on any of those links, it takes you directly to the site’s profile of the fund. (Did you even know The Google had fund pages? They do.)

Updates: INNAX, liquidity debate

four starsIn October we featured Capital Innovations Global Agri, Timber, Infrastructure Fund (INNAX) in our Elevator Talk. Energy-light portfolio, distinctive profile given their focus on “soft” resources like trees and cattle. Substantially above-average performance. They’d just passed their three year anniversary and seven days later they received their inaugural star rating from Morningstar. They’re now recognized as a four star fund within the natural resources group.

We’ve argued frequently that liquidity in the U.S. securities market, famously the most liquid in the world, might be drying up. The translation is: you might not be able to get a fair price for your security if you need to sell at the same time lots of other people are. The SEC is propounding rules to force funds to account for the liquidity of their holdings and to maintain a core of highly-liquid securities that would be sufficient to cover several days’ worth of panicked redemptions. The Wall Street Journal provided a nice snapshot of the potential extent of such problems even in large, conservative fixed-income funds. Using the ability to sell a security within seven days, the article “Bond funds push limits” (9/22/2015) estimates the extent of illiquid assets in five funds:

Vanguard High-Yield Corporate


American Funds American High-Income


Vanguard Long-Term Investment Grade


Dodge & Cox Income


Lord Abbett Short Duration Income


Between them, those funds hold $130 billion. The Investment Company Institute, the industry’s mouthpiece, immediately denounced the story.

It’s not quite The Satanic Verses, but ….

the devils financial dictionaryIn October, Jason Zweig published his The Devil’s Financial Dictionary. The title, of course, draws from Ambrose Bierce’s classic The Devil’s Dictionary (1906). Critics of Wall Street still nod at entries like “Finance: the art or science of managing revenues or resources for the best advantage of the manager.”

With a combination of wit and a long career during which he incubates both insight and annoyance, Jason wrote what’s become a bedside companion for me. It’s full of short, snippy entries, each of which makes a point that bears making. I think you’d enjoy it, even if you’re the object of it.

Financial Journalist, n. Someone who is an expert at moving words about markets around on a page or screen until they sound impressive, regardless of whether they mean anything. Until the early 20th century, financial journalists knew exactly what they were doing, as many of them were paid overtly or covertly by market manipulators to promote or trash various investments … Nowadays, most financial journalists are honest, which is progress—and ignorant, which isn’t.

Another thing to be thankful for: New data and our impending launch

We’ll be writing to the 6,000 or so of you on our mailing list in the next week or so with updates about our database and other analytics, as well as word of the formal launch of the “MFO premium” site, which will give all of our contributors access to all of this stuff and more.

charles balconyComparing Lipper Ratings


MFO recently started computing its risk and performance fund metrics and attendant fund ratings using the Lipper Data Feed Service for U.S. Open End funds. (See MFO Switches To Lipper Database.) These new data have now been fully incorporated on the MFO Premium beta site, and on the Great Owl, Fund Alarm, and Dashboard of Profiled Funds pages of our legacy Search Tools. (The Risk Profile and Miraculous Multi-Search pages will be updated shortly).

Last month we noted that the biggest difference MFO readers were likely to find was in the assigned classifications or categories, which are described in detail here. (Morningstar’s categories are described here,  and Lipper nicely compares the two classification methodologies here.) Some examples differences:

  • Lipper uses “Core” instead of “Blend.” So, you will find Large-Cap Growth, Large-Cap Core, and Large Cap Value.
  • Lipper includes a “Multi-Cap” category, in addition to Large-Cap, Medium-Cap, and Small-Cap. “Funds that, by portfolio practice, invest in a variety of market capitalization ranges …” Examples are Vanguard Total Stock Market Index Inv (VTSMX), Auxier Focus Inv (AUXFX), and Bretton (BRTNX).
  • Lipper does not designate an “Asset Allocation” category type, only “Equity” and “Fixed Income.” The traditional asset allocation funds, like James Balanced: Golden Rainbow Retail (GLRBX) and Vanguard Wellesley Income Inv (VWINX) can be found in the categories “Mixed-Asset Target Allocation Moderate” and “Mixed-Asset Target Allocation Conservative,” respectively.
  • Lipper used “Core Bond” instead of say “Intermediate-Term Bond” to categorize funds like Dodge & Cox Income (DODIX).
  • Lipper extends data back to January 1960 versus January 1962. Number of funds still here today that were here in January 1960? Answer: 72, including T Rowe Price Growth Stock (PRGFX).

A few other changes that readers may notice with latest update:

  • Ratings for funds in all the commodities categories, like Commodities Agriculture, where previously we only included “Broad Basket.”
  • Ratings for funds of leveraged and short bias categories, so-called “trading” funds.
  • Ratings for 144 categories versus 96 previously. We continue to not rate money market funds or funds less than 3 months old.
  • No ratings for funds designated as a “variable insurance product,” which typically cannot be purchased directly by investors. Examples are certain Voya, John Hancock, and Hartford funds.
  • There may be a few differences in the so-called “Oldest Share Class (OSC)” funds. MFO has chosen to define OSC as share class with earliest First Public Offering (FPO) date. (If there is a tie, then fund with lowest expense ratio. And, if tied again, then fund with largest assets under management.)

Overall, the changes appear quite satisfactory.

Briefly Noted . . .

Columbia Acorn Emerging Markets (CAGAX) has lifted the cap on what constitutes “small- and mid-sized companies,” their target universe. It has been $5 billion. Effective January 1 their limit bumps to $10 billion. That keeps their investment universe roughly in line with their benchmark’s.

Goldman Sachs Fixed Income Macro Strategies Fund (GAAMX) is making “certain enhancements” to its investment strategies. Effective November 20, 2015, the Fund will use a long/short approach to invest in certain fixed income securities. The trail of the blue line certainly suggests that “certain enhancements” might well be in order.

Goldman Sachs Fixed Income Macro Strategies Fund chart

Here’s something I’ve not read before: “The shareholder of Leland Thomson Reuters Private Equity Index Fund (LDPAX) … approved changing the Fund’s classification from a diversified Fund to a non-diversified Fund under the Investment Company Act of 1940.”


Not a lot to cheer for.

CLOSINGS (and related inconveniences)

The closure of the 361 Managed Futures Strategy Fund (AMFQX/ AMFZX) has been delayed “until certain administrative and other implementation matters have been completed.” The plan is to close by December 31, 2015.

The shareholders of Hennessy Cornerstone Large Growth Fund, the Hennessy Cornerstone Value Fund, and the Hennessy Large Value Fund bravely voted to screw themselves by adding 12(b)1 fees to their funds, beginning on November 1, 2015. The Hennessy folks note, in passing, that “This will increase the fees of the Investor Class shares of such Hennessy Funds.”

Invesco European Small Company Fund (ESMAX) will close to new investors on November 30, 2015. By pretty much all measures, it offers access to higher growth rates at lower valuations than the average European stock fund does. The question for most of us is whether such a geographically limited small cap fund ever makes sense. 

Effective after November 13, 2015, the RiverNorth/DoubleLine Strategic Income Fund (RNDLX) is closed to new investors.


On December 30, the microscopic and undististinguished Alger Analyst Fund (SPEAX) will become Alger Mid Cap Focus Fund. Usually when a fund highlights Analyst in its name, it’s run by … well, the firm’s analysts. “Research” often signals the same thing. In this case, the fund has been managed since inception by CEO/CIO Dan Chung. After the name change, the fund will be managed by Alex Goldman. 

In one of those “I just want to slap someone” moves, the shareholders of City National Rochdale Socially Responsible Equity Fund (AHRAX) are voting on whether to become the Baywood SociallyResponsible Fund. The insistence of fund firms to turn two words into one word is silly but I could imagine some argument about the ability to trademark a name that’s one word (DoubleLine) that wouldn’t be available if it were two. But mashed-together with the second half officially italicized? Really, guys? The fact that the fund has trailed 97% of its peers over the past decade suggests the need to step back and ask questions more probing than this.

Effective December 31, 2015, Clearbridge Global Growth (LGGAX) becomes ClearBridge International Growth Fund.

Oppenheimer International Small Company Fund (OSMAX) becomes Oppenheimer International Small-Mid Company Fund on December 30, 2015. It’s a very solid fund except for the fact that, at $5.1 billion, is no longer targets small caps: 75% of the portfolio are mid- to large-cap stocks.

On January 11, 2016, the Rothschild U.S. Large-Cap Core Fund, U.S. Large-Cap Value, U.S. Small/Mid-Cap Core, U.S. Small-Cap Core, U.S. Small-Cap Value and U.S. Small-Cap Growth funds will become part of the Pacific Funds Series Trust. Rothschild expects that they’ll continue to manage the year-old funds with Pacific serving as the parent. The new fund names will be simpler than the old and will drop “U.S.”, though the statement of investment strategies retains U.S. as the focus. The funds will be Pacific Funds Large Cap, Large Cap Value, Small/Mid-Cap, Small-Cap, Small-Cap Value and Small-Cap Growth. It appears that the tickers will change.

On December 18, 2015, SSgA Emerging Markets Fund (SSELX) will become State Street Disciplined Emerging Markets Equity Fund, leading mayhap to speculation that it hadn’t been disciplined up until then. The fund will use quant screens “to select a portfolio that the Adviser believes will exhibit low volatility and provide competitive long-term returns relative to the Index.”

As part of a continuing series of fund adoptions, Sound Point Floating Rate Income Fund (SPRFX) will reorganize into the American Beacon Sound Point Floating Rate Income Fund.

Effective October 28, 2015, Victory Fund for Income became Victory INCORE Fund for Income. Presumably because the audience arose, applauding and calling “incore! incore!” Victory Investment Grade Convertible Fund was also rechristened Victory INCORE Investment Grade Convertible Fund.

And, too, Victory renamed all of its recently-acquired Compass EMP funds. The new names will all begin Victory CEMP. So, for example, in testing the hypothesis that no name is too long and obscure to be attractive, Compass EMP Ultra Short-Term Fixed Income Fund (COFAX) will become Victory CEMP Ultra Short Term Fixed Income Fund.

Voya Growth Opportunities Fund changed its name to Voya Large-Cap Growth Fund.


3D Printing, Robotics and Technology Fund (TDPNX) will liquidate on November 13, 2015. In less than two years, the managers lost 39% for their investors while the average tech fund rose 20%. The Board blamed “market conditions and economic factors” rather than taking responsibility for a fatally-flawed conception. Reaction on the Observer’s discussion board was limited to a single word: “surprised?”

Not to worry, 3D printing fans! The ETF industry has rushed in to fill the (non-existent) gap with the pending launch of the ARK 3D Printing ETF.

Acadian Emerging Markets Debt Fund (AEMDX) has closed and will liquidate on November 20, 2015. It’s a $36 million institutional fund that’s had one good year in five; otherwise, it trailed 70-98% of its peers. Performance seems to have entirely fallen off a cliff in 2015.

AllianzGI NFJ All-Cap Value Fund (PNFAX) is slated for liquidation on December 11, 2015. Their International Managed Volatility (PNIAX) and U.S. Managed Volatility (NGWAX) funds will follow on March 2, 2016. The theory says that managed volatility funds should be competitive with their benchmarks over the long term by limiting losses during downturns. The latter two funds suffered because they couldn’t consistently manage that feat.

Carne Hedged Equity Fund (CRNEX) was a small, decent long/short fund for four years. Then the recent past happened; the fund went from well above average through December 2013 to well below average since. Finally, the last week of October 2015 happened. Here’s the baffling picture:

Carne Hedged Equity Fund chart

Right: 23% loss over four days in a flat market. No word on the cause, though the liquidation filing does refer to a large redemption and anticipated future redemptions. (Ya think?) So now it’s belatedly becoming “a former fund.” Graveside services will be conducted December 30, 2015.

Forward continues … in reverse? To take one step Forward and two back? Forward Global Dividend Fund (FFLRX) will liquidate on November 17th and the liquidation of Forward Select EM Dividend Fund will occur on December 15, 2015. Those appear to be Forward’s fifth and sixth liquidations in 2015, and the fourth since being acquired by Salient this summer.

In order “to optimize the Goldman Sachs Funds and eliminate overlap,” Goldman Sachs has (insightfully) decided to merge Goldman Sachs International Small Cap Fund (GISAX) into Goldman Sachs International Small Cap Insights Fund (GISAX). The target date is February, 2016. That’s a pretty clean win for shareholders. GISAX is, by far, the larger, stronger and cheaper option.

GuideMark® Global Real Return Fund has been liquidated and terminated and, for those of you who haven’t yet gotten the clue, “shares of the Fund are no longer available for purchase or exchange.”

JPMorgan U.S. Research Equity Plus Fund (JEPAX) liquidated after fairly short notice on October 28, 2015. It was a long/short fund of the 130/30 variety: it had a leveraged long position and a short portfolio which together equaled 100% long exposure. That’s an expensive proposition whose success relies on your ability to get three or four things (extent of leverage, target market exposure, long and short security selection) consistently and repeatedly right. Lipper helpfully classifies it as a “Lipper Alternative Active Extension Fund.” It had a few good years rather precisely offset by bad years; in the end, the fund charged a lot (2.32% despite a mystifying Morningstar report of 1.25%), churned the portfolio (178% per year) but provided nothing special (its returns exactly matched the average 100% long large cap fund).

Larkin Point Equity Preservation Fund (LPAUX), a two-year-old long/short fund of funds, will neither preserve or persevere much longer. It has closed and expects to liquidate on November 16, 2015.

On October 16, 2015, Market Vectors got out of the Quality business as they bumped off the MSCI International Quality, MSCI Emerging Markets Quality Dividend, MSCI International Quality Dividend and MSCI Emerging Markets Quality ETFs.

The Board of Trustees of The Royce Fund recently approved the fund reorganizations effective in the first half of 2016. In the first half of 2016, Royce International Premier (RIPN) will eat two of its siblings: European Small Cap (RESNX) and Global Value (RGVIX). Why does it make sense for a $9 million fund with no star rating to absorb its $22 million and $62 million siblings? Of course, Royce is burying a one-star fund that’s trailed 90% of its peers over the past five years. And, too, a one-star fund that’s trailed 100% in the same period. Yikes. Global Value averaged 0.8% annually over the past five years; its average peer pumped out ten times as much.

While they were at it, Royce’s Board of Trustees approved a plan of liquidation for Royce Micro-Cap Discovery Fund (RYDFX), to be effective on December 8, 2015. The $5 million fund is being liquidated “primarily because it has not attracted and maintained assets at a sufficient level for it to be viable.” That suggests that International Micro Cap (ROIMX) with lower returns, two stars and $6 million in assets might be next in line.

Salient MLP Fund (SAMCX) will liquidate on December 1, 2015. Investors will continue to be able to access the management team’s skills through Salient MLP & Energy Infrastructure Fund II (SMAPX) which has over a billion in assets. It’s not a particularly good fund, but it is better than SAMCX.

Schroder Global Multi-Cap Equity Fund (SQQJX) liquidated on October 27, 2015, just days short of its fifth anniversary.

Sirios Focus Fund (SFDIX) underwent “final liquidation” on Halloween, 2015. It’s another fund abandoned after two years of operation.

Tygh Capital Management has recommended the liquidation of its TCM Small-Mid Cap Growth Fund (TCMMX). That will occur just after Thanksgiving.

Touchstone Growth Allocation Fund (TGQAX) is getting absorbed by Touchstone Moderate Growth Allocation Fund (TSMAX) just before Thanksgiving. Both have pretty sad records, but Growth has the sadder of the two. At the same time, Moderate Growth brings in managers Nathan Palmer and Anthony Wicklund from Wilshire Associates. Wilshire replaces Ibbotson Associates (a Morningstar company) as the fund’s advisor. Both are funds-of-mostly-Touchstone funds. After the repositioning, Moderate Growth will offer 40% non-US exposure with 45-75% of its assets in equities. Currently Growth is entirely equities.

UBS Multi-Asset Income Fund (MAIAX) will liquidate on or about December 3, 2015.

The Virtus Disciplined Equity Style (VDEAX), Virtus Disciplined Select Bond (VDBAX) and Virtus Disciplined Select Country (VDCAX) funds will close on November 20th and will liquidate by December 2, 2015. They share about $7 million in assets and a record of consistent underperformance.

Virtus Dynamic Trend Fund (EMNAX) will merge into Virtus Equity Trend Fund (VAPAX), they’re hoping sometime in the first quarter of 2016. I have no idea of why, since EMNAX has $600 million and a better record than VAPAX.

In Closing . . .

In a good year, nearly 40% of our Amazon revenue is generated in November and December. That’s in part because I endlessly nag people about how ridiculously simple, painless and useful it is to bookmark our Amazon link or set it as one of your tabs that opens whenever you start your favorite browser.

Please don’t make me go find some cute nagging-related image to illustrate this point. Just bookmark our Amazon link or set it as an opening tab. That would help so me. Here’s the link Alternatively, you can click on the banner.

A quick tip of the cap to folks who made tax-deductible contributions to the Observer this month: regular subscribers, Greg and Deb; PayPal contributors, Beatrice and David; and those who preferred to mail checks, Marjorie, Tom G. and the folks at Ultimus Fund Solutions. We’re grateful to all of you.

Schwab IMPACT logoThe fund managers I’ve spoken with are nearly unanimous in their loathing of Schwab. Words like “arrogant, high-handed and extortionate” capture the spirit of their remarks. I hadn’t dealt with the folks at Schwab until now, so mostly I nodded sympathetically. I now nod more vigorously.

It’s likely that we’ll be in the vicinity of, but not at, the Schwab IMPACT conference in November. We requested press credentials and were ignored for a good while. Then after poking a couple more times, we were reminded of how rare and precious they were and were asked to submit examples of prior conference coverage. We did, on September 28th. That’s the last we heard from them so we’ll take that as a “we’re Schwab. Go away, little man.” Drop us a note if you’re going to be there and would like to chat at some nearby coffee shop.

We’ll look for you.


August 1, 2015

Dear friends,

Welcome to the dog days.

“Dog days” didn’t originally have anything to do with dogs, of course. It derived from the ancient belief shared by Egyptians, Greeks and Romans that summer weather was controlled by Sirius, the Dog Star. Why? Because Sirius rises just at dawn in the hottest, most sultry months of the year.


In celebration of the fact that the dog days of summer have arrived and you should be out by the pool with family, we’re opening our annual summer-weight issue with some good news.

MFO is a charity case

And you just thought we were a basket case!

As a matter of economic and administrative necessity, the Observer has always been organized as a sole proprietorship. We’re pleased to announce that, in June, our legal status changed. On June 29, we became a non-profit corporation (Mutual Fund Observer, Inc.) under Iowa law. On July 6, the Internal Revenue Service “determined that [we’re] exempt from federal income tax under Internal Revenue Code Section 501(c)(3).”

Why does that matter?

  1. It means that all contributions to the Observer are now tax-deductible. We’ve always taken a moment to send hand-written thanks to folks for their support; going forward, we’ll include a card for their tax records.
  2. It means that any contribution made on or after May 27, 2015 is retroactively tax deductible. After this issue is live and we’ve handled the monthly cleanup chores, we’ll begin sending the appropriate documents to the folks involved.
  3. It means we’re finding ways to become a long-term source of commentary and analysis.

It’s no secret that the Observer’s annual operating budget is roughly equivalent to what some … hmmmm, larger entities in the field spend on paperclips. That works as long as highly talented individuals work pro bono (technically pro bono publico, literally, “for the public good”). As we turn more frequently to outsiders, whether for access to fund data or programming services, we’ll need to strengthen our finances. These changes are part of that effort.

Other changes in the media environment lead us to conclude that there’s an increasingly important role for an independent, authoritative public voice speaking for (and to) smaller investors and smaller fund firms. At the June Morningstar conference, there was quiet, nervous conversation about the prospect that The Wall Street Journal staff had been forced to re-apply for their own jobs. The editors of the Journal announced, in June, a plan to reduce personal finance coverage in the paper:

We will be scaling back significantly our personal finance team, though we will continue to provide high quality reporting and commentary on topics of personal financial interest to our readers.

These closures and realignments do not reflect on the quality of the work done by these teams but simply speak to the pressing need to become more focused as a newsroom on areas we believe are ripe for growth.

We will be better-equipped and better able to exploit the opportunities that exist in the fastest growing parts of our business: with enhanced and improved coverage of the news that we know translates into additional circulation and long-term growth. 

Details of the restructuring emerged in July. At base, resources are being moved from serving individual investors to serving financial advisors. While that’s good for the Journal’s profits and might be good for the 300,000 or so financial advisers in the country (a number that’s dropping steadily), it represents a further shift from serious service to the rest of us. (Thanks to Ari Weinberg for leading us to good coverage of these changes.)

Being a non-profit makes sense for us. It allows us to maintain our independence and focus (a nonprofit corporation is legally owned by all the people of a state and chartered to serve the public interest).

The Observer has always tried to act responsibly and our new legal status reflects that commitment. In addition to that whole “giving voice to the voiceless” thing, we consciously try to act as good stewards. By way of examples:

carbonWe work hard to minimize the stress we place on the planet and its systems. We travel very little and, when we do, we purchase carbon offsets through Carbonfund. Carbonfund allows individuals or businesses to calculate the amount of carbon released by their activities and to offset them with investments in a variety of climate-friendly projects from building renewable power systems to recapturing the methane produced in landfills and helping farmers control the effects of animal containment facilities. They’re a non-profit, seem to generate consistently high ratings from folks who assess their operations and write sensibly. In general, we tend to be carbon-negative.

greenThe Observer is hosted by GreenGeeks. They host over 300,000 sites and are distinguished for the environmental commitment. They promise “if we pull 1X of power from the grid we purchase enough wind energy credits to put back into the grid 3X of power having been produced by wind power. Your website hosted with GreenGeeks will be powered by 300% wind energy, making your website’s carbon footprint negative.”

river bend foodbankWe think of food banks as something folks need mid-winter, which misses the fact that many children receive their only hot meal of the day (sometimes, only meal of the day) as part of their school’s breakfast and lunch programs. That’s led some charities to characterize summer as “the hungriest time of the year” for children. There’s a really worthy federal summer meals program, but it only reaches 15% of the kids who are fed during the regular school year.

We use the same approach here as we do in investing: make a commitment and automate it. On the last day of every month, there’s an automatic transfer from our checking to the River Bend FoodBank. It’s a good group that spends under 3% on administration. Our contribution is not major – enough to provide 150 meals for hungry families – but it’s the sort of absolutely steady inflow that allows an organization to help folks and do a meaningful planning.

All of which is, by the way, exciting and terrifying.

If you’d like to support the Mutual Fund Observer, you have two options:

  1. To make a tax deductible contribution, please use our PayPal button on the right, or visit our Support Us page for our address to mail a check. You’ll receive a thank you with a receipt for your tax records.
  2. We also strongly encourage everyone who shops at Amazon, now America’s largest retailer (take that Walmart!), to bookmark our Amazon link. Every time you buy anything at Amazon, using our link, we get a small percentage of the sale, and it costs you nothing.

Finding a family’s first fund

I suspect that very few of our readers need advice on selecting a “first fund.” But I’m very certain that you know people who are, or should be, starting their first investment account. Our faithful research associate David Welsch is starting down that road: first “real” job, the prospect of his first modest apartment and the need for starting to put money aside. The contractor who did a splendid job rebuilding my rotted deck admitted that up until now he’s had to spend everything he’s made to support his family and company, but now is in a place to start (just start) thinking about the future. A friend had a passing conversation with a grocery cashier (we’re in the Midwest, this sort of stuff happens a lot) who was saddened by an elderly friend struggling with money in his 70s; my friend suggested that the young lady ought to begin a small account for her own sake. “I know,” she sighed, “I knooow.” For the young men and women serving in the armed forces and making $20,000-30,000 a year, the challenge is just as great.

Mostly they think it’s hard, don’t know where to start, don’t know who to ask and can’t imagine it will make a difference. And you’re feeling a bit guilty because you haven’t been as much help as you’d like.

Here’s what to do. Read the article below. Print it out (we’ve even created a nice .pdf of it for you). Hand it to a young friend with the simple promise, “this will make it easy to get started.”

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“The journey of a thousand miles begins …


with one step.” Lao-Tzu.

Good news: you’re ready to take that step and we’re here to help make it happen. We’re going to guide you through the process of setting up your first investment account. There are only two things you need to know:

It’s easy and

It will make a big difference. You’ll be glad you did it.

easyIt’s easy. A mutual fund is simply a way of sharing with others in the costs of hiring a professional to make investments on your behalf. Mostly your manager will invest in either stocks or bonds. Stocks give you part-ownership in a company (Apple, Google, Ford); if the value of the company rises, the value of your shares will rise too. Some companies will soar; others will crash so it’s wiser for investors to invest broadly in a bunch of companies than to try to find individual winners. Bonds are ways for governments or companies to borrow money and pay it back, with interest, over time. “Iffy” borrowers have to pay a bit more in interest, so you earn a bit more on loans to them; high quality borrowers pay you a bit less but you can be pretty sure that they’ll repay their borrowings promptly and fully.

Over very long periods, stocks make more money than bonds but, over shorter periods, stocks can lose a lot more money than bonds.  Your best path is to own some of each, rather than betting entirely on one or the other. If you look back over the last 65 years, you can see the pattern: stocks provide the most long-term gain but also the greatest short-term pain.

Average performance, 1949-2013 80% stocks / 20% bonds & cash 60% stocks / 40% bonds & cash 40% stocks / 60% bonds & cash
Average annual gain 10.5% 9.3 8.1
How often did it lose money? 14 times 12 times 11 times
How much did it lose in bad years? 8.8% 6.4% 3.0%
How much did it lose in its worst year? 28.7% 20.4% 11.5%

How do you read the table? As you double your exposure to stocks, going from 40% to 80%, you add 2.4% to your average annual return. That’s good, though the gain is not huge. At the same time, you increase by 30% the chance of finishing a year in the red and you triple the size of the loss you might expect.  

We searched through about 7000 mutual funds on your behalf, looking for really good first funds. We looked for four virtues:

  • They can handle stormy weather. All investments rise and fall; we found ones that won’t fall far and long.
  • They can handle sunny weather. Over time, things get better. The world’s economy grows, people have better lives and the world’s a richer place. We found funds that earned good returns over time so you could benefit from that growth.
  • They don’t overcharge you. Your mutual fund is a business with bills to pay; as a shareholder in the fund you help pay those bills. Paying under 1% a year is reasonable. While 1% doesn’t seem like a lot, if your fund only makes 6% gains, you’d be returning 17% of those profits to the manager.
  • They require only a small investment to get started. As low as $50 a month seemed within reach of folks who were determined to get started.

Getting the account set up requires about 20 minutes, a two page form and knowing your checking account numbers.

It will make a difference. How much can $50 a month get you? In one year, not so much. Over time, a surprising lot. Here’s how much your account might grow using three pretty conservative rates of return (5-7% per year) and four holding periods.

  5% 6% 7%
One year $ 667 670 673
Ten years 7,850 8,284 8,750
Twenty years 20,700 23,268 26,250
Forty years 76,670 100,120  $ 132,100

You read that correctly: if you’re a young investor able to put $50 a month away between now and retirement, just that contribution might translate to $100,000 or more.

Two things to remember: (1) Patience is your ally. Markets can be scary; sometimes they’re going down and you think they’ll never go up again. But they do. Always have. Here’s how to win: set up your account with a small automatic monthly investment, check in on it every year or so, add a bit more as your finances improve and go enjoy your life. (2) Small things add up over time. In the example above, if your fund pays you just 1% more it makes a 30% difference in how much you’ll have over the long term. Buying a fund with low expenses can make that 1% difference all by itself, and so can a small increase in the percentage of your account invested in stocks.

Three funds to consider. The August 2015 issue of Mutual Fund Observer, available free on-line, provides a more complete discussion of each of these funds. In addition to our own explanation of them, we’ve provided links to the form you’d need to complete to open an account, the most recent fact sheet provided by the fund company (it’s a two page “highlights of our fund” document) and a link to the fund’s homepage.

jamesJames Balanced: Golden Rainbow (ticker symbol: GLRBX). The fund invests about half of its money in stocks and half in bonds, though the managers have the ability to become much more cautious or much more daring if the situation calls for it. Mostly they’ve been cautious, successful investors; they’ve made about 6.9% per year over the past decade, with less risk than their peers. During the very bad period in 2008, the stock market fell about 40% while Golden Rainbow lost less than 6%. The fund’s operating expenses average 1.01% per year, which is low. Starting an account requires a monthly investment of $500 or a one-time investment of $2,000.

Why consider it? Very low starting investment, very cautious managers, very solid returns.

Profile Fact Sheet Application

tiaa-crefTIAA-CREF Lifestyle Conservative (TSCLX). TIAA-CREF’s traditional business has been providing low cost, conservatively managed investment accounts for people working at hospitals, universities and other non-profit organizations.  Today they manage about $630 billion for investors. The Lifestyle Conservative Fund invests about 40% of its money in stocks and 60% in bonds. It does that by investing in other TIAA-CREF mutual funds that specialize in different parts of the stock or bond market. This fund has only been around for four years but most of the funds in which it invests have long, solid records. The fund’s operating expenses average 0.87% per year, well below average. Starting an account requires a monthly investment of $100 or a one-time investment of $2,500.

Why consider it? The most conservative stock-bond mix in the group, solid lineup of funds it invests in, low expenses and a rock-solid advisor.

Profile Fact Sheet Application

vanguardVanguard STAR (VGSTX). Vanguard has a unique corporate structure; it’s owned by the shareholders in its funds. As a result, it has been famous for keeping its expenses amazingly low and its standards consistently high. They now manage over $3 trillion, which represents a powerful vote of confidence on the part of millions of investors. STAR is designed to be Vanguard’s first fund for beginning investors. STAR invests about 60% of its money in stocks and 40% in bonds. It does that by investing in other Vanguard funds. Over the past 10 years, it has earned about 6.8% per year and it lost 25% in 2008. The fund’s operating expenses are 0.34% per year, which is very low. Starting an account requires a one-time investment of $1,000.

Why consider it? The lowest expenses in the group, one-stop access to many of the best funds offered by the firm many consider the best in the world.

Profile Fact Sheet Application

We’re targeting funds for you whose portfolios are somewhere around 40-60% stocks. Why so cautious? You might be thinking, “hey, these are Old People funds! I’m young. I’ve got time.  I want to invest in stocks, exciting 3D printing stocks!” Owning too many stocks is bad for your financial health. Imagine that you were really good, invested steadily and built a $10,000 portfolio. How would you feel if someone broke in, stole $5,000 from it and the police said that they thought it might take five to ten years to solve the crime and get your money back? In the meantime, you were out of luck. That’s essentially what happens from time to time in the stock market and it’s really discouraging. Those 3D printing stocks that seem so exciting? They’ve lost two-thirds of their value in the past year, many will never recover.

If you balance your portfolio, you get much better odds of success. Remember Table One, which gives you the tradeoff?  Balancing gives you a really good bargain, especially for the first step in your journey.

So what’s the next step? It’s easy. Pick the one that makes the most sense to you. Take 20 minutes to fill out a short account set-up form online. Tell them if you want to start by investing a little money or a lot. Fill it out, choose the option that says “reinvest my gains, please!” and go back to doing the stuff you really enjoy.

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Two bits of follow-up for our regular readers. You might ask, why didn’t we tell folks to start with a six-month emergency fund? Two reasons. First, they are many good personal finance steps folks need to take: build a savings account, avoid eating out frequently, pay down high interest rate credit card debt and all. Since we’re not personal finance specialists, we decided to start where we could add value. Second, a conservative fund can act as a supplement to a savings account; if you’ve got a conservative $5,000 that will still hold $4,000-4,500 at the trough of a bear does provide emergency backup. In my own portfolio, I use T. Rowe Price Spectrum Income (RPSIX) and RiverPark Short-Term High Yield (RPHYX, closed) as my cash-management accounts. Both can lose money but both thump CDs and other “safe” choices most years while posting manageable losses in the worst of times.

Second, there may be other funds out there which would fit our parameters and provide a more-attractive profile than one of the three we’ve highlighted. If so, let us know at [email protected]! I’d love to follow-up next month with suggestions for other ways to help young folks who have neither the confidence nor the awareness to seek out a fully qualified financial advisor. One odd side-note: there are several “Retirement Income” funds with really good profiles; I didn’t mention them because I figured that 99% of young folks would reject them just for the name alone.

Where else might small investors turn for a second or third fund?

Once upon a time, the fund industry had faith in the discipline of average investors so they offered lots of funds with minuscule initial investments. The hope was that folks would develop the discipline of investing regularly on their own.

Oops. Not even I can manage that feat. As the industry quickly and painfully learned, if it’s not on auto-pilot, it’s not getting funded.

That’s a real loss, even if a self-inflicted one, for small investors.  Nonetheless, there remain about 130 funds accessible to folks with modest budgets and the willingness to make a serious commitment to improving their finances.  By my best reading, there are thirteen smaller fund families still taking the risk of getting stiffed by undisciplined investors.  The families willing to waive their normal investment minimums are:

Family AIP minimum Notes
Ariel $50 Four value-oriented, low turnover funds , one international fund and one global fund
Artisan $50 Fifteen uniformly great, risk-conscious equity funds, with eight still open to new investors.  Artisan tends to close their funds early and a number are currently shuttered.
Aston  funds $50 Aston has 27 funds covering both portfolio cores and a bunch of interesting niches.  They adopted some venerable older funds and hired institutional managers to sub-advise the others.
Azzad $50 Two socially-responsible funds, one midcap and one (newer) small cap. The Azzad Ethical Fund maintains a $50 minimum for AIPs, while the minimum for the Azzad Wise Capital Fund is now $300.
Gabelli/GAMCO $100 On AAA shares, anyway.  Gabelli’s famous, he knows it and he overcharges.  That said, these are really solid funds.
Homestead $0 Eight funds (stock, bond, international), solid to really good performance, very fair expenses.
Icon $100 18 funds whose “I” or “S” class shares are no-load.  These are sector or sector-rotation funds.
James $50 Four very solid funds, the most notable of which is James Balanced: Golden Rainbow (GLRBX), a quant-driven fund that keeps a smallish slice in stocks
Manning & Napier $25 The best fund company that you’ve never heard of.  Fourteen diverse funds, all managed by the same team. Pro-Blend Conservative (EXDAX) probably warrants a spot on the “first fund” list.
Parnassus $50 Six socially-responsible funds, all currently earn four or five stars from Morningstar. I’m particularly intrigued by Parnassus Endeavor (PARWX) which likes to invest in firms that treat their staff decently. You will need a $500 initial investment to open your account.
USAA $50 USAA primarily provides financial services for members of the U.S. military and their families.  Their funds are available to anyone but you need to join USAA (it’s free) in order to learn anything about them.  That said, 26 funds, so quite good.


edward, ex cathedraby Edward A. Studzinski

Some men are born mediocre, some men achieve mediocrity, and some men have mediocrity thrust upon them.

       Joseph Heller

We are now at the seven month mark. All would not appear to be well in the investing world. But before I head off on that tangent, there are some housekeeping matters to address.

First, at the beginning of the year I suggested that the average family unit should own no more than ten mutual funds, which would cover both individual and retirement assets. When my long-suffering spouse read that, the question she asked was how many we had. I stopped counting when I got to twenty-five, and told her the results of my search. I was then told that if I was going to tell others they should have ten or less per family unit, we should follow suit. I am happy to report that the number is now down to seventeen (exclusive of money market funds), and I am aiming to hit that ten number by year-end.

Obviously, tax consequences play a big role in this process of consolidation. One, there are tax consequences you can control, in terms of whether your ownership is long-term or short-term, and when to sell. Two, there are tax consequences you can’t control, which are tied in an actively-managed fund, to the decision by the portfolio manager to take some gains and losses in an effort to manage the fund in a tax-efficient manner. At least that is what I hope they are doing. There are other tax consequences you cannot control when the fund in question’s performance is bad, leading to a wave of redemptions. The wave of redemptions then leads to forced selling of equity positions, either en masse or on a pro rata basis, which then triggers tax issues (hopefully gains but sometimes not). The problem with these unintended or unplanned for tax consequences, is that in non-retirement accounts, you are often faced with a tax bill that you have not planned for at filing time, and need to come up with a check to pay the taxes due. A very different way to control the tax consequences, especially if you are of a certain age, is to own passive index funds, whose portfolios won’t change except for those issues going into or leaving the index. Turnover and hence capital gains distributions, tend to be minimized. And since they do tend to own everything as it were, you will pick up some of the benefit of merger and acquisition activity. However, index funds are not immune to an investor panic, which leads to forced selling which again triggers tax consequences.

In this consolidation process, one of the issues I am wrestling with is what to do with money market funds, given that later this year unless something changes again, they will be allowed to “break the buck” or no longer have a constant $1 share price. My inclination is to say that cash reserves for individuals should go back into bank certificates of deposit, up to the maximum amounts of the FDIC insurance. That will work until or unless, like Europe, the government through the banks decides to start charging a negative interest rate on bank deposits. The other issue I am wrestling with is the category of balanced funds, where I am increasingly concerned that the three usual asset classes of equities, fixed income, and cash, will not necessarily work in a complementary manner to reduce risk. The counter argument to that of course, is that most people investing in a balanced (or equity fund for that matter) investment, do not have a sufficiently long time horizon, ten years perhaps being the minimum commitment. If you look at recent history, it is extraordinary how many ten year returns both for equity funds and balanced funds, tend to cluster around the 8% annualized mark.

Morningstar, revisited:

One of the more interesting lunch meetings I had around the Morningstar conference that I did not attend, was with a Seattle-based father-son team with an outstanding record to date in their fund. One of the major research tools used was, shock of shock, the Value Line. But that should not surprise people. Many of Buffet’s own personal investments were, as he relates it, arrived at by thumbing through things like a handbook of Korean stocks. I have used a similar handbook to look at Japanese stocks. One needs to understand that in many respects, the purpose of hordes of analysts, producing detailed models and exhaustive reports is to provide the cover of the appearance of adequate due diligence. Years ago, when I was back in the trust investment world, I used to have various services for sale by the big trust banks (think New York and Philadelphia) presented to me as necessary. Not necessary to arrive at good investment decisions, but necessary to have as file drawer stuffers when the regulators came to examine why a particular equity issue had been added to the approved list. Now of course with Regulation FD, rather than individual access to managements and the danger of selective disclosure of material information, we have big and medium sized companies putting on analyst days, where all investors – buy side, sell side, and retail, get access to the same information at the same time, and what they make of it is up to them.

So how does one improve the decision making process, or rather, get an investment edge? The answer is, it depends on the industry and what you are defining as your circle of competency. Let’s assume for the moment it is property and casualty reinsurance. I would submit that one would want to make a point of attending the industry meetings, held annually, in Monte Carlo and Baden-Baden. If you have even the most rudimentary of social skills, you will come away from those events with a good idea as to how pricing (rate on line) is going to be set for categories of business and renewals. You will get an idea as to whose underwriting is conservative and whose is not. And you will get an idea as to who is under-reserved for prior events and who is not. You will also get a sense as to how a particular executive is perceived.

Is this the basis for an investment decision alone? No, but in the insurance business, which is a business of estimates to begin with, the two most critical variables are the intelligence and integrity of management (which comes down from the top). What about those wonderfully complex models, forecasting interest rates, pricing, catastrophic events leading to loss ratios and the like? It strikes me that fewer and fewer people have taken sciences in high school or college, where they have learned about the Law of Significant Numbers. Or put another way, perhaps appropriately cynical, garbage in/garbage out.

Now, many of you are sitting there thinking that it really cannot be this simple. And I will tell you that the finest investment analyst I have ever met, a contemporary of mine, when he was acting as an analyst, used to do up his research ideas by hand, on one or one and a half sheets of 8 ½ by 11 paper.

There would be a one or two sentence description of the company and lines of business, a simple income statement going out maybe two years beyond this year, several bullet points as to what the investment case was, with what could go right (and sometimes what could go wrong), and that was generally it, except for perhaps a concluding “Reasons to Own. AND HIS RETURNS WERE SPECTACULAR FOR HIS IDEAS! People often disbelieve me when I tell them that, so luckily I have saved one of those write-ups. My point is this – the best ideas are often the simplest ideas, capable of being presented and explained in one or two declarative sentences.

What’s coming?

Do not put at risk more than you can afford to lose without impacting your standard of living

And finally, for a drop of my usual enthusiasm for the glass half empty. There is a lot of strange stuff going on in the world at the moment, much of it not going according to plan, for governments, central banks, and corporations as one expected in January. Commodity prices are collapsing. Interest rates look to go up in this country, perhaps sooner rather than later. China may or may not have lost control of its markets, which would not augur well for the rest of us. I will leave you with something else to ponder. The “” crash in 2000 and the financial crisis of 2007-2008-2009 were water-torture events. Most of the people running money now were around for them, and it represents their experiential reference point. The October 1987 crash was a very different animal – you came in one day, and things just headed down and did not stop. Derivatives did not work, portfolio insurance did not work, and there was no liquidity as everyone panicked and tried to go through the door at once. Very few people who went through that experience are still actively running money. I bring this up, because I worry that the next event (and there will be one), will not necessarily be like the last two, where one had time to get out in orderly fashion. That is why I keep emphasizing – do not put at risk more than you can afford to lose without impacting your standard of living. Investors, whether professional or individual, need to guard mentally against always being prepared to fight the last war.

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.

New Lawsuit

  • A new excessive-fee lawsuit targets five State Farm LifePath target-date funds. Complaint: “The nature and quality of Defendant’s services to the LifePath Funds in exchange for close to half of the net management fee are extremely limited. Indeed, it is difficult to determine what management services, if any, [State Farm] provides to the LifePath Funds, since virtually all of the investment management functions of the LifePath Funds are delegated” to an unaffiliated sub-adviser. (Ingenhutt v. State Farm Inv. Mgmt. Corp.)


  • A court gave its final approval to the $27.5 million settlement of an ERISA class action that had challenged the selection of proprietary Columbia and RiverSource funds for Ameriprise retirement accounts. (Krueger v. Ameriprise Fin., Inc.)
  • In a decision on motion to dismiss, a court allowed a plaintiff to add new Morgan Keegan defendants to previously allowed Securities Act claims regarding four closed-end funds, rejecting the new defendants’ statute-of-limitations argument. (Small v. RMK High Income Fund, Inc.)
  • Further extending the fund industry’s losing streak, a court allowed excessive-fee allegations regarding five SEI funds to proceed past motion to dismiss: “While the allegations in the Amended Complaint may well not survive summary judgment, they are sufficient to survive the motion-to-dismiss stage.” (Curd v. SEI Invs. Mgmt. Corp.)
  • A court mostly denied the motion by Sterling Capital to dismiss a fraud lawsuit filed by its affiliated bank’s customer. (Bowers v. Branch Banking & Trust Co.)
  • A court consolidated excessive-fee litigation regarding the Voya Global Real Estate Fund. (In re Voya Global Real Estate Fund S’holder Litig.)


  • Parties filed their oppositions to 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 papers are unavailable on PACER. (Kasilag v. Hartford Inv. Fin. Servs. LLC; Kasilag v. Hartford Funds Mgmt. Co.)

The Alt Perspective: Commentary and news from DailyAlts.

dailyaltsDespite being the summer, there was no slowdown in activity around liquid alternatives in July. Seven new alternative mutual funds and ETFs came to market, bringing the year to date total to 79. And in addition to the new fund launches, private equity titans Apollo and Carlyle both announced plans to launch alternative mutual funds later this year. For Carlyle, this is their second time to the dance and this time they have picked TCW as their partner. Carlyle purchased a majority interest in TCW early 2013 and will wisely be leveraging the firm’s distribution into the retail market. In a similar vein, Apollo has partnered with Ivy and will look to Ivy for distribution leadership.

Apollo and Carlyle’s plans follow on the heals of KKR’s partnership with Altegris for the launch of a private equity offering for the “mass affluent” earlier this year, and Blackstone’s partnership with Columbia on a multi-alternative fund, also announced earlier this year. Distribution is key, and the private equity shops are starting to figure that out.

Asset Flows

Asset flows into liquid alternative funds (mutual funds and ETFs combined) continued on their positive streak for the sixth consecutive month, with total flows in June of more than $2.2 billion according to Morningstar’s June 2015 U.S. Asset Flows Update report.

For the fifth consecutive month, multi-alternative funds have dominated inflows into liquid alternatives as investors look for a one-stop shop for their alternatives allocation. Both long/short equity and market neutral have experienced outflows every month in 2015, while non-traditional bonds has had outflows in 5 of 6 months this year. Quite a change from 2014 when both long/short equity and non-traditional bonds ruled the roost.

monthly flows

Twelve month flows look fairly consistent with June’s flows with multi-alternative and managed futures funds leading the way, and long/short equity, market neutral and non-traditional bonds seeing the largest outflows.


Trends and Research

There were several worthwhile publications distributed in July that provide more depth to the liquid alts conversation. The firsts is the annual Morningstar / Barron’s survey of financial advisors, which notes that advisors are more inclined to allocate to liquid alternatives than they were last year. A summary of the results can be found here: Morningstar and Barron’s Release National Alternatives Survey Results.

In addition to the survey, both Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs published research papers on liquid alternatives. Both papers are designed to help investors better understand the category of investments and how to use them in a portfolio:

Educational Videos

Finally, we published a series of video interviews with several portfolio managers of leading alternative mutual funds, as well as a three part series with Keith Black, Managing Director of Exams and Curriculum of the CAIA Association. All of the videos can be viewed here: DailyAlts Videos. More will be on the way over the next couple weeks, so check back periodically.

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.

This month’s profiles are unusual, in that they’re linked to our story on “first funds.” Two of the three are much larger and older than we normally cover, but they make a strong case for themselves.

James Balanced: Golden Rainbow (GLRBX). The fund invests about half of its money in stocks and half in bonds, though the managers have the ability to become much more cautious or much more daring if the situation calls for it. Mostly they’ve been cautious. Their professed goal is “to seek to grow our clients’ assets…while stressing the preservation of principal, and the reduction of risk.” With a loss of just 6% in 2008, they seem to be managing that balance quite well. FYI, this profile was written by our colleague Charles Boccadoro and is substantially more data-rich than most.

TIAA-CREF Lifestyle Conservative (TSCLX). TIAA-CREF’s traditional business has been providing low cost, conservatively managed investment accounts for people working at hospitals, universities and other non-profit organizations.  Lifestyle Conservative is a fund-of-funds with about 40% of its money in stocks and 60% in bonds. They’ve got a short track record, but substantially below-average expenses and a solid lineup of funds in which to invest.

Vanguard STAR (VGSTX). STAR is designed to be Vanguard’s first fund for beginning investors. It invests only in Vanguard’s actively-managed funds, with a portfolio that’s about 60% of its money in stocks and 40% in bonds. The fund’s operating expenses are 0.34% per year, which is very low. The combination of Vanguard + low minimum has always had it on my short-list of funds for new investors.

We delayed publication of July’s fund profile while we finished some due diligence. Sorry ‘bout that but we’d rather get the facts right than rush to print.

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. And yet as I talked with the Eventide professionals the talk kept returning to the fund that has them more excited, Healthcare & Life Sciences. The fund’s combination of a strong record with a uniquely qualified manager compels a closer look.


Launch Alert

triadTriad Small Cap Value Fund (TSCVX) launched on June 29, 2015. Triad promises a concentrated but conservative take on small cap investing.

The fund is managed by John Heldman and David Hutchison, both of Triad Investment Management. The guys both have experience managing money for larger firms, including Bank of America, Deutsche Bank and Neuberger Berman. They learned from the experience, but one of the things they learned was that “we’d had enough of working for larger firms … having our own shop means we have a much more flexible organization and we’ll be able do what’s right for our investors.” Triad manages about $130 million for investors, mostly through separate accounts.

The Adviser analyzes corporate financial statements, management presentations, specialized research publications, and general news sources specifically focused on three primary aspects of each company: the degree of business competitive strength, whether management is capable and co-invested in the business, and the Adviser’s assessment of the attractiveness of a security’s valuation.

The guys approach is similar to Bernie Horn and the Polaris team: invest only where you think you can meaningfully project a firm’s future, look for management that makes smart capital allocation decisions, make conservative assumptions and demand a 50% discount to fair value.

That discipline means that some good companies are not good investments. Firms in technology and biotech, for example, are subject to such abrupt disruption of their business models that it’s impossible to have confidence in a three to five year projection. Other fundamentally attractive firms have simply been bid too high to provide any margin of safety.

They’re looking for 30-45 names in the portfolio, most of which they’ve followed for years. The tiny fund and the larger private strategy are both fully invested now despite repeated market highs. While they agree that “there aren’t hundreds of great opportunities, not a huge amount at all,” the small cap universe is so large that they’re still finding attractive opportunities.

The minimum initial purchase is $5,000. The opening expense ratio is 1.5% with a 2.0% redemption fee on shares held under 90 days.

The fund’s website is still pretty rudimentary but there’s a good discussion of their Small Cap Equity strategy available on the advisor’s site. For reasons unclear, Mornignstar’s profile of the fund aims you to the homepage of the Wireless Fund (WIREX). Don’t go there, it won’t help.

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 right around the end of September, which would allow the new funds to still report a full quarter’s worth of results in 2015.

The most important new registrations are a series of alternatives funds about to be launched by TCW. They’ve partnered with several distinguished sub-advisers, including our friends at Gargoyle who, at our first reading of the filings, are offered the best options including both Gargoyle Hedged Value and, separately, the unhedged Gargoyle long portfolio as a free-standing fund.

Manager Changes

There are 45 manager changes, at least if you don’t mind a bit of cheating on our part. Wyatt Lee’s arrival as co-manager marginally affected all the funds in the T. Rowe Price retirement series but we called that just one change. None are game-changers.


The Board at LS Opportunity Fund (LSOFX) just announced their interim plan for dealing with the departure of the fund’s adviser. Jim Hillary of Independence Capital Asset Partners and formerly of Marsico Capital, LLC ran LSOFX side-by-side with his ICAP hedge fund from 2010-2015. It’s been an above-average performer, though not a stunning one. DailyAlts reports that Mr. Hillary has decided to retire and return the hedge fund’s assets to its investors. The LS Board appointed Prospector Partners LLC to sub-advise the fund for now; come fall, they’ll ask shareholders for authority to add sub-advisors.

The Prospector folks come with excellent credentials but a spotty record. The managers have a lot of experience managing funds for White Mountains Insurance, T. Rowe Price (both Capital Appreciation and Growth Stock) and Neuberger Berman (Genesis). Prospector Capital Appreciation (PCAFX) was positioned as a nimbler version of T. Rowe Price Capital Appreciation (PRWCX), run by Cap App’s long-time manager. The fund did well during the meltdown but has trailed 99% of its peers since. Prospector Opportunity (POPFX) has done better, also by limiting losses in down markets at the price of losing some of the upside in rising ones.

The Board of Trustees has approved a change Zeo Strategic Income’s investment objective. Right now the fund seeks “income and moderate capital appreciation.” Effective August 31, 2015, the Fund’s investment objective will be to seek “low volatility and absolute returns consisting of income and moderate capital appreciation.” From our conversations with the folks at Zeo, that’s not a change; it’s an editorial clarification and a symbolic affirmation of their core values.

Briefly Noted . . .

Effective August 1, Value Line is imposing a 0.40% 12(b)1 fee on a fund that hasn’t been launched yet (Centurion) but then offers a 0.13% 12(b)1 waiver for a net 12(b)1 fee of 0.27%. Why? At the same time, they’ve dropped fees on their Core Bond Fund (VAGIX) by two basis points (woo hoo!). Why? Because the change drops them below the 1.0% expense threshold (to 0.99%), which might increase the number of preliminary fund screens they pass. Hard to know whether that will help: over the five years under its current management, the fund has been a lot more volatile (bigger maximum drawdown but much faster recovery) and more profitable than its peers; the question is whether, in uncertain times, investors will buy that combo – even after the generous cost reduction.

Thanks, as always, to The Shadow’s irreplaceable assistance on tracking down the following changes!


Effective August 1, 2015, Aspiriant Risk-Managed Global Equity Fund’s (RMEAX) investment advisory fee will be reduced from 0.75% to 0.60%.

CLOSINGS (and related inconveniences)

Invesco International Growth Fund (AIIEX) will close to new investors on October 1, 2015. Nothing says “we’re serious” quite like offering a two-month window for hot money investors to join the fund. The $9 billion fund tends to be a top-tier performer when the market is falling and just okay otherwise.

Tweedy, Browne Global Value Fund II (TBCUX) has closed to new investors. Global Value II is the sibling to Global Value (TBGVX). The difference between them is that Global Value hedges its currency exposure and Global Value II does not. I don’t anticipate an extended closure. Global II has only a half billion in assets, against $9.3 billion in Global, so neither the size of the portfolio nor capacity constraints can explain the closure. A likelier explanation is the need to manage a large anticipated inflow or outflow caused, conceivably, by gaining or losing a single large institutional client.


Effective July 9, 2015, the 3D Printing and Technology Fund (TDPNX) becomes the 3D Printing, Robotics and Technology Fund. The fact that General Electric is the fund’s #6 holding signals the essential problem: there simply aren’t enough companies whose earnings are driven by 3D printing or robotics to populate a portfolio, so firms where such earnings are marginal get drawn in.

Effective September 9, 2015, Alpine Accelerating Dividend Fund (AAADX) is getting renamed Alpine Rising Dividend Fund. The prospectus will no longer target “accelerating dividends” as an investment criterion. It’s simultaneously fuzzier and clearer on the issue of portfolio turnover: it no longer refers to the prospect of 150% annual turnover (the new language is “higher turnover”) but is clear that the strategy increases transaction costs and taxable short-term gains.

Calvert Tax-Free Bond Fund (CTTLX) has become Calvert Tax-Free Responsible Impact Bond Fund. “Impact investing” generally refers to the practice of buying the securities of socially desirable enterprises, for example urban redevelopment administrations, as a way of fostering their mission. At the start of September, Calvert Large Cap Value (CLVAX) morphs into Calvert Global Value Fund. The globalization theme continues with the change of Calvert Equity Income Fund (CEIAX) to Calvert Global Equity Income Fund. Strategy tweaks follow.

On September 22, 2015, Castlerigg Equity Event and Arbitrage Fund (EVNTX) becomes Castlerigg Event Driven and Arbitrage Fund. In addition to the name change, Castlerigg made what appear to be mostly editorial changes to the statement of investment strategies. It’s not immediately clear that either will address this:


Eaton Vance Small-Cap Value Fund has been renamed Eaton Vance Global Small-Cap Fund (EAVSX). Less value, more global. The fund trails more than 80% of its peers over pretty much every trailing measurement period. They’ve added Aidan M. Farrell as a co-manager. Good news: he’s managed Goldman Sachs International Small Cap (GISSX). Bad news: it’s not very good, either.

Effective July 13, 2015 Innovator Matrix Income® Fund became Innovator McKinley Income Fund (IMIFX), with the appointment of a new sub-advisor, McKinley Capital Management, LLC. The fund’s strategy was to harvest income primarily from high income securities which included master limited partnerships and REITs. The “income” part worked and the fund yields north of 10%. The “put the vast majority of your money into energy and real estate” has played out less spectacularly. The new managers bring a new quantitative model and modest changes in the investment strategy, but the core remains “income from equities.”


Effective October 23, 2015, Alpine Equity Income Fund (the “Fund”) and Alpine Transformations Fund (the “Fund”) will both be absorbed by Alpine Accelerating Dividend Fund. At the same time Alpine Cyclical Advantage Property Fund (the “Fund”) disappears into Alpine Global Infrastructure Fund (the “Acquiring Fund”).

Fidelity Fifty merged into Fidelity Focused Stock Fund (FTQGX) on July 24, 2015, just in case you missed it.

Forward is liquidating their U.S. Government Money Fund by the end of August.

MassMutual Select Small Company Growth Fund will be liquidated by September 28, 2015.

Neuberger Berman Global Thematic Opportunities Fund will disappear around August 21, 2015.

RiverNorth Managed Volatility Fund (RNBWX) is scheduled for a quick exit, on August 7, 2015.

The $1.2 million Stone Toro Long/Short Fund (STVHX) will be liquidated on or about August 19, 2015 following the manager’s resignation from the advisor.

UBS Equity Long-Short Multi-Strategy Fund (BMNAX) takes its place in history alongside the carrier pigeon on September 24, 2015. Advisors don’t have to explain why they’re liquidating a fund. In general, either the fund sucks or nobody is buying it. No problem. I do think it’s bad practice to go out of your way to announce that you’re about to explain your rationale and then spout gibberish.

Rationale for liquidating the Fund

Based upon information provided by UBS … the Board determined that it is in the best interests of the Fund and its shareholders to liquidate and dissolve the Fund pursuant to a Plan of Liquidation. To arrive at this decision, the Board considered factors that have adversely affected, and will continue to adversely affect, the ability of the Fund to conduct its business and operations in an economically viable manner.

Our rationale is that we “considered factors that have adversely affected, and will continue to adversely affect” the fund. Why is that even worth saying? The honest statement would be “we’re in a deep hole, the fund has been losing money for the advisor for five year and even the stronger performance of the past 18 months hasn’t made a difference so we’re cutting our losses.”

In Closing . . .

Sam LeeIn the months ahead we’ll add at least a couple new voices to the Observer’s family. Sam Lee, a principal of Severian Asset and former editor of Morningstar’s ETF Investor, would like to profile a fund for you in September. Leigh Walzer, a principal of Trapezoid LLC and a former member of Michael Price’s merry band at the Mutual Series funds, will join us in October to provide careful, sophisticated quantitative analyses of the most distinguished funds in a core investment category.

We’ve mentioned the development of a sort of second tier at the Observer, where we might be able to provide folks with access to some interesting data, Charles’s risk-sensitive fund screener and such. We’re trying to be very cautious in talking about any of those possibilities because we hate over-promising. But we’re working hard to make good stuff happen. More soon!

Our September issue will start with the following argument: it’s not time to give up on managers who insist on investing in Wall Street’s most despised creature: the high-quality, intelligently managed U.S. corporation. A defining characteristic of a high-quality corporation is the capital allocation decisions made by its leaders. High-quality firms invest intelligently, consistently, successfully, in their futures. Those are “capital expenditures” and investors have come to loathe them because investing in the future thwarts our desire to be rich, rich, rich, now, now, now. In general I loathe the editorial pages of The Wall Street Journal since they so often start with an ideologically mandated conclusion and invent the necessary supporting evidence. William Galston’s recent column, “Hillary gets it right on short-termism” (07/29/2015) is a grand exception:

Too many CEOs are making decisions based on short-term considerations, regardless of their impact on the long-run performance of their firms.

Laurence Fink is the chairman of BlackRock … expressed his concern that “in the wake of the financial crisis, many companies have shied away from investing in the future growth of their companies,” choosing instead to reduce capital expenditures in favor of higher dividends and increased stock buybacks.

His worries rest on a sound factual foundation. For the 454 companies listed continuously in the S&P 500 between 2004 and 2013, stock buybacks consumed 51% of net income and dividends an additional 35%, leaving only 14% for all other purposes.

It wasn’t always this way. As recently as 1981, buybacks constituted only 2% of the total net income of the S&P 500. But when economist William Lazonick examined the 248 firms listed continuously in this index between 1984 and 2013, he found an inexorable rise in buybacks’ share of net income: 25% in the 1984-1993 decade; 37% in 1994-2003; 47% in 2004-13. Between 2004 and 2013, some of America’s best-known corporations returned more than 100% of their income to shareholders through buybacks and dividends.

He cites a 2005 survey of CEOs, 80% of whom would cut R&D and 55% would avoid long-term capex if that’s what it took to meet their quarterly earnings expectations. We’ve been talking with folks like David Rolfe of Wedgewood, Zac Wydra of Beck, Mack and others who are taking their lumps for refusing to play along. We’ll share their argument as well as bring our modestly-delayed story on the Turner funds, Sam’s debut, and Charles’ return.

We’ll look for you.


Seafarer Overseas Growth and Income Fund (SFGIX)

The fund:

Seafarer Overseas Growth and Income Fund


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

The call:

Here are some quick highlights from Thursday night’s 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 who 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:

While the fund is diversified, many people misunderstand the legal meaning of that term. Being diversified means that no more than 25% of the portfolio can be invested in securities that individually constitute more than 5% of the portfolio. Andrew could, in theory, invest 25% of the fund in a single stock or 15% in one and 10% in another. 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 amd 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.


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


Highlights from our previous call:

We previously spoke to Mr. Foster on February 19,2013. Highlights from that call included:

  • Andrew offered a rich discussion about his decision to launch the fund. The short version: early in his career, he concluded that emergent China was “the world’s most under-rated opportunity” and he really wanted to be there. By late 2009, he noticed that China was structurally slowing.  Reflection and investigation led him to begin focusing on other markets. Given Matthews’ focus on Asia, he concluded that the way to pursue other opportunities was to leave Matthews and launch Seafarer.
  • Andrew concluded that markets were a bit stretched, so he was moving at the margins from smaller names to larger, steadier firms.
  • He was 90% in equities because there were better opportunities there, then in fixed income.
  • Income plays an important role in his portfolio.

The audio from our previous conference call with Seafarer can be found here, February 2013.

The profile:

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. It’s a pattern that I’ve found compelling.

The Mutual Fund Observer profile of SFGIX, Updated May 2015

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


 The SFGIX audio profile, March 2013


Seafarer Overseas Growth and Income Fund website

Quarterly Briefing, 1Q2015

Fund Focus: Resources from other trusted sources

February 1, 2015

Dear friends,

Investing by aphorism is a tricky business.

“Buy on the sound of cannons, sell on the sound of trumpets.” It’s widely attributed to “Baron Nathan Rothschild (1810).” Of course, he wasn’t a baron in 1810. There’s no evidence he ever said it. 1810 wouldn’t have been a sensible year for the statement even if he had said it. And the earliest attributions are in anti-Semitic French newspapers advancing the claim that some Rothschild or another triggered a financial panic for family gain.

And then there’s weiji. It’s one of the few things that Condoleeza Rice and Al Gore agree upon. Here’s Rice after a trip to the Middle East:

I don’t read Chinese but I’m told that the Chinese character for crisis is “weiji”, which means both danger and opportunity. And I think that states it very well.

And Gore, accepting the Nobel Prize:

In the Kanji characters used in both Chinese and Japanese, “crisis” is written with two symbols, the first meaning “danger,” the second “opportunity.”

weijiJohn Kennedy, Richard Nixon, business school deans, the authors of The Encyclopedia of Public Relations, Flood Planning: The Politics of Water Security, On Philosophy: Notes on A Crisis, Foundations of Interpersonal Practice in Social Work, Strategy: A Step by Step Approach to the Development and Presentation of World Class Business Strategy (apparently one unencumbered by careful fact-checking), Leading at the Edge (the author even asked “a Chinese student” about it, the student smiled and nodded so he knows it’s true). One sage went so far as to opine “the danger in crisis situations is that we’ll lose the opportunity in it.”

Weiji, Will Robinson! Weiji!

Except, of course, that it’s not true. Chinese philologists keep pointing out that “ji” is being misinterpreted. At base, “ji” can mean a lot of things. Since at least the third century CE, “weiji” meant something like “latent danger.” In the early 20th century it was applied to economic crises but without the optimistic “hey, let’s buy the dips!” sense now given it. As Victor Mair, a professor of Chinese language and literature at the University of Pennsylvania put it:

Those who purvey the doctrine that the Chinese word for “crisis” is composed of elements meaning “danger” and “opportunity” are engaging in a type of muddled thinking that is a danger to society, for it lulls people into welcoming crises as unstable situations from which they can benefit. Adopting a feel-good attitude toward adversity may not be the most rational, realistic approach to its solution.

Maybe in our March issue, I’ll expound on the origin of the phrase “furniture polish.” Did you know that it’s an Olde English term that comes from the French. It reflects the fact that the best furniture in the world was made around the city of Krakow, Poland so if you had furniture Polish, you had the most beautiful anywhere.

The good folks at Leuthold foresee a market decline of 30%, likely some time in 2015 or 2016 and likely sooner rather than later. Professor Studzinski suspects that they’re starry-eyed optimists. Yale’s Crash Confidence Index is drifting down, suggesting that investors think there will be a crash, a perception that moves contrary to the actual likelihood of a crash, except when it doesn’t. AAII’s Investor Confidence Index rose right along with market volatility. American and Chinese investors became more confident, Europeans became less confident and US portfolios became more risk-averse.

Meanwhile oil prices are falling, Russia is invading, countries are unraveling, storms are raging, Mitt’s withdrawing … egad! What, you might ask, am I doing about it? Glad you asked.

Snowball and the power of positive stupidity

My portfolio is designed to allow me to be stupid. It’s not that I try to be stupid but, being human, the temptation is almost irresistible at times. If you’re really smart, you can achieve your goals by taking a modest amount and investing it brilliantly. My family suggested that I ought not be banking on that route, so I took the road less traveled. Twenty years ago, I used free software available from Fidelity, Price and Vanguard, my college’s retirement plan providers, to determine how much I needed to invest in order to fund my retirement. I used conservative assumptions (long-term inflation near 4% and expected portfolio returns below 8% nominal), averaged the three recommendations and ended up socking away a lot each month. 

Downside (?): I needed to be careful with our money – my car tends to be a fuel-efficient used Honda or Toyota that I drive for a quarter million miles or so, I tend to spend less on new clothes each year than on good coffee (if you’re from Pittsburgh, you know Mr. Prestogeorge’s coffee; if you’re not, the Steeler Nation is sad on your behalf), our home is solid and well-insulated but modest and our vacations often involve driving to see family or other natural wonders. 

Upside: well, I’ve never become obsessed about the importance of owning stuff. And the more sophisticated software now available suggests that, given my current rate of investment, I only need to earn portfolio returns well under 6% (nominal) in order to reach my long-term goals. 

And I’m fairly confident that I’ll be able to maintain that pace, even if I am repeatedly stupid along the way. 

It’s a nice feeling. 

A quick review of my fund portfolio’s 2015 performance would lead you to believe that I managed to be extra stupid last year with a portfolio return of just over 3%. If my portfolio’s goal was to maximize one-year returns, you’d be exactly right. But it isn’t, so you aren’t. Here’s a quick review of what I was thinking when I constructed my portfolio, what’s in it and what might be next.

The Plan: Follow the evidence. My non-retirement portfolio is about half equity and half income because the research says that more equity simply doesn’t pay off in a portfolio with an intermediate time horizon. The equity portion is about half US and half international and is overweighted toward small, value, dividend and quality. The income portion combines some low-cost “normal” stuff with an awful lot of abnormal investments in emerging markets, convertibles, and called high-yield bonds. On whole the funds have high active share, long-tenured managers, are risk conscious, lower turnover and relatively low expense. In most instances, I’ve chosen funds that give the managers some freedom to move assets around.

Pure equity:

Artisan Small Cap Value (ARTVX, closed). This is, by far, my oldest holding. I originally bought Artisan Small Cap (ARTSX) in late 1995 and, being a value kinda guy, traded those shares in 1997 for shares in the newly-launched ARTVX. It made a lot of money for me in the succeeding decade but over the past five years, its performance has sucked. Lipper has it ranked as 203 out of 203 small value funds over the past five years, though it has returned about 7% annually in the period. Not entirely sure what’s up. A focus on steady-eddy companies hasn’t helped, especially since it led them into a bunch of energy stocks. A couple positions, held too long, have blown up. The fact that they’re in a leadership transition, with Scott Satterwhite retiring in October 2016, adds to the noise. I’ll continue to watch and try to learn more, but this is getting a bit troubling.

Artisan International Value (ARTKX, closed). I acquired this the same way I acquired ARTVX, in trade. I bought Artisan International (ARTIX) shortly after its launch, then moved my investment here because of its value focus. Good move, by the way. It’s performed brilliantly with a compact, benchmark-free portfolio of high quality stocks. I’m a bit concerned about the fund’s size, north of $11 billion, and the fact that it’s now dominated by large cap names. That said, no one has been doing a better job.

Grandeur Peak Global Reach (GPROX, closed). When it comes to global small and microcap investing, I’m not sure that there’s anyone better or more disciplined than Grandeur Peak. This is intended to be their flagship fund, with all of the other Grandeur Peak funds representing just specific slices of its portfolio. Performance across the group, extending back to the days when the managers ran Wasatch’s international funds, has been spectacular. All of the existing funds are closed though three more are in the pipeline: US Opportunities, Global Value, and Global Microcap.

Pure income

RiverPark Short Term High Yield (RPHYX, closed). The best and most misunderstood fund in the Morningstar universe. Merely noting that it has the highest Sharpe ratio of any fund doesn’t go far enough. Its Sharpe ratio, a measure of risk-adjusted returns where higher is better, since inception is 6.81. The second-best fund is 2.4. Morningstar insists on comparing it to its high yield bond group, with which it shares neither strategy nor portfolio. It’s a conservative cash management account that has performed brilliantly. The chart is RPHYX against the HY bond peer group.


RiverPark Strategic Income (RSIVX). At base, this is the next step out from RPHYX on the risk-return spectrum. Manager David Sherman thinks he can about double the returns posted by RPHYX without a significant risk of permanent loss of capital. He was well ahead of that pace until mid-2014 when he encountered a sort of rocky plateau. In the second half of 2014, the fund dropped 0.45% which is far less than any plausible peer group. Mr. Sherman loathes the prospect of “permanent impairment of capital” but “as long as the business model remains acceptable and is being pursued consistently and successfully, we will tolerate mark-to-market losses.” He’s quite willing to hold bonds to maturity or to call, which reduces market volatility to annoying noise in the background. Here’s the chart of Strategic Income (blue) against its older sibling.


Matthews Strategic Income (MAINX). I think this is a really good fund. Can’t quite be sure since it’s essentially the only Asian income fund on the market. There’s one Asian bond fund and a couple ETFs, but they’re not quite comparable and don’t perform nearly as well. The manager’s argument struck me as persuasive: Asian fixed-income offers some interesting attributes, it’s systematically underrepresented in indexes and underfollowed by investors (the fund has only $67 million in assets despite a strong record). Matthews has the industry’s deepest core of Asia analysts, Ms. Kong struck me as exceptionally bright and talented, and the opportunity set seemed worth pursuing.

Impure funds

FPA Crescent (FPACX). I worry, sometimes, that the investing world’s largest “free-range chicken” (his term) might be getting fat. Steve Romick has one of the longest and most successful records of any manager but he’s currently toting a $20 billion portfolio which is 40% cash. The cash stash is consistent with FPA’s “absolute value” orientation and reflects their ongoing concerns about market valuations which have grown detached from fundamentals. It’s my largest fund holding and is likely to remain so.

T. Rowe Price Spectrum Income (RPSIX). This is a fund of TRP funds, including one equity fund. It’s been my core fixed income holding since it’s broadly diversified, low cost and sensible. Over time, it tends to make about 6% a year with noticeably less volatility than its peers. It’s had two down years in a quarter century, losing about 2% in 1994 and 9% in 2008. I’m happy.

Seafarer Overseas Growth & Income (SFGIX). I believe that Andrew Foster is an exceptional manager and I was excited when he moved from a large fund with a narrow focus to launch a new fund with a broader one. Seafarer is a risk-conscious emerging markets fund with a strong presence in Asia. It’s my second largest holding and I’ve resolved to move my account from Scottrade to invest directly with Seafarer, to take advantage of their offer of allowing $100 purchase minimums on accounts with an automatic investing plan. Given the volatility of the emerging markets, the discipline to invest automatically rather than when I’m feeling brave seems especially important.

Matthews Asian Growth & Income (MACSX). I first purchased MACSX when Andrew Foster was managing this fund to the best risk-adjusted returns in its universe. It mixes common stock with preferred shares and convertibles. It had strong absolute returns, though poor relative ones, in rising markets and was the best in class in falling markets. It’s done well in the years since Andrew’s departure and is about the most sensible option around for broad Asia exposure.

Northern Global Tactical Asset Allocation (BBALX). Formerly a simple 60/40 balanced fund, BBALX uses low-cost ETFs and Northern funds to execute their investment planning committee’s firm-wide recommendations. On whole, Northern’s mission is to help very rich people stay very rich so their strategies tend to be fairly conservative and tilted toward quality, dividends, value and so on. They’ve got a lot less in the US and a lot more emerging markets exposure than their peers, a lot smaller market cap, higher dividends, lower p/e. It all makes sense. Should I be worried that they underperform a peer group that’s substantially overweighted in US, large cap and growth? Not yet.

Aston River Road Long/Short (ARLSX). Probably my most controversial holding since its performance in the past year has sucked. That being said, I’m not all that anxious about it. By the managers’ report, their short positions – about a third of the portfolio – are working. It’s their long book that’s tripping them up. Their long portfolio is quite different from their peers: they’ve got much larger small- and mid-cap positions, their median market cap is less than half of their peers’ and they’ve got rather more direct international exposure (10%, mostly Europe, versus 4%). In 2014, none of those were richly rewarding places to be. Small caps made about 3% and Europe lost nearly 8%. Here’s Mr. Moran’s take on the former:

Small-cap stocks significantly under-performed this quarter and have year-to-date as well. If the market is headed for a correction or something worse, these stocks will likely continue to lead the way. We, however, added substantially to the portfolio’s small-cap long positions during the quarter, more than doubling their weight as we are comfortable taking this risk, looking different, and are prepared to acknowledge when we are wrong. We have historically had success in this segment of the market, and we think small-cap valuations in the Fund’s investable universe are as attractive as they have been in more than two years.

It’s certainly possible that the fund is a good idea gone bad. I don’t really know yet.

Since my average holding period is something like “forever” – I first invested in eight of my 12 funds shortly after their launch – it’s unlikely that I’ll be selling anyone unless I need cash. I might eventually move the Northern GTAA money, though I have no target in mind. I suspect Charles would push for me to consider making my first ETF investment into ValueShares US Quantitative Value (QVAL). And if I conclude that there’s been some structural impairment to Artisan Small Cap Value, I might exit around the time that Mr. Satterwhite does. Finally, if the markets continue to become unhinged, I might consider a position in RiverPark Structural Alpha (RSAFX), a tiny fund with a strong pedigree that’s designed to eat volatility.

My retirement portfolio, in contrast, is a bit of a mess. I helped redesign my college’s retirement plan to simplify and automate it. That’s been a major boost for most employees (participation has grown from 23% to 93%) but it’s played hob with my own portfolio since we eliminated the Fidelity and T. Rowe funds in favor of a greater emphasis on index funds, funds of index funds and a select few active ones. My allocation there is more aggressive (80/20 stocks) but has the same tilt toward small, value, and international. I need to find time to figure out how best to manage the two frozen allocations in light of the more limited options in the new plan. Nuts.

For now: continue to do the automatic investment thing, undertake a modest bit of rebalancing out of international equities, and renew my focus on really big questions like whether to paint the ugly “I’m so ‘70s” brick fireplace in my living room.

edward, ex cathedraStrange doings, currency wars, and unintended consequences

By Edward A. Studzinski

Imagine the Creator as a low comedian, and at once the world becomes explicable.     H.L. Mencken

January 2015 has perhaps not begun in the fashion for which most investors would have hoped. Instead of continuing on from last year where things seemed to be in their proper order, we have started with recurrent volatility, political incompetence, an increase in terrorist incidents around the world, currency instability in both the developed and developing markets, and more than a faint scent of deflation creeping into the nostrils and minds of central bankers. Through the end of January, the Dow, the S&P 500, and the NASDAQ are all in negative territory. Consumers, rather than following the lead of the mass market media who were telling them that the fall in energy prices presented a tax cut for them to spend, have elected to save for a rainy day. Perhaps the most unappreciated or underappreciated set of changed circumstances for most investors to deal with is the rising specter of currency wars.

So, what is a currency war? With thanks to author Adam Chan, who has written thoughtfully on this subject in the January 29, 2015 issue of The Institutional Strategist, a currency war is usually thought of as an effort by a country’s central bank to deliberately devalue their currency in an effort to stimulate exports. The most recent example of this is the announcement a few weeks ago by the European Central Bank that they would be undertaking another quantitative easing or QE in shorthand. More than a trillion Euros will be spent over the next eighteen months repurchasing government bonds. This has had the immediate effect of producing negative yields on the market prices of most European government bonds in the stronger economies there such as Germany. Add to this the compound effect of another sixty billion Yen a month of QE by the Bank of Japan going forward. Against the U.S. dollar, those two currencies have depreciated respectively 20% and 15% over the last year.

We have started to see the effects of this in earnings season this quarter, where multinational U.S. companies that report in dollars but earn various streams of revenues overseas, have started to miss estimates and guide towards lower numbers going forward. The strong dollar makes their goods and services less competitive around the world. But it ignores another dynamic going on, seen in the collapse of energy and other commodity prices, as well as loss of competitiveness in manufacturing.

Countries such as the BRIC emerging market countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China) but especially China and Russia, resent a situation where the developed countries of the world print money to sustain their economies (and keep the politicians in office) by purchasing hard assets such as oil, minerals, and manufactured goods for essentially nothing. For them, it makes no sense to allow this to continue.

The end result is the presence in the room of another six hundred pound gorilla, gold. I am not talking about gold as a commodity, but rather gold as a currency. Note that over the last year, the price of gold has stayed fairly flat while a well-known commodity index, the CRB, is down more than 25% in value. Reportedly, former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan supported this view last November when he said, “Gold is still a currency.” He went on to refer to it as the “premier currency.” In that vein, for a multitude of reasons, we are seeing some rather interesting actions taking place around the world recently by central banks, most of which have not attracted a great deal of notice in this country.

In January of this year, the Bundesbank announced that in 2014 it repatriated 120 tons of its gold reserves back to Germany, 85 tons from New York and the balance from Paris. Of more interest, IN TOTAL SECRECY, the central bank of the Netherlands repatriated 122 tons of its gold from the New York Federal Reserve, which it announced in November of 2014. The Dutch rationale was explained as part of a currency “Plan B” in the event the Netherlands left the Euro. But it still begs the question as to why two of the strongest economies in Europe would no longer want to leave some of their gold reserves on deposit/storage in New York. And why are Austria and Belgium now considering a similar repatriation of their gold assets from New York?

At the same time, we have seen Russia, with its currency under attack and not by its own doing or desire as a result of economic sanctions. Putin apparently believes this is a deliberate effort to stimulate unrest in Russia and force him from power (just because you are paranoid, it doesn’t mean you are wrong). As a counter to that, you see the Russian central bank being the largest central bank purchaser of gold, 55 tons, in Q314. Why? He is interested in breaking the petrodollar standard in which the U.S. currency is used as the currency to denominate energy purchases and trade. Russia converts its proceeds from the sale of oil into gold. They end up holding gold rather than U.S. Treasuries. If he is successful, there will be considerably less incentive for countries to own U.S. government securities and for the dollar to be the currency of global trade. Note that Russia has a positive balance of trade with most of its neighbors and trading partners.

Now, my point in writing about this is not to engender a discussion about the wisdom or lack thereof in investing in gold, in one fashion or another. The students of history among you will remember that at various points in time it has been illegal for U.S. citizens to own gold, and that on occasion a fixed price has been set when the U.S. government has called it in. My purpose is to point out that there have been some very strange doings in asset class prices this year and last. For most readers of this publication, since their liabilities are denominated in U.S. dollars, they should focus on trying to pay those liabilities without exposing themselves to the vagaries of currency fluctuations, which even professionals have trouble getting right. This is the announced reason, and a good one, as to why the Tweedy, Browne Value Fund and Global Value Fund hedge their investments in foreign securities back into U.S. dollars. It is also why the Wisdom Tree ETF’s which are hedged products have been so successful in attracting assets. What it means is you are going to have to pay considerably more attention this year to a fund’s prospectus and its discussion of hedging policies, especially if you invest in international and/or emerging market mutual funds, both equity and fixed income.

My final thoughts have to do with unintended consequences, diversification, and investment goals and objectives. The last one is most important, but especially this year. Know yourself as an investor! Look at the maximum drawdown numbers my colleague Charles puts out in his quantitative work on fund performance. Know what you can tolerate emotionally in terms of seeing a market value decline in the value of your investment, and what your time horizon is for needing to sell those assets. Warren Buffett used to speak about evaluating investments with the thought as to whether you would still be comfortable with the investment, reflecting ownership in a business, if the stock market were to close for a couple of years. I would argue that fund investments should be evaluated in similar fashion. Christopher Browne of Tweedy, Browne suggested that you should pay attention to the portfolio manager’s investment style and his or her record in the context of that style. Focus on whose record it is that you are looking at in a fund. Looking at Fidelity Magellan’s record after Peter Lynch left the fund was irrelevant, as the successor manager (or managers as is often the case) had a different investment management style. THERE IS A REASON WHY MORNINGSTAR HAS CHANGED THEIR METHODOLOGY FROM FOLLOWING AND EVALUATING FUNDS TO FOLLOWING AND EVALUATING MANAGERS.

You are not building an investment ark, where you need two of everything.

Diversification is another key issue to consider. Outstanding Investor Digest, in Volume XV, Number 7, published a lecture and Q&A with Philip Fisher that he gave at Stanford Business School. If you don’t know who Philip Fisher was, you owe it to yourself to read some of his work. Fisher believed strongly that you had achieved most of the benefits of risk reduction from diversification with a portfolio of from seven to ten stocks. After that, the benefits became marginal. The quote worth remembering, “The last thing I want is a lot of good stocks. I want a very few outstanding ones.” I think the same discipline should apply to mutual fund portfolios. You are not building an investment ark, where you need two of everything.

Finally, I do expect this to be a year of unintended consequences, both for institutional and individual investors. It is a year (but the same applies every year) when predominant in your mind should not be, “How much money can I make with this investment?” which is often tied to bragging rights at having done better than your brother-in-law. The focus should be, “How much money could I lose?” And my friend Bruce would ask if you could stand the real loss, and what impact it might have on your standard of living? In 2007 and 2008, many people found that they had to change their standard of living and not for the better because their investments were too “risky” for them and they had inadequate cash reserves to carry them through several years rather than liquidate things in a depressed market.

Finally, I make two suggestions. One, the 2010 documentary on the financial crisis by Charles Ferguson entitled “Inside Job” is worth seeing and if you can’t find it, the interview of Mr. Ferguson by Charlie Rose, which is to be found on line, is quite good. As an aside, there are those who think many of the most important and least watched interviews in our society today are conducted by Mr. Rose, which I agree with and think says something about the state of our society. And for those who think history does not repeat itself, I would suggest reading volume I, With Fire and Sword of the great trilogy of Henryk Sienkiewicz about the Cossack wars of the Sixteenth Century set in present day Ukraine. I think of Sienkiewicz as the Walter Scott of Poland, and you have it all in these novels – revolution and uprising in Ukraine, conflict between the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and Moscow – it’s all there, but many, many years ago. And much of what is happening today, has happened before.

I will leave you with a few sentences from the beginning pages of that novel.

It took an experienced ear to tell the difference between the ordinary baying of the wolves and the howl of vampires. Sometimes entire regiments of tormented souls were seen to drift across the moonlit Steppe so that sentries sounded the alarm and garrisons stood to arms. But such ghostly armies were seen only before a great war.

Genius, succession and transition at Third Avenue

The mutual fund industry is in the midst of a painful transition. As long ago as the 1970s, Charles Ellis recognized that the traditional formula could no longer work. That formula was simple:

  1. Read Dodd and Graham
  2. Apply Dodd and Graham
  3. Crush the competition
  4. Watch the billions flow in.

Ellis’s argument is that Step 3 worked only if you were talented and your competitors were not. While that might have described the investing world in the 1930s or even the 1950s, by the 1970s the investment industry was populated by smart, well-trained, highly motivated investors and the prospect of beating them consistently became as illusory as the prospect of winning four Super Bowls in six years now is. (With all due respect to the wannabees in Dallas and New England, each of which registered three wins in a four year period.)

The day of reckoning was delayed by two decades of a roaring stock market. From 1980 – 1999, the S&P 500 posted exactly two losing years and each down year was followed by eight or nine winning ones. Investors, giddy at the prospect of 100% and 150% and 250% annual reports, catapulted money in the direction of folks like Alberto Vilar and Garrett Van Wagoner. As the acerbic hedge fund manager Jim Rogers said, “It is remarkable how many people mistake a bull market for brains.”

That doesn’t deny the existence of folks with brains. They exist in droves. And a handful – Charles Royce and Marty Whitman among them – had “brains” to the point of “brilliance” and had staying power.

For better and worse, Step 4 became difficult 15 years ago and almost a joke in the past decade. While a handful of funds – from Michael C. Aronstein’s Mainstay Marketfield (MFLDX) and The Jeffrey’s DoubleLine complex – managed to sop up tens of billions, flows into actively-managed fund have slowed to a trickle. In 2014, for example, Morningstar reports that actively-managed funds saw $90 billion in outflows and passive funds had $156 billion in inflows.

The past five years have not been easy ones for the folks at Third Avenue funds. It’s a firm with that earned an almost-legendary reputation for independence and success. Our image of them and their image of themselves might be summarized by the performance of the flagship Third Avenue Value Fund (TAVFX) through 2007.


The Value Fund (blue) not only returned more than twice what their global equity peers made, but also essential brushed aside the market collapse at the end of the 1990s bubble and the stagnation of “the lost decade.” Investors rewarded the fund by entrusting it with billions of dollars in assets; the fund held over $11 billion at its peak.

But it’s also a firm that struggled since the onset of the market crisis in late 2007. Four of the firm’s funds have posted mediocre returns – not awful, but generally below-average – during the market cycle that began in early October 2007 and continues to play out. The funds’ five- and ten-year records, which capture parts of two distinct market cycles but the full span of neither, make them look distinctly worse. That’s been accompanied by the departure of both investment professionals and investor assets:

Third Avenue Value (TAVFX) saw the departure of Marty Whitman as the fund’s manager (2012) and of his heir presumptive Ian Lapey (2014), along with 80% of its assets. The fund trails about 80% of its global equity peers over the past five and ten years, which helps explain the decline. Performance has rallied in the past three years with the fund modestly outperforming the MSCI World index through the end of 2014, though investors have been slow to return.

Third Avenue Small Cap Value (TASCX) bid adieu to manager Curtis Jensen (2014) and analyst Charles Page, along with 80% of its assets. The fund trails 85% of its peers over the past five years and ten years.

Third Avenue International Value (TAVIX) lost founding manager Amit Wadhwaney (2014), his co-manager and two analysts. Trailing 96% of its peers for the past five and ten years, the fund’s AUM declined by 86% from its peak assets.

Third Avenue Focused Credit (TFCIX) saw its founding manager, Jeffrey Gary, depart (2010) to found a competing fund, Avenue Credit Strategies (ACSAX) though assets tripled from around the time of his departure to now. The fund’s returns over the past five years are almost dead-center in the high yield bond pack.

Only Third Avenue Real Estate Value (TAREX) has provided an island of stability. Lead manager Michael Winer has been with the fund since its founding, he’s got his co-managers Jason Wolfe (2004) and Ryan Dobratz (2006), a growing team, and a great (top 5% for the past 3, 5, 10 and 15 year periods) long-term record. Sadly, that wasn’t enough to shield the fund from a 67% drop in assets from 2006 to 2008. Happily, assets have tripled since then to about $3 billion.

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, including Robert Rewey, Tim Bui and Victor Cunningham. The most prominent change was the arrival, in 2014, of Robert Rewey, the new head of the “value equity team.” Mr. Rewey formerly was a portfolio manager at Cramer Rosenthal McGlynn, LLC, where his funds’ performance trailed their benchmark (CRM Mid Cap Value CRMMX, CRM All Cap Value CRMEX and CRM Large Cap Opportunity CRMGX) or exceeded it modestly (CRM Small/Mid Cap Value CRMAX). 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, noting that Mr. Whitman is still at TAM, that he attends every research meeting and was involved in every hiring decision.

Change in the industry is constant; the Observer reports on 500 or 600 management changes – some occasioned by a manager’s voluntary change of direction, others not – each year. The question for investors isn’t “had Third Avenue changed?” (It has, duh). The questions are “how has that change been handled and what might it mean for the future?” For answers, we turned to David Barse. Mr. Barse has served with Mr. Whitman for about a quarter century. He’s been president of Third Avenue, of MJ Whitman LLC and of its predecessor firm. He’s been with the operation continuously since the days that Mr. Whitman managed the Equity Strategies Fund in the 1980s.

From that talk and from the external record, I’ve reached three tentative conclusions:

  1. Third Avenue Value Fund’s portfolio went beyond independent to become deeply, perhaps troublingly, idiosyncratic during the current cycle. Mr. Whitman saw Asia’s growth as a powerful driver to real estate values there and the onset of the SARS/avian flu panics as a driver of incredible discounts in the stocks’ prices. As a result, he bought a lot of exposure to Asian real estate and, as the markets there declined, bought more. At its peak, 65% of the fund’s portfolio was exposed to the Asian real estate market. Judging by their portfolios, neither the very successful Real Estate Value Fund nor the International Value Fund, the logical home of such investments, believed that it was prudent to maintain such exposure. Mr. Winer got his fund entirely out of the Asia real estate market and Mr. Wadhwaney’s portfolio contained none of the stocks held in TAVFX. Reportedly members of Mr. Whitman’s own team had substantial reservations about the extent of their investment and many shareholders, including large institutional investors, concluded that this was not at all what they’d signed up for. Third Avenue has now largely unwound those positions, and the Value Fund had 8.5% of its 2014 year-end portfolio in Hong Kong.
  2. Succession planning” always works better on paper than in the messy precinct of real life. Mr. Whitman and Mr. Barse knew, on the day that TAVFX launched, that they needed to think about life after Marty. Mr. Whitman was 67 when the fund launched and was setting out for a new adventure around the time that most professionals begin winding down. In consequence, Mr. Barse reports, “Succession planning was intrinsic to our business plans from the very beginning. This was a fantastic business to be in during the ‘90s and early ‘00s. We pursued a thoughtful expansion around our core discipline and Marty looked for talented people who shared his discipline and passion.” Mr. Whitman seems to have been more talented in investment management than in business management and none of this protégés, save Mr. Winer, showed evidence of the sort of genius that drove Mr. Whitman’s success. Finally, in his 89th year of life, Mr. Whitman agreed to relinquish management of TAVFX with the understanding that Ian Lapey be given a fair chance as his successor. Mr. Lapey’s tenure as manager, both the five years which included time as co-manager with Mr. Whitman and the 18 months as lead manager, was not notably successful.
  3. Third Avenue is trying to reorient its process from “the mercurial genius” model to “the healthy team” one. When Third Avenue was acquired in 2002 by the Affiliated Managed Group (AMG), the key investment professionals signed a ten year commitment to stay with the firm – symbolically important if legally non-binding – with a limited non-compete period thereafter. 2012 saw the expiration of those commitments and the conclusion, possibly mutual, that it was time for long-time managers like Curtis Jensen and Amit Wadhwaney to move on. The firm promoted co-managers with the expectation that they’d become eventual successors. Eventually they began a search for Mr. Whitman’s successor. After interviewing more than 50 candidates, they selected Mr. Rewey based on three factors: he understood the nature of a small, independent, performance-driven firm, he understood the importance of healthy management teams and he shared Mr. Whitman’s passion for value investing. “We did not,” Mr. Barse notes, “make this decision lightly.” The firm gave him a “team leader” designation with the expectation that he’d consciously pursue a more affirmative approach to cultivating and empowering his research and management associates.

It’s way too early to draw any conclusions about the effects of their changes on fund performance. Mr. Barse notes that they’ve been unwinding some of the Value Fund’s extreme concentration and have been working to reduce the exposure of illiquid positions in the International Value Fund. In the third quarter, Small Cap Value eliminated 16 positions while starting only three. At the same time, Mr. Barse reports growing internal optimism and comity. As with PIMCO, the folks at Third Avenue feel they’re emerging from a necessary but painful transition. I get a sense that folks at both institutions are looking forward to going to work and to the working together on the challenges they, along with all active managers and especially active boutique managers, face.

The questions remain: why should you care? What should you do? The process they’re pursuing makes sense; that is, team-managed funds have distinct advantages over star-managed ones. Academic research shows that returns are modestly lower (50 bps or so) but risk is significantly lower, turnover is lower and performance is more persistent. And Third Avenue remains fiercely independent: the active share for the Value Fund is 98.2% against the MSCI World index, Small Cap Value is 95% against the Russell 2000 Value index, and International Value is 97.6% against MSCI World ex US. Their portfolios are compact (38, 64 and 32 names, respectively) and turnover is low (20-40%).

For now, we’d counsel patience. Not all teams (half of all funds claim them) thrive. Not all good plans pan out. But Third Avenue has a lot to draw on and a lot to prove, we wish them well and will keep a hopeful eye on their evolution.

Where are they now?

We were curious about the current activities of Third Avenue’s former managers. We found them at the library, mostly. Ian Lapey’s LinkedIn profile now lists him as a “director, Stanley Furniture Company” but we were struck by the current activities of a number of his former co-workers:


Apparently time at Third Avenue instills a love of books, but might leave folks short of time to pursue them.

Would you give somebody $5.8 million a year to manage your money?

And would you be steamed if he lost $6.9 million for you in your first three months with him?

If so, you can sympathize with Bill Gross of Janus Funds. Mr. Gross has reportedly invested $700 million in Janus Global Unconstrained Bond (JUCIX), whose institutional shares carry a 0.83% expense ratio. So … (mumble, mumble, scribble) 0.0083 x 700,000,000 is … ummmm … he’s charging himself $5,810,000 for managing his personal fortune.

Oh, wait! That overstates the expenses a bit. The fund is down rather more than a percent (1.06% over three months, to be exact) so that means he’s no longer paying expenses on the $7,420,000 that’s no longer there. That’d be a $61,000 savings over the course of a year.

It calls to mind a universally misquoted passage from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story, “The Rich Boy” (1926)

Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me. They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them, makes them soft, where we are hard, cynical where we are trustful, in a way that, unless you were born rich, it is very difficult to understand. 

Hemingway started the butchery by inventing a conversation between himself and Fitzgerald, in which Fitzgerald opines “the rich are different from you and me” and Hemingway sharply quips, “yes, they have more money.” It appears that Mary Collum, an Irish literary critic, in a different context, made the comment and Hemingway pasted it seamlessly into a version that made him seem the master.

shhhhP.S. please don’t tell the chairman of Janus. He’s the guy who didn’t know that all those millions flowing from a single brokerage office near Gross’s home into Gross’s fund was Gross’s money. I suspect it’s just better if we don’t burden him with unnecessary details.

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 and filtered as never before. For a 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 granted Vanguard‘s motion to dismiss shareholder litigation regarding two international funds’ holdings of gambling-related securities: “the court concludes that plaintiffs’ claims are time barred and alternatively that plaintiff has not established that the Board’s refusal to pursue plaintiffs’ demand for litigation violated Delaware’s business judgment rule.” Defendants included independent directors. (Hartsel v. Vanguard Group Inc.)


  • Morgan Keegan defendants settled long-running securities litigation, regarding bond funds’ investments in collateralized debt obligations, for $125 million. Defendants included independent directors. (In re Regions Morgan Keegan Open-End Mut. Fund Litig.; Landers v. Morgan Asset Mgmt., Inc.)


  • AXA Equitable filed a motion for summary judgment in fee litigation regarding twelve subadvised funds: “The combined investment management and administrative fees . . . for the funds were in all cases less than 1% of fund assets, and in some cases less than one half of 1%. These fees are in line with industry medians.” (Sanford v. AXA Equitable Funds Mgmt. Group, LLC; Sivolella v. AXA Equitable Life Ins. Co.)
  • Plaintiffs filed their opposition to Genworth‘s motion for summary judgment in a fraud case regarding an investment expert’s purported role in the management of the BJ Group Services portfolios. (Goodman v. Genworth Fin. Wealth Mgmt., Inc.)
  • Plaintiffs filed their opposition to SEI defendants’ motion to dismiss fee litigation regarding five subadvised funds: By delegating “nearly all of its investment management responsibilities to its army of sub-advisers” and “retaining substantial portions of the proceeds for itself,” SEI charges “excessive fees that violate section 36(b) of the Investment Company Act.” (Curd v. SEI Invs. Mgmt. Corp.)


  • Having previously lost its motion to dismiss, Harbor filed an answer to excessive-fee litigation regarding its subadvised International and High-Yield Bond Funds. (Zehrer v. Harbor Capital Advisors, Inc.)

The Alt Perspective: Commentary and news from DailyAlts.

dailyaltsBy Brian Haskin, editor of

Last month, I took a look at a few of the trends that took shape over the course of 2014 and noted how those trends might unfold in 2015. Now that the full year numbers are in, I thought I would do a 2014 recap of those numbers and see what they tell us.

Overall, assets in the Liquid Alternatives category, including both mutual funds and ETFs, were up 10.9% based on Morningstar’s classification, and 9.8% by DailyAlts classification. For ease of use, let’s call it 10%. Not too bad, but quite a bit short of the growth rates seen earlier in the year that hovered around 40%. But, compared to other major asset classes, alternative funds actually grew about 3 times faster. That’s quite good. The table below summarizes Morningstar’s asset flow data for mutual funds and ETFs combined:

Asset Flows 2014

The macro shifts in investor’s allocations were quite subtle, but nonetheless, distinct. Assets growth increased at about an equal rate for both stocks and bonds at a 3.4% and 3.7%, respectively, while commodities fell out of favor and lost 3.4% of their assets. However, with most investors underinvested in alternatives, the category grew at 10.9% and ended the year with $199 billion in assets, or 1.4% of the total pie. This is a far cry from institutional allocations of 15-20%, but many experts expect to see that 1.4% number increase to the likes of 10-15% over the coming decade.

Now, let’s take a look a more detailed look at the winning and loosing categories within the alternatives bucket. Here is a recap of 2014 flows, beginning assets, ending assets and growth rates for the various alternative strategies and alternative asset classes that we review:

Asset Flows and Growth Rates 2014

The dominant category over the year was what Morningstar calls non-traditional bonds, which took in $22.8 billion. Going into 2014, investors held the view that interest rates would rise and, thus, they looked to reduce interest rate risk with the more flexible non-traditional bond funds. This all came to a halt as interest rates actually declined and flows to the category nearly dried up in the second half.

On a growth rate perspective, multi-alternative funds grew at a nearly 34% rate in 2014. These funds allocate to a wide range of alternative investment strategies, all in one fund. As a result, they serve as a one-stop shop for allocations to alternative investments. In fact, they serve the same purpose as fund-of-hedge funds serve for institutional investors but for a much lower cost! That’s great news for retail investors.

Finally, what is most striking is that the asset flows to alternatives all came in the first half of the year – $36.2 billion in the first half and only $622 million in the second half. Much of the second half slowdown can be attributed to two factors: A complete halt in flows to non-traditional bonds in reaction to falling rates, and billions in outflows from the MainStay Marketfield Fund (MFLDX), which had an abysmal 2014. The good news is that multi-alternative funds held steady from the first half to the second – a good sign that advisors and investors are maintaining a steady allocation to broad based alternative funds.

For 2015, expect to see multi-alternative funds continue to gather assets at a steady clip. The managed futures category, which grew at a healthy 19.5% in 2014 on the back of multiple difficult years, should see continued action as global markets and economies continue to diverge, thus creating a more favorable environment for these funds. Market neutral funds should also see more interest as they are designed to be immune to most of the market’s ups and downs.

Next month we will get back to looking at a few of the intriguing fund launches for early 2015. Until then, hold on for the ride and stay diversified!

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 two or three 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.

Osterweis Strategic Investment (OSTVX). I’m always intrigued by funds that Morningstar disapproves of. When you combine disapproval with misunderstanding, then add brilliant investment performance, it becomes irresistible for us to address the question “what’s going on here?” Short answer: good stuff.

Pear Tree Polaris Foreign Value Small Cap (QUSOX). There are three, and only three, great international small cap funds: Wasatch International Opportunities (WAIOX), Grandeur Peak International Opportunities (GPIOX) and Pear Tree Polaris Foreign Value Small Cap. Why have you only heard of the first two?

TrimTabs Float Shrink ETF (TTFS). This young ETF is off to an impressive start by following what it believes are the “best informed market participants.” This is a profile by our colleague Charles Boccadoro, which means it will be data-rich!

Touchstone Sands Capital Emerging Markets Growth (TSEMX). Sands Capital has a long, strong record in tracking down exceptional businesses and holding them close. TSEMX represents the latest extension of the strategy from domestic core to global and now to the emerging markets.

Conference Call Highlights: Bernie Horn, Polaris Global Value

polarislogoAbout 40 of us gathered in mid-January to talk with Bernie Horn. It was an interesting talk, one which covered some of the same ground that he went over in private with Mr. Studzinski and me but one which also highlighted a couple new points.


  • The genesis of the fund was in his days as a student at the Sloan School of Management at MIT at the end of the 1970s. It was a terrible decade for stocks in the US but he was struck by the number of foreign markets that had done just fine. One of his professors, Fischer Black, an economist whose work with Myron Scholes on options led to a Nobel Prize, generally preached the virtues of the efficient market theory but carries “a handy list of exceptions to EMT.” The most prominent exception was value investing. The emerging research on the investment effects of international diversification and on value as a loophole to EMT led him to launch his first global portfolios.
  • His goal is, over the long-term, to generate 2% greater returns than the market with lower volatility.
  • He began running separately-managed accounts but those became an administrative headache and so he talked his investors into joining a limited partnership which later morphed into Polaris Global Value Fund (PGVFX).
  • The central discipline is calculating the “Polaris global cost of equity” (which he thinks separates him from most of his peers) and the desire to add stocks which have low correlations to his existing portfolio.
  • The Polaris global cost of capital starts with the market’s likely rate of return, about 6% real. He believes that the top tier of managers can add about 2% or 200 bps of alpha. So far that implies an 8% cost of capital. He argues that fixed income markets are really pretty good at arbitraging currency risks, so he looks at the difference between the interest rates on a country’s bonds and its inflation rate to find the last component of his cost of capital. The example was Argentina: 24% interest rate minus a 10% inflation rate means that bond investors are demanding a 14% real return on their investments. The 14% reflects the bond market’s judgment of the cost of currency; that is, the bond market is pricing-in a really high risk of a peso devaluation. In order for an Argentine company to be attractive to him, he has to believe that it can overcome a 22% cost of capital (6 + 2 + 14). The hurdle rate for the same company domiciled elsewhere might be substantially lower.
  • He does not hedge his currency exposure because the value calculation above implicitly accounts for currency risk. Currency fluctuations accounted for most of the fund’s negative returns last year, about 2/3s as of the third quarter. To be clear: the fund made money in 2014 and finished in the top third of its peer group. Two-thirds of the drag on the portfolio came from currency and one-third from stock selections.
  • He tries to target new investments which are not correlated with his existing ones; that is, ones that do not all expose his investors to a single, potentially catastrophic risk factor. It might well be that the 100 more attractively priced stocks in the world are all financials but he would not overload the portfolio with them because that overexposes his investors to interest rate risks. Heightened vigilance here is one of the lessons of the 2007-08 crash.
  • An interesting analogy on the correlation and portfolio construction piece: he tries to imagine what would happen if all of the companies in his portfolio merged to form a single conglomerate. In the conglomerate, he’d want different divisions whose cash generation was complementary: if interest rates rose, some divisions would generate less cash but some divisions would generate more and the net result would be that rising interest rates would not impair the conglomerates overall free cash flow. By way of example, he owns energy exploration and production companies whose earnings are down because of low oil prices but also refineries whose earnings are up.
  • He instituted more vigorous stress tests for portfolio companies in the wake of the 2007-09 debacle. Twenty-five of 70 companies were “cyclically exposed”. Some of those firms had high fixed costs of operations which would not allow them to reduce costs as revenues fell. Five companies got “bumped off” as a result of that stress-testing.

A couple caller questions struck me as particularly helpful:

Ken Norman: are you the lead manager on both the foreign funds? BH: Yes, but … Here Bernie made a particularly interesting point, that he gives his associates a lot of leeway on the foreign funds both in stock selection and portfolio construction. That has two effects. (1) It represents a form of transition planning. His younger associates are learning how to operate the Polaris system using real money and making decisions that carry real consequences. He thinks that will make them much better stewards of Polaris Global Value when it becomes their turn to lead the fund. (2) It represents a recruitment and retention strategy. It lets bright young analysts know that they have a real role to play and a real future with the firm.

Shostakovich, a member of the Observer’s discussion board community and investor in PGVFX: you’ve used options to manage volatility. Is that still part of the plan? BH: Yes, but rarely now. Three reasons. (1) There are no options on many of the portfolio firms. (2) Post-08, options positions are becoming much more expensive, hence less rewarding. (3) Options trade away “excess” upside in exchange for limiting downside; he’s reluctant to surrender much alpha since some of the firms in the portfolio have really substantial potential.

Bottom line: You need to listen to the discussion of ways in which Polaris modified their risk management in the wake of 2008. Their performance in the market crash was bad. They know it. They were surprised by it. And they reacted thoughtfully and vigorously to it. In the absence of that one period, PGVFX has been about as good as it gets. If you believe that their responses were appropriate and sufficient, as I suspect they were, then this strikes me as a really strong offering.

We’ve gathered all of the information available on Polaris Global Value Fund, including an .mp3 of the conference call, into its new Featured Fund page. Feel free to visit!

Conference Call Upcoming: Matthew Page and Ian Mortimer, Guinness Atkinson Funds

guinnessWe’d be delighted if you’d join us on Monday, February 9th, from noon to 1:00 p.m. Eastern, for a conversation with Matthew Page and Ian Mortimer, managers of Guinness Atkinson Global Innovators (IWIRX) and Guinness Atkinson Dividend Builder (GAINX). These are both small, concentrated, distinctive, disciplined funds with top-tier performance. IWIRX, with three distinctive strategies (starting as an index fund and transitioning to an active one), is particularly interesting. Most folks, upon hearing “global innovators” immediately think “high tech, info tech, biotech.” As it turns out, that’s not what the fund’s about. They’ve found a far steadier, broader and more successful understanding of the nature and role of innovation. Guinness reports:

Guinness Atkinson Global Innovators is the #1 Global Multi-Cap Growth Fund across all time periods (1,3,5,& 10 years) this quarter ending 12/31/14 based on Fund total returns.

They are ranked 1 of 500 for 1 year, 1 of 466 for 3 years, 1 of 399 for 5 years and 1 of 278 for 10 years in the Lipper category Global Multi-Cap Growth.

Goodness. And it still has under $200 million in assets.

Matt volunteered the following plan for their slice of the call:

I think we would like to address some of the following points in our soliloquy.

  • Why are innovative companies an interesting investment opportunity?
  • How do we define an innovative company?
  • Aren’t innovative companies just expensive?
  • Are the most innovative companies the best investments?

I suppose you could sum all this up in the phrase: Why Innovation Matters.

In deference to the fact that Matt and Ian are based in London, we have moved our call to noon Eastern. While they were willing to hang around the office until midnight, asking them to do it struck me as both rude and unproductive (how much would you really get from talking to two severely sleep-deprived Brits?).

Over the past several years, the Observer has hosted a series of hour-long conference calls between remarkable investors and, well, you. The format’s always the same: you register to join the call. We share an 800-number with you and send you an emailed reminder on the day of the call. We divide our hour together roughly in thirds: in the first third, our guest talks with us, generally about his or her fund’s genesis and strategy. In the middle third I pose a series of questions, often those raised by readers. Here’s the cool part, in the final third you get to ask questions directly to our guest; none of this wimpy-wompy “you submit a written question in advance, which a fund rep rewords and reads blankly.” Nay nay. It’s your question, you ask it. The reception has been uniformly positive.


registerIf you’d like to join in, just click on register and you’ll be taken to the Chorus Call site. In exchange for your name and email, you’ll receive a toll-free number, a PIN and instructions on joining the call. If you register, I’ll send you a reminder email on the morning of the call.

Remember: registering for one call does not automatically register you for another. You need to click each separately. Likewise, registering for the conference call mailing list doesn’t register you for a call; it just lets you know when an opportunity comes up. 


Over two hundred readers have signed up for a conference call mailing list. About a week ahead of each call, I write to everyone on the list to remind them of what might make the call special and how to register. If you’d like to be added to the conference call list, just drop me a line.

Funds in Registration

There continued to be remarkably few funds in registration with the SEC this month and I’m beginning to wonder if there’s been a fundamental change in the entrepreneurial dynamic in the industry. There are nine new no-load retail funds in the pipeline, and they’ll launch by the end of April. The most interesting development might be DoubleLine’s move into commodities. (It’s certainly not Vanguard’s decision to launch a muni-bond index.) They’re all detailed on the Funds in Registration page.

Manager Changes

About 50 funds changed part or all of their management teams in the past month. An exceptional number of them were part of the continuing realignment at PIMCO. A curious and disappointing development was the departure of founding manager Michael Carne from the helm of Nuveen NWQ Flexible Income Fund (NWQAX). He built a very good, conservative allocation fund that holds stocks, bonds and convertibles. We wrote about the fund a while ago: three years after launch it received a five-star rating from Morningstar, celebration followed until a couple weeks later Morningstar reclassified it as a “convertibles” fund (it ain’t) and it plunged to one-star, appealed the ruling, was reclassified and regained its stars. It has been solid, disciplined and distinctive, which makes it odd that Nuveen chose to switch managers.

You can see all of the comings and goings on our Manager Changes  page.

Briefly Noted . . .

On December 1, 2014, Janus Capital Group announced the acquisition of VS Holdings, parent of VelocityShares, LLC. VelocityShares provides both index calculation and a suite of (creepy) leveraged, reverse leveraged, double leveraged and triple leveraged ETNs.

Fidelity Strategic Income (FSICX) is changing the shape of the barbell. They’ve long described their portfolio as a barbell with high yield and EM bonds on the one end and high quality US Treasuries and corporates on the other. They’re now shifting their “neutral allocation” to inch up high yield exposure (from 40 to 45%) and drop investment grade (from 30 to 25%).

GaveKal Knowledge Leaders Fund (GAVAX/GAVIX) is changing its name to GaveKal Knowledge Leaders Allocation Fund. The fund has always had an absolute value discipline which leads to it high cash allocations (currently 25%), exceedingly low risk … and Morningstar’s open disdain (it’s currently a one-star large growth fund). The changes will recognize the fact that it’s not designed to be a fully-invested equity fund. Their objective changes from “long-term capital appreciation” to “long-term capital appreciation with an emphasis on capital preservation” and “fixed income” gets added as a principal investment strategy.


Palmer Square Absolute Return Fund (PSQAX/PSQIX) has agreed to a lower management fee and has reduced the cap on operating expenses by 46 basis points to 1.39% and 1.64% on its institutional and “A” shares.

Likewise, State Street/Ramius Managed Futures Strategy Fund (RTSRX) dropped its expense cap by 20 basis points, to 1.90% and 1.65% on its “A” and institutional shares.

CLOSINGS (and related inconveniences)

Effective as of the close of business on February 27, 2015, BNY Mellon Municipal Opportunities Fund (MOTIX) will be closed to new and existing investors. It’s a five-star fund with $1.1 billion in assets and five-year returns in the top 1% of its peer group.

Franklin Small Cap Growth Fund (FSGRX) closes to new investors on February 12, 2015. It’s a very solid fund that had a very ugly 2014, when it captured 240% of the market’s downside.


Stand back! AllianceBernstein is making its move: all AllianceBernstein funds are being rebranded as AB funds.


Ascendant Natural Resources Fund (NRGAX) becomes only a fond memory as of February 27, 2015.

AdvisorShares International Gold and AdvisorShares Gartman Gold/British Pound ETFs liquidated at the end of January.

Cloumbia is cleaning out a bunch of funds at the beginning of March: Columbia Masters International Equity Portfolio, Absolute Return Emerging Markets Macro Fund,Absolute Return Enhanced Multi-Strategy Fund and Absolute Return Multi-Strategy Fund. Apparently having 10-11 share classes each wasn’t enough to save them. The Absolute Return funds shared the same management team and were generally mild-mannered under-performers with few investors.

Direxion/Wilshire Dynamic Fund (DXDWX) will be dynamically spinning in its grave come February 20th.

Dynamic Total Return Fund (DYNAX/DYNIX) will totally return to the dust whence it came, effective February 20th. Uhhh … if I’m reading the record correctly, the “A” shares never launched, the “I” shares launched in September 2014 and management pulled the plug after three months.

Loeb King Alternative Strategies (LKASX) and Loeb King Asia Fund (LKPAX) are being liquidated at the end of February because, well, Loeb King doesn’t want to run mutual funds anymore and they’re getting entirely out of the business. Both were pricey long/short funds with minimal assets and similar success.

New Path Tactical Allocation Fund became liquid on January 13, 2015.

In “consideration of the Fund’s asset size, strategic importance, current expenses and historical performance,” Turner’s board of directors has pulled the plug on Turner Titan Fund (TTLFX). It wasn’t a particularly bad fund, it’s just that Turner couldn’t get anyone (including one of the two managers and three of the four trustees) to invest in it. Graveside ceremonies will take place on March 13, 2015 in the family burial plot.

In Closing . . .

I try, each month, to conclude this essay with thanks to the folks who’ve supported us, by reading, by shopping through our Amazon link and by making direct, voluntary contributions. Part of the discipline of thanking folks is, oh, getting their names right. It’s not a long list, so you’d think I could manage it.

Not so much. So let me take a special moment to thank the good folks at Evergreen Asset Management in Washington for their ongoing support over the years. I misidentified them last month. And I’d also like to express intense jealousy over what appears to be the view out their front window since the current view out my front window is

out the front window

With extra careful spelling, thanks go out to the guys at Gardey Financial of Saginaw (MI), who’ve been supporting us for quite a while but who don’t seem to have a particularly good view from their office, Callahan Capital Management out of Steamboat Springs (hi, Dan!), Mary Rose, our friends Dan S. and Andrew K. (I know it’s odd, but just knowing that there are folks who’ve stuck with us for years makes me feel good), Rick Forno (who wrote an embarrassingly nice letter to which we reply, “gee, oh garsh”), Ned L. (who, like me, has professed for a living), David F., the surprising and formidable Dan Wiener and the Hastingses. And, as always, to our two stalwart subscribers, Greg and Deb. If we had MFO coffee mugs, I’d sent them to you all!

Do consider joining us for the talk with Matt and Ian. We’ve got a raft of new fund profiles in the works, a recommendation to Morningstar to euthanize one of their long-running features, and some original research on fund trustees to share. In celebration of our fourth birthday this spring, we’ve got surprises a-brewin’ for you.

Until then, be safe!


September 1, 2014

Dear friends,

They’re baaaaack!

The summer silence has been shattered. My students have returned in endlessly boisterous, hormonally-imbalanced, self-absorbed droves. They’re glued to their phones and to their preconceptions, one about as maddening as the other.

The steady rhythm of the off-season (deal with something else falling off the house, talk to a manager, mow, think, read, write, kvetch) has been replaced by getting up at 5:30 and bolting through days, leaving a blur behind.

Somewhere in the background, Putin threatens war, the market threatens a swoon, horrible diseases spread, politicians debate who among them is the most dysfunctional and someone finds time to think Deep Thoughts about the leaked nekkid pitchers of semi-celebrities.

On whole, it’s good to be back.

Seven things that matter, two that don’t … and one that might

I spoke on August 20th to about 200 folks at the Cohen Fund client conference in Milwaukee. Interesting gathering, surprisingly attractive city, consistently good food (thanks guys!) and decent coffee. My argument was straightforward and, I hope, worth repeating here: if you don’t start thinking and acting differently, you’re doomed. A version of that text follows.

Your apparent options: dead, dying or living dead

Zombies_NightoftheLivingDeadFrom the perspective of most journalists, many advisors and a clear majority of investors, this gathering of mutual fund managers and of the professionals who make their work possible looks to be little more than a casting call for the Zombie Apocalypse. You are seen, dear friends, as “the walking dead,” a group whose success is predicated upon their ability to do … what? Eat their neighbors’ brains which are, of course, tasty but, and this is more important, once freed of their brains these folks are more likely to invest in your funds.

CBS News declared you “a losing bet.” declared that you’re dead.  Joseph Duran asked, curiously, “are you a dinosaur?” Schwab declared that “a great question!” Ric Edelman, a major financial advisor, both widely quoted and widely respected, declares, “The retail mutual fund industry is a dinosaur and won’t exist in 10 or 15 more years, as investors are realizing the incredible opportunity to lower their cost, lower their risks and improve their disclosure through low-cost passive products.” When asked what their parents do for a living, your kids desperately wish they could say “my dad writes apps and mom’s a paid assassin.” Instead they mumble “stuff.” In short, you are no longer welcome at the cool kids’ table.

Serious data underlies those declarations. The estimable John Rekenthaler reports that only one-third of new investment money flows to active funds, one third to ETFs and one third to index funds. Drop target-date funds out of the equation and the amount of net inflows to funds is reduced by a quarter. The number of Google searches for the term “mutual funds” is down 80% over the past decade.


Funds liquidate or merge at the rate of 400-500  per year. Of the funds that existed 15 years ago, Vanguard found that 46% have been liquidated or merged. The most painful stroke might have been delivered by Morningstar, a firm whose fortunes were built on covering the mutual fund industry. Two weeks ago John Rekenthaler, vice president and resident curmudgeon, asked the question “do have funds have a future?”  He answered his own question with “to cut to the chase: apparently not much.”

Friends, I feel your pain. Not that zombies actually feel pain. You know if Mr. Cook accidentally rips Mr. Bynum’s arm off and bludgeons him with it, “it’s all good.” But if you did feel pain, I’d be right there with you since in a Zombies Anonymous sort of way I’m obliged to say “Hello. My name is Dave and I’m a liberal arts professor.”

The parallel experience of the liberal arts college

I teach at Augustana College – as school known only to those of you blessed with a Scandinavian Lutheran heritage or to fans of the history of college football.

We operate in an industry much like yours – higher education is in crisis, buffeted by changing demographics – a relentless decline in the number of 17 year old high school graduates everywhere except in a band of increasingly sunbaked states – changing societal demands and bizarre new competitors whose low cost models have caught the attention of regulators, journalists and parents.

You might think, “yeah, but if you’re good – if you’re individually excellent – you’ll do fine.”  “Emerson was wrong, wrong, wrong: being excellent does not imply you’ll be noticed, much less be successful.” 

mousetrapRemember that “build a better mousetrap and people will beat a path to your door” promise. Nope.  Not true, even for mousetraps. There have been over 4400 patents for mousetraps (including a bunch labeled “better mousetrap”) issued since 1839. There are dozens of different subclasses, including “Electrocuting and Explosive,” “Swinging Striker,” “Choking or Squeezing,” and 36 others. One device, patented in 1897, controls 60% of the market and a modification of it patented in 1903 controls another 15-20%. About 0.6% of patented mousetraps were able to attract a manufacturer.

The whole “succeed in the market because you’re demonstrably better” thing is certainly not true for small colleges. Let me try an argument out with you: Augustana is the best college you’ve never heard of. The best. What’s the evidence?

  • We’re #6 among all colleges in the number of Academic All-Americans we’ve produced, #2 behind only MIT as a Division 3 school.
  • We were in the top 50 schools in the 20th century for the number of our graduates who went on to earn doctorates.
  • National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) and the Wabash National Study both singled us out for the magnitude of gains that our students made over their four years.
  • The Teagle Foundation identified use as one of the 12 colleges that define the “Gold Standard” in American higher education based on our ability to vastly outperform given the assets available to us.

And yet, we’re not confident of our future. We’re competing brilliantly, but we’re competing to maintain our share of a steadily shrinking pie. Fewer students each year are willing to even consider a small school as families focus more on price rather than value or on “name” rather than education. Most workers expect to enjoy their peak earnings in their late 40s and 50s.  For college professors entering the profession today, peak lifetimes earnings might well occur in Year One.  After that, they face a long series of pay freezes or raises that come in just below the CPI.  Bain & Company estimate that one third of all US colleges and universities are financially unsustainable; they spend more than the take in and collect debt faster than they build equity. While some colleges will surely fold, the threat for most is less closure than permanent stagnation and increasing irrelevance.

Curious problem: by all but one measures (name recognition), we’re better for students than the household names but no one believes us and few will even consider attending. We’re losing to upstart competitors with inferior products and lumbering behemoths. 

And you are too.

“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves, that we are underlings.”

Half of that is our own fault. We tend to be generic and focused on ourselves, without material understanding of the bigger picture. And half of your problem is your fault: 80% of mutual funds could disappear without any noticeable loss of investors. They don’t matter. There are 500 domestic large core funds. I’d be amazed if anyone could make a compelling case for keeping 90% of them open. More correctly, those don’t matter to anyone but the advisor who needs them for business development purposes.

Here’s the test: would anyone pay good money to buy the fund from you? Get serious: half of all funds can’t draw even a penny’s investment from their own managers (Sarah Max, Fund managers who invest elsewhere). The level of fund trustee investment in the funds they oversee on behalf of the rest of us is so low, especially in the series trusts common among smaller funds, as to represent an embarrassment.

The question is: can you do anything? Will anything you do matter? In order to answer that question, it would help to understand what matters, what doesn’t … and what might.

Herewith: seven things that matter, two that don’t … and one that might.

Seven things that matter.

  1. Independence matters. Whether measured by r-squared, tracking error or active share, researchers have generated a huge body of evidence that independent thinking is a prerequisite to outstanding performance. Surprisingly, that’s true on the downside as much as the upside: higher active managers perform better in falling markets than herd-huggers do. But herding behavior is increasing. Where two-thirds of the industry’s assets were once housed in “highly active” funds, that number is now 25% and falling.
  2. Size matters. There is no evidence to suggest that “bigger is better” in the mutual fund world, at least once a fund passes the threshold of economic viability. Large funds face two serious constraints. First, their investable universes collapse; that is, if you have $10 billion to invest, there are literally thousands of small companies whose stocks become utterly meaningless to you and your forced to seek a competitive advantage against a few hundred competitors all looking at the same few hundred larger names. Second, larger funds become cash cows generating revenue essential to the adviser’s business. The livelihoods of dozens or hundreds of coworkers depend on having the manager not lose assets, much more than they depend on investment excellence. But money flows to “safe” bloated funds.
  3. Alignment of interest matters. Almost all of us know that there’s a lot of research showing that good things happen when fund managers stake their personal fortunes on the success of their funds; in particular, risk-adjusted returns rise. Fewer people know that there appears to be an even stronger effect from substantial ownership by a fund’s trustees: high trustee ownership is linked to lower risk, higher active share and less tolerance of inept management. But, Morningstar reports, something like 500 firms have funds with negligible insider ownership.
  4. Risk matters. Investors are far more risk-averse than they know. That’s one of the most frequently observed findings in the behavioral finance literature. No amount of upside offsets a tendency to crash. The sad consequence of misjudged risk is reflected in the Dalbar’s widely quoted calculations showing that investors might pocket as little as one-quarter of their funds’ returns largely because of excess confidence, excess trading and a tendency to run away as the worst possible time.
  5. Focus matters. If the goal is to provide better (not necessarily higher, but perhaps steadier, more explicable, less volatile) returns than a broad market index, then you need to look as little like the index as possible. Too many folks become “fund collectors” with sprawling portfolios, just as too many fund managers to commit to marginal ideas.
  6. Communication matters. I need to mention this because I’m, well, a professor of communication studies and we know it to be true. In general, communication from mutual funds to their investors (how to put this politely?) sucks. Websites get built for the sake of having a pretty side. Semi-annual reports get written because the SEC says to (but doesn’t say that you actually need to write anything to your investors, and many don’t). Shareholder letters get written to a template and conference calls are managed to assure that there’s no risk of anything interesting or informative breaking out. (If I hear the term “slide deck,” as in “on page 157 of your slide deck,” I’ll scream.) We know that most investors don’t understand why they’re invested or what their funds do. We know that when investors “get it,” they stay (look at Jared Peifer’s “Fund loyalty among socially responsible investors” for a study of folks who really think about their investments before making them). 
  7. Relationships matter. Managers mumbling the mousetrap mantra believe that great performance will have the world beating a path to their door. It won’t. A fascinating study by the folks at Gerstein Fisher (“Mutual fund outperformance and growth,” Journal of Investment Management, 2014) offered an entirely maddening conclusion: good performance draws assets if you’re large, but has no effect on assets if you have under a quarter billion in assets. So how do smaller funds prosper? At least from our experience, it is by having a story that makes sense to investors and a nearly evangelical advocate to tell that story, face to face, over and over. Please flag this thought: it’s not whether you’re impressed with your story. It’s not whether it makes sense to you. It’s whether it makes enough sense to investors that, once you’re gone, they can explain it with conviction to other people.

Two things that don’t. 

  1. Great returns don’t matter. Beating the market doesn’t matter. Beating your peers doesn’t matter. It’s impossible to do consistently (“peer beating” is, by definition, zero sum), it doesn’t draw assets and it doesn’t necessarily serve your investors’ needs. Consistent returns, consistently explained, might matter.
  2. Morningstar doesn’t matter. A few of you might yet win the lottery and get analyst coverage from Morningstar, but you should depend on that about the way you depend on winning the Powerball. Recent feature on “Under the Radar” funds gives you a view of Morningstar’s basement: these seven funds were consistently excellent, averaged $400 million in assets and 12 years of manager tenure – and they were still “under the radar.” In reality, Morningstar doesn’t even know that you exist. More to the point: the genius of independent funds is that they’re not cookie-cutters, but Morningstar is constrained to use a cookie-cutter. The more independent you are, the more likely that Morningstar will give you a silly peer group.

This is not, by the way, a criticism of Morningstar. I like a lot of the folks there and I know they often work like dogs to get it right. It’s simply a reflection on their business model and the complexity of the task before them. In attempting to do the greatest good for the greatest number (and to serve their shareholders), they’re inevitably drawn to the largest, most popular funds.

The one thing that might matter? 

I might say “the Observer” does.  We’ve got 26,000 readers and we’ve had the opportunity to work with dozens of journalists.  We’ve profiled over 125 smaller funds, exceeding the number of Morningstar’s small fund profiles by, well, 120.  We know you’re there and know your travails.  We’re working really hard to help folks think more clearly about small, independent funds in general and by a hundred of so really distinguished smaller funds in particular.

But a better answer is: you might matter.

But do you want to?

It is clear that we can all do our jobs without mattering.  We can attend quarterly meetings, read thick packets, listen thoughtfully to what we’ve been told, ask a trenchant question (just to prove that we’ve been listening) … and still never make six cents worth of difference to anyone. 

There may have been a time, perhaps in the days of “a rising tide,” when firms could afford to have folks more interested in getting along than in making a difference.  Those days are passed.  If you aren’t intent on being A Person Who Matters, you need to go.

How might you matter?

  1. Figure out whether you have a reason to exist.  Ask “what’s the story supposed to be?”  Look at the prospect that “your” story is so painfully generic or agonizingly technical than it means nothing to anyone.  And if you’ve got a good story, tell it passionately and well. 
  2. Align your walking and your talking.  First, pin your personal fortune on the success of your funds.  Second, get in place a corporate policy that ensures everyone does likewise.  There are several fine examples of such policies that you might borrow from your peers.  Third, let people know what your policy is and why it matters to them.
  3. Help people succeed.  Very few of the journalists who might share your message actually know enough to do it well.  And they often know it and they’d like to do better.  Great!  Find the time to help them succeed.  Become a valuable source of honest assessment, suggest story possibilities, notice when they do well.  That ethos is not limited to aiding journalists.   Help other independent funds succeed, too.  Tell people about the best of them.  Tell them what’s worked for you.  They’re not your enemies and they’re not your competitors.  They might, however, become part of a community that can help you survive.
  4. Climb out of your silo.  Learn stuff you don’t need to know.  I know compliance is tough. I know those board packets are thick. But that’s not an excuse.  Bill Bernstein earned a PhD in chemistry, then MD in neurology, pursued the active practice of medicine, started writing about asset allocation and the efficient frontier, then advising, then writing books on topics well afield of his specialties. Bill writes:  “As Warren Buffett famously observed, investing is not a game in which the person with an IQ of 160 beats the persons with an IQ of 130.  Rather, it’s a game best played by those with a broad set of skills that are rich not only in quantitative ability but also in deep historical knowledge, all deployed with an Asperger’s-like emotional detachment.”  Those of us in the liberal arts love this stuff.
  5. Build relationships, perhaps in odd ways.  Trustees: you were elected to represent the fund’s shareholders so why are you hiding from them?  Put your name and address on the website and let them know that if they have a concern, you’ll listen. Send a handwritten card to every new investor, at least those who invest directly with the fund.  Tell them they matter to you.  Heck, send them an anniversary card a year after they first invest, signed by you all.  When they go, ask “why?”  This is the only industry I’ve ever worked with that has precisely zero interest in customer loyalty.
  6. Be prepared to annoy people.  Frankly, you’re going to be richly rewarded, financially and interpersonally, for your willingness to go away.  If you try to change things, you’re going to upset at least some of the people in every room.  You’re going to hear the same refrain, over and over: “But no one does that.”
  7. Stop hiring pretty good people. Hire great ones, or no one. The hallmark of dynamic, rising institutions is their insistence on bringing in people who are so good it kind of scares the folks who are already there. That’s been the ethos of my academic department for 20 years. It is reflected in the Artisan Fund’s insistence that they will hire in only “category killers.” They might, they report, interview several dozen management teams a year and still make only one hire every two or three years. Check their record of performance and market success and draw your own conclusion. Achieving this means that you have to be a great place to work. You have to know why it’s a great place, and you have to have a strategy for making outsiders realize it, too.

Which is precisely the point. Independence is not merely a matter of portfolio construction. It’s a matter of innovation, responsibility and stewardship. It requires that you look beyond safety, look beyond asset gathering and short-term profit maximization to answer the larger question: is there any reason for us to exist?

It’s your decision. It is clear to me that business as usual will not work, but neither will hunkering down and hoping that it all goes away. Do you want to matter, or do you want to hold on – hoping that you’ll make it through despite the storm?  Like the faculty near retirement. Like Louis XV who declared, “Après moi, le déluge”. Mr. Rekenthaler concludes that “active funds retreat further into silence.” Do you want to prove him right or wrong?

If you want to make a difference, start today. Start here. Start today. Take the opportunity to listen, to talk, to learn and to decide. To decide to make all the difference you can. Which might be all the difference in the world.

charles balconyFrom Charles’s Balcony: Why Am I Rebalancing?

Long-time MFO discussion board member AKAFlack emailed me recently wondering how much investors have underperformed during the current bull market due to the practice of rebalancing their portfolios.

For those that rebalance annually, the answer is…almost 12% in total return from March 2009 through June 2014. Not huge given the healthy gains, but certainly noticeable. The graph below compares performance for a buy & hold and an annually rebalanced portfolio, assuming an initial investment of $10,000 allocated 60% to stocks and 40% to bonds.


So why rebalance?

According to a good study by Vanguard, entitled “Best practices for portfolio rebalancing,” the answer is not to maximize return. “If the sole objective is to maximize return regardless of risk, then the investor should select a 100% equity portfolio.”

The purpose of rebalancing, whether done periodically or by threshold deviation, is to keep a portfolio risk composition consistent with an investor’s tolerance, as defined by their target allocation. Otherwise, investors “can end up with a portfolio that is over-weighted to equities and therefore more vulnerable to equity-market corrections, putting the investors’ portfolios at risk of larger losses compared with their target portfolios.” This situation is evidenced in the allocation shown above for the buy & hold portfolio, which is now at nearly 80/20 stocks/bonds.

In this way, rebalancing is one way to keep loss aversion in check and the attendant consequences of selling and buying at all the wrong times, often chronicled in Morningstar’s notorious “Investor Return” tracking metric.

Balancing makes up ground, however, when equities are temporarily undervalued, like was the case in 2008. The same comparison as above but now across the most current full market cycle, beginning in November 2007, shows that annual balancing actually slighted outperformed the buy & hold portfolio.


In his book “The Ivy Portfolio,” Mebane Faber presents additional data to support that “there is a clear advantage to rebalancing sometime rather than letting the portfolio drift. A simple rebalance can add 0.1 to 0.2 to the Sharpe Ratio.”

If your first investment priority is risk management, occasional rebalancing to your target allocation is one way to help you sleep better at night, even if it means underperforming somewhat during bull markets.

edward, ex cathedraEdward, Ex Cathedra: Money money money money money money

“The mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.”

                                                                    Oscar Wilde

This has been an interesting month in the world of mutual funds and fund managers. First we have Charles D. Ellis, CFA with another landmark (and land mine) article in the Financial Analysts Journal entitled “The Rise and Fall of Performance Investing.” For some years now, starting with his magnum opus for institutional investors entitled “Winning the Loser’s Game,” Ellis has been arguing that institutional (and individual) investors would be better served by using passive index funds for their investments, rather than hiring active managers who tend to underperform the index funds. By way of disclosure, Mr. Ellis founded Greenwich Associates and made his fortune selling services to those active managers that he now writes about with the zeal of a convert.

Nonetheless the numbers he presents are fairly compelling, and for that reason difficult to accept. I am reminded of one of my former banking colleagues who was always looking for the pony that he was convinced was hidden underneath the manure in the room. I can see the results of this thinking by scanning some of the discussions on the Mutual Fund Observer bulletin board. Many of those discussions seem more attuned with how smart or lucky one was to invest with a particular manager before his or her fund closed, rather than how the investment has actually performed. And I am not talking about the performance numbers put out by the fund companies, which are artificial results for artificial investors. hp12cNo, I’m talking about the real results obtained by putting the moneys invested and time periods into one’s HP12C calculator to figure out the returns. Most people really do not want to know those numbers, otherwise they become forced to think about Senator Warren’s argument that “the game is rigged.”

Ellis however makes a point that he has made before and that I have covered before. However I feel it is so important that it is worth noting again. Most mutual fund advertising or descriptions involving fees consist of one word and a number. The fee is “only” 1% (or less for most institutional investors). The problem is that that is a phrase worthy of Don Draper, as the 1% is related to the assets the investor has given to the fund company. Yet the investor already owns the assets. What is being promised then? The answer is returns. And if one accepts the Ibbotson return histories for large cap common stocks in the U.S. as running at 8 – 10% per year over a fifty-year period, we are talking about a fee running from 10 – 12.5% a year based on returns. 

Taking this concept one step further Ellis suggests what you really should be looking at in assessing fees are the “incremental fee as a percentage of incremental returns after adjusting for risk.” And using those criteria, we would see something very different given that most active investment managers are underperforming their benchmark indices, namely that the incremental fees are above 100% Ellis goes on to raise a number of points in his article. I would like to focus on just one of them for the remainder of this commentary. One of Ellis’ central questions is “When will our clients decide that continuing to take all the risks and pay all the costs of striving to beat the market with so little success is no longer a good deal for them?”

My assessment is that we have finally hit the tipping point, and things are moving inexorably in that direction. Two weeks ago roughly, it was announced that Vanguard now has more than $3 trillion worth of assets, much of it in passive products. Jason Zweig recently wrote an article for The Wall Street Journal suggesting that the group of fund and portfolio managers in their 30’s and 40’s should start thinking about alternative careers, possibly as financial planners giving asset allocation advice to clients. The Financial Times suggests in an article detailing the relationship between Bill Gross at PIMCO and the analyst that covered him at Morningstar that they had become too close. The argument there was that Morningstar analysts had become co-opted by the fund industry to write soft criticism in return for continued access to managers. My own observational experience with Morningstar was that their mutual fund analysts had been top shelf when they were interviewing me and both independent and objective. I can’t speak now as to whether the hiring and retention criteria have changed. 

My own anecdotal observations are limited to things I see happening in Chicago. My conclusion is that the senior managers at most of the Chicago money management firms are moving as fast as they can to suck as much money out of their businesses as quickly as possible. In some respects, it has become a variation on musical chairs and that group hears the music slowing. So you will see lots of money in bonus payments. Sustainability of the business will be talked about, especially as a sop to absentee owners, but the businesses will be under-invested in, especially with regard to personnel. What do I base that on? Well, at one firm, what I will call the boys from Winnetka and Lake Forest, I was told every client meeting now starts with questions about fees. Not performance, but fees are what is primary in the client minds. The person who said this indicated he is fighting a constant battle to see that his analyst pool is being paid commensurate with the market notwithstanding an assumption by senior management that the talent is fungible and could easily be replaced at lower prices. At another firm, it is a question of preserving the “collegiality” of the fund group’s trustees when they are adding new board members. As one executive said to me about an election, “Thank God they had two candidates and picked the less problematic one in terms of our business and causing fee issues for us.”

The investment management business, especially the mutual fund business, is a wonderful business with superb returns. But to use Mr. Ellis’ phrase, is it anything more now than a “crass commercial business?” How the industry behaves going forward will offer us a clue. Unfortunately, knowing as many of the players as well as I do leads me to conclude that greed will continue to be the primary motivator. Change will not occur until it is forced upon the industry.

I will leave you with a scene from a wonderful movie, The Freshman (with Marlon Brando and Matthew Broderick) to ponder.

“This is an ugly word, this scam.  This is business, and if you want to be in business, this is what you do.”

                               Carmine Sabatini as played by Marlon Brandon

Categories Morningstar doesn’t recognize: Short-term high-yield income

There are doubtless a million ways to slice and dice the seven or eight thousand extant funds into categories. Morningstar has chosen to create 105 categories in hopes of (a) creating meaningful peer comparisons and (b) avoid mindless proliferation of categories. We’re endlessly sympathetic with their desire to maintain a disciplined, manageable system. That said, the Observer tracks some categories of funds that Morningstar doesn’t recognize, including short-term high yield, emerging markets balanced and absolute value equity.

We think that these funds have two characteristics that might be obscured by Morningstar’s assignment of them to a larger category of fundamentally different funds. First, it causes funds to be misjudged if their risk profiles vary dramatically from the group’s. Short-term high yield, for example, are doomed to one- and two-star ratings. That’s not because they fail. It’s because they succeed in a way that’s fundamentally different from the majority of their peer group. In general, high yield funds have risk profiles similar to stock funds. Short-term high yield funds have dramatically lower volatility and returns closer to a short term bond fund’s than a high yield fund’s.


[High yield/orange, ST high yield blue, ST investment grade green]

Morningstar’s risk-adjusted returns calculation is far less sensitive to risk than the Observer’s is; as a risk, the lower risk is blanketed by the lower returns and the funds end up with an undeservedly wretched rating.

Bottom line: investors who need to earn more than the payout of a money market fund (0.01% ytd) or certificates of deposit (currently 1.1% annually) might take the risk of a conventional short-term bond fund (in the hopes of making 1-2%) or might be lured by the appeal of a complex market neutral derivatives strategy (paying 2% to make 3%). Another path that might reasonably consider are short-term high yield funds that take on greater risk but whose managers generally recognize that fact and have risk-management tools at hand.

The Observer has profiled three such funds: Intrepid Income, RiverPark Short-Term High Yield (now closed to new investors) and Zeo Strategic Income.

Short-term, high Income peer group, as of 9/1/14



YTD Returns

3 yr

5 yr

Expense ratio

AllianzGI Short Duration High Income A




Eaton Vance Short Duration High Income A



Fidelity Short Duration High Income




First Trust Short Duration High Income A




Fountain Short Duration High Income A



Intrepid Income






JPMorgan Short Duration High Yield A




MainStay Short Duration High Yield A




RiverPark Short Term High Yield (closed)





Shenkman Short Duration High Income A




Wells Fargo Advantage S/T High Yield Bond A






Westwood Short Duration High Yield A




Zeo Strategic Income





Vanguard High Yield Corporate (benchmark 1)






Vanguard Short Term Corporate (benchmark 2)






Short-term high yield composite average






Over the next several months we’ll be reviewing the performance of some of these unrecognized peer groups, in hopes of having folks look beyond the stars. 

To the New Castle County executives: I know your intentions were good, but …

Shortly after taking office, the new county executive for New Castle County, Delaware, made a shocking discovery: someone has nefariously invested the taxpayers’ money in two funds that (gasp!) earned one-star from Morningstar and were full of dangerous high yield investments. The executive in question, not pausing to learn anything about what the funds actually do, snapped into action. He rushed “to protect the County reserves from the potential of significant financial loss and undo risk by directing the funds to be placed in an account representing the financial security values associated with taxpayer dollars” by giving the money to UBS (a firm fined $1.5 billion two years ago in a “rogue trading” scandal). And then he, or the county staff, wrote a congratulatory press release (New Castle County Executive Acted Quickly to Protect Taxpayer Reserves).

The funds in question were RiverPark Short-Term High Yield (RPHYX) which is one of the least volatile funds in existence and which has posted the industry’s best Sharpe ratio, and FPA New Income (FPNIX), which Morningstar celebrates as an ultra-conservative choice in the face of deteriorating markets: “thanks to its super-low volatility, its five-year Sharpe ratio, a measure of risk-adjusted returns, bests all it but one of its competitors’ in both groups.”

The press release doesn’t mention how or where UBS will be investing the taxpayer’s dollars but it does sound like UBS has decided to work for free: enviable savings resulted from the fact that New Castle County “does not pay investment management fees to UBS.”

Due diligence requires going beyond a cursory reading. It turns out that The Tale of Two Cities is not a travelogue and that Animal Farm really doesn’t offer much guidance on animal husbandry, titles notwithstanding. And it turns out that the county has sold two exceptionally solid, conservative funds – funds with about the best risk-adjusted returns possible – based on a cursory reading and spurious concerns.

Observer Fund Profiles: AKREX and MAINX

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. 

Akre Focus (AKREX): the only question about Akre Focus is whether it can be as excellent in the future has it, and its predecessors, have been for the past quarter century. 

Matthews Asia Strategic Income (MAINX): against all the noise in the markets and in the world news, Teresa Kong remains convinced that your most important sources of income in the decades ahead will increasingly be centered in Asia.  She’ll doing an exceptional job of letting you tap that future today.

Elevator Talk: Brent Olsen, Scout Equity Opportunity (SEOFX)

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.

Brent Olson is the lead portfolio manager of the Scout Equity Opportunity Fund. He joined the firm in 2013 and has more than 17 years of professional investment experience. Prior to joining Scout, Brent was director of research and a portfolio manager with Three Peaks Capital Management, LLC. From 2010-2013, Brent comanaged Aquila Three Peaks Opportunity Growth (ATGAX) and Aquila Three Peaks High Income (ATPAX) with Sandy Rufenacht. Before that, he served as an equity analyst for Invesco and both a high-yield and equity analyst for Janus.

Scout Equity Opportunity proposes to invest in leveraged companies. Leveraged companies are firms that have accumulated, or are accumulating, a noticeable level of debt on their books. These are firms that are, or were, dependent on borrowing to finance operations. Many equity investors, particularly those interested in “high quality stocks,” look askance at the practice. They’re interested in firms with low debt-to-equity ratios and the ability to finance operations internally.

Nonetheless, leveraged company stock offers the prospect for outsized gains. Tom Soviero of Fidelity Leveraged Company Stock Fund (FLVCX) captured more than 150% of the S&P 500’s upside over the course of a decade (2003-2013). The Credit Suisse Leveraged Equity Index substantially outperformed the S&P500 over the same period. Why so? Three reasons come to mind:

  1. Debt adds complexity, which increases the prospects for mispricing. Beyond the simple fact that most equity investors are not comfortable analyzing the other half of a firm’s capital structure, there are also several different kinds of debt, each of which adds its own complexity.
  2. Debt can be used wisely, which allows firms to increase their return on equity, especially when the cost of debt is low and the stock market is already rising.
  3. Indebtedness increases a firm’s accountability and transparency, since they gain the obligation to report to creditors, and to pay them regularly. They are, as a result, less free to make dumb decisions than managers deploying internally-generated capital.

The downside to leveraged equity investing is, well, the downside to leveraged equity investing.  When the market falls, leveraged company stocks can fall harder and faster than most.  By way of illustration, Fidelity Leverage Company dropped 55% in 2008. That makes it hard for many investors to hold on; indeed, by Morningstar’s calculations, Mr. Soveiro’s invested managed to pocket less than a third of his fund’s excellent returns because they tended to bail when the pain got too great.

brent_olsonBrent Olson knows the tale, having co-managed for three years a fund with a similar discipline.  He recognizes the importance of risk control and thinks that he and the folks at Scout have found a way to manage some of the strategy’s downside.

Here are Brent’s 200 words on what a manager sensitive to high-yield fixed-income metrics brings to equity investing:

We believe superior risk-adjusted relative performance can be achieved through long-term ownership of a diversified portfolio of levered stocks. We recognize debt metrics as a leading indicator for equity performance – our adage is “credit leads, equity follows” – and so we use this as the basis for our disciplined investment process. That perspective allows us to identify companies that we believe are undervalued and thus attractive for investors.

We focus our attention on stable industries with lots of free cash flow.  Within those industries, we’re looking at companies that are either using credit improvement through de-levering their balance sheet, though debt paydown or refinancing, or ones that are reapplying leverage to transform themselves, perhaps through growth or acquisitions. At the moment there are 68 names in the portfolio. There are roughly 50 other names that we’re actively monitoring with about 10 that are getting close.

We’ve thought a lot about risk management. One of the most attractive aspects of working at Scout is the deep analyst bench, and especially the strength of our fixed income team at Reams Asset Management. That gives me access to lots of data and first-rate analysis. We also can move 20% of the portfolio into fixed income in order to dampen volatility, the onset of which might be signaled by wider high-yield spreads. Finally, we can raise the ratings quality of our portfolio names.

Scout Equity Opportunity has a $1000 minimum initial investment which is reduced to a really friendly $100 for IRAs and accounts established with an automatic investing plan. Expenses are capped at 1.25% and the fund has about gathered about $7 million in assets since its March 2014 launch. Here’s the fund’s homepage. Investors intrigued by the characteristics of leveraged equity might benefit from reading Tom Soveiro’s white paper, Opportunities in Leveraged Equity Investing (2014).

Launch Alert: Touchstone Large Cap Fund (TLCYX)

On July 9, Touchstone Investments launched the Touchstone Large Cap Fund, sub-advised by The London Company. The London Company is Virginia-based RIA with over $8.7 billion in assets under management. The firm subadvises several other US-domiciled funds including:

Hennessy Equity and Income (HEIFX), since 2007. HEIFX is a $370 million, five-star LCV fund that The London Company jointly manages with FCI Advisors.

Touchstone Small Cap Core (TSFYX), since 2009. TSFYX is an $830 million, four-star SCB fund.

Touchstone Mid Cap (TMCPX), since 2011. TMCPX is a $460 million, three-star mid-cap blend fund.

American Beacon The London Company Income Equity (ABCYX), since 2012. It’s another LCV fund with about $275 million in assets.

The fund enters the most crowded part of the equity universe: large cap domestic stock.  Depending on how you count, there are 466 large blend funds. The new Touchstone fund proposes to invest in 30-40 US large cap stocks.  In particular they’re looking for financially stable firms that will compound returns over time.  Rather than looking at earnings per share, they “pay strict attention to each company’s sustainability of return on capital and resulting free cash flow and balance sheet to derive its strategic value.”  The argument is that EPS bounces, is subject to gaming and is not predictive.  Return on capital tends to be a stable predictor of strong future performance.  They target buying those firms at a 30-40% discount to intrinsic value and holding them for relatively long periods.


It’s a sound and attractive strategy.  Still, there are hundreds of funds operating in this space and dozens that might lay plausible claim to a comparable discipline. Touchstone’s president, Steve Graziano, allows that this looks like a spectacularly silly move:

If I wasn’t looking under the hood and someone came to me to launch a large cap core fund, I’d say “you must be crazy.”  It’s an overpopulated space, a stronghold of passive investing.

The reason to launch, Mr. Graziano argues, is TLC’s remarkable discipline.  They’ve used this same strategy for over 15 years in its private accounts.  Their large core composite has returned 9.7% annually over the last decade through June 30, 2014. During the same time, the S&P500 returned 7.8%.  They’ve beaten the S&P500 over the past 3, 5, 10 and 15 year periods.  The margin of victory has ranged from 130-210 bps, depending on the time period.

The firm argues that much of the strategy’s strength comes from its downside protection: “[Our] large cap core strategy focuses on investing primarily in conservative, low‐beta, large cap equities with above average downside protection.”  Over the past five years, the strategy captured 62% of the market’s downside and 96% of its upside.  That’s also reflected in the strategy’s low beta (0.77, which is striking for a fully-invested equity strategy) and low standard deviation (12.6, about 300 bps below the market’s).

Of the 500 or so large cap blend funds, only 23 can match the 9.7% annualized10-year returns for The London Company’s Large Core Strategy. Of those, only one (PIMCO StocksPlus Absolute Return PSPTX) can also match its five-year returns of 20.7%.

The minimum initial investment in the retail class is $2500, reduced to $1000 for IRAs. The expenses are capped at 1.49%. Here’s the fund’s homepage.  While it reflects the performance of the separate accounts rather than the mutual fund’s, TLC’s Large Cap Core quarterly report contains a lot of useful information on the strategy’s historic profile.

Pre-launch Alert: PSP Multi-Manager (CEFFX)

In a particularly odd development, the legal husk of the Congressional Effect Fund is being turned to good use.  As you might recall, Congressional Effect (CEFFX) was (along with the Blue Funds) another of a series of political gestures masquerading as investment vehicles. Congressional Effect went to cash whenever (evil, destructive) Congress was in session and invested in stocks otherwise. Right: out of stocks during the high-return months and in stocks over the summer and at holidays. Good.

The fund’s legal structure has been purchased by Pulteney Street Capital Management, LLC and is soon to be relaunched as the PSP Multi-Manager Fund (ticker unknown). The plan is to hire experienced managers who specialize in a set of complementary alternative strategies (long/short equity, event-driven, macro, market neutral, capital structure arbitrage and distressed) and give each of them a slice of the portfolio.  The management teams represent EastBay Asset Management, Ferro Investment Management, Riverpark Advisors, S.W. Mitchell Capital, and Tiburon Capital Management. The good news is that the fund features solid managers and a low minimum initial investment ($1000). The bad news is that the expenses (north of 3%) are near the level charged by T’ree Fingers McGurk, my local loan shark sub-prime lender.

Funds in Registration

Our colleague David Welsch tracked down 17 new no-load, retail funds in registration this month.  In general, these funds will be available for purchase by around Halloween.  (Caveat emptor.) They include new offers from several A-tier families including BBH, Brown Advisory,and Causeway.  Of special interest is the new Cambria Global Asset Allocation ETF (GAA), a passive fund tracking an active index.  Charles is working to arrange an interview with the manager, Mebane Faber, during the upcoming Morningstar ETF conference.

Manager Changes

Chip reports a huge spike in the number of announced manager or management team changes this month, with 73 recorded changes, about 30 more than we’ve being seeing over the summer months. A bunch are simple games of musical chairs (Ivy and Waddell & Reed are understandably re-allocating staff) and about as many are additions of co-managers to teams, but there are a handful of senior folks who’ve announced their retirements.

Top Developments in Fund Industry Litigation – August2014

Fundfox LogoFundfox is the only intelligence service to focus exclusively on litigation involving U.S.-registered investment companies, their directors and advisers. Publisher David Smith has agreed to share highlights with us. For a complete list of developments last month, and for information and court documents in any case, log in at and navigate to Fundfox Insider.

New Lawsuits

  • Davis was hit with a new excessive-fee lawsuit regarding its N.Y. Venture Fund (the same fund already involved in another pending fee litigation). (Chill v. Davis Selected Advisers, L.P.)
  • Alleging the same fee claim but for a different damages period, plaintiffs filed an “anniversary complaint” in the excessive-fee litigation regarding six Principal LifeTime funds. (Am. Chems. & Equip., Inc. 401(k) Ret. Plan v. Principal Mgmt. Corp.)


  • The court partly denied motions to dismiss a shareholder’s lawsuit regarding four Morgan Keegan closed-end funds, allowing misrepresentation claims under the Securities Act to proceed. (Small v. RMK High Income Fund, Inc.)

Certiorari Petition

  • Plaintiffs have filed a writ of certiorari seeking Supreme Court review of the Eighth Circuit’s ruling in an ERISA class action that challenged Fidelity‘s use of the float income generated by transactions in retirement plan accounts. (Tussey v. ABB, Inc.)


  • Davis filed a motion to dismiss excessive-fee litigation regarding its N.Y. Venture Fund. (Hebda v. Davis Selected Advisers, L.P.)
  • Putnam filed its opening brief in the appeal of a fraud lawsuit regarding its collateral management services to a CDO; and the plaintiff filed a reply. (Fin. Guar. Ins. Co. v. Putnam Advisory Co.)
  • Plaintiffs filed their opposition to Vanguard‘s motion to dismiss a lawsuit regarding investments by two funds in offshore online gambling businesses; and Vanguard filed its reply brief. (Hartsel v. Vanguard Group, Inc.)

David Hobbs, president of Cook & Bynum, and I were talking at the Cohen Fund conference about the challenges facing fund trustees.  David mentioned that he encourages his trustees to follow David Smith’s posts here since they represent a valuable overview of new legal activity in the field.  That struck me as a thoughtful initiative and so I thought I’d pass David H’s suggestion along.

A cool resource for folks seeking “liquid alts” funds

The folks at DailyAlts maintain a list of all new hedge fund like mutual funds and ETFs. The list records 52 new funds launched between January and August 2014 and offers a handful of useful data points as well as a link to a cursory overview of the strategy.


I stumbled upon the site in pursuit of something else. It struck me as a cool and useful resource and led me to a fair number of funds that were entirely new to me. Kudos to Editor Brian Haskin and his team for the good work.

Briefly Noted . . .

Arrowpoint Asset Management LLC has increased its stake in Destra Capital Management, adviser to the Destra funds, to the point that it’s now the majority owner and “controlling person” of the firm.

Causeway’s bringing it home: pending shareholder approval, Causeway International Opportunities Fund (CIOVX) will be restructured from a “fund of funds” to “a fund making direct investments in securities.” The underlying funds in question are institutional shares of Causeway’s two other international funds – Emerging Markets (CEMIX) and International Opportunities Value(CIVIX) – so it’s hard to see how much gain investors might expect. The downside: the fund needs to entirely liquidate its portfolio which will trigger “a significantly higher taxable distribution” than investors are used to. In a slightly-stern note, Causeway warns “taxable investors receiving the distributions should be prepared to pay taxes on them.” The effect of the change on the fund’s expense ratio is muddled at the moment. Morningstar’s reported e.r. for the fund, .36%, doesn’t include the expense ratios of the underlying funds. With the new fund’s expense ratio not set, we have no idea about whether the investors are likely to see their expenses rise or fall. 

Morningstar, due to their somewhat confused reporting on the expense ratios of funds-of-funds, derides the 36 basis point fee as “high”, when they should be providing the value of the expense ratio of both the fund and it’s underlying holdings. (Thanks, Ira!)


Effective August 21, FPA Crescent Fund (FPACX) became free to invest more than 50% of its assets overseas.  Direct international exposure was previously capped at 50%.  No word yet as to why.  Or, more pointedly, why now?

billsJeffrey Gundlach, DoubleLine’s founder, is apparently in talks about buying the Buffalo Bills. I’m not sure if anyone mentioned to him that E.J. Manuel (“Buffalo head coach Doug Marrone already is lowering the bar of expectation considerably for the team’s 2013 first-round pick”) is all they’ve got for a QB, unless of course The Jeffrey is imagining himself indomitably under center. That’s far from the oddest investment by a mutual fund billionaire. That honor might go to Ned Johnson’s obsessive pursuit of tomato perfection through his ownership of Backyard Farms.

On or about November 3, 2014, the principal investment strategies of the Manning Napier Real Estate and Equity Income will change to permit the writing (selling) of options on securities.

Another tough month for Marsico.  With the departure (or dismissal) of James Gendelman,  Marsico International Opportunities (MIOFX) loses its founding manager and Marsico Global (MGBLX)loses the second of its three founding managers. On the same day they lost their sub-advisory role at Litman Gregory Masters International Fund (MNILX).  Five other first-rate teams remain with the fund, whose generally fine record is marred by substantially losses in 2011.  In April 2012, one of the management teams – from Mastholm Asset Management – was dropped and performance on other sides of 2011 has been solid.

Royce Special Equity Multi-Cap Fund (RSMCX) has declared itself, and its 30 portfolio holdings, “non-diversified.”

T. Rowe Price Spectrum Income (RPSIX) is getting a bit spicy. Effective September 1, 2014, the managers may invest between 0 – 10% of the fund’s assets in T. Rowe Price Emerging Markets Local Currency Bond Fund, Floating Rate Fund, Inflation Focused Bond Fund, Inflation Protected Bond Fund, and U.S. Treasury Intermediate Fund.


Effective immediately, 361 Global Macro Opportunity, Managed Futures Strategy and Global Managed Futures Strategy fund will no longer impose a 2% redemption fee.

That’s a ridiculously small number of wins for our side.

CLOSINGS (and related inconveniences)

On September 19, 2014, Eaton Vance Multi-Cap Growth Fund (EVGFX) will be soft-closed.  One-star rating, $162 million in assets, regrettable tendency to capture more downside (108%) than upside (93%), new manager in November 2013 with steadily weakening performance since then.  This might be the equivalent of a move into hospice care.

Effective September 5, 2014, Nationwide International Value Fund (NWVAX) will close to new investors.  One star rating, $22 million in assets, a record the trails 87% of its peers: Hospice!


Effective October 1, 2014, Dunham Loss Averse Equity Income Fund (DAAVX/DNAVX) will be renamed Dunham Dynamic Macro Fund.  The revised fund will use “a dynamic macro asset allocation strategy” which might generate long or short exposure to pretty much any publicly-traded security.

Effective October 31, 2014, Eaton Vance Large-Cap Growth Fund (EALCX) gets renamed Eaton Vance Growth Fund.  The change seems to be purely designed to dodge the 80% rule since the principle investment strategies remain unchanged except for the “invests 80% of its assets in large” piece.  The fund comes across as modestly overpriced tapioca pudding: there’s nothing terribly objectionable about it but, really, why bother?  At the same time Eaton Vance Large-Cap Core Research Fund (EAERX) gains a bold new name: Eaton Vance Stock Fund.  With an R-squared that’s consistently over 98 but returns that trailed the S&P in four of the past five calendar years, it might be more accurately renamed Eaton Vance “Wouldn’t You Be Better in a Stock Index Fund?” Fund.

Oh, I know why that would be a bad name.  Because, the prospectus declares “Particular stocks owned will not mirror the S&P 500 Index.” Right, though the portfolio as a whole will.

Eaton Vance Balanced Fund (EVIFX) has become a fund of two Eaton Vance Funds: Growth and Investment Grade Income.  It’s a curious decision since the fund has had substantially above-average returns over the past five years.

Effective on October 1, 2014. Goldman Sachs Core Plus Fixed Income Fund becomes Goldman Sachs Bond Fund

On or around October 21, 2014, JPMorgan Multi-Sector Income Fund (the “Fund”) becomes the JPMorgan Unconstrained Debt Fund. Its principal investment strategy is to invest in (get ready!) “debt.” The list of allowable investments offers a hint, in listing two sorts of bank loans first and bonds fifth.


If you’ve ever wondered how big the dustbin of history is, here’s a quick snapshot of it from the Investment Company Institute’s latest Factbook. In broad terms, 500 funds disappear and 600 materialize in the average year. The industry generally sees healthy shakeouts in the year following a market crash.



etfdeathwatchRon Rowland, founder of Invest With an Edge and editor of, maintains the suitably macabre ETF Deathwatch which each month highlights those ETFs likeliest to be described as zombies: funds with both low assets and low trading volumes.  The August Deathwatch lists over 300 ETFs that soon might, and perhaps ought to, become nothing more than vague memories.

This month’s entrants to the dustbin include AMF Intermediate Mortgage Fund (ASCPX)and AMF Ultra Short Fund (AULTX), both slated to liquidate on September 26, 2014.

AllianceBernstein International Discovery Equity (ADEAX) and AllianceBernstein Market Neutral Strategy — Global (AANNX)will be liquidated and dissolved (how are those different?) on October 10, 2014.

Around December 19th, Clearbridge Equity Fund (LMQAX) merges into ClearBridge Large Cap Growth Fund (SBLGX).  LMQAX has had the same manager since 1995.

On Aug. 20, 2014, the Board of Trustees of Voyageur Mutual Funds unanimously voted and approved a proposal to liquidate and dissolve Delaware Large Cap Core Fund (DDCAX), Delaware Core Bond Fund (DPFIX) and Delaware Macquarie Global Infrastructure Fund (DMGAX). The euthanasia will occur by late October but they did not specify a date.

Direxion Indexed CVT Strategy Bear Fund (DXCVX) and Direxion Long/Short Global Currency Fund (DXAFX)are both slated to close on September 8th and liquidate on September 22nd.  Knowing that you were being eaten alive by curiosity, I checked: DXCVX seeks to replicate the inverse of the daily returns of the QES Synthetic Convertible Index. At base, it shorts convertible bonds.  Morningstar designates the fund as Direxion Indxd Synth Convert Strat Bear, for reasons not clear, but does give a clue as to its demise: it has $30,000 in AUM and has fallen a sprightly 15% since inception in February.

Horizons West Multi-Strategy Hedged Income Fund (HWCVX) will liquidate on October 6, 2014, just six months after launch.  In the interim, Brenda A. Smith has replaced Steven M. MacNamara as the fund’s president and principal executive officer.

The $100 million JPMorgan Strategic Preservation Fund (JSPAX) is slated for liquidation on September 29th.  The manager may have suffered from excessive dedication to the goal of preservation: throughout its life the fund never had more than a third of its assets in stocks.  That gave it a minimal beta (about 0.20) but also minimal appeal in generally rising markets.

Oddly, the fund’s prospectus warns that “The Fund’s total allocation to equity securities and convertible bonds will not exceed 60% of the Fund’s total assets except for temporary defensive positions.”  They never explain when moving out of cash and into stocks qualifies as a defensive move.

Parametric Market Neutral Fund (EPRAX) ceases to exist on September 19, 2014.

PIMCO, the world’s biggest bond fund shop and happiest employer, is trimming out its ETF roster: Australia Bond, Build America Bond, Canada Bond and Germany Bond disappear on or about October 1, 2014.  “This date,” PIMCO gently reminds us, “may be changed without notice at the discretion of the Trust’s officers.”  At the same time iShares, the biggest issuer of ETFs, plans to close 18 small funds with a combined asset base of a half billion dollars.  That includes 10 target-date funds plus several EM and real estate niche funds.

Prudential International Value Fund (PISAX), run by LSV, will be merged into Prudential International Equity Fund (PJRAX).  Both funds are overpriced and neither has a consistent record of adding much value, though PJRAX is slightly less overpriced and has strung through a decent run lately.

PTA Comprehensive Alternatives Fund (BPFAX) liquidates on September 15, 2014. I didn’t even know the PTA had funds, though around here they certainly have fund-raisers.

In Closing . . .

Thanks, as always, to all of you who’ve supported the Observer either by using our Amazon link (which costs you nothing but earns us 6-7% of the value of whatever you buy using it) or making a direct contribution by check or through PayPal (which costs you … well, something admittedly).  Nuts.  I really owe Philip A. a short note of thanks.  Uhhh … sorry, big guy!  The card is in the mail (nearly).

For the first time ever, the four of us who handle the bulk of the Observer’s writing and administrative work – Charles, Chip, Ed and me – are settling down to a face-to-face planning session at the end of the upcoming Morningstar ETF Conference. Which also means that we’ll be wandering around the conference. If you’re there and would like to chat with any of us, drop me a note and we’ll get it set up.

Talk to you soon, think of you sooner!



Zeo Short Duration Income (ZEOIX), July 2014

At the time of publication of this profile, the fund was named Zeo Strategic Income.

Objective and strategy

Zeo seeks “income and moderate capital appreciation.” They describe themselves as a home for your “strategic cash holdings, with the goals of protecting principal and beating inflation by an attractive margin.” While the prospectus allows a wide range of investments, the core of the portfolio has been short-term high yield bonds, secured floating rate loans and cash. The portfolio is unusually compact for a fixed-income fund. As of June 2014, they had about 30 holdings with 50% of their portfolio in the top ten. Security selection combines top-down quantitative screens with a lot of fundamental research. The advisor consciously manages interest rate, default and currency risks. Their main tool for managing interest rate risk is maintaining a short duration portfolio. It’s typically near a one year duration though might be as high as four in some markets. They have authority to hedge their interest rate exposure but rather prefer the simplicity, transparency and efficiency of simply buying shorter dated securities.


Zeo Capital Advisors of San Francisco. Zeo provides investment management services to the fund but also high net worth individuals and family offices through its separately managed accounts. They have about $146 million in assets under management, all relying on some variation of the strategy behind Zeo Strategic Income.


Venkatesh Reddy and Bradford Cook. Mr. Reddy is the founder of Zeo Capital Advisors and has been the Fund’s lead portfolio manager since inception. Prior to founding Zeo, Mr. Reddy had worked with several hedge funds, including Pine River Capital Management and Laurel Ridge Asset Management which he founded. He was also the “head of delta-one trading, and he structured derivative products as a portfolio manager within Bank of America’s Equity Financial Products group.” As a guy who specialized in risk management and long-tail risk, he was “the guy who put the hedging into the hedge fund.” Mr. Cook’s career started as an auditor for PricewaterhouseCoopers, he moved to Oaktree Capital in 2001 where he served as a vice president on their European high yield fund. He had subsequent stints as head of convertible strategies at Sterne Agee Group and head of credit research in the convertible bond group at Thomas Weisel Partners LLC before joining Zeo in 2012. Mr. Reddy has a Bachelor of Science degree in Computer Science from Harvard University and Mr. Cook earned a Bachelor of Commerce from the University of Calgary.

Strategy capacity and closure

The fund pursues “capacity constrained” strategies; that is, by its nature the fund’s strategy will never accommodate multiple billions of dollars. The advisor doesn’t have a predefined bright line because the capacity changes with market conditions. In general, the strategy might accommodate $500 million – $1 billion.

Management’s stake in the fund

As of the last Statement of Additional Information (April 2013), Mr. Reddy and Mr. Cook each had between $1 – 10,000 invested in the fund. The manager’s commitment is vastly greater than that outdated stat reveals. Effectively all of his personal capital is tied up in the fund or Zeo Capital’s fund operations. None of the fund’s directors had any investment in it. That’s no particular indictment of the fund since the directors had no investment in any of the 98 funds they oversaw.

Opening date

May 31, 2011.

Minimum investment

$5,000 and a 15 minute suitability conversation. The amount is reduced to $1,500 for retirement savings accounts. The minimum for subsequent investments is $1,000. That unusually high threshold likely reflects the fund’s origins as an institutional vehicle. Up until October 2013 the minimum initial investment was $250,000. The fund is available through Fidelity, Schwab, Scottrade, Vanguard and a handful of smaller platforms.

Expense ratio

The reported expense ratio is 1.50% which substantially overstates the expenses current investors are likely to encounter. The 1.50% calculation was done in early 2013 and was based on a very small asset base. With current fund assets of $104 million (as of June 2014), expenses are being spread over a far larger investor pool. This is likely to be updated in the next prospectus.


ZEOIX exists to help answer a simple question: how do we help investors manage today’s low yield environment without setting them up for failure in tomorrow’s rising rate one? Many managers, driven by the demands of “scalability” and marketing, have generated complex strategies and sprawling portfolios (PIMCO Short Term, for example, has 1500 long positions, 30 shorts and a 250% turnover) in pursuit of an answer. Zeo, freed of both of those pressures, has pursued a simpler, more elegant answer.

The managers look for good businesses that need to borrow capital for relatively short periods at relatively high rates. Their investable universe is somewhere around 3000 issues. They use quantitative screens for creditworthiness and portfolio risk to whittle that down to about 150 investment candidates. They investigate those 150 in-depth to determine the likelihood that, given a wide variety of stressors, they’ll be able to repay their debt and where in the firm’s capital structure the sweet spot lies. They end up with 20-30 positions, some in short-term bonds and some in secured floating-rate loans (for example, a floating rate loan at LIBOR + 2.8% to a distressed borrower secured by the borrower’s substantial inventory of airplane spare parts), plus some cash.

Mr. Reddy has substantial experience in risk management and its evident here.

This is not a glamorous niche and doesn’t promise glamorous returns. The fund returned 3.6% annually over its first three years with essentially zero (-0.01) correlation to the aggregate bond market. Its SMA composite has posted negative returns in six of 60 months but has never lost money in more than two consecutive months (during the 2011 taper tantrum). The fund’s median loss in a down month is 0.30%.

The fund’s Sharpe ratio, the most widely quoted calculation of an investment’s risk/return balance, is 2.35. That’s in the top one-third of one percent of all funds in the Morningstar database. Only 26 of 7250 funds can match or exceed that ratio and just six (including Intrepid Income ICMUX and the closed RiverPark Short Term High Yield RPHYX funds) have generated better returns.

Zeo’s managers, like RiverPark’s, think of the fund as a strategic cash management option; that is, it’s the sort of place where your emergency fund or that fraction of your portfolio that you have chosen to keep permanently in cash might reside. Both managers think of their funds as something appropriate for money that you might need in six months, but neither would be comfortable thinking of it as “a money market on steroids” or any such. Both are intensely risk-alert and have been very clear that they’d far rather protect principal than reach for yield. Nonetheless, some bumps are inevitable. For visual learners, here’s the chart of Zeo’s total returns since inception (blue) charted against RPHYX (orange), the average short-term bond fund (green) and a really good money market fund (Vanguard Prime, the yellow line).


Bottom Line

All funds pay lip service to the claim “we’re not for everybody.” Zeo means it. Their reluctance to launch a website, their desire to speak directly with you before you invest in the fund and their willingness to turn away large investments (twice of late) when they don’t think they’re a good match with their potential investor’s needs and expectations, all signal an extraordinarily thoughtful relationship between manager and investor. Both their business and investment models are working. Current investors – about a 50/50 mix of advisors and family offices – are both adding to their positions and helping to bring new investors to the fund, both of which are powerful endorsements. 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.

Fund website

Effectively none. contains the same information you’d find on a business card. (Yeah, I know.) Because most of their investors come through referrals and personal interactions it’s not a really high priority for them. They aspire to a nicely minimalist site at some point in the foreseeable future. Until then you’re best off calling and chatting with them.

Fund Fact Sheet

© Mutual Fund Observer, 2014. All rights reserved. The information here reflects publicly available information current at the time of publication. For reprint/e-rights contact us.

June 1, 2014

Dear friends,

Dear friends,

Well, we’ve done it again. Augustana just launched its 154th set of graduates in your direction. Personally, it’s my 29th set of them. I think you’ll enjoy their company, if not always the quality of their prose. They’re good kids and we’ve spent an awful lot of time teaching them to ask questions more profound than “how much does it pay?” or “would you like fries with that?”  We’ve tried, with some success, to explain to them that leadership flows from service, that words count, that deeds count, and that other people count.

They are, on whole, a work well begun. The other half is up to you and to them.

As for me and my colleagues, two months to recoup and then 714 more chances to make a difference.


All the noise, noise, noise, noise!


Here’s my shameful secret: I have no idea of why global stock markets at all-time highs nor when they will cease to be there. I also don’t know quite what investors are doing or thinking, much less why. Hmmm … also pretty much confused about what actions any of it implies that I should take.

I spent much of the month of May paying attention to questions like the ones implied above and my interim conclusion is that that was not a good use of my time. There are about 300 million Americans who need to make sense out of their world and about 57,000 Americans paid to work as journalists and four times that many public relations specialists who are charged with telling them what it all means. And, sadly, there’s a news hole that can never be left unfilled; that is, if you have a 30 minute news program (22.5 minutes plus commercials), you need to find 22.5 minutes worth of something to say even when you think there’s nothing to say.

And so we’re inundated with headlines like these from the May issues of The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times (noted as NYT):

Investors Abandon Riskier Assets (WSJ, May 16, C1) “Investors stepped up their retreat from riskier assets …”   Except when they did the opposite four pages later:

Higher-Yielding Bank Debt Draws Interest (WSJ, May 16, C4) “Investors are scooping up riskier bonds sold by banks …”

Small Stocks Fuel a Run to Records (WSJ, May 13, C1) but then again Smaller Stocks Slammed in Selloff (WSJ, May 21, C1)

The success of “safe” strategies is encourage folks to pursue unsafe ones. Bonds Flip Scripts on Risk, Reward (WSJ, May 27, C1) “Bonds perceived as safe have produced better returns than riskier ones for the first time since 2010… in response, many investors are doubling down on riskier debt.”And so Riskier Fannie Bonds Are Devoured (WSJ, May 21, C1).

Market Loses Ground as Investors Seek Safety (NYT, May 14) “The stock market fell back from record levels on Wednesday as investors decided it was better to play it safe… ‘There’s some internal self-correction and rotation going on beneath the surface,’ said Jim Russell, a regional investment director at U.S. Bank.”  But apparently that internal self-correction self-corrected within nine days because Investors Show Little Fear (WSJ, May 23, C1) “Many traders say they detect little fear in the market lately.  They cite a financial outlook that is widely perceived to pose little risk of an economic or market downturn: near-record stock prices, low interest rates, steady if unspectacular U.S. growth and expansive if receding Federal Reserve support for the economy and financial markets.”

And so the fearless fearful are chucking money around:

Penny Stocks Fuel Big-Dollar Dreams (WSJ, May 23, C1) “Investors are piling into the shares of small, risky companies at the fastest clip on record, in search of investments that promise a chance of outsize returns.  Investors are buying up so-called penny stocks … at a pace that far eclipses the tech boom of the 1990s.”  The author notes that average trading volume is up 40% over last year which was, we’ll recall, a boom year for stocks.

Investors Return to Emerging World (WSJ, May 29, C1) “Investors are settling in for another ride in emerging markets … The speed with which investors appear to have forgotten losses of 30% in some markets has been startling.”

Searching for Yield, at Almost Any Price (NYT, May 1) “Fixed-income investors trying to increase their income essentially have two options. One is to extend maturities. The other is to reduce credit quality. There are risks to both. The prices of long-term bonds fall sharply when interest rates go up. Lower-quality bonds are more likely to default.  These days, lower quality, rather than longer maturities, seems to be more popular. Money has poured into mutual funds that invest in bank loans — often low-quality ones. To a lesser extent, it has also gone into high-yield mutual funds that buy bonds rated below investment grade, known as junk bonds to those who are dubious of them.”

So, all of this risk-chasing means that it’s Time to Worry About Stock Market Bubbles (NYT, May 6) “Relative to long-term corporate earnings – and more in a minute on why that measure is important – stocks have been more expensive only three times over the past century than they are today, according to data from Robert Shiller, a Nobel laureate in economics. Those other three periods are not exactly reassuring, either: the 1920s, the late 1990s and in the prelude to the 2007 financial crisis.” … Based on history, stocks look either very expensive or somewhat expensive right now. Mr. Shiller suggests that the most likely outcome may be worse returns in coming years than the market has delivered over recent decades – but still better than the returns of any other investment class.”  Great. Worst except for all the others.

Good news, though: there’s no need to worry about stock market bubbles as long as people are worrying about stock market bubbles. That courtesy of the Leuthold Group, which argues that bubbles are only dangerous once we’ve declared that there is no bubble but only a new, “permanently high plateau.”

Happily, our Republican colleagues in the House agree and seem to have decided that none of the events of 2007-08 actually occurred. Financial Crisis, Over and Already Forgotten (NYT, May 22) “Michael S. Barr, a law professor at the University of Michigan who was an assistant Treasury secretary when the financial crisis was at its worst, is working on a book titled Five Ways the Financial System Will Fail Next Time. The first of them, he says, is ‘amnesia, willful and otherwise,’ regarding the causes and consequences of the crisis. Let’s hope the others are not here yet [since a]mnesia was on full view this week.”

Wait!  Wait!  Josh Brown is pretty sure that they did occur, might well re-occur and probably still won’t get covered right:

Okay can we be honest for a second?

The similarities between now and the pre-crisis era are f**king sickening at this point.

There, I said it.  

 (After a couple paragraphs and one significant link.)

To recap – Volatility is nowhere to be found – not in currencies, in fixed income or in equities. Complacency rules the day as investors and institutions gradually add more risk, using leverage and increasingly exotic vehicles to reach for diminishing returns in an aging bull market. This as economic growth – led by housing and consumer spending – stalls out and the Fed removes stimulus that never really worked in the first place.

And once again, the media is oblivious for the most part, fixated as it is on a French economist and the valuations of text messaging startups.

(Second Verse, Same as the First, 05/29/14)

You wouldn’t imagine that those of us who try to communicate for a vocation might argue that you need to read (watch and listen) less, rather than more but that is the position that several of us tend toward.

Tadas Viskanta , proprietor of the very fine Abnormal Returns blog, calls for “a news diet” in his book, Abnormal Returns: Winning Strategies from the Frontlines of the Investment Blogosphere (2012).  He argues:

A media diet, as practiced by Nassim Taleb, is a conscious effort to decrease the amount of media we consume. Most of what we consume is “empty calories.” Most of it has little information value and can only serve to crowd out other more interesting and informative sources.

That’s all consistent with Barry Ritzholz’s argument that the stuff which makes great and tingly headlines – Black Swans, imminent crashes, zombie apocalypses – aren’t what hurts the average investor most. We’re hurt most, he says during a presentation at the FPA NorCal Conference in 2014, by the slow drip, drip, drip of mistakes: high expenses, impulsive trading and performance chasing. None of which is really news.

Josh Brown, who writes under the moniker The Reformed Broker at a blog of the same name, disagrees.  One chapter of this new book The Clash of the Financial Pundits (2014)is entitled “The Myth of the Media Diet.”  Brown argues that we have no more ability to consistently abstain from news than we have to consistently abstain from sugary treats.  In his mind, the effort of suppressing the urge in the first place just leads to cheating and then a return, unreformed, to our original destructive habits: “A true media diet virtually assures an overreaction to market volatility and expert prognostication once the dieter returns to the flashing lights and headlines.”  He argues that we need to better understand the financial media in order to keep intelligently informed, rather than entirely pickled in the daily brew.

And Snowball’s take on it all?

I actually teach about this stuff for a living, from News Literacy to Communication and Emerging Technologies. My best reading of the research supports the notion that we’ve become victims of continuous partial attention. There are so many ways of reaching us and we’re so often judged by the speed of our response (my students tell me that five minutes is the longest you can wait before responding to text without giving offense), that we’re continually dividing our attention between the task at hand and a steady stream of incoming chatter. (15% of us have interrupted sex to take a cellphone call while a third text while driving.) It’s pervasive enough that there are now reports in the medical literature of sleep-texting; that is, hearing an incoming text while asleep, rousing just enough to respond and then returning to sleep without later knowing that any of this had happened. We are, in short, training ourselves to be distracted, unsure and unfocused.

Fortunately, we can also retrain ourselves to become more focused. Focus requires discipline; not “browsing” or “link-hopping,” but regular, structured attention. In general, I pay no attention to “the news” except during two narrow windows each day (roughly, the morning when I have coffee and read two newspapers and during evening commutes). During those windows, I listen to NPR News which – so far as I can determine – has the most consistently thoughtful, in-depth journalism around.

But beyond that, I do try to practice paying intense and undivided attention to the stuff that’s actually important: I neither take and make calls during my son’s ballgames, I have no browser open when my students come for advice, and I seek no distraction greater than jazz when I’m reading a book. 

It’s not smug self-indulgence, dear friends. It’s survival. I really want to embrace my life, not wander distractedly through it. For investors, that means making fewer, more thoughtful decisions and learning to trust that you’ve gotten it right rather than second-guessing yourself throughout the day and night.

charles balcony
How Good Is Your Fund Family?

Question: How many funds at Dodge & Cox beat their category average returns since inception?

Answer: All of them.


In the case of Dodge & Cox, “all” is five funds:  DODBX, DODFX, DODGX, DODIX, and DODWX. Since inception, or at least as far back as January 1962, through March 2014, each has beaten its category average.

Same is true for these families: First Eagle, Causeway, Marsico, and Westwood.

For purposes of this article, a “fund family” comprises five funds or more, oldest share class only, with each fund being three years or older.

Obviously, no single metric should be used or misused to select a fund. In this case, fund lifetimes are different. Funds can perform inconsistently across market cycles. Share class representing “oldest” can be different. Survivorship bias and category drift can distort findings. Funds can be mis-categorized or just hard to categorize, making comparisons less meaningful.

Finally, metrics based on historical performance may say nothing of future returns, which is why analysis houses (e.g., Morningstar) examine additional factors, like shareholder friendliness, experience, and strategy to identify “funds with the highest potential of success.”

In the case of Marsico, for example, its six funds have struggled recently. The family charges above average expense ratios, and it has lost some experienced fund managers and analysts. While Morningstar acknowledges strong fund performance within this family since inception, it gives Marsico a negative “Parent” rating.

Nonetheless, these disclaimers acknowledged, prudent investors should know, as part of their due diligence, how well a fund family has performed over the long haul.

So, question: How many funds at Pacific Life beat category average returns since inception?

Applying the same criteria as above, the sad truth is: None of them.

PL funds are managed by Pacific Life Fund Advisors LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Pacific Life Insurance Company of Newport Beach, CA. Here from their web-site:


Got that?

Same sad truth for these families: AdvisorOne, Praxis, Integrity, Oak Associates, Arrow Funds, Pacific Financial, and STAAR.

In the case of Oak Associates, its seven funds have underperformed against their categories by 2.4% every year for almost 15 years! (They also experience maximum drawdown of -70.0% on average, or 13.1% worse than their categories.) Yet it proudly advertises recent ranking recognition by US News and selection to Charles Schwab’s OneSource. Its motto: “A Focus on Growth.”

To be clear, my colleague Professor Snowball has written often about the difficulties of beating benchmark indices for those funds that actually try. The headwinds include expense ratios, loads, transaction fees, commissions, and redemption demands. But the lifetime over- and under-performance noted above are against category averages of total returns, which already reflect these headwinds.

Overview. Before presenting performance results for all fund families, here’s is an overall summary, which will put some of the subsequent metrics in context:


It remains discouraging to see half the families still impose front load, at least for some share classes – an indefensible and ultimately shareholder unfriendly practice. Three quarters of families still charge shareholders a 12b-1 fee. All told shareholders pay fund families $12.3 billion every year for marketing. As David likes to point out, there are more funds in the US today than there are publically traded US companies. Somebody must pay to get the word out.

Size. Fidelity has the most number of funds. iShares has the most ETFs. But Vanguard has the largest assets under management.


Expense. In last month’s MFO commentary, Edward Studzinski asked: “It Costs How Much?

As a group, fund families charge shareholders $83.3 billion each year for management fees and operating costs, which fall under the heading “expense ratio.” ER includes marketing fees, but excludes transaction fees, loads, and redemption fees.


It turns out that no fund family with an average ER above 1.58% ranks in the top performance quintile, as defined below, and most families with an average ER above 2.00 end up in the bottom quintile.

While share class does not get written about very often, it helps reveal inequitable treatment of shareholders for investing in the same fund. Typically, different share classes charge different ERs depending on initial investment amount, load or transaction fee, or association of some form. American has the largest number of share classes per fund with nearly five times the industry average.

Rankings. The following tables summarize top and bottom performing families, based on the percentage of their funds with total returns that beat category averages since inception:


As MFO readers would expect, comparison of top and bottom quintiles reveals the following tendencies:

  • Top families charge lower ER, 1.06 versus 1.45%, on average
  • Fewer families in top quintile impose front loads, 21 versus 55%
  • Fewer families in top quintile impose 12b-1 fees, 64 versus 88%

For this sample at least, the data also suggests:

  • Top families have longer tenured managers, if slightly, 9.6 versus 8.2 years
  • Top families have fewer share classes, if slightly (1.9 versus 2.3 share class ratio, after 6 sigma American is removed as an outlier; otherwise, just 2.2 versus 2.3)

The complete set of metrics, including ER, AUM, age, tenure, and rankings for each fund family, can be found in MFO Fund Family Metrics, a downloadable Google spreadsheet. (All metrics were derived from Morningstar database found in Steel Mutual Fund Expert, dated March 2014.)

A closer look at the complete fund family data also reveals the following:


Some fund families, like Oakmark and Artisan, have beaten their category averages by 3-4% every year for more than 10 years running, which seems quite extraordinary. Whether attributed to alpha, beta, process, people, stewardship, or luck…or all the above. Quite extraordinary.

While others, frankly too many others, have done just the opposite. Honestly, it’s probably not too hard to figure out why.


Good news for Credit Suisse shareholders

CS just notified its shareholders that they won’t be sharing a cell with company officials.


On May 19, 2014, the Department of Justice nailed CS for conspiracy to commit tax fraud. At base, they allowed US citizens to evade taxes by maintaining illegal foreign accounts on their behalf. CS pled guilty to one criminal charge, which dents the otherwise universal impulse “to neither admit nor deny” wrongdoing. In consequence, they’re going to make a substantial contribution to reducing the federal budget deficit. CS certainly admits to wrong-doing, they have agreed to pay “over $1.8 billion” to the government, to ban some former officials, and to “undertake certain remedial actions.” The New York Times reports that the total settlement will end up around $2.6 billion dollars. The Economist calls it $2.8 billion.

Critics of the settlement, including Senator John McCain of Arizona, were astonished that the bank was not required to turn over the names of the tax cheats nor were “any officers, directors or key executives individually accountable for wrongdoing.” Comparable action against UBS, another Swiss bank with a presence in the US mutual fund market, in 2009 forced them to disclose the identities of 4700 account holders. The fact that CS seems intent to avoid discovering the existence of wrongdoing (the Times reports that the firm “did not retain certain documents, failed to interview potentially culpable bankers before they left the firm, and did not start an internal inquiry” for a long while after they had reason to suspect a crime), some argue that the penalties should have been more severe and more targeted at senior management.

If you want to get into the details, the Times also has a nice online archive of the legal documents in the case.

Here’s the good news part: CS reports that “The recent settlements … do not involve the Funds or Credit Suisse Asset Management, LLC, Credit Suisse Asset Management Limited or Credit Suisse Securities (USA) LLC [and] will not have any material impact on the Funds or on the ability of the CS Service Providers to perform services for the Funds.” Of course the fact that CSAM is tied to a criminal corporation would impede their ability to run US funds except for a “temporary exemptive order” from the SEC “to permit them to continue serving as investment advisers and principal underwriters for U.S.-registered investment companies, such as the Funds. Due to a provision in the law governing the operation of U.S.-registered investment companies, they would otherwise have become ineligible to perform these activities as a result of the plea in the Plea Agreement.”

If the SEC makes permanent its temporary exemptive order, then CSAM could continue to manage the funds albeit with the prospect of somewhat-heightened regulatory interest in their behavior. If the commission does not grant permanent relief, the house of cards will begin to tumble.

Which is to say, the SEC is going to play nice and grant the exemption.

One other bit of good news for CS and its shareholders: at least you’re not BNP Paribas which was hoping to get off with an $8 billion slap on the wrist but might actually be on the hook for $10 billion in connection with its assistance to tax dodgers.

Another argument for a news diet: Reuters on the end of the world

A Reuter’s story of May 28 reads, in its entirety:

BlackRock CEO says leveraged ETFs could ‘blow up’ whole industry

May 28 (Reuters) – BlackRock Inc Chief Executive Larry Fink said on Wednesday that leveraged exchange-traded funds contain structural problems that could “blow up” the whole industry one day.

Fink runs a company that oversees more than $4 trillion in client assets, including nearly $1 trillion in ETF assets.

“We’d never do one (a leveraged ETF),” Fink said at Deutsche Bank investment conference in New York. “They have a structural problem that could blow up the whole industry one day.”

Didja notice anything perhaps missing from that story?  You know, places where the gripping narrative might have gotten just a bit thin?


Really, guy, you claim to be covering the end of the world – or of the investment industry or ETF industry or something – and the best you could manage was 75 words that skipped, oh, every essential element of the story?

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. 

Dodge & Cox Global Bond (DODLX): Dodge & Cox, which has been helping the rich stay rich since the Great Depression, is offering you access to the world’s largest asset class, international bonds.  Where their existing Income fund (DODIX) is domestic and centered on investment-grade issues, Global Bond is a converted limited partnership that can go anywhere and shows a predilection for boldness.

RiverNorth/Oaktree High Income (RNOTX): “high income” funds are often just high-yield bond funds with a handful of dividend stocks tossed in for flavor. RiverNorth and Oaktree promise a distinctive and principled take on the space: they’re allocating resources tactically between three very distinct high-income asset classes. Oaktree will pursue their specialty in senior loan and high-yield debt investing while RiverNorth continues to exploit inefficiency and volatility with their opportunistic closed-end fund strategy. They are, at base, looking for investors rational enough to profit from the irrationality of others.

Lookin’ goooood!

As you’ve noticed, the Observer’s visual style is pretty minimalist – there are no flashing lights, twirling fonts, or competing columns and there’s pretty minimal graphic embellishment.  We’re shooting for something that works well across a variety of platforms (we know that a fair chunk of you are reading this on your phone or tablet while a brave handful are relying on dial-up connections).

From time to time, fund companies commission more visually appealing versions of those reprints.  When they ask for formatted reprints, two things happen: we work with them on what are called “compliance edits” so that they don’t run afoul of FINRA regulations and, to a greater or lesser extent, our graphic design team (well, Barb Bradac is pretty much the whole team but she’s really good) works to make the profiles more visually appealing and readable.

Those generally reside on the host companies’ websites, but we thought it worthwhile to share some of the more recent reprints with folks this month.  Each of the thumbnails opens into a full .pdf file in a separate tab.

A sample of recent reprints:

 Beck, Mack & Oliver

 Tributary Balanced

Evermore Global Value


Intrepid Income

Guinness Atkinson Inflation Managed Dividend

RiverPark/Gargoyle Hedged Value


And what about the other hundred profiles?

We’ve profiled about a hundred funds, all of which are accessible under the Funds tab at the top of the page. Through the kind of agency of my colleague Charles, there’s also a monthly update for every profiled fund in his MFO Dashboard, which he continues to improve. If you want an easy, big picture view, check out the Dashboard – also on the Funds page


Elevator Talk: David Bechtel, Principal, Barrow All-Cap Core (BALAX / BALIX)


Since 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.

Barrow All-Cap Core has the unusual distinction of sporting a top tier five year record despite being less than one year old. The secret is that the fund began life as a private partnership at the end of 2008. It was designed as a public equity vehicle run by private equity investors.

Their argument is that they understand both value and business prospects in ways that are fundamentally different than typical stock investors do. Combining both operating experience with a record of buying entire companies, they’re used to different metrics and different perspectives.

While you might be tempted to dismiss that as “big talk,” two factors might moderate your skepticism. First, their portfolio – typically about 200 names – really is way different from their competitors’. While Morningstar benchmarks them against the large-value group (a style box in which Barrow places just 5% of their money), the fund nearly reversed the size profile of its peers: it has about 20% in large caps, 30% in mid caps and 50% in small caps. Its peer group has about 80% in large caps. The entire portfolio is invested in six sectors, with effectively zero exposure to the four others (including financials and tech). By almost any measure (long-term earnings growth, level of corporate debt, free cash flow generation), their portfolio is substantially higher-quality than its peers. Second, the strategy’s performance – primarily as a private partnership, lately as a mutual fund – has been absolutely first tier: top 3% since inception 12/31/08 and in the top 20% in every calendar year since inception. Overall they’ve earned about 20% annually, better than both the S&P 500 and its large-value peers.

BALAX is managed by Nicholas Chermayeff, formerly of Morgan Stanley’s Principal Investment Group, and Robert F. Greenhill, who co-founded Barrow Street Advisors LLC, the fund’s advisor, after a stint at Goldman Sachs’ Whitehall Funds. Both are Harvard graduates (unlike some of us). The Elevator Talk itself, though, was provided by Yale graduate David Bechtel, a Principal of Barrow Street Advisors LLC, the fund’s advisor, who serves on its Investment Committee, and advises on the firm’s business development activities. He is a Founder and Managing Member of Outpost Capital Management LLC which structures and manages investments in the natural resources and financial services sectors. Mr. Bechtel offered just a bit more than 200 words to explain Barrow’s distinctiveness:

We are, first and foremost, private equity investors. Since Barrow Street was founded in 1997, we have invested and managed hundreds of millions in private market opportunities. The public equity strategy (US stocks only) used in Barrow All-Cap was funded by our own capital in 2008.

We launched this strategy and the fund to meet what we viewed as a market need. We take a private equity approach to security selection. We are not a “value” manager – selecting stocks based on low p/e, etc. – nor a pure “quality” manager – buying blue chips at any price. We look for very high quality companies whose shares are temporarily trading at a discount.


We look at value and quality the way a control investor in a business would. We emphasize cash flow, sales growth per unit of capital, operating margins, and we like companies that reinvest in their businesses. That gives us a very good feeling that not only is the management team interested in growing their business, but also that the business itself is good at generating cash.

On the valuation side, we’re looking for firms that are “momentarily” trading well-below intrinsic value. The general idea is to look at total enterprise value – equity market cap plus debt and preferred stock minus cash on the books – which controls for variations on capital structures, leverage, etc.

We’re trying to differentiate by combining our private equity approach to quality and value into one strategy at the security selection level. And, we are just as dedicated to portfolio diversification to help our investors better weather market volatility. It’s a portfolio without compromises. We think that’s very unusual in the mutual fund universe.

The fund has both institutional and retail share classes. The retail class (BALAX) has a $2500 minimum initial investment. Expenses are 1.41% with about $22 million in assets. The institutional share class (BALIX) is $250,000 and 1.16%. Here’s the fund’s homepage. The content there is modest but useful. 

Funds in Registration

Funds currently in registration with the SEC will generally be available for purchase some time in July, 2014. Our dauntless research associate David Welsch tracked down 12 new no-load funds in registration this month. While there are no immediately tantalizing registrants, there are two flexible bond funds being launched by well-respected small fund families (Weitz Core Plus Income and William Blair Bond Fund) plus the conversion of a pretty successful private options-hedged equity strategy (V2 Hedged Equity Fund, though I would prefer that we not name our investments after the Nazi “Vengeance Weapon 2”).

All of the new registrants are available on the June Funds in Registration page.

Manager Changes


The manager change story-of-the-month comes from S&P Capital IQ. While the report is not publicly available, its conclusion is widely reported: “Of 6,185 U.S. equity mutual funds tracked by Rosenbluth’s firm, more than a thousand of them, or 16.3%, have experienced a manager change since February 2011.” Oddly, the journalists reporting on the story including Brendan Conaway at Barron’s and the Mutual Fund Wire staff, don’t seem to ask the fundamental question: how often does it matter?  They do point to do instances cited by Rosenbluth (Janus Contrarian and Fidelity Growth & Income) where the manager change was worth noting, but don’t ask how typical those cases are.

A far more common pattern, however, is that what’s called a “fund manager change” is actually a partial shuffle of an existing management team. For example, our May “manager changes” feature highlighted 52 manager changes but 36 of those (70% of the total) were partial changes. Example would be New Covenant Growth Fund (NCGFX) where one of the 17 members of the management team departed, Fidelity Series Advisor Growth Opportunities Fund (FAOFX) where there’s a long-term succession strategy or a bunch of the Huntington funds where no one left but a new co-manager was added to the collection.

Speaking of manager changes, Chip this month tracked down 57 sets of them.

Updates: the Justin Frankel/Josh Brown slapfest over liquid alts

Josh Brown, the above-named “reformed broker,” ran a piece in mid-May entitled Brokers, Liquid Alts and the Fund that Never Goes Up. He discusses the fate of Andrew Lo and ASG Diversifying Strategies Fund (DSFAX):

Dr. Andrew Lo vehicle called ASG Diversifying Strategies Fund. The idea was that Dr. Lo, perhaps one of the most brilliant quantitative scientists and academicians in finance (MIT, Harvard, all kinds of awards, PhDs out the ass, etc), would be incorporating a variety of approaches to manage the fund using all asset classes, derivatives and trading methodologies that he and his team saw fit to apply.

What actually did happen was this: Andy Lo, maybe one of the smartest men in the history of finance, managed to invent a product that literally cannot make money in any environment. It’s an extraordinarily rare accomplishment; I don’t think you could go out and invent something that always loses money if you were actually attempting to.

Brown’s argument is less with liquid alts as an arena for investing, and more with the brokers who continue to push investors into a clearly failed strategy.

Justin Frankel, probably the only RiverPark manager that we haven’t spoken with and co-manager of RiverPark Structural Alpha Fund (RSAFX), quickly rushed to the barricades to defend Alt-land from the barbarian horde (and, in doing so, responded to an argument that Brown wasn’t actually making). He published his defense on, of all things, his Tumblr page:

The Wall Street machine has a long history of favoring institutions over individuals, and the ultra-high net worth over the mass affluent. After all, finance is a service industry, and it is those larger clients that pay the lion’s share of fees.

Liquid Alternatives are simply hedge fund strategies wrapped in a mutual fund format … From a practical standpoint, investors should view these strategies as a way to diversify either bond or stock holdings in order to provide non-correlated returns to their investment portfolios, cushion portfolios against downside risks, and improve risk-adjusted returns.

Individual investors have become more sophisticated consumers of financial products. Liquid Alternatives are not just a democratization of the alternative investing landscape. They represent an evolution in how investors can gain access to strategies that they could never invest in before.

Frankel’s argument is redolent of Morty Schaja’s stance, that RiverPark is bringing hedge fund strategies to the “mass affluent” though with a $1000 minimum, they’re available to the mass mass, too.

Both pieces, despite their possibly excessive fraternity, are worth reading.

Briefly Noted . . .


Manning and Napier is adding options to the funds in their Pro-Blend series. Effective on July 14, 2014, the funds will gain the option of writing (which is to say, say selling) options on securities and pursuing a managed futures (a sort of asset-class momentum) strategy. And since the Pro-Blend funds are used in Manning & Napier’s target-date retirement funds, the strategy changes ripple into them, too.

This month, most especially, I’m drawing on the great good work of The Shadow in tracking down the changes below. “Go raibh mile maith agaibh as bhur gcunamh” big guy! Thanks, too, to the folks on the discussion board for their encouragement during the disruptions caused by my house move this month.



Cook and Bynum logo

Donald P. Carson, formerly the president of an Atlanta-based investment holding company and now a principal at Ansley Securities, joined the Board of The Cook & Bynum Fund (COBYX) in April and has already made an investment in the fund in the range of $100,001 – $500,000.  Two things are quite clear from the research: (1) having directors – as distinct from managers – invested in a fund improves its risk-return profile and (2) it’s relatively rare to see substantial director investment in a fund.  The managers are deeply invested in the fund and it’s great that their directors are, too.

The Osterweis funds (Osterweis, Strategic Income, Strategic Investment and Institutional Equity) will all, effective June 30 2014 drop their 30-day, 2.0% redemption fees.  I’m always ambivalent about eliminating such fees, since they discourage folks from trading in and out of funds, but most folks cheer the flexibility so we’re willing to declare it “a small win.”  


Effective May 16, 2014, the minimum initial investment on the institutional class of the RiverPark funds (Large Growth, RiverPark/Wedgewood Fund, Short Term High Yield, Long/Short Opportunity, RiverPark/Gargoyle Hedged Value, Structural Alpha Fund and Strategic Income) were all reduced from $1,000,000 to $100,000.   Of greater significance to many of us, the expense ratios were reduced for Short Term High Yield (from 1.25% to 1.17% on RPHYX and from 1.00% to 0.91% on RPHIX) and RiverPark/Wedgewood (from 1.25% to 1.05% on RPCFX and from 1.00% to 0.88% on RWGIX).

CLOSINGS (and related inconveniences)

Effective on July 8, 2014, Franklin Biotechnology Discovery Fund (FBDIX) will close to new investors. It’s a fund for thrill seekers – it invests in very, very growth-y midcap biotech firms which are (ready for this?) really volatile. The fund’s returns have averaged about 12% over the past decade – 115 bps better than its peers – but the cost has been high: a beta of 1.77 and a standard deviation nearly 50% about the Specialty-Health group norm. That hasn’t been enough to determine $1.3 billion in investment from flowing in.

Morningstar’s been having real problems with their website this month.  During the last week of the month, some fund profiles were completely unavailable while, in other cases, clicking on the link to one fund would take you to the profile of another. I assume something similar is going on here, since the MPT data for this biotech stock fund benchmarks it against “BofAML Convertible Bonds All Qualities.”


One of the Corporate Communication folks at Morningstar reached out in response to my comment on their site stability which itself was triggered mostly by the vigorous thread on the point.

Ms. Spelhaug writes: “Hope you’re well. I saw your column mentioning issues you’ve experienced with the Quote pages on I wanted to let you know that we’re aware that there have been some issues and have been in the process of retiring the system that’s causing the problems.”

Effective as of May 30, 2014, the investor class of Samson STRONG Nations Currency Fund (SCRFX) closed its “Investor” class to new investors. On that same day, those shares were re-designated as Institutional Class shares. Given the fund’s parlous performance (down about 8% since inception compared to a peer group that’s down about 0.25%), the closure might be prelude to …. uhhh, further action.


T. Rowe Price Capital Appreciation (PRWCX) will close to new investors on June 30, 2014. Traditionally famous for holding convertible securities, the fund’s fixed-income exposure is almost entirely bonds now with a tiny sliver of convertibles. That reflects the manager’s judgment that converts are way overpriced. The equity part of the portfolio targets blue chips, though the orientation has slowly but surely shifted toward growthier stocks over the years.

The fund is bloated at over $20 billion in assets but it’s sure hard to criticize. It’s posted peer-beating returns in 11 of the past 12 years, including all five years since crossing the $10 billion in AUM threshold. It’s particularly impressive that the fund has outperformed Prospector Capital Appreciation (PCAFX), which is run by Richard Howard, PRWCX’s long-time manager, over the past seven years. While I’m generally reluctant to recommend large funds, much less large funds that are about to close, this one really does warrant a bit of attention on your part.

All classes of the Wells Fargo Advantage Discovery Fund (WFDAX) are closed to new investors. The $3.2 billion fund has posted pretty consistently above average returns, but also consistently above average risks.


Effective July 1, 2014, the AllianzGI Structured Alpha Fund (AZIAX) will change its name to the AllianzGI Structured Return Fund. Its investment objective, principal investment strategies, management fee and operating expenses change as well. The plan is to write exchange-traded call options or FLEX call options (i.e. listed options that are traded on an exchange, but with customized strike prices and expiration dates) to generate income and some downside protection. The choice strikes me as technical rather than fundamental, since the portfolio is already comprised of 280 puts and calls. The most significant change is a vast decrease in the fund’s expense ratio, from 1.90% for “A” shares down to 1.15%.

Crow Point Hedged Global Equity Income Fund (CGHAX) has been rechristened Crow Point Defined Risk Global Equity Income Fund. The Fund’s investment objective, policies and strategies remain unchanged.

Hansberger International Growth (HIGGX/HITGX) is in the process of becoming one of the Madison (formerly Mosaic) Funds. I seem to have misread the SEC filing last month and reported that they’re becoming part of the Madison Fund (singular) rather than Madison Funds (plural). The management team is responsible for about $4 billion in mostly institutional assets. They’re located in, and will remain in, Toronto. This will be Madison’s second international fund, beside Madison NorthRoad International (NRIEX) whose managers finish their third solid year at the helm on June 30th.

Effective June 4 2014, the Sustainable Opportunities (SOPNX) fund gets renamed the Even Keel Multi-Asset Managed Risk Fund. The Fund’s investment objective, policies and strategies remain unchanged. Given the fund’s modest success over its first two years, I suppose there are investors who might have preferred keeping the name and shifting the strategy.

The Munder Funds are in the process of becoming Victory funds. Munder Capital Management, Munder’s advisor, got bought by Victory Capital Management, so the transition is sensible and inevitable. Victory will create a series of “shell” funds which are “substantially similar, if not identical” to existing Munder funds, then merge the Munder funds into them. This is all pending shareholder approval.

Touchstone Core Bond Fund has been renamed Touchstone Active Bond Fund (TOBAX). The numbers on the fund are a bit hard to decipher – by some measures, lots of alpha, by others

Effective on or about July 1, 2014, Transamerica Diversified Equity (TADAX) will be renamed Transamerica US Growth and the principal investment strategy will be tweaked to require 80% U.S. holdings. Roughly speaking, TADAX trailed 90% of its peers during manager Paul Marrkand’s first calendar year. The next year it trailed 80%, then 70% and so far in 2014, 60%.  Based on that performance, I’d put it on your buy list for 2019.


On May 29, 2014 (happy birthday to me, happy birthday to me …), the tiny and turbulent long/short AllianzGI Redwood Fund (ARRAX) was liquidated and dissolved.

The Giralda Fund (GDAIX) liquidates its “I” shares on June 27, 2014 but promises that you can swap them for “I” shares of Giralda Risk-Managed Growth Fund (GRGIX) if you’d really like.

Harbor Target Retirement 2010 Fund (HARFX) has changed its asset allocation over time in accordance with its glide path and its allocation is now substantially similar to that of Harbor Target Retirement Income Fund, and so 2010 is merging into Retirement Income on Halloween.  Happily, the merger will not trigger a tax bill.

In mid-May, 2014, Huntington suspended sales of the “A” and institutional shares of its Fixed Income Securities, Intermediate Government Income, Mortgage Securities, Ohio Tax-Free, and Short/Intermediate Fixed Income Securities funds.

On May 16, 2014, the Board of Trustees of Oppenheimer Currency Opportunities Fund (OCOAX) approved a plan to liquidate the Fund on or about August 1, 2014.  Since inception, the fund offered its investors the opportunity to turn $100 into $98.50 which a fair number of them inexplicably accepted.

At the recommendation of LSV Asset Management, the LSV Conservative Core Equity Fund (LSVPX) will cease operations and liquidate on or about June 13, 2014. Morningstar has it rated as a four-star fund and its returns have been in the top decile of its large-value peer group over the past five years, which doesn’t usually presage elimination. As the discussion board’s senior member Ted puts it, “With only $15 Million in AUM, and a minimum investment of $100,000 hard to get off the ground in spite of decent performance.”

Turner All Cap Growth Fund (TBTBX) is slated to merge into Turner Midcap Growth Fund (TMGFX) some time in the fall of 2014. Since I’ve never seen the appeal of Turner’s consistently high-volatility funds, I mostly judge nod and mumble about tweedle-dum and …

Wilmington’s small, expensive, risky, underperforming Large-Cap Growth Fund (VLCPX) and regrettably similar Large-Cap Value Fund (VEINX) have each been closed to new investors and are both being liquidated around June 20th.

In Closing . . .

The Morningstar Investment Conference will be one of the highlights of June for us. A number of folks responded to our offer to meet and chat while we’re there, and we’re certainly amenable to the idea of seeing a lot more folks while we’re there.

I don’t tweet (despite Daisy Maxey’s heartfelt injunction to “build my personal brand”) but I do post a series of reports to our discussion board after each day at the conference. If you’re curious and can’t be in Chicago, please to feel free to look in on the board.

Finally, thanks to all those who continue to support the Observer – with their ideas and patience, as much as with their contributions and purchases. It’s been a head-spinning time and I’m grateful to all of you as we work through it.

Just a quick reminder that we’re going to clean our email list. We’ve got two targets, addresses that make absolutely no sense and folks who haven’t opened one of our emails in a year or more.

We’ll talk soon!


April 1, 2014

Dear friends,

I love language, in both its ability to clarify and to mystify.

Take the phrase “think outside the box.”  You’ve heard it more times than you’d care to count but have you ever stopped to wonder: what box are they talking about?  Maybe someone invented it for good reason, so perhaps you should avoid breaking the box?

In point of fact, it’s this box:


Here’s the challenge that lies behind the aphorism: link all nine dots using four straight lines or fewer, without lifting the pen and without tracing the same line more than once.  There are only two ways to accomplish the feat: (1) rearrange the dots, which is obviously cheating, and (2) work outside the box.  For example:


As we interviewed managers this month, Ed Studzinski, they and I got to talking about investors’ perspectives on the future.  In one camp there are the “glass half-full” guys. Dale Harvey of Poplar Forest Partners Fund (PFPFX) allowed, for example, that there may come a time to panic about the stock market, but it’s not now. He looks at three indicators and finds them all pretty green:

  1. His ability to find good investment ideas.  He’s still finding opportunities to add positions to the fund.
  2. What’s going on with the Fed? “Don’t fight the Fed” is an axiom for good reason, he notes.  They’ve just slowing the rate of stimulus, not slowing the economy.  You get plenty of advance notice when they really want to start applying the brakes.
  3. What’s going on with investor attitudes?  Folks aren’t all whipped-up about stocks, though there are isolated “story” stocks that folks are irrational over.

Against those folks are the “glass half-empty” guys.  Some of those guys are calling the alarm; others stoically endure that leaden feeling in the pit of their stomachs that comes from knowing they’ve seen this show before and it never ends well. By way of illustration:

  1. The Leuthold Group believes that large cap stocks are more than 25% overvalued, small caps much more than that, that there could be a substantial correction and that corrections overshoot, so a 40% drop is not inconceivable.
  2. Jeremy Grantham of GMO places the market at 65% overvalued. Fortunately, according to a Barron’s interview, it won’t become “a true bubble” until it inflates 30% more and individual investors, still skittish, become “gung-ho.”
  3. Mark Hulbert notes that “true insider” stock sales have reached their highest level in a quarter century.  Hulbert notes that insider selling isn’t usually predictive because the term “insider” encompasses both true insiders (directors, presidents, founders, operating officers) and legal insides (any investor who controls more than 5% of the stock).  It turns out that “true” insider selling is predictive of a stock market fall a couple quarters later.  He makes his argument in two similar, but not quite identical, articles in Barron’s and MarketWatch.  (Go read them.)

And me, you ask?  I guess I’m neither quite a glass half full nor a glass half empty sort of investor.  I’m closer to a “don’t drop the glass!” guy.  My non-retirement portfolio remains about where it always is (25% US stocks with a value bias, 25% international stocks with a small/emerging bias, 50% income) and it’s all funded on auto-pilot.  I didn’t lose a mint in ’08, I didn’t make a mint in ’13 and I spend more time thinking about my son’s average (the season starts in the first week of April and he’ll either be on the mound or at second) than about the Dow’s.

“Judge Our Performance Over a Full Market Cycle”

Uh huh! Be careful of what you wish for, Bub. Charles did just check your performance across full market cycles, and it’s not as pretty as you’d like. Here are his data-rich findings:

Ten Market Cycles

charles balconyIn response to the article In Search of Persistence, published in our January commentary, NumbersGirl posted the following on the MFO board:

I am not enamored of using rolling 3-year returns to assess persistence.

A 3-year time period will often be all up or all down. If a fund manager has an investing personality or philosophy then I would expect strong relative performance in a rising market to be negatively correlated with poor relative performance in a falling market, etc.

It seems to me that the best way to measure persistence is over 1 (or better yet more) market cycles.

There followed good discussion about pros and cons of such an assessment, including lack of consistent definition of what constitutes a market cycle.

Echoing her suggestion, fund managers also often ask to be judged “over full cycle” when comparing performance against their peers.

A quick search of literature (eg., Standard & Poor’s Surviving a Bear Market and Doug Short’s Bear Markets in the S&P since 1950) shows that bear markets are generally “defined as a drop of 20% or more from the market’s previous high.” Here’s how the folks at Steele Mutual Fund Expert define a cycle:

Full-Cycle Return: A full cycle return includes a consecutive bull and bear market return cycle.

Up-Market Return (Bull Market): A Bull market in stocks is defined as a 20% rise in the S&P 500 Index from its previous trough, ending when the index reaches its peak and subsequently declines by 20%.

Down-Market Return (Bear Market): A Bear market in stocks is defined as a 20% decline in the S&P 500 Index from its previous peak, and ends when the index reaches its trough and subsequently rises by 20%.

Applying this definition to the SP500 intraday price index indicates there have indeed been ten such cycles, including the current one still in process, since 1956:


The returns shown are based on price only, so exclude dividends. Note that the average duration seems to match-up pretty well with so-called “short term debt cycle” (aka business cycle) described by Bridgewater’s Ray Dalio in the charming How the Economic Machine Works – In 30 Minutes video.

Here’s break-out of bear and bull markets:

The graph below depicts the ten cycles. To provide some historic context, various events are time-lined – some good, but more bad. Return is on left axis, measured from start of cycle, so each builds where previous left off. Short-term interest rate is on right axis.


Note that each cycle resulted in a new all-time market high, which seems rather extraordinary. There were spectacular gains for the 1980 and 1990 bull markets, the latter being 427% trough-to-peak! (And folks worry lately that they may have missed-out on the current bull with its 177% gain.) Seeing the resiliency of the US market, it’s no wonder people like Warren Buffett advocate a buy-and-hold approach to investing, despite the painful -50% or more drawdowns, which have occurred three times over the period shown.

Having now defined the market cycles, which for this assessment applies principally to US stocks, we can revisit the question of mutual fund persistence (or lack of) across them.

Based on the same methodology used to determine MFO rankings, the chart below depicts results across nine cycles since 1962:


Blue indicates top quintile performance, while red indicates bottom quintile. The rankings are based on risk adjusted return, specifically Martin ratio, over each full cycle. Funds are compared against all other funds in the peer group. The number of funds was rather small back in 1962, but in the later cycles, these same funds are competing against literally hundreds of peers.

(Couple qualifiers: The mural does not account for survivorship-bias or style drift. Cycle performance is determined using monthly total returns, including any loads, between the peak-to-peak dates listed above, with one exception…our database starts Jan 62 and not Dec 61.)

Not unexpectedly, the result is similar to previous studies (eg., S&P Persistence Scorecard) showing persistence is elusive at best in the mutual fund business. None of the 45 original funds in four categories delivered top-peer performance across all cycles – none even came close.

Looking at the cycles from 1973, a time when several now well know funds became established, reveals a similar lack of persistence – although one or two come close to breaking the norm. Here is a look at some of the top performing names:


MFO Great Owls Mairs & Powers Balanced (MAPOX) and Vanguard Wellington (VWELX) have enjoyed superior returns the last three cycles, but not so much in the first. The reverse is true for legendary Fidelity Magellan (FMAGX).

Even a fund that comes about as close to perfection as possible, Sequoia (SEQUX), swooned in the late ‘90s relative to other growth funds, like Fidelity Contrafund (FCNTX), resulting in underperformance for the cycle. The table below details the risk and return metrics across each cycle for SEQUX, showing the -30% drawdown in early 2000, which marked the beginning of the tech bubble. In the next couple years, many other growth funds would do much worse.


So, while each cycle may rhyme, they are different, and even the best managed funds will inevitably spend some time in the barrel, if not fall from favor forever.

We will look to incorporate full-cycle performance data in the single-ticker MFO Risk Profile search tool. As suggested by NumbersGirl, it’s an important piece of due diligence and risk cognizance for all mutual fund investors.


Celebrating one-star funds, part 2!

Morningstar faithfully describes their iconic star ratings as a starting place for additional research, not as a one-stop judgment of a funds merit.  As a practical matter investors do use those star ratings as part of a two-step research process:

Step One: Eliminate those one- and two-star losers

Step Two: Browse the rest

In general, there are worse strategies you could follow. Nonetheless, the star ratings can seriously misrepresent the merits of individual funds.  If a fund is fundamentally misfit to its category (in March we highlighted the plight of short-term high income funds within the high-yield peer group) or if a fund is highly risk averse, there’s an unusually large chance that its star rating will conceal more than it will reveal.  After a long statistical analysis, my colleague Charles concluded in last month’s issue that:

 A consequence of Morningstar’s methodology is that low volatility funds with below average returns can quite possibly be out-ranked by average volatility funds with average returns. Put another way, the methodology generally penalizes funds with high volatility more so than it rewards funds with low volatility.

The Observer categorizes funds differently: our Great Owl funds are those whose risk-adjusted returns are in the top 20% of their peer group for every measurement period longer than one year.  Our risk-adjustment is based on a fund’s Martin ratio which “excels at identifying funds that have delivered superior returns while mitigating drawdowns.”  At base, we’ve made the judgment that investors are more sensitive to the size of a fund’s drawdown – its maximum peak to trough loss – than to the background noise of day-to-day volatility.  As a result, we reward funds that provide good returns while avoiding disastrous losses.

For those interested in a second opinion, here’s the list of all one-star Great Owl funds:

  • American Century One Choice 2035 A (ARYAX)
  • Aquila Three Peaks High Income A (ATPAX)
  • ASTON/River Road Independent Value (ARIVX)
  • BlackRock Allocation Target Shares (BRASX)
  • Dividend Plus Income (MAIPX)
  • Fidelity Freedom Index 2000 (FGIFX)
  • Intrepid Income (ICMUX)
  • Invesco Balanced-Risk Retire 2030 (TNAAX)
  • Invesco Balanced-Risk Retire 2040 (TNDAX)
  • Invesco Balanced-Risk Retire 2050 (TNEAX)
  • PIMCO 7-15 Year U.S. Treasury Index ETF (TENZ)
  • PIMCO Broad U.S. Treasury Index ETF (TRSY)
  • RiverPark Short Term High Yield (RPHYX)
  • Schwab Monthly Income Max Payout (SWLRX)
  • SEI New Jersey Municipal Bond A (SENJX)
  • SPDR Nuveen S&P VRDO Municipal Bond (VRD)
  • Symons Value (SAVIX)
  • Weitz Nebraska Tax-Free Income (WNTFX)
  • Wells Fargo Advantage Dow Jones Target 2015 (WFQEX)
  • Wells Fargo Advantage Short Term High-Yield Bond (STHBX)

1 star gos

Are we arguing that the Great Owl metric is intrinsically better than Morningstar’s?

Nope.  We do want to point out that every rating system contains biases, although we somehow pretend that they’re “purely objective.”  You need to understand that the fact that a fund’s biases don’t align with a rater’s preferences is not an indictment of the fund (any more than a five-star rating should be taken as an automatic endorsement of it).

Still waiting by the phone

Last month’s celebration of one-star funds took up John Rekenthaler’s challenge to propose new fund categories which were more sensible than the existing assignments and which didn’t cause “category bloat.”

Amiably enough, we suggested short-term high yield as an eminently sensible possibility.  It contains rather more than a dozen funds that act much more like aggressive short-term bond funds than like traditional high-yield bond funds, a category dominated by high-return, high-volatility funds with much longer durations.

So far, no calls of thanks and praise from the good folks in Chicago.  (sigh)

How about another try: emerging markets allocation, balanced or hybrid?  Morningstar’s own discipline is to separate pure stock funds (global or domestic) from stock-bond hybrid funds, except in the emerging markets.  Almost all of the dozen or so emerging markets hybrid funds are categorized as, and benchmarked against, pure equity funds.  Whether that advantages or disadvantages a hybrid fund at any given point isn’t the key; the question is whether it allows investors to accurately assess them.  The hybrid category is well worth a test.

Who’s watching the watchers?

Presidio Multi-Strategy Fund (PMSFX) will “discontinue operations” on April 10, 2014.  It’s a weird little fund with a portfolio about the size of my retirement account.  This isn’t the first time we’ve written about Presidio.  Presidio shared a board with Caritas All-Cap Growth (CTSAX, now Goodwood SMIDcap Discovery).   In July 2013, the Board decided to liquidate Caritas.  In August they reconsidered and turned both funds’ management over to Brenda Smith.  At that time, I expressed annoyance with their limited sense of responsibility:

The alternative? Hire Brenda A. Smith, founder of CV Investment Advisors, LLC, to manage the fund. A quick scan of SEC ADV filings shows that Ms. Smith is the principal in a two person firm with 10 or fewer clients and $5,000 in regulated AUM.

At almost the same moment, the same Board gave Ms. Smith charge of the failing Presidio Multi-Strategy Fund (PMSFX), an overpriced long/short fund that executes its strategy through ETFs.

I wish Ms. Smith and her new investors all the luck in the world, but it’s hard to see how a Board of Trustees could, with a straight face, decide to hand over one fund and resuscitate another with huge structural impediments on the promise of handing it off to a rookie manager and declare that both moves are in the best interests of long-suffering shareholders.

By October, she was gone from Caritas but she’s stayed with Presidio to the bitter end which looks something like this:


This isn’t just a note about a tiny, failed fund.  It’s a note about the Trustees of your fund boards.  Your representatives.  Your voice.  Their failures become your failures.  Their failures cause your failures.

Presidio was overseen by a rent-a-board (more politely called “a turnkey board”); a group of guys who nominally oversee dozens of unrelated funds but who have stakes in none of them.  Here’s a quick snapshot of this particular board:

First Name


Aggregate investment in the 23 funds overseen

Jack Retired president of Brinson Chevrolet, Tarboro NC


Michael President, Commercial Real Estate Services, Rocky Mount, NC


Theo Senior Partner, Community Financial Institutions Consulting, a sole proprietorship in Rocky Mount, NC


James President, North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance, “the diversity partner of choice for Fortune 500 companies”


J Buckley President, Standard Insurance and Realty, Rocky Mount NC


The Board members are paid $2,000 per fund overseen and meet seven times a year.  The manager received rather more: “For the fiscal year ended May 31, 2013, Presidio Capital Investments, LLC received fees for its services to the Fund in the amount of $101,510,” for managing a $500,000 portfolio.

What other funds do they guide?  There are 22 of them:

  • CV Asset Allocation Fund (CVASX);
  • Arin Large Cap Theta Fund (AVOAX) managed by Arin Risk Advisors, LLC;
  • Crescent Large Cap Macro, Mid Cap Macro and Strategic Income Funds managed by Greenwood Capital Associates, LLC;
  • Horizons West Multi-Strategy Hedged Income Fund (HWCVX, formerly known as the Prophecy Alpha Trading Fund);
  • Matisse Discounted Closed-End Fund Strategy (MDCAX) managed by Deschutes Portfolio Strategies;
  • Roumell Opportunistic Value Fund (RAMVX) managed by Roumell Asset Management, LLC;
  • The 11 RX funds (Dynamic Growth, Dynamic Total Return, Non Traditional, High Income, Traditional Equity, Traditional Fixed Income, Tactical Rotation, Tax Advantaged, Dividend Income, and Premier Managers);
  • SCS Tactical Allocation Fund (SCSGX) managed by Sentinel Capital Solutions, Inc.;
  • Sector Rotation Fund (NAVFX) managed by Navigator Money Management, Inc.; and
  • Thornhill Strategic Equity Fund (TSEQX) managed by Thornhill Securities, Inc.

Oh, wait.  Not quite.  Crescent Mid Cap Macro (GCMIX) is “inactive.”  Thornhill Strategic Equity (TSEQX)?  No, that doesn’t seem to be trading either. Can’t find evidence that CV Asset Allocation ever launched. Right, right: the manager of Sector Rotation Fund (NAVFX) is under SEC sanction for “numerous misleading claims,” including reporting on the performance of the fund for periods in which the fund didn’t exist.

The bottom line: directors matter. Good directors can offer a manager access to skills, perspectives and networks that are far beyond his or her native abilities.  And good directors can put their collective foot down on matters of fees, bloat and lackluster performance.

Every one of your funds has a board of directors and you really need to ask just three questions about these guys:

  1. What evidence is there that the directors are bringing a meaningful skill set to their post?
  2. What evidence is there that the directors have executed serious oversight of the management team?
  3. What evidence is there that the directors have aligned their interests with yours?

You need to look at two documents to answer those questions.  The first is the Statement of Additional Information (SAI) which is updated every time the prospectus is.  The SAI lists the board members’ qualifications, compensation, the number of funds each director oversees and the director’s investment in each of them. Here’s a general rule: if they’re overseeing dozens of funds and investing in none of them, back away.  There are some very good funds that use what I refer to as rent-a-boards as a matter of administrative convenience and financial efficiency, but the use of such boards weakens a critical safeguard.  If the board isn’t deeply invested, you need to see that the management team is.

The second document is called the Renewal of Investment Advisory Contract.  Boards are legally required to document their due diligence and to explain to you, the folks who elected them, exactly what they looked at and what they concluded.  These are sometimes freestanding documents but they’re more likely included as a section of the fund’s annual report. Look for errant nonsense, rationalizations and wishful thinking.  If you find it, run away!  Here’s an example of the discussion of fees charged by a one-star fund that trails 96-98% of its peers but charges a mint:

Fee Rate and Profitability – The Trustees considered that the Fund’s advisory fee is the highest in its peer group, while its expense ratio is the second highest. The Trustees considered [the manager’s] explanation that several funds included in the Fund’s peer group are passive index funds, which have extremely low fees because, unlike the Fund, they are not actively managed. The Trustees also considered [the] explanation that the growth strategy it uses to manage the Fund is extremely expensive and labor intensive because it involves reviewing and evaluating 8,000+ stocks four times a year.

Here’s the argument that the board bought: the fund has some of the highest fees in its industry but that’s okay because (1) you can’t expect us to be as cheap as an index fund and (2) we work hard, apparently unlike the 98% of funds that outperform us or charge less.

If you had an employee who was paid more and produced less than anyone else, what would you do?  Then ask: “and why didn’t my board do likewise?”

It’s The Money, Stupid!

edward, ex cathedraBy Edward Studzinski

“To be clever enough to get a great deal of money, one must be stupid enough to want it.”

G.K. Chesterton

There is a repetitive scene in the movie “Shakespeare in Love” – an actor and a director are reading through one of young Master Shakespeare’s newest plays, with the ink still drying.  The actor asks how a particular transition is to be made from one scene to the next.  The answer given is, “I don’t know – it’s a mystery.”  Much the same might be said for the process of setting and then regularly reviewing, mutual fund fees. One of my friends made the Long March with Morningstar’s Joe Mansueto from a cave deep in western China to what should now be known now as Morningstar Abbey in Chicago. She used to opine about how for commodity products like equity mutual funds, in a world of perfect competition if one believed economic theory as taught at the University of Chicago, it was rather odd that the clearing price for management fees, rather than continually coming down, seemed mired at one per cent. That comment was made almost twenty years ago. The fees still seem mired there.

One argument might be that you get what you pay for. Unfortunately many actively-managed equity funds that charge that approximately one per cent management fee lag their benchmarks. This presents the conundrum of how index funds charging five basis points (which Seth Klarman used to refer to as “mindless investing”) often regularly outperform the smart guys charging much more. The public airing of personality clashes at bond manager PIMCO makes for interesting reading in this area, but is not necessarily illuminating. For instance, allegedly the annual compensation for Bill Gross is $200M a year. However, much of that is arguably for his role in management at PIMCO, as co-chief investment officer. Some of it is for serving on a daily basis as the portfolio manager for however many funds his name is on as portfolio manager. Another piece of it might be tied to his ownership interest in the business.

The issue becomes even more confusing when you have similar, nay even almost identical, funds being managed by the same investment firm but coming through different channels, with different fees. The example to contrast here again is PIMCO and their funds with multiple share classes and different fees, and Harbor, a number of whose fixed income products are sub-advised by PIMCO and have lower fees for what appear, to the unvarnished eye, to be very similar products often managed by the same portfolio manager. A further variation on this theme can be seen when you have an equity manager running his own firm’s proprietary mutual fund for which he is charging ninety basis points in management fees while his firm is running a sleeve of another equity mutual fund for Vanguard, for which the firm is being paid a management fee somewhere between twenty and thirty basis points, usually with incentives tied to performance. And while the argument is often made that the funds may have different investment philosophies and strategies and a different portfolio manager, there is often a lot of overlap in the securities owned (using  the same research process and analysts).

So, let’s assume that active equity management fees are initially set by charging what everyone else is charging for similar products. One can see by looking at a prospectus, what a competitor is charging. And I can assure you that most investment managers have a pretty good idea as to who their competitors are, even if they may think they really do not have competitors. How do the fees stay at the same level, especially as, when assets under management grow there should be economies of scale?

Ah ha!  Now we reach a matter that is within the purview of the Board of Trustees for a fund or fund group. They must look at the reasonableness of the fees being charged in light of a number of variables, including investment philosophy and strategy, size of assets under management, performance, etc., etc., etc.  And perhaps a principal underpinning driving that annual review and sign-off is the peer list of funds for comparison.

Probably one of the most important assignments for a mutual fund executive, usually a chief financial officer, is (a) making sure that the right consulting firm is hired to put together the peer list of similar mutual funds and (b) confirming that the consulting firm understands their assignment. To use another movie analogy, there is a scene early on in “Animal House” where during pledge week, two of the main characters visit a fraternity house and upon entering, are immediately sent to sit on a couch off in a corner with what are clearly a small group of social outliers. Peer group identification often seems to involve finding a similar group of outliers on the equivalent of that couch.

Given the large number of funds out there, one identifies a similar universe with similar investment strategies, similar in size, but mirabile dictu, the group somehow manages to have similar or inferior performance with similar or higher fees and expenses. What to do, what to do?  Well of course, you fiddle with the break points so that above a certain size of assets under management in the fund, the fees are reduced. And you never have to deal with the issue that the real money is not in the break points but in fees that are too high to begin with. Perish the thought that one should use common sense and look at what Vanguard or Dodge and Cox are charging for base fees for similar products.

There is another lesson to be gained from the PIMCO story, and that is the issue of ownership structure. Here, you have an offshore owner like Allianz taking a hands-off attitude towards their investment in PIMCO, other than getting whatever revenue or income split it is they are getting. It would be an interesting analysis to see what the return on investment to Allianz has been for their original investment. It would also be interesting to see what the payback period was for earning back that original investment. And where lies the fiduciary obligation, especially to PIMCO clients and fund investors, in addition to Allianz shareholders?  But that is a story for another time.

How is any of this to be of use to mutual fund investors and readers of the Observer. I am showing my age, but Vice President Hubert Humphrey used to be nick-named the “Happy Warrior.” One of the things that has become clear to me recently as David and I interview managers who have set up their own firms after leaving the Dark Side, LOOK FOR THE HAPPY WARRIORS. For them, it is not the process of making money. They don’t need the money. Rather they are doing it for the love of investing.  And if nobody comes, they will still do it to manage their own money.  Avoid the ones for whom the money has become an addiction, a way of keeping score. For supplementary reading, I commend to all an article that appeared in the New York Sunday Times on January 19, 2014 entitled “For the Love of Money” by Sam Polk. As with many of my comments, I am giving all of you more work to do in the research process for managing your money. But you need to do it if you serious about investing.  And remember, character and integrity always show through.

And those who can’t teach, teach gym (part 2)

jimjubakBeginning in 1997, the iconically odd-looking Jim Jubak wrote the wildly-popular “Jubak’s Picks” column for MSN Money.  In 2010, he apparently decided that investment management looked awfully easy and so launched his own fund.

Which stunk.  Over the three years of its existence, it’s trailed 99% of its peers.   And so the Board of Trustees of the Trust has approved a Plan of Liquidation which authorizes the termination, liquidation and dissolution of the Jubak Global Equity Fund (JUBAX). The Fund will be T, L, and D’d on or about May 29, 2014. (It’s my birthday!)

Here’s the picture of futility, with Mr. Jubak on the blue line and mediocrity represented by the orange one:


Yup, $16 million in assets – none of it representing capital gains.

Mr. Jubak joins a long list of pundits, seers, columnists, prognosticators and financial porn journalists who have discovered that a facility for writing about investments is an entirely separate matter from any ability to actually make money.

Among his confreres:

Robert C. Auer, founder of SBAuer Funds, LLC, was from 1996 to 2004, the lead stock market columnist for the Indianapolis Business Journal “Bulls & Bears” weekly column, authoring over 400 columns, which discussed a wide range of investment topics.  As manager of Auer Growth (AUERX), he’s turned a $10,000 investment into $8500 over the course of six years.

Jonathan Clements left a high visibility post at The Wall Street Journal to become Director of Financial Education, Citi Personal Wealth Management.  Sounds fancy.  Frankly, it looks like was relegated to “blogger.”  Mr. Clements recently announced his return to journalism, and the launch of a weekly column in the WSJ.

John Dorfman, a Bloomberg and Wall Street Journal columnist, launched Dorfman Value Fund which finally became Thunderstorm Value Fund (THUNX). Having concluded that low returns, high expenses, a one-star rating, and poor marketing aren’t the road to riches, the advisor recommended that the Board close (on January 17, 2012) and liquidate (on February 29, 2012) the fund.

Ron Insana, who left CNBC in 2006 to form a hedge fund and returned to part-time punditry three years later.  He’s currently (March 28, 2014) prognosticating “a very nasty pullback” in the stock market.

Scott Martin, a contributor to FOX Business Network and a former columnist with, co-managed Astor Long/Short ETF Fund (ASTLX) for one undistinguished year before moving on.

Steven J. Milloy, “lawyer, consultant, columnist, adjunct scholar,” managed the somewhat looney Free Enterprise Action Fund which merged with the somewhat looney $12 million Congressional Effect Fund (CEFFX), which never hired Mr. Milloy and just fired Congressional Effect Management.

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.

During March, Bro. Studzinski and I contacted a quartet of distinguished managers whose careers were marked by at least two phases: successfully managing large funds within a fund complex and then walking away to launch their own independent firms.  We wanted to talk with them both about their investing disciplines and current funds and about their bigger picture view of the world of independent managers.

Our lead story in May carries the working title, “Letter to a Young Fund Manager.”  We are hoping to share some insight into what it takes to succeed as a boutique manager running your own firm.  Our hope is that the story will be as useful for folks trying to assess the role of small funds in their portfolio as it will be to the (admittedly few) folks looking to launch such funds.

As a preview, we’d like to introduce the four managers and profile their funds:

Evermore Global Value (EVGBX): David Marcus was trained by Michael Price, managed Mutual European and co-managed two other Mutual Series funds, then spent time investing in Europe before returning to launch this remarkably independent “special situations” fund.

Huber Equity Income (HULIX): Joe Huber designed and implemented a state of the art research program at Hotchkis and Wiley and managed their Value Opportunities fund for five years before striking out to launch his own firm and, coincidentally, launched two of the most successful funds in existence.

Poplar Forest Partners (PFPFX): Dale Harvey is both common and rare.  He was a very successful manager for five American Funds who was disturbed by their size.  That’s common.  So he left, which is incredibly rare.  One of the only other managers to follow that path was Howard Schow, founder of the PrimeCap funds.

Walthausen Select Value (WSVRX): John Walthausen piloted both Paradigm Value and Paradigm Select to peer-stomping returns.  He left in 2007 to create his own firm which advises two funds that have posted, well, peer stomping returns.

Launch Alert: Artisan High Income (ARTFX)

On March 19th, Artisan launched their first fixed-income fund.  The plan is for the manager to purchase a combination of high-yield bonds and other stuff (technically: “secured and unsecured loans, including, without limitation, senior and subordinated loans, delayed funding loans and revolving credit facilities, and loan participations and assignments”). There’s careful attention given to the quality and financial strength of the bond issuer and to the magnitude of the downside risks. The fund might invest globally.

The Fund is managed by Bryan C. Krug.  For the past seven years, Mr. Krug has managed Ivy High Income (WHIAX).  His record there was distinguished, especially for his ability to maneuver through – and profit from – a variety of market conditions.  A 2013 Morningstar discussion of the fund observes, in part:

[T]he fund’s 26% allocation to bonds rated CCC and below … is well above the 15% of its typical high-yield bond peer. Recently, though, Krug has been taking a somewhat defensive stance; he increased the amount of bank loans to nearly 34% as of the end of 2012, well above the fund’s 15% target allocation … Those kinds of calls have allowed the fund to mitigate losses well–performance in 2011’s third quarter and May 2012 are ready examples–as well as to deliver strong results in a variety of other environments. That record and relatively low expenses make for a compelling case here.

$10,000 invested at the beginning of Mr. Krug’s tenure would have grown to $20,700 by the time of his departure versus $16,700 at his average peer. The Ivy fund was growing by $3 – 4 billion a year, with no evident plans for closure.  While there’s no evidence that asset bloat is what convinced Mr. Krug to look for new opportunities, indeed the fund continued to perform splendidly even at $11 billion, a number of other managers have shifted jobs for that very reason.

The minimum initial investment is $1000 for the Investor class and $250,000 for Advisor shares.  Expenses for both the Investor and Advisor classes are capped at 1.25%.

Artisan’s hiring standard has remained unchanged for decades: they interview dozens of management teams each year but hire only when they think they’ve found “category killers.” With 10 of their 12 rated funds earning four- or five-stars, they seem to achieve that goal.  Investors seeking a cautious but opportunistic take on high income investing really ought to look closer.

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 May or early June 2014 and some of the prospectuses do highlight that date.

This month David Welsch tracked down five funds in registration, the lowest totals since we launched three years ago.  Curious.

Manager Changes

On a related note, we also tracked down 43 sets of fund manager changes. The most intriguing of those include Amit Wadhwaney’s retirement from managing Third Avenue International Value (TAVIX) and Jim Moffett’s phased withdrawal from Scout International (UMBWX).


river_roadOur friends at RiverRoad Asset Management report that they have entered a “strategic partnership” with Affiliated Managers Group, Inc.  RiverRoad becomes AMG’s 30th partner. The roster also includes AQR, Third Avenue and Yacktman.  As part of this agreement, AMG will purchase River Road from Aviva Investors.  Additionally, River Road’s employees will acquire a substantial portion of the equity of the business. The senior professionals at RiverRoad have signed new 10-year employment agreements.  They’re good people and we wish them well.

Even more active share.

Last month we shared a list of about 50 funds who were willing to report heir current active share, a useful measure that allows investors to see how independent their funds are of the index.  We offered folks the chance to be added to the list. A dozen joined the list, including folks from Barrow, Conestoga, Diamond Hill, DoubleLine, Evermore, LindeHanson, Pinnacle, and Poplar Forest. We’ve given our active share table a new home.

active share


We’ve been scanning fund company sites, looking for active share reports. If we’ve missed you, we’re sorry. Help us correct the oversight  by sending us the link to where you report your active share stats. We’d be more than happy to offer a permanent home for the web’s largest open collection of active share data.

Briefly Noted . . .

For reasons unexplained, GMO has added a “purchase premium” (uhhh… sales load?) and redemption fee of between 8 and 10 basis points to three of its funds: GMO Strategic Fixed Income Fund (GMFIX), GMO Global Developed Equity Allocation Fund (GWOAX) and GMO International Developed Equity Allocation Fund (GIOTX).  Depending on the share class, the GMO funds have investment minimums in the $10 million – $300 million range.  At the lower end, that would translate to an $8,000 purchase premium.  At the high end, it might be $100,000.

Effective April 1, 2014, the principal investment strategy of the Green Century Equity Fund (GCEQX) will be revised to change the index tracked by the Fund, so as to exclude the stocks of companies that explore for, process, refine or distribute coal, oil or gas.


The Board of Mainstay Marketfield Fund (MFLDX) has voted to slash the management fee (slash it, I say!) by one basis point! So, in compensation for a sales load (5.75% for “A” shares), asset bloat (at $21 billion, the fund has put on nearly $17 billion since being acquired by New York Life) and sagging performance (it still leads its long/short peer group, but by a slim margin), you save $1 – every year – for every $10,000 you invest.  Yay!!!!!

CLOSINGS (and related inconveniences)

Robeco Boston Partners Long/Short Research Fund (BPRRX)  closed on a day’s notice at the end of March, 2014 because of “a concern that a significant increase in the size of the Fund may adversely affect the implementation of the Fund’s strategy.”  The advisor long-ago closed its flagship Robeco Boston Partners Long/Short Equity (BPLEX) fund.  At the beginning of January 2014 they launched a third offering, Robeco Boston Partners Global Long/Short (BGLSX) which is only available to institutional investors.

Effective as of the close of business on March 28, 2014, Perritt Ultra MicroCap Fund (PREOX) closed to new investors.


On March 31, Alpine Innovators Fund (ADIAX) became Alpine Small Cap Fund.  It also ceased to be an all-cap growth fund oriented toward stocks benefiting from the “innovative nature of each company’s products, technology or business model.”  It was actually a pretty reasonable fund, not earth-shattering but decent.  Sadly, no one cared.  It’s not entirely clear that they’re going to swarm on yet another small-blend fund.  The upside is that the new managers have a stint with Lord Abbett Small Cap Blend Fund

Effective on or about April 28, 2014, BNY Mellon Small/Mid Cap Fund‘s (MMCIX) name will be changed to BNY Mellon Small/Mid Cap Multi-Strategy Fund and they’ll go all multi-manager on you.

Effective March 21, 2014, the ticker for the Giant 5 Total Investment System changed from FIVEX to CASHX. Cute.  The board had previously approved replacement of the phrase “Giant 5” with “Index Funds” (no, really), but that hasn’t happened yet.

At the end of April, 2014, Goldman Sachs has consented to modestly shorten the names of some of their funds.

Current Fund Name

New Fund Name

Goldman Sachs Structured International Tax-Managed Equity Fund   Goldman Sachs International Tax-Managed Equity Fund
Goldman Sachs Structured Tax-Managed Equity Fund   Goldman Sachs U.S. Tax-Managed Equity Fun

They still don’t fit on one line.

Johnson Disciplined Mid-Cap Fund (JMDIX) is slated to become Johnson Opportunity on May 1, 2014.  At that point, it won’t be restricted to investing in mid-cap stocks anymore.  Good thing, too, since they’re only … how to say this? Intermittently excellent at that discipline.

On May 5, Laudus Mondrian Global Fixed Income Fund (LMGDX) becomes Laudus Mondrian Global Government Fixed Income Fund.  It’s already 90% in government bonds, so the change is mostly symbolic.  At the same time, Laudus Mondrian International Fixed Income Fund (LIFNX) becomes Laudus Mondrian International Government Fixed Income Fund.  It, too, invests now in government bonds.

Effective March 17, 2014, Mariner Hyman Beck Fund (MHBAX) was renamed the Mariner Managed Futures Strategy Fund.


Effective on or about May 16, 2014, AllianzGI Disciplined Equity Fund (ARDAX) and AllianzGI Dynamic Emerging Multi-Asset Fund (ADYAX) will be liquidated and dissolved. The former is tiny and mediocre, the latter tinier and worse.  Hasta!

Avatar Capital Preservation Fund (ZZZNX), Avatar Tactical Multi-Asset Income Fund (TAZNX), Avatar Absolute Return Fund (ARZNX) and Avatar Global Opportunities Fund (GOWNX) – pricey funds-of-ETFs – ceased operations on March 28, 2014.

Epiphany FFV Global Ecologic Fund (EPEAX) has closed to investors and will be liquidated on April 28, 2014.

Goldman Sachs China Equity Fund (GNIAX) is being merged “with and into” the Goldman Sachs Asia Equity Fund (GSAGX). The SEC filing mumbled indistinctly about “the second quarter of 2014” as a target date.

The $200 million Huntington Fixed Income Securities Fund (HFIIX) will be absorbed by the $5.6 billion Federated Total Return Bond Fund (TLRAX), sometime during the second quarter of 2014.  The Federated fund is pretty consistently mediocre, and still the better of the two.

On March 17, 2014, Ivy Asset Strategy New Opportunities Fund merged into Ivy Emerging Markets Equity Fund (IPOAX, formerly Ivy Pacific Opportunities Fund). On the same day, Ivy Managed European/Pacific Fund merged into Ivy Managed International Opportunities Fund (IVTAX).  (Run away!  Go buy a nice index fund!)

The $2 billion, four-star Morgan Stanley Focus Growth Fund (OMOAX) is merging with $1.3 billion, four-star Morgan Stanley Institutional Growth (MSEGX) at the beginning of April, 2014.  They are, roughly speaking, the same fund.

Parametric Currency Fund (EAPSX), $4 million in assets, volatile and unprofitable after two and a half years – closed on March 25, 2014 and was liquidated a week later.

Pax World Global Women’s Equality Fund (PXWEX) is slated to merged into a newly-formed Pax Global Women’s Index Fund.

On February 25, 2014, the Board of Trustees of Templeton Global Investment Trust on behalf of Templeton Asian Growth Fund approved a proposal to terminate and liquidate Templeton Asian Growth Fund (FASQX). The liquidation is anticipated to occur on or about May 20, 2014. I’m not sure of the story.  It’s a Mark Mobius production and he’s been running offshore versions of this fund since the early 1990s.  This creature, launched about four years ago, has been sucky performance and negligible assets.

Turner Emerging Markets Fund (TFEMX) is being liquidated on or about April 15, 2014.  Why? “This decision was made after careful consideration of the Fund’s asset size, strategic importance, current expenses and historical performance.”  Historical performance?  What historical performance?  Turner launched this fund in August of 2013.  Right.  After six months Turner pulled the plug.  Got long-term planning there, guys!

In Closing . . .

Happy anniversary to us all.  With this issue, the Observer celebrates its third anniversary.  In truth, we had no idea of what we were getting into but we knew we had a worthwhile mission and the support of good people.

We started with a fairly simple, research-based conviction: bloated funds are not good investments.  As funds swells, their investible universes contract, their internal incentives switch from investment excellence to avoiding headline risk, and their reward systems shift to reward asset growth and retention.  They become timid, sclerotic and unrewarding.

To be clear, we know of no reason which supports the proposition that bigger is better, most especially in the case of funds that place some or all of their portfolios in stocks.  And yet the industry is organized, almost exclusively, to facilitate such beasts.  Independent managers find it hard to get attention, are disadvantaged when it comes to distribution networks, and have almost no chance of receiving analyst coverage.

We’ve tried to be a voice for the little guy.  We’ve tried to speak clearly and honestly about the silly things that you’re tempted into doing and the opportunities that you’re likely overlooking.  So far we’ve reached over 300,000 readers who’ve dropped by for well over a million visits.  Which is pretty good for a site with neither commercial endorsements or pictures of celebrities in their swimwear.

In the year ahead, we’ll try to do better.  We’re taking seriously our readers’ recommendation.  One recommendation was to increase the number of fund profiles (done!) and to spend more time revisiting some of the funds we’ve previously written about (done!).  As we reviewed your responses to “what one change could we make to better serve you” question, several answers occurred over and over:

  1. People would like more help in assembling portfolios, perhaps in form of model portfolios or portfolio templates.  A major goal for 2014, then, is working more with our friends in the industry to identify useful strategies for allowing folks to identify their own risk/return preferences and matching those to compatible funds.  We need to be careful since we’re not trained as financial advisors, so we want to offer models and illustrations rather than pretend to individual advice.
  2. People would like more guidance on the resources already on-site.  We’ve done a poor job in accommodating the fact that we see about 10,000 first-time visitors each month.  As a result, people aren’t aware that we do maintain an archive of every audio-recording of our conference calls (check the Funds tab, then Featured Funds), and do have lists of recommended books (Resources -> Books!) and news sources (Best of the Web).  And so one of our goals for the year ahead is to make the Observer more transparent and more easily navigable.
  3. Many people have asked about mid-month updates, at least in the case of closures or other developments which come with clear deadlines.  We might well be able to arrange to send a simple email, rarely more than once a month, if something compelling breaks.
  4. Finally, many people asked for guidance for new investors.

Those are all wonderfully sensible suggestions and we take them very seriously.  Our immediate task is to begin inventorying our resources and capabilities; we need to ask “what’s the best we can do with what we’ve got today?” And “how can we work to strengthen our organizational foundation, so that we can help more?”

Those are great questions and we very much hope you join us as we shape the answers in the year ahead.

Finally, I’ll note that I’m shamefully far behind in extending thanks to the folks who’ve contributed to the Observer – by check or PayPal – in the past month.  I’ve launched on a new (and terrifying) adventure in home ownership; I spent much of the past month looking at houses in Davenport with the hopes of having a place by May 1.  I’m about 250 sets of signatures and initials into the process, with just one or two additional pallets of scary-looking forms to go!  Pray for me.

And thanks to you all.


March 1, 2014

Dear friends,

It’s not a question of whether it’s coming.  It’s just a question of whether you’ve been preparing intelligently.


A wave struck a lighthouse in Douro River in Porto, Portugal, Monday. The wave damaged some nearby cars and caused minor injuries. Pictures of the Day, Wall Street Journal online, January 6, 2014. Estela Silva/European Pressphoto Agency

There’s an old joke about the farmer with the leaky roof that never gets fixed.  When the sun’s out, he never thinks about the leak and when it’s raining, he can’t get up there to fix it anyway.  And so the leak continues.

Our investments likewise: people who are kicking themselves for not having 100% equity exposure in March 2009 and 200% exposure in January 2013 have been pulling money steadily from boring investments and adding them to stocks.  The domestic stock market has seen its 13th consecutive month of inflows and the S&P 500 closed February at its highest nominal level ever.

I mention this now because the sun has been shining so brightly.  March 9, 2014 marches the five-year anniversary of the current bull market.  In those five years, a $10,000 investment in the S&P500 would have grown to $30,400.  The same amount invested in the NASDAQ on March 9 would have grown to $35,900. The last remnants of the ferocious bear markets of 2000-02 and 2007-09 have faded from the ratings.  And investors really want a do-over.  All the folks hiding under their beds in 2009 and still peering out from under the blankies in 2011 feel cheated and they want in on the action, and they want it now.

Hence inflows into an overpriced market.

Our general suggestion is to learn from the past, but not to live there.  Nothing we do today can capture the returns of the past five years for us.  Sadly, we still can damage the next five.  To help build a strong prospects for our future, we’re spending a bit of time this month talking about hedging strategies – ways to get into a pricey market without quite so much heartache – and cool funds that might be better positioned for the next five than you’d otherwise find.

And, too, we get to celebrate the onset of spring!

The search for active share

It’s much easier to lose in investing than to win.  Sometimes we lose because we’re offered poor choices and sometimes we lose because we make poor ones.  Frankly, it doesn’t take many poor choices to trash the best laid plans.

Winning requires doing a lot of things right.  One of those things is deciding whether – or to what extent – your portfolio should rely on actively and passively managed funds.  A lot of actively managed funds are dismal but so too are a lot of passive products: poorly constructed indexes, trendy themes, disciplines driven by marketing, and high fees plague the index and EFT crowd.

If you are going to opt for active management, you need to be sure that it’s active in more than name alone.  As we’ve shown before, many active managers – especially those trying to deploy billions in capital – offer no advantage over a broad market index, and a lot of disadvantages. 

One tool for measuring the degree to which your manager is active is called, appropriately enough, “active share.”  Active share measures the degree to which your fund’s holdings differ from its benchmark’s.  The logic is simple: you can’t beat an index by replicating it and if you can’t beat it, you should simply buy it.

The study “How Active Is Your Manager” (2009) by Cremers and Petajitso concluded that “Funds with high active share actually do outperform their benchmarks.” The researchers originally looked at an ocean of data covering the period from 1990 to 2003, then updated it through 2009.  They found that funds with active share of at least 90% outperformed their benchmarks by 1.13% (113 basis points per year) after fees. Funds with active share below 60% consistently underperformed by 1.42 percentage points a year, after accounting for fees.

Some researchers have suggested that the threshold for active share needs to be adjusted to account for differences in the fund’s investment universe: a fund that invests in large to mega-cap names should have an active share north of 70%, midcaps should be above 80% and small caps above 90%. 

So far, we’ve only seen research validating the 60% and 90% thresholds though the logic of the step system is appealing; of the 5008 publicly-traded US stocks, there are just a few hundred large caps but several thousand small and micro-caps.

There are three problems with the active share data.  We’d like to begin addressing one of them and warn you of the other two.

Problem One: It’s not available.  Morningstar has the data but does not release it, except in occasional essays. Fund companies may or may not have it, but almost none of them share it with investors. And journalists occasionally publish pieces that include an active share chart but those tend to be an idiosyncratic, one-time shot of a few funds. Nuts.

Problem Two: Active share is only as valid as the benchmark used. The calculation of active share is simply a comparison between a fund’s portfolio and the holdings in some index. Pick a bad index and you get a bad answer. By way of simple illustration, the S&P500 stock index has an active share of 100 (woo hoo!) if you benchmark it against the MSCI Emerging Markets Index.

Fund companies might have the same incentive and the same leverage with active share providers that the buyers of bond ratings did: bond issuers could approach three ratings agencies and say “tell me how you’ll rate my bond and I’ll tell you whether we’re paying for your rating.” A fund company looking for a higher active share might simply try several indexes until they find the one that makes them look good. Here’s the warning: make sure you know what benchmark was used and make sure it makes sense.

Problem Three: You can compare active share between two funds only if they’ve chosen to use the same benchmark. One large cap might have an active share of 70 against the Mergent Dividend Achievers Index while another has a 75 against the Russell 1000 Value Index. There’s no way, from that data, to know whether one fund is actually more active than the other. So, look for comparables.

To help you make better decisions, we’ve begun gathering publicly-available active share data released by fund companies.  Because we know that compact portfolios are also correlated to higher degrees of independence, we’ve included that information too for all of the funds we could identify.  A number of managers and advisors have provided active share data since our March 1st launch.  Thanks!  Those newly added funds appear in italics.



Active share



Artisan Emerging Markets (Adv)



MSCI Emerging Markets


Artisan Global Equity



MSCI All Country World


Artisan Global Opportunities



MSCI All Country World


Artisan Global Value



MSCI All Country World


Artisan International





Artisan International Small Cap





Artisan International Value





Artisan Mid Cap



Russell Midcap Growth


Artisan Mid Cap Value



Russell Value


Artisan Small Cap



Russell 2000 Growth


Artisan Small Cap Value



Russell 2000 Value


Artisan Value



Russell 1000 Value


Barrow All-Cap Core Investor 



S&P 500


Diamond Hill Select



Russell 3000 Index


Diamond Hill Large Cap



Russell 1000 Index


Diamond Hill Small Cap



Russell 2000 Index


Diamond Hill Small-Mid Cap



Russell 2500 Index


DoubleLine Equities Growth



S&P 500


DoubleLine Equities Small Cap Growth



Russell 2000 Growth


Driehaus EM Small Cap Growth



MSCI EM Small Cap


FPA Capital



Russell 2500


FPA Crescent



Barclays 60/40 Aggregate


FPA International Value



MSCI All Country World ex-US


FPA Perennial



Russell 2500


Guinness Atkinson Global Innovators



MSCI World


Guinness Atkinson Inflation Managed Dividend



MSCI World


Linde Hansen Contrarian Value


87.1 *

Russell Midcap Value


Parnassus Equity Income



S&P 500


Parnassus Fund



S&P 500


Parnassus Mid Cap



Russell Midcap


Parnassus Small Cap



Russell 2000


Parnassus Workplace



S&P 500


Pinnacle Value



Russell 2000 TR


Touchstone Capital Growth



Russell 1000 Growth


Touchstone Emerging Markets Eq



MSCI Emerging Markets


Touchstone Focused



Russell 3000


Touchstone Growth Opportunities



Russell 3000 Growth


Touchstone Int’l Small Cap



S&P Developed ex-US Small Cap


Touchstone Int’l Value





Touchstone Large Cap Growth



Russell 1000 Growth


Touchstone Mid Cap



Russell Midcap


Touchstone Mid Cap Growth



Russell Midcap Growth


Touchstone Mid Cap Value



Russell Midcap Value


Touchstone Midcap Value Opps



Russell Midcap Value


Touchstone Sands Capital Select



Russell 1000 Growth


Touchstone Sands Growth



Russell 1000 Growth


Touchstone Small Cap Core



Russell 2000


Touchstone Small Cap Growth



Russell 2000 Growth


Touchstone Small Cap Value



Russell 2000 Value


Touchstone Small Cap Value Opps



Russell 2000 Value


William Blair Growth



Russell 3000 Growth


*        Linde Hansen notes that their active share is 98 if you count stocks and cash, 87 if you look only at the stock portion of their portfolio.  To the extent that cash is a conscious choice (i.e., “no stock in our investable universe meets our purchase standards, so we’ll buy cash”), count both makes a world of sense.  I just need to find out how other investors have handled the matter.

Who’s not on the list? 

A lot of firms, some of whose absences are in the ironic-to-hypocritical range. Firms not choosing to disclose active share include:

BlackRock – which employs Anniti Petajisto, the guy who invented active share, as a researcher and portfolio manager in their Multi-Asset Strategies group. (They do make passing reference to an “active share buyback” on the part on one of their holdings, so I guess that’s partial credit, right?)

Fidelity – whose 5 Tips to Pick a Winning Fund tells you to look for “stronger performers [which are likely to] have a high ‘active share’”.  (They do reprint a Reuters article ridiculing a competitor with a measly 56% active share, but somehow skip the 48% for Fidelity Blue Chip Growth, 47% for Growth & Income, the 37% for MegaCap Stock or the under 50% for six of their Strategic Advisers funds). (per the Wall Street Journal, Is Your Fund a Closet Index Fund, January 14, 2014).

Oakmark – which preens about “Harris Associates and Active Share” without revealing any.

Are you active?  Would you like someone to notice?

We’ve been scanning fund company sites for the past month, looking for active share reports. If we’ve missed you, we’re sorry. Help us correct the oversight  by sending us the link to where you report your active share stats. We’d be more than happy to offer a permanent home for the web’s largest open collection of active share data.

Does Size Matter?

edward, ex cathedraBy Edward Studzinski

“Convictions are more dangerous enemies of truth than lies.”


One of the more interesting consequences of the performance of equities in 2013 is the ramp-up of the active investment management marketing machines to explain why their performance in many instances lagged that of inexpensive index funds. This has resulted in a manure storm media blitz with terms and phrases such as “stock picker’s market” or “active share” or “concentrated portfolios.” 

“Stock picker’s market” is generally a euphemism for active management. That is, why you should pay me 100 basis points for investing in a subset of the S&P 500, rather than pay Vanguard or some other index fund provider 5 basis points for their product. One of the rationales I used to regularly hear to justify active management fees was that the active manager will know when to get out of the market and when to get back in, whereas the small investor will always go in and out at the wrong time. The period of 2008-2009 puts paid to that argument when one looks at maximum drawdown numbers.  The question it raises however is whether the time horizon most investment managers and investors use is far too short. I think it clearly is and that rather than three years or three to five years, we should be thinking of ten years at a minimum.  Unfortunately, given personnel turnover in many investment organizations, it is difficult for the investing public to know or understand that the people who gave a fund its long-term performance, looking in the rear-view mirror, are not the ones doing the analysis or selecting the investments going forward. And if they are, often their time and attention is pulled in many other directions.  This is why I now, sitting on an endowment investment committee, appreciate why an integral part of the investment consultant’s report covers stability of personnel and succession planning at current firms invested in as well as firms proposed for consideration. Of course, if you are the average retail investor, you are far better off to focus on your risk tolerance, true time horizon, and asset allocation, again making use of low cost index products if you are not going to spend the time and effort to replicate the work of the consultants used by endowments and pension funds.

I am going to leave it to others to discuss “active share.”  I do think the question of “concentrated portfolios” is worth a few thoughts.  I once asked a friend of mine, at a large East Coast fund complex, how he managed to keep track of the two hundred or so stocks in his fund portfolio. His answer was illuminating.  He said that his firm had a very large research department and prided itself on its selection and training of analysts.  Politically then, over time he had to use an idea or two from everyone or every area. His preference would have been to have a much more concentrated portfolio.  I will refer to that then as the “ark” approach to investment management. Other firms, such as Longleaf, have tended from the get-go to have truly concentrated portfolios, say somewhere between twenty to twenty five stocks, given that the benefits of diversification run-out at a certain number of securities. Their rationale has been that rarely, when you are building a portfolio from the bottom up based on what are the most undervalued ideas, do ideas number thirty to forty have the same expected return potential as ideas number one to ten. (That is even more the case with the S&P 500 hitting new all time highs now).

There is another way to look at this which I think makes it more understandable for the average person.  In 2006, Huber Capital Managed LLC performed a study, looking at value-oriented investors, entitled “Limited Assets Under Management is a Competitive Advantage.”   The study assumed an equal weighted portfolio of 2.5% positions (forty stocks) to show how the investable universe of securities shrank at certain asset levels. It looked at the Russell 1000 Value Index and the Russell 2000 Value Index. The conclusion of the study was that as assets under management grew, portfolio managers faced increasingly unpleasant choices. One choice of course was to shrink the investment universe, what I have referred to in the past as the rule limiting investments to securities that can be bought or sold in five days average trading volume.

Another alternative was to increase the number of stocks held in the portfolio. You can see whether your manager has done this by going back five or ten years and looking at annual reports.  When the fund was $5B in asset size, did it own thirty stocks? Do you really believe that with the fund at $10B or $15B in asset size, that it has found another twenty or thirty undervalued stocks?  Look also to see if the number of research analysts has increased materially. Are roughly the same number of analysts covering more names? 

The third choice was to make the fund very concentrated or even non-diversified by SEC standards, with individual positions greater than five per cent. That can work, but it entails taking on career risk for the analysts and fund managers, and enterprise risk for the management company. A fund with $10B in assets under management has available only 50% of the investable set of stocks to invest in, assuming it is going to continue to focus on liquidity of the investment as an implicit criteria. That is why you see more and more pension funds, endowments, and family office managers shifting to low-cost index or ETF vehicles for their large cap investments. The incremental return is not justified by the incremental fee over the low-cost vehicle. And with a long-term time horizon, the compounding effect of that fee differential becomes truly important to returns.

My thanks to Huber Capital Manangement LLC for doing this study, and to Long Short Advisors for making me aware of it in one of their recent reports. Both firms are to be commended for their integrity and honesty. They are truly investment managers rather than asset gatherers. 

On the impact of fund categorization: Morningstar’s rejoinder

charles balconyMorningstar’s esteemed John Rekenthaler replied to MFO’s February commentary on categorization, although officially “his views are his own.” His February 5 column is entitled How Morningstar Categorizes Funds.

Snowball’s gloss: John starts with a semantic quibble (Charles: “Morningstar says OSTFX is a mid-cap blend fund,” John: “Morningstar does not say what a fund is,” just what category it’s been assigned to), mischaracterizes Charles’s article as “a letter to MFO” (which I mention only because he started the quibble-business) and goes on to argue that the assignment of OSTFX to its category is about as reasonable a choice as could be made. Back to Charles:

Mr. R. uses BobC’s post to frame an explanation of what Morningstar does and does not do with respect to fund categorization. In his usual thoughtful and self-effacing manner, he defends the methodology, while admitting some difficulty in communicating. Fact is, he remains one of Morningstar’s best communicators and Rekenthaler Report is always a must read.

I actually agree with his position on Osterweis. Ditto for his position on not having an All Cap category (though I suspect I’m in the minority here and he actually admits he may be too). He did not address the (mis-)categorization of River Park Short Term High Yield Fund (RPHYX/RPHIX, closed). Perhaps because he is no longer in charge of categorization at Morningstar.

The debate on categorization is never-ending, of course, as evidenced by the responses to his report and the many threads on our own board. For the most part, the debate remains a healthy one. Important for investors to understand the context, the peer group, in which prospective funds are being rated.

In any case and as always, we very much appreciate Mr. Rekenthaler taking notice and sharing his views.

Snowball’s other gloss: geez, Charles is a lot nicer than I am. I respect John’s work but frankly I don’t really tingle at the thought that he “takes notice.” Well, except maybe for that time at the Morningstar conference when he swerved at the last minute to avoid crashing into me. I guess there was a tingle then.

Snowball’s snipe: at the sound of Morningstar’s disdain, MFWire did what MFWire does. They raised high the red-and-white banner, trumpeting John’s argument and concluding with a sharp “grow up, already!” I would have been much more impressed with them if they’d read Charles’s article beforehand. They certainly might have, but there’s no evidence in the article that they felt that need.

One of the joys of writing for the Observer is the huge range of backgrounds and perspectives that our readers bring to the discussion. A second job is the huge range of backgrounds and perspectives that my colleagues bring. Charles, in particular, can hear statistics sing. (He just spent a joyful week in conference studying discounted cash-flow models.) From time to time he tries, gently, to lift the veil of innumeracy from my eyes. The following essay flows from our extended e-mail exchanges in which I struggled to understand the vastly different judgments of particular funds implied by different ways of presenting their risk-adjusted statistics. 

We thought some of you might like to overhear that conversation.  

Morningstar’s Risk Adjusted Return Measure

Central to any fund rating system is the performance measure used to determine percentile rank order. MFO uses Martin ratio, as described Rating System Definitions. Morningstar developed its own risk adjusted return (MRAR), which Nobel Laureate William Sharpe once described as a measure that “…differs significantly from more traditional ones such as various forms of the Sharpe ratio.” While the professor referred to an earlier version of MRAR, the same holds true today.

Here is how Morningstar describes MRAR on its Data FAQ page: Morningstar adjusts for risk by calculating a risk penalty for each fund based on “expected utility theory,” a commonly used method of economic analysis. Although the math is complex, the basic concept is relatively straightforward. It assumes that investors are more concerned about a possible poor outcome than an unexpectedly good outcome and that those investors are willing to give up a small portion of an investment’s expected return in exchange for greater certainty. A “risk penalty” is subtracted from each fund’s total return, based on the variation in its month-to-month return during the rating period, with an emphasis on downward variation. The greater the variation, the larger the penalty. If two funds have the exact same return, the one with more variation in its return is given the larger risk penalty.

For the curious and mathematically inclined, the detailed equations are well documented in The Morningstar Rating Methodology. The following figure illustrates how MRAR behaves for three hypothetical funds over a 3 year period ending Dec 2013:

hypothetical fundsfund012

Each fund in the illustration delivers the same total return, but with varying levels of volatility. The higher the volatility, the lower the risk adjusted return. Fund 0 delivers consistent returns every month with zero volatility; consequently, it receives the highest MRAR, which in this case is the fund’s annualized total return minus the risk-free T-Bill (i.e., it’s the annualized “excess” return).

Morningstar computes MRAR for all funds over equivalent periods, and then percentile ranks them within their respective categories to assign appropriate levels, 1 star for those funds in the lowest group and the coveted 5 star rating for the highest.

It also computes a risk measure MRisk and performs a similar ranking to designate “low” to “high” risk funds within each category. MRisk is simply the difference between the annualized excess return of the fund and its MRAR.

The following figure provides further insight into how MRAR behaves for funds of varying volatility. This time, fund total returns have been scaled to match their category averages, again for the 3 year period ending Dec 2013. The figure includes results from several categories showing MRAR versus the tradition volatility measure, annualized standard deviation.

mrar sensitivity

Once again we see that funds with higher volatility generally receive lower MRARs and that the highest possible MRAR is equal to a fund’s annualized excess return, which occurs at zero standard deviation.

A consequence of Morningstar’s methodology is that low volatility funds with below average returns can quite possibly be out-ranked by average volatility funds with average returns. Put another way, the methodology generally penalizes funds with high volatility more so than it rewards funds with low volatility, since with the latter the benefit is “capped.”

This behavior is different from other risk adjusted return measures based on say Sharpe ratio, as can be seen in the figure below. Here the same funds from above are plotted against Sharpe, but now funds with low volatility are rewarded handsomely, even if they have below average total returns.

sharpe sensitivity

Revisiting the Morningstar risk measure MRisk, one finds another observation: it appears to correlate rather satisfactorily against a simple function based on standard deviation (up to about 30% for funds of positive total return without load):
morningstar risk

Which means that Morningstar’s risk adjusted return can be estimated from the following:

morningstar mrar

This simple approximation may come in handy, like when David wonders: “Why do RPHIX and ICMYX, which have superior 3 year Sharpe ratios, rate a very inferior 1 star by Morningstar?” He can use the above calculation to better understand, as illustrated here:

mrar approximation

While both do indeed have great 3 year Sharpe ratios – RPHIX is highest of any US fund – they both have below average total returns relative to their current peer group, as represented by say VWEHX, a moderate risk and average returning high yield bond “reference” fund.

Their low volatilities simply get no love from Morningstar’s risk adjusted return measure.


Celebrating one-starness

I was having a nice back-channel conversation with a substantially frustrated fund manager this week. He read Charles’s piece on fund categorization and wrote to express his own dismay with the process. He’s running a small fund. It hit its three-year mark and earned five stars. People noticed. Then Morningstar decided to recategorize the fund (into something he thinks he isn’t). And it promptly became one star. And, again, people – potential investors – noticed, but not in a good way.

Five to one, with the stroke of a pen? It happens, but tends not to get trumpeted. After all, it rather implies negligence on Morningstar’s part if they’ve been labeling something as, say, a really good conservative allocation fund for years but then, on further reflection, conclude that it’s actually a sucky high-yield bond or preferred stock fund.

Here’s what Morningstar’s explanation for such a change looks like in practice:

Morningstar Alert

Osterweis Strategic Income Fund OSTIX

12-03-13 01:00 PM

Change in Morningstar Fund Star Rating: The Morningstar Star Rating for this fund has changed from 4 stars to 2 stars. For details, go to

Sadly, when you go to that page there are no details that would explain an overnight drop of that magnitude. On the “performance” page, you will find the clue:

fund category

I don’t have an opinion on the appropriateness of the category assignment but it would be an awfully nice touch, given the real financial consequences of such a redesignation, if Morningstar would take three sentences to explain their rationale at the point that they make the change.

Which got me to thinking about my own favorite one-star fund (RiverPark Short Term High Yield RPHYX and RPHIX, which is closed) and Charles’s favorite one-shot stat on a fund’s risk-adjusted returns (its Sharpe ratio).

And so, here’s the question: how many funds have a higher (i.e., better) Sharpe ratio than does RPHYX?

And, as a follow-up, how many have a Sharpe ratio even half as high as RiverPark’s?

That would be “zero” and “seven,” respectively, out of 6500 funds.

Taking up Rekenthaler’s offer

In concluding his response to Charles’s essay, John writes:

A sufficient critique is one that comes from a fund that truly does not behave like others in its category, that contains a proposal for a modification to the existing category system, that does not lead to rampant category proliferation, and that results in a significantly closer performance comparison between the fund and its new category. In such cases, Morningstar will consider the request carefully–and sometimes make the suggested change.

Ummm … short-term high-yield? In general, those are funds that are much more conservative than the high-yield group. The manager at RiverPark Short-Term High Yield (RPHYX) positions the fund as a “cash management” account. The managers at Intrepid Income (ICMYX) claim to be “absolute return” investors. Wells Fargo Advantage Short-Term High-Yield Bond (STHBX) seems similarly positioned. All are one-star funds (as of February 2014) when judged against the high-yield universe.

“Does not behave like others in its category” but “results in a significantly closer performance comparison [within] its new category.” The orange line is the high-yield category. That little cluster of parallel, often overlapping lines below it are the three funds.

high yield

“Does not lead to rampant category proliferation.” You mean, like creating a “preferred stock” category with seven funds? That sort of proliferation? If so, we’re okay – there are about twice as many short-term high-yield candidates as preferred stock ones.

I’m not sure this is a great idea. I am pretty sure that dumping a bunch of useful, creative funds into this particular box is a pretty bad one.

Next month’s unsought advice will highlight emerging markets balanced (or multi-asset) funds. We’re up to a dozen of them now and the same logic that pulled US balanced funds out of the equity category and global balanced funds out of the international equity category, seems to be operating here.

Two things you really should read

In general, most writing about funds has the same problem as most funds do: it’s shallow, unoriginal, unreflective. It contributes little except to fill space and get somebody paid (both honorable goals, by the way). Occasionally, though, there are pieces that are really worth some of our time, thought and reflection. Here are two.

I’m not a great fan of ETFs. They’ve always struck me as trading vehicles, tools for allowing hedge funds and others to “make bets” rather than to invest. Chuck Jaffe had a really solid piece entitled “The growing case against ETFs” (Feb. 23, 2014) that makes the argument that ETFs are bad for you. Why? Because the great advantage of ETFs are that you can trade them all day long. And, as it turns out, if you give someone a portfolio filled with ETFs that’s precisely – and disastrously – what they do.

The Observer was founded on the premise that small, independent, active funds are the only viable alternative to a low-cost indexed portfolio. As funds swell, two bad things happen: their investable universe shrinks and the cost of making a mistake skyrockets, both of which lead to bad investment choices. There’s a vibrant line of academic research on the issue. John Rekenthaler began dissecting some of that research – in particular, a recent study endorsing younger managers and funds – in a four-part series of The Rekenthaler Report. At this writing, John had posted two essays: “Are Young Managers All That?” (Feb. 27, 2014) and “Has Your Fund Become Too Large, Or Is Industry Size the Problem?” (Feb. 28, 2014).  The first essay walks carefully through the reasons why older, larger funds – even those with very talented managers – regress. To my mind, he’s making a very strong case for finding capacity-constrained strategies and managers who will close their funds tight and early. The second picks up an old argument made by Charles Ellis in his 1974 “The Loser’s Game” essay; that the growth and professionalization of the investment industry is so great that no one – certainly not someone dragging a load – can noticeably outrun the crowd. The problem is less, John argues, the bloat of a single fund as the effect of “$3 trillion in smart money chasing the same ideas.”  

Regardless of whether you disdain or adore ETFs, or find the industry’s difficulties located at the level of undisciplined funds or an unwieldy industry, you’ll come away from these essays with much to think about.

RiverPark Strategic Income: Another set of ears

I’m always amazed by the number of bright and engaging folks who’ve been drawn to the Observer, and humbled by their willingness to freely share some of their time, insights and experience with the rest of us. One of those folks is an investor and advisor named “Mark” who is responsible for extended family money, a “multi-family office” if you will. He had an opportunity to spend some time chatting with David Sherman in mid-January as he contemplated a rather sizeable investment in RiverPark Strategic Income (RSIVX) for some family members who would benefit from such a strategy. Herewith are some of the reflections he shared over the course of a series of emails with me.

Where he’s coming from

Mark wrote that to him it’s important to understand the “context” of RSIVX. Mr. Sherman manages private strategies and hedge fund monies at Cohanzick Management, LLC. He cut his teeth at Leucadia National (whose principal Ian Cumming is sometimes referred to as Canada’s Warren Buffett) and is running some sophisticated and high entry strategies that have big risks and big rewards. His shop is not as large as some, sure, but Mr. Sherman seems to prefer it that way.

Some of what Mr. Sherman does all day “informs” RSIVX. He comes across an instrument or an idea that doesn’t fit in one strategy but may in another. It has the risk/reward characteristics that he wants for a particular strategy and so he and his team perform their due diligence on it. More on that later.

Where he is

RSIVX only exists, according to Mr. Sherman, because it fills a need. The need is for an annuity like stream of income at a rate that “his mother could live off” and he did not see such a thing in the marketplace. (In 2007 you could park money at American Express Bank in a jumbo CD at 5.5%. No such luck today.) He saw many other total return products out there in the high yield space where an investor can get a bit higher returns than what he envisions. But some of those returns will be from capital appreciation, i.e., returns from in essence trading. Mr. Sherman did not want to rely on that. He wants a lower duration portfolio (3-4 years) that he can possibly but not necessarily hold to get nice, safe, relatively high coupons from. As long as his investor has that timeframe, Mr. Sherman believes he can compound the money at 6-8% annually, and the investor gets his money back plus his return.

Shorter timeframes, because of impatience or poor timing choices, carry no such assurances. It’s not a CD, it’s not a guaranteed annuity from an insurer, but it’s what is available and what he is able to get for an investor.

How? Well, one inefficiency he hopes to exploit is in the composition of SPDR Barclays High Yield Bond (JNK) and iShares High Yield Corporate Bond (HYG). He doesn’t believe they reflect the composition of high yield space accurately with their necessary emphasis on the most liquid names. He will play in a different sandbox with different toys. And he believes it’s no more risky and thinks it is less so. In addition, when the high yield market moves, especially down, those names move fast.

Mark wrote that he asked David whether the smoothness of his returns exhibited in RPHYX and presumably in RSIVX in the future was due or would be due to a laddering strategy that he employed. He said that it was not – RSIVX’s portfolio was more of a barbell presently- and he did not want to be pigeonholed into a certain formula or strategy. He would do whatever it took to produce the necessary safe returns and that may change from time to time depending upon the market.

What changing interest rates might mean

What if rates fall? If rates fall then, sure, the portfolio will have some capital appreciation. What if rates rise? Well, every day and every month, David said, the investor will grind toward the payday on the shorter duration instruments he is holding. Mark-to-market they will be “worth” less. The market will be demanding higher interest rates and what hasn’t rolled off yet will not be as competitive as the day he bought them. The investor will still be getting a relatively high 6-8% return and as opportunities present themselves and with cash from matured securities and new monies the portfolio will be repopulated over time in the new interest rate environment. Best he can do. He does not intend to play the game of hedging. 

Where he might be going

crystal ball

Mark said he also asked about a higher-risk follow-on to RSIVX. He said that David told him that if he doesn’t have something unique to bring that meets a need, he doesn’t want to do it. He believes RPHYX and RSIVX to be unique. He “knew” he could pull off RPHYX, that he could demonstrate its value, and then have the credibility to introduce another idea. That idea is the Strategic Income Fund.

He doesn’t see a need for him to step out on the spectrum right now. There are a hundred competitors out there and a lot of overlap. People can go get a total return fund with more risk of loss. Returns from them will vary a lot from year to year unless conditions are remarkably stable. This [strategy] almost requires a smaller, more nimble fund and manager. Here he is. Here it is. So the next step out isn’t something he is thinking [immediately] about, but he continually brings ideas to Morty.

Mark concludes: “We discussed a few of his strategies that had more risk. They are fascinating but definitely not vanilla or oatmeal and a few I had to write out by hand the mechanics afterward so I could “see” what he was doing. One of them took me about an hour to work through where the return came from and where it could go possibly wrong.

But he described it to me because working on it gave him the inspiration for a totally different situation that, if it came to pass, would be appropriate for RSIVX. It did, is much more vanilla and is in the portfolio. Very interesting and shows how he thinks. Would love to have a beer with this guy.”

Mark’s bottom line(s)

Mark wanted me to be sure to disclose that he and his family have a rather large position in RiverPark Strategic Income now, and will be holding it for an extended period assuming all goes well (years) so, yeah, he may be biased with his remarks. He says “the strategy is not to everyone’s taste or risk tolerance”. He holds it because it exactly fills a need that his family has.

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.

Driehaus Emerging Markets Small Cap Growth (DRESX): There’s a lot to be said for EM small caps. They provide powerful diversification and performance benefits for a portfolio. The knock of them is that they’re too hot to handle. Driehaus’s carefully constructed, hedged portfolio seems to have cooled the handle by a lot.

Guinness Atkinson Inflation Managed Dividend (GAINX): It’s easy to agree that owning the world’s best companies, especially if you buy them on the cheap, is a really good strategy. GAINX approaches the challenge of constructing a very compact, high quality, low cost portfolio with quantitative discipline and considerable thought.

Intrepid Income (ICMUX): What’s not to like about this conservative little short-term, high-yield fund. It’s got it all: solid returns, excellent risk management and that coveted one-star rating! Intrepid, like almost all absolute value investors, is offering an object lesson on the important of fortitude in the face of frothy markets and serial market records.

RiverPark Gargoyle Hedged Value (RGHVX): The short story is this. Gargoyle’s combination of a compact, high quality portfolio and options-based hedging strategy has, over time, beaten just about every reasonable comparison group. Unless you anticipate a series of 20 or 30% gains in the stock market over the rest of the decade, it might be time to think about protecting some of what you’ve already made.

Elevator Talk: Ted Gardner, Salient MLP & Energy Infrastructure II (SMLPX)

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.

Master limited partnerships (MLPs) are an intriguing asset class which was, until very recently, virtually absent from both open-end fund and ETF portfolios.

MLPs are a form of business organization, in the same way corporations are a form of organization. Their shares trade on US exchanges (NYSE and NASDAQ) and they meet the same SEC security registration requirements as corporations do. They were created in the 1980s primarily as a tool to encourage increased energy production in the country and the vast majority of MLPs (75% or so) are in the energy sector.

MLPs are distinct from corporations in a number of ways:

  • They’re organized around two groups: the limited partners (i.e., investors) and the general partners (i.e., managers). The limited partners provide capital and receive quarterly distributions.
  • MLPs are required, by contract, to pay minimum quarterly distributions to their limited partners. That means that they produce very consistent streams of income for the limited partners.
  • MLPs are required, by law, to generate at least 90% of their income from “qualified sources.” Mostly that means energy production and distribution.

The coolest thing about MLPs is the way they generate their income: they operate hugely profitable, economically-insensitive monopolies whose profits are guaranteed by law. A typical midstream MLP might own a gas or oil pipeline. The MLP receives a fee for every gallon of oil or cubic foot of gas moving through the pipe. That rate is set by a federal agency and that rate rises every year by the rate of inflation plus 1.3%. It doesn’t matter whether the price of oil soars or craters; the MLP gets its toll regardless. And it doesn’t really matter whether the economy soars or craters: people still need warm homes and gas to get to work. At worst, bad recessions eliminate a year’s demand rise but haven’t yet caused a net demand decrease. As the population grows and energy consumption rises, the amount moving through the pipelines rise and so does the MLPs income.

Those profits are protected by enormously high entry barriers: building new pipelines cost billions, require endless hearings and permits, and takes years. As a result, the existing pipelines function as de facto a regional monopoly, which means that the amount of material traveling through the pipeline won’t be driven down by competition for other pipelines.

Quick highlights of the benchmark Alerian MLP index:

  • From inception through early 2013, the index returned 16% annually, on average.
  • For that same period, it had a 7.1% yield which grew 7% annually.
  • There is a low correlation – 50 – between the stock market and the index. REITs say at around 70 and utility stocks at 25, but with dramatically lower yield and returns.

Only seven of the 17 funds with “MLP” in their names have been around long enough to quality for a Morningstar rating; all seven are four- or five-star funds, measured against an “energy equity” peer group. Here’s a quick snapshot of Salient (the blue line) against the two five-star funds (Advisory Research MLP & Energy Income INFIX and MLP & Energy Infrastructure MLPPX) and the first open-end fund to target MLPs (Oppenheimer SteelPath MLP Alpha MLPAX):


The quick conclusion is that Salient was one of the best MLP funds until autumn 2013, at which point it became the best one. I did not include the Alerian MLP index or any of the ETFs which track it because they lag so far behind the actively-managed funds. Over the past year, for example, Salient has outperformed the Alerian MLP Index – delivering 20% versus 15.5%.

High returns and substantial diversification. Sounds perfect. It isn’t, of course. Nothing is. MLP took a tremendous pounding in the 2007-09 meltdown when credit markets froze and dropped again in August 2013 during a short-lived panic over changes in MLP’s favorable tax treatment. And it’s certainly possible for individual MLPs to get bid up to fundamentally unattractive valuations.

Ted Gardner, Salient managerTed Gardner is the co‐portfolio manager for Salient’s MLP Complex, one manifestation of which is SMLPX. He oversees and coordinates all investment modeling, due diligence, company visits, and management conferences. Before joining Salient he was both Director of Research and a portfolio manager for RDG Capital and a research analyst with Raymond James. Here are his 200 words on why you should consider getting into the erl bidness:

Our portfolio management team has many years of experience with MLP investing, as managers and analysts, in private funds, CEFs and separate accounts. We considered both the state of the investment marketplace and our own experiences and thought it might translate well into an open-end product.

As far as what we saw in the marketplace, most of the funds out there exist inside a corporate wrapper. Unfortunately C-Corp funds are subject to double taxation and that can create a real draw on returns. We felt like going the traditional mutual fund, registered investment company route made a lot of sense.

We are very research-intensive, our four analysts and I all have a sell side background. We take cash flow modeling very seriously. It’s a fundamental modeling approach, modeling down to the segment levels to understand cash flows. And, historically, our analysts have done a pretty good job at it.

We think we do things a bit differently than many investors. What we like to see is visible growth, which means we’re less yield-oriented than others might be. We typically like partnerships that have a strategic asset footprint with a lot of organic growth opportunities or those with a dropdown story, where a parent company drops more assets into a partnership over time. We tend to avoid firms dependent on third-party acquisitions for growth. And we’ve liked investing in General Partners which have historically grown their dividends at approximately twice the rate of the underlying MLPs.

The fund has both institutional and retail share classes. The retail classes (SMAPX, SMPFX) nominally carry sales loads, but they’re available no-load/NTF at Schwab. The minimum for the load-waived “A” shares is $2,500. Expenses are 1.60% on about $630 million in assets. Here’s the fund’s homepage, but I’d recommend that you click through to the Literature tab to grab some of the printed documentation.

River Park/Gargoyle Hedged Value Conference Call Highlights

gargoyleOn February 12th we spoke for an hour with Alan Salzbank and Josh Parker, both of the Gargoyle Group, and Morty Schaja, CEO of RiverPark Funds. Here’s a brief recap of the highlights:

Alan handles the long portfolio. Josh, a securities lawyer by training, handles the options portfolio. He’s also an internationally competitive bridge player (Gates, Buffett, Parker…) and there’s some reason to believe that the habits of mind that make for successful bridge play also makes for successful options trading. They have 35 and 25 years of experience, respectively, and all of the investment folks who support them at Gargoyle have at least 20 years of experience in the industry. Morty has been investigating buy-write strategies since the mid-1980s and he described the Gargoyle guys as “the team I’ve been looking for for 25 years.”

The fund combines an unleveraged long portfolio and a 50% short portfolio, for a steady market exposure of 50%. The portfolio rebalances between those strategies monthly, but monitors and trades its options portfolio “in real time” throughout the month.

The long portfolio is 80-120 stocks, and stock selection is algorithmic. They screen the 1000 largest US stocks on four valuation criteria (P/B, P/E, P/CF, P/S) and then assign a “J score” to each stock based on how its current valuation compares with (1) its historic valuation and (2) its industry peers’ valuation. They then buy the 100 more undervalued stocks, but maintain sector weightings that are close to the S&P 500’s.

The options portfolio is a collection of index call options. At base, they’re selling insurance policies to nervous investors. Those policies pay an average premium of 2% per month and rise in value as the market falls. That 2% is a long-term average, during the market panic in the fall of 2008, their options were generating 8% per month in premiums.

Why index calls? Two reasons: (1) they are systematically mispriced, and so they always generate more profit than they theoretically should. In particular, they are overpriced by about 35 basis points/month 88% of the time. For sellers, that means something like a 35 bps free lunch. And (2) selling calls on their individual stocks – that is, betting that the stocks in their long portfolio will fall – would reduce returns. They believe that their long portfolio is a collection of stocks superior to any index and so they don’t want to hedge away any of their upside.

And it works. Their long portfolio has outperformed the S&P 500 by an average of 5% per year for 15 years. The entire strategy has outperformed the S&P in the long-term and has matched its returns, with less volatility, in the shorter term. Throughout, it has sort of clubbed its actively-managed long-short peers. It also anticipates clubbing the emerging bevy of buy-write ETFs.

rp gargoyle

The guys identify two structural advantages they have over an ETF: (1) they buy stocks superior to those in broad indexes and (2) they manage their options portfolio moment by moment, while the ETF just sits and takes hits for 29 out of 30 days each month.

There’s evidence that they’re right. The ETFs are largely based on the CBOE S&P Buy-Write Index (BXM). Between 2000-12, the S&P 500 returned 24% and the BXM returned 52%; the options portion of the Gargoyle portfolio returned 110% while the long portfolio crushed the S&P.

Except not so much in 2008. The fund’s maximum drawdown was 48%, between 10/07 and 03/08. The guys attributed that loss to the nature of the fund’s long portfolio: it buys stocks in badly dented companies when the price of the stock is even lower than the company’s dents would warrant. Unfortunately in the meltdown, those were the stocks people least wanted to own so they got killed. The fund’s discipline kept them from wavering: they stayed 100% invested and rebalanced monthly to buy more of the stocks that were cratering. The payback comes in 2009 when they posted a 42% return against the S&P’s 26% and again in 2010 when they made 18% to the index’s 15%.

The managers believe that ’08 was exceptional, and note that the strategy actually made money from 2000-02 when the market suffered from the bursting of the dot-com bubble.

In general, the strategy fares poorest when the market has wild swings. It fares best in gently rising markets, since both the long and options portfolios can make money if the market rises but less than the strike price of the options – they can earn 2% a month on an option that’s triggered if the market rises by more than 1%. If the market rises but by less than 1%, they pay out nothing, pocket the 2% and pocket the capital appreciation from their long portfolio.

What’s the role of the fund in a portfolio? They view it as a substitute for a large-cap value investment; so if your asset allocation plan is 20% LCV, then you could profitably invest up to 20% of your portfolio in Gargoyle. For the guys, it’s 100% of their US equity exposure.

Morty Speaks!  The rationale for hedging a long-term portfolio.

The Gargoyle call sparked – here’s a surprise – considerable commentary on our discussion board. Some were impressed with Josh and Alan’s fortitude in maintaining their market exposure during the 2007-09 meltdown but others had a more quizzical response. “Expatsp” captured it this way: “Though this seems the best of the long/short bunch, I just don’t see the appeal of long/short funds for anyone who has a long-term horizon.

No.  Not Morty.

No. Not Morty.

There’s a great scene in Big Bang Theory where the brilliant but socially-inept Sheldon clears up a misunderstanding surrounding a comment he made about his roommate: “Ah, I understand the confusion. Uh, I have never said that you are not good at what you do. It’s just that what you do is not worth doing.” Same theme.

Morty Schaja, RiverPark’s president, is in an interesting position to comment on the question. His firm not only advises a pure long/short fund (RiverPark Long/Short Opportunity RLSFX) and a long hedged with options fund (RiverPark Gargoyle), but it also runs a very successful long-only fund (RiverPark Large Cap Growth RPXFX, which he describes as “our five-star secret weapon”).

With the obvious disclaimer that Morty has a stake in the success of all of the RiverPark funds (and the less-obvious note that he has invested deeply in each), we asked him the obvious question: Is it worth doing?

The question is simple. The answer is more complex.

I believe the market will rise over time and that over the long run investing in a long-only strategy makes investment sense. Most analysts stop there believing that a higher expected return is the driving factor and that volatility and risk are less relevant if you have the luxury of not needing the money over a long time period like ten years or greater. Yet, I believe allocating a portion of your investable assets in hedged strategies makes economic sense.

Why is that? I have a list of reasons:

  1. Limiting the downside adds to the upside: It’s the mathematics of compounding. Eliminating the substantial down drafts makes it easier to realize better long term average returns. For example, after a 30% decline you need to gain 42.85% to get back to even. A fund that goes up 20% every other year, and declines 10% every other year, averages 8.0% per year. In contrast, a fund that goes up 30% every other year and declines 20% every other year only averages 4.0% per year.  That’s why a strategy capturing, say, 80% of the market’s upside and 50% of its downside can, in the long term, produce greater returns than a pure equity strategy.
  2. Hedging creates an atmosphere of manageable, tolerable risk. Many studies of human nature show that we’re not nearly as brave as we think we are. We react to the pain of a 10% loss much more strongly than to the pleasure of a 10% gain. Hedged funds address that unquestioned behavioral bias. Smaller draw downs (peak to trough investment results) help decrease the fear factor and hopefully minimize the likelihood of selling at the bottom. And investors looking to increase their equity exposure may find it more tolerable to invest in hedged strategies where their investment is not fully exposed to the equity markets. This is especially true after the ferocious market rally we have experienced since the financial crisis.
  3. You gain the potential to play offense: Maintaining a portion of your assets in hedged strategies, like maintaining a cash position, will hopefully provide investors the funds to increase their equity exposure at times of market distress. Further, certain hedged strategies that change their exposure, either actively or passively, based on market conditions, allows the fund managers to play offense for your benefit.
  4. You never know how big the bear might be: The statistics don’t lie. The equity indices have historically experienced positive returns over rolling ten-year periods since we started collecting such data. Yet, there is no guarantee. It is not impossible that equities could enter a secular (that is, long-term) bear market and in such an environment long-only funds would arguably be at a distinct disadvantage to hedged strategies.

It’s no secret that hedged funds were originally the sole domain of very high net worth, very sophisticated investors. We think that the same logic that was compelling to the ultra-rich, and the same tools they relied on to preserve and grow their wealth, would benefit the folks we call “the mass affluent.”


Since RiverPark is one of the very few investment advisors to offer the whole range of hedged funds, I asked Morty to share a quick snapshot of each to illustrate how the different strategies are likely to play out in various sets of market conditions.

Let’s start with the RiverPark Long/Short Opportunity Fund.

Traditional long/short equity funds, such as the RiverPark Long/Short Opportunity Fund, involve a long portfolio of equities and a short book of securities that are sold short. In our case, we typically manage the portfolio to a net exposure of about 50%: typically 105%-120% invested on the long side, with a short position of typically 50%-75%. The manager, Mitch Rubin, manages the exposure based on market conditions and perceived opportunities, giving us the ability to play offense all of the time. Mitch likes the call the fund an all-weather fund; we have the ability to invest in cheap stocks and/or short expensive stocks. “There is always something to do”.


How does this compare with the RiverPark/Gargoyle Hedged Value Fund?

The RiverPark/Gargoyle Hedged Value Fund utilizes short index call options to hedge the portfolio. Broadly speaking this is a modified buy/write strategy. Like the traditional buy/write, the premium received from selling the call options provides a partial cushion against market losses and the tradeoff is that the Fund’s returns are partially capped during market rallies. Every month at options expiration the Fund will be reset to a net exposure of about 50%. The trade-off is that over short periods of time, the Fund only generates monthly options premiums of 1%-2% and therefore offers limited protection to sudden substantial market declines. Therefore, this strategy may be best utilized by investors that desire equity exposure, albeit with what we believe to be less risk, and intend to be long term investors.


And finally, tell us about the new Structural Alpha Fund.

The RiverPark Structural Alpha Fund was converted less than a year ago from its predecessor partnership structure. The Fund has exceptionally low volatility and is designed for investors that desire equity exposure but are really risk averse. The Fund has a number of similarities to the Gargoyle Fund but, on average the net exposure of the Fund is approximately 25%.


Is the Structural Alpha Fund an absolute return strategy?

In my opinion it has elements of what is often called an absolute return strategy. The Fund clearly employs strategies that are not correlated with the market. Specifically, the short straddles and strangles will generate positive returns when the market is range bound and will lose money when the market moves outside of a range on either the upside or downside. Its market short position will generate positive returns when the market declines and will lose money when the market rises. It should be less risky and more conservative than our other two hedge Funds, but will likely not keep pace as well as the other two funds in sharply rising markets.

Conference Call Upcoming

We haven’t scheduled a call for March. We only schedule calls when we can offer you the opportunity to speak with someone really interesting and articulate.  No one has reached that threshold this month, but we’ll keep looking on your behalf.

Conference call junkies might want to listen in on the next RiverNorth call, which focuses on the RiverNorth Managed Volatility Fund (RNBWX). Managed Volatility started life as RiverNorth Dynamic Buy-Write Fund. Long/short funds comes in three very distinct flavors, but are all lumped in the same performance category. For now, that works to the detriment of funds like Managed Volatility that rely on an options-based hedging strategy. The fund trails the long/short peer group since inception but has performed slightly better than the $8 billion Gateway Fund (GATEX). If you’re interested in the potential of an options-hedged portfolio, you’ll find the sign-up link on RiverNorth’s Events page.  The webcast takes place March 13, 2014 at 3:15 Central.

Launch Alert: Conestoga SMid Cap (CCSMX)

On February 28, 2014, Conestoga Mid Cap (CCMGX) ceased to be. Its liquidation was occasioned by negative assessments of its “asset size, strategic importance, current expenses and historical performance.” It trailed its peers in all seven calendar quarters since inception, in both rising and falling periods. With under $2 million in assets, its disappearance is not surprising.

Two things are surprising, however. First, its poor relative performance is surprising given the success of its sibling, Conestoga Small Cap (CCASX). CCASX is a four-star fund that received a “Silver” designation from Morningstar’s analysts. Morningstar lauds the stable management team, top-tier long-term returns, low volatility (its less volatile than 90% of its peers) and disciplined focus on high quality firms. And, in general, small cap teams have had little problem in applying their discipline successfully to slightly-larger firms.

Second, Conestoga’s decision to launch (on January 21, 2014) a new fund – SMid Cap – in virtually the same space is surprising, given their ability simply to tweak the existing fund. It smacks of an attempt to bury a bad record.

My conclusion after speaking with Mark Clewett, one of the Managing Directors at Conestoga: yeah, pretty much. But honorably.

Mark made two arguments.

  1. Conestoga fundamentally mis-fit its comparison group. Conestoga targeted stocks in the $2 – 10 billion market cap range. Both its Morningstar peers and its Russell Midcap Growth benchmark have substantial investments in stocks up to $20 billion. The substantial exposure to those large cap names in a mid-cap wrapper drove its peer’s performance.

    The evidence is consistent with that explanation. It’s clear from the portfolio data that Conestoga was a much purer mid-cap play that either its benchmark or its peer group.


    Conestoga Mid Cap

    Russell Mid-cap Growth

    Mid-cap Growth Peers

    % large to mega cap




    % mid cap




    % small to micro cap




    Average market cap




     By 2013, over 48% of the Russell index was stocks with market caps above $10 billion.

    Mark was able to pull the attribution data for Conestoga’s mid-cap composite, which this fund reflects. The performance picture is mixed: the composite outperformed its benchmark in 2010 and 2011, then trailed in 2013 and 2013. The fund’s holdings in the $2-5 billion and $5–10 billion bands sometimes outperformed their peers and sometimes trailed badly.

  2. Tweaking the old fund would not be in the shareholders’ best interest.  The changes would be expensive and time-consuming. They would, at the same time, leave the new fund with the old fund’s record; that would inevitably cause some hesitance on the part of prospective investors, which meant it would be longer before the fund reached an economically viable size.

The hope is that with a new and more appropriate benchmark, a stable management team, sensible discipline and clean slate, the fund will achieve some of the success that Small Cap’s enjoyed.  I’m hopeful but, for now, we’ll maintain a watchful, sympathetic silence.

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 April or early May 2014 and some of the prospectuses do highlight that date.

This month David Welsch battled through wicked viruses and wicked snowstorms to track down eight funds in registration, one of the lowest totals since we launched three years ago.

The clear standout in the group is Dodge & Cox Global Bond, which the Dodge & Cox folks ran as “a private fund” since the end of December 2012.  It did really well in its one full year of operation – it gained 2.6% while its benchmark lost the same amount – and it comes with D&C’s signature low minimum, low expenses, low drama, team management.

Three other income funds are at least mildly interesting: Lazard Emerging Markets Income, Payden Strategic Income and Whitebox Unconstrained Income.

Manager Changes

On a related note, we also tracked down 50 sets of fund manager changes. The most intriguing of those include fallout from the pissing match at Pimco as Marc Seidner, an El-Erian ally, leaves to become GMO’s head of fixed-income operations.

Updates: The Observer here and there

I had a long conversation with a WSJ reporter which led to a short quotation in “Infrastructure funds are intriguing, but ….” The Wall Street Journal, Feb. 4 2014.  My bottom line was “infrastructure funds appear to be an incoherent mish-mash, with no two funds even agreeing on what sectors are worth including much less what stocks.  I don’t see any evidence of them adding value to a portfolio,” an observation prompted in part by T. Rowe Price’s decision to close their own Global Infrastructure fund. The writer, Lisa Ward, delicately quotes me as saying “you probably already own these same stocks in your other funds.” 

I was quoted as endorsing Artisan Global Small Cap (ARTWX) in Six promising new funds (though the subtitle might have been: “five of which I wouldn’t go near”), Kiplinger’s, Feb. 12 2014.  ARTWX draws on one of the most storied international management teams around, led by Mark Yockey.  The other funds profiled include three mutual funds and two ETFs.  The funds are Miller Income Opportunity (I’ve written elsewhere that “The whole enterprise leaves me feeling a little queasy since it looks either like Miller’s late-career attempt to prove that he’s not a dinosaur or Legg’s post-divorce sop to him”), Fidelity Event-Driven (FARNX: no record that Fido can actually execute with new funds anymore, much less with niche funds and untested managers), and Vanguard Global Minimum Volatility (VMVFX: meh – they work backward from a target risk level to see what returns they can generate).  The ETFs are two of the “smart beta” sorts of products, iShares MSCI USA Quality Factor (QUAL) and Schwab Fundamental U.S. Broad Market (FNDB). 

Finally, there was a very short piece entitled “Actively managed funds with low volatility,” in Bottom Line, Feb. 15 2014.  The publication is not online, at least not in an accessible form.  The editors were looking for funds with fairly well-established track records that have a tradition of low volatility.  I offered up Cook & Bynum Fund (COBYX, I’ve linked to our 2013 profile of them), FPA Crescent (FPACX, in which I’m invested) and Osterweis Fund (OSTWX).

Updates: Forbes discovers Beck, Mack & Oliver Partners (BMPEX)

Forbes rank a nice article on BMPEX, “Swinging at Strikes,” in their February 10, 2014 issue. Despite the lunacy of describing a $175 million fund as “puny” and “tiny,” the author turns up some fun facts to know and tell (the manager, Zac Wydra, was a premed student until he discovered that the sight of blood made him queasy) and gets the fund’s basic discipline right. Zac offers some fairly lively commentary in his Q4 shareholder letter, including a nice swipe at British haughtiness and a reflection on the fact that the S&P 500 is at an all-time high at the same time that the number of S&P 500 firms issuing negative guidance is near an all-time high.

Briefly Noted . . .

BlackRock has added the BlackRock Emerging Markets Long/Short Equity Fund (BLSAX) and the BlackRock Global Long/Short Equity Fund (BDMAX) as part of the constituent fund lineup in its Aggressive Growth, Conservative , Growth and Moderate Prepared Portfolios, and its Lifepath Active-Date series. Global has actually made some money for its investors, which EM has pretty much flatlined while the emerging markets have risen over its lifetime.  No word on a target allocation for either.

Effective May 1, Chou Income (CHOIX) will add preferred stocks to the list of their principal investments: “fixed-income securities, financial instruments that provide exposure to fixed-income securities, and preferred stocks.” Morningstar categorizes CHOIX as a World Bond fund despite the fact that bonds are less than 20% of its current portfolio and non-U.S. bonds are less than 3% of it.

Rydex executed reverse share splits on 13 of its funds in February. Investors received one new share for between three and seven old shares, depending on the fund.

Direxion will follow the same path on March 14, 2014 with five of their funds. They’re executing reverse splits on three bear funds and splits on two bulls.  They are: 

Fund Name

Reverse Split


Direxion Monthly S&P 500® Bear 2X Fund

1 for 4

Direxion Monthly 7-10 Year Treasury Bear 2X Fund

1 for 7

Direxion Monthly Small Cap Bear 2X Fund

1 for 13


Fund Name

Forward Split


Direxion Monthly Small Cap Bull 2X Fund

2 for 1

Direxion Monthly NASDAQ-100® Bull 2X Fund

5 for 1


Auxier Focus (AUXIX) is reducing the minimum initial investment for their Institutional shares from $250,000 to $100,000. Investor and “A” shares remain at $5,000. The institutional shares cost 25 basis points less than the others.

TFS Market Neutral Fund (TFSMX) reopened to new investors on March 1, 2014.

At the end of January, Whitebox eliminated its Advisor share class and dropped the sales load on Whitebox Tactical. Their explanation: “The elimination of the Advisor share class was basically to streamline share classes … eliminating the front load was in the best interest of our clients.” The first makes sense; the second is a bit disingenuous. I’m doubtful that Whitebox imposed a sales load because it was “in the best interest of our clients” and I likewise doubt that’s the reason for its elimination.

CLOSINGS (and related inconveniences)

Artisan Global Value (ARTGX) closed on Valentine’s Day.

Grandeur Peak will soft close the Emerging Markets Opportunities (GPEOX) and hard close the Global Opportunities (GPGOX) and International Opportunities (GPIOX) strategies on March 5, 2014.

 Effective March 5, 2014, Invesco Select Companies Fund (ATIAX) will close to all investors.

Vanguard Admiral Treasury Money Market Fund (VUSSX) is really, really closed.  It will “no longer accept additional investments from any financial advisor, intermediary, or institutional accounts, including those of defined contribution plans. Furthermore, the Fund is no longer available as an investment option for defined contribution plans. The Fund is closed to new accounts and will remain closed until further notice.”  So there.


Effective as of March 21, 2014, Brown Advisory Emerging Markets Fund (BIAQX) is being changed to the Brown Advisory – Somerset Emerging Markets Fund. The investment objective and the investment strategies of the Fund are not being changed in connection with the name change for the Fund and the current portfolio managers will continue. At the same time, Brown Advisory Strategic European Equity Fund (BIAHX) becomes Brown Advisory -WMC Strategic European Equity Fund.

Burnham Financial Industries Fund has been renamed Burnham Financial Long/Short Fund (BURFX).  It’s a tiny fund (with a sales load and high expenses) that’s been around for a decade.  It’s hard to know what to make of it since “long/short financial” is a pretty small niche with few other players.

Caritas All-Cap Growth Fund has become Goodwood SMID Cap Discovery Fund (GAMAX), a name that my 13-year-old keeps snickering at.  It’s been a pretty mediocre fund which gained new managers in October.

Compass EMP Commodity Long/Short Strategies Fund (CCNAX) is slated to become Compass EMP Commodity Strategies Enhanced Volatility Weighted Fund in May. Its objective will change to “match the performance of the CEMP Commodity Long/Cash Volatility Weighted Index.”  It’s not easily searchable by name at Morningstar because they’ve changed the name in their index but not on the fund’s profile.

Eaton Vance Institutional Emerging Markets Local Debt Fund (EELDX) has been renamed Eaton Vance Institutional Emerging Markets Debt Fund and is now a bit less local.

Frost Diversified Strategies and Strategic Balanced are hitting the “reset” button in a major way. On March 31, 2014, they change name, objective and strategy. Frost Diversified Strategies (FDSFX) becomes Frost Conservative Allocation while Strategic Balanced (FASTX) becomes Moderate Allocation. Both become funds-of-funds and discover a newfound delight in “total return consistent with their allocation strategy.” Diversified currently is a sort of long/short, ETFs, funds and stocks, options mess … $4 million in assets, high expense, high turnover, indifferent returns, limited protection. Strategic Balanced, with a relatively high downside capture, is a bit bigger and a bit calmer but ….

Effective on or about May 30, 2014, Hartford Balanced Allocation Fund (HBAAX) will be changed to Hartford Moderate Allocation Fund.

At the same time, Hartford Global Research Fund (HLEAX) becomes Hartford Global Equity Income Fund, with a so far unexplained “change to the Fund’s investment goal.” 

Effective March 31, 2014, MFS High Yield Opportunities Fund (MHOAX) will change its name to MFS Global High Yield Fund.

In mid-February, Northern Enhanced Large Cap Fund (NOLCX) became Northern Large Cap Core Fund though, at last check, Morningstar hadn’t noticed. Nice little fund, by the way.

Speaking of not noticing, the folks at Whitebox have accused of us ignoring “one of the most important changes we made, which is Whitebox Long Short Equity Fund is now the Whitebox Market Neutral Equity Fund.” We look alternately chastened by our negligence and excited to report such consequential news.


BCM Decathlon Conservative Portfolio, BCM Decathlon Moderate Portfolio and BCM Decathlon Aggressive Portfolio have decided that they can best serve their shareholders by liquidating.  The event is scheduled for April 14, 2014.

BlackRock International Bond Portfolio (BIIAX) has closed and will liquidate on March 14, 2014.  A good move given the fund’s dismal record, though you’d imagine that a firm with BlackRock’s footprint would want a fund of this name.

Pending shareholder approval, City National Rochdale Diversified Equity Fund (AHDEX) will merge into City National Rochdale U.S. Core Equity Fund (CNRVX) of the Trust. I rather like the honesty of their explanation to shareholders:

This reorganization is being proposed, among other reasons, to reduce the annual operating expenses borne by shareholders of the Diversified Fund. CNR does not expect significant future in-flows to the Diversified Fund and anticipates the assets of the Diversified Fund may continue to decrease in the future. The Core Fund has significantly more assets [and] … a significantly lower annual expense ratio.

Goldman Sachs Income Strategies Portfolio merged “with and into” the Goldman Sachs Satellite Strategies Portfolio (GXSAX) and Goldman Sachs China Equity Fund with and into the Goldman Sachs Asia Equity Fund (GSAGX) in mid-February.

Huntington Rotating Markets Fund (HRIAX) has closed and will liquidate by March 28, 2014.

Shareholders of Ivy Asset Strategy New Opportunities Fund (INOAX) have been urged to approve the merger of their fund into Ivy Emerging Markets Equity Fund (IPOAX).  The disappearing fund is badly awful but the merger is curious because INOAX is not primarily an emerging markets fund; its current portfolio is split between developed and developing.

The Board of Trustees of the JPMorgan Ex-G4 Currency Strategies Fund (EXGAX) has approved the liquidation and dissolution of the Fund on or about March 10, 2014.  The “strategies” in question appear to involve thrashing around without appreciable gain.

After an entire year of operation (!), the KKR Board of Trustees of the Fund approved a Plan of Liquidation with respect to KKR Alternative Corporate Opportunities Fund (XKCPX) and KKR Alternative High Yield Fund (KHYZX). Accordingly, the Fund will be liquidated in accordance with the Plan on or about March 31, 2014 or as soon as practicable thereafter. 

Loomis Sayles Mid Cap Growth Fund (LAGRX) will be liquidated on March 14th, a surprisingly fast execution given that the Board approved the action just the month before.

On February 13, 2014, the shareholders of the Quaker Small Cap Growth Tactical Allocation Fund (QGASX) approved the liquidation and dissolution of the Fund. 

In Closing . . .

We asked you folks, in January, what made the Observer worthwhile.  That is, what did we offer that brought you back each month?  We poured your answers into a Wordle in hopes of capturing the spirit of the 300 or so responses.


Three themes recurred:  (1) the Observer is independent. We’re not trying to sell you anything.  We’re not trying to please advertisers. We’re not desperate to write inflated drivel in order to maximize clicks. We don’t have a hidden agenda. 

(2) We talk about things that other folks do not. There’s a lot of appreciation for our willingness to ferret out smaller, emerging managers and to bring them to you in a variety of formats. There’s also some appreciate of our willingness to step back from the fray and try to talk about important long-term issues rather than sexy short-term ones.

(3) We’re funny. Or weird. Perhaps snarky, opinionated, cranky and, on a good day, curmudgeonly.

And that helps us a lot.  As we plan for the future of the Observer, we’re thinking through two big questions: where should we be going and how can we get there? We’ll write a bit next time about your answer to the final question: what should we be doing that we aren’t (yet)?

We’ve made a couple changes under the hood to make the Observer stronger and more reliable.  We’ve completed our migration to a new virtual private server at Green Geeks, which should help with reliability and allow us to handle a lot more traffic.  (We hit records again in January and February.)  We also upgraded the software that runs our discussion board.  It gives the board better security and a fresher look.  If you’ve got a bookmarked link to the discussion board, we need you to reset your link to  If you use your old bookmark you’ll just end up on a redirect page.  

In April we celebrate our third anniversary. Old, for a website nowadays, and so we thought we’d solicit the insights of some of the Grand Old Men of the industry: well-seasoned, sometimes storied managers who struck out on their own after long careers in large firms. We’re trying hard to wheedle our colleague Ed, who left Oakmark full of years and honors, to lead the effort. While he’s at that, we’re planning to look again at the emerging markets and the almost laughable frenzy of commentary on “the bloodbath in the emerging markets.”  (Uhh … Vanguard’s Emerging Market Index has dropped 8% in a year. That’s not a bloodbath. It’s not even a correction. It’s a damned annoyance. And, too, talking about “the emerging markets” makes about as much analytic sense as talking about “the white people.”  It’s not one big undifferentiated mass).  We’ve been looking at fund flow data and Morningstar’s “buy the unloved” strategy.  Mr. Studzinski has become curious, a bit, about Martin Focused Value (MFVRX) and the arguments that have led them to a 90% cash stake. We’ll look into it.

Please do bookmark our Amazon link.  Every bit helps! 

 As ever,


January 1, 2014

Dear friends,

Welcome to the New Year.  At least as we calculate it.  The Year of the Horse begins January 31, a date the Vietnamese share.  The Iranians, like the ancient Romans, sensibly celebrate the New Year at the beginning of spring.  A bunch of cultures in South Asia pick mid-April. Rosh Hashanah (“head of the year”) rolls around in September.  My Celtic ancestors (and a bunch of modern Druidic wannabees) preferred Samhain, at the start of November.

Whatever your culture, the New Year is bittersweet.  We seem obsessed with looking back in regret at all the stuff we didn’t do, as much as we look forward to all of the stuff we might yet do.

My suggestion: can the regrets, get off yer butt, and do the stuff now that you know you need to do.  One small start: get rid of that mutual fund.  You know the one.  You’ve been regretting it for years.  You keep thinking “maybe I’ll wait to let it come back a bit.”  The one that you tend to forget to mention whenever you talk about investments.

Good gravy.  Dump it!  It takes about 30 seconds on the phone and no one is going to hassle you about it; it’s not like the manager is going to grab the line and begin pleading for a bit more time.  Pick up a lower cost replacement.  Maybe look into a nice ETF or index fund. Track down a really good fund whose manager is willing to put his own fortune and honor at risk along with yours.

You’ll feel a lot better once you do.

We can talk about your gym membership later.

Voices from the bottom of the well

THESE are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as FREEDOM should not be highly rated.

Thos. Paine, The Crisis, 23 December 1776

Investors highly value managers who are principled, decisive, independent, active and contrarian.  Right up to the moment that they have one. 

Then they’re appalled.

There are two honorable approaches to investing: relative value and absolute value.  Relative value investors tend to buy the best-priced securities available, even if the price quoted isn’t very good.  They tend to remain fully invested even when the market is pricey and have, as their mantra, “there’s always a bull market in something.”  They’re optimistic by nature, enjoy fruity wines and rarely wear bowties.

Absolute value investors tend to buy equities only when they’re selling for cheap.  Schooled in the works of Graham and Dodd, they’re adamant about having “a margin of safety” when investing in an inherently risk asset class like stocks.  They tend to calculate the fair value of a company and they tend to use cautious assumptions in making those calculations.  They tend to look for investments selling at a 30% discount to fair value, or to firms likely to produce 10% internal returns of return even if things turn ugly.  They’re often found sniffing around the piles that trendier investors have fled.  And when they find no compelling values, they raise cash.  Sometimes lots of cash, sometimes for quite a while.  Their mantra is, “it’s not ‘different this time’.”  They’re slightly-mournful by nature, contemplate Scotch, and rather enjoyed Andy Rooney’s commentaries on “60 Minutes.”

If you’re looking for a shortcut to finding absolute value investors today, it’s a safe bet you’ll find them atop the “%age portfolio cash” list.  And at the bottom of the “YTD relative return” list.  They are, in short, the guys you’re now railing against.

But should you be?

I spent a chunk of December talking with guys who’ve managed five-star funds and who were loved by the crowds but who are now suspected of having doubled-up on their intake of Stupid Pills.  They are, on whole, stoic. 

Take-aways from those conversations:

  1. They hate cash.  As a matter of fact, it’s second on their most-hated list behind only “risking permanent impairment of capital”.
  2. They’re not perma-bears. They love owning stocks. These are, by and large, guys who sat around reading The Intelligent Investor during recess and get tingly at the thought of visiting Omaha. But they love them for the prospect of the substantial, compounded returns they might generate.  The price of those outsized returns, though, is waiting for one of the market’s periodic mad sales.
  3. They bought stocks like mad in early 2009, around the time that the rest of us were becoming nauseated at the thought of opening our 401(k) statements. Richard Cook and Dowe Bynum, for example, were at 2% cash in March 2009.  Eric Cinnamond was, likewise, fully invested then.
  4. They’ve been through this before though, as Mr. Cinnamond notes, “it isn’t very fun.”  The market moves in multi-year cycles, generally five years long more or less. While each cycle is different in composition, they all have similar features: the macro environment turns accommodative, stocks rise, the fearful finally rush in, stocks overshoot fair value by a lot, there’s an “oops” and a mass exit for the door.  Typically, the folks who arrived late inherit the bulk of the pain.
  5. And they know you’re disgusted with them. Mr. Cinnamond, whose fund has compounded at 12% annually for the past 15 years, allows “we get those long-term returns by looking very stupid.”  Richard Cook agrees, “we’re going to look silly, sometimes for three to five years at a stretch.”  Zac Wydra admits that he sometimes looks at himself in the mirror and asks “how can you be so stupid?”

And to those investors who declare, “but the market is reasonably priced,” they reply: “we don’t buy ‘the market.’  We buy stocks.  Find the individual stocks that meet the criteria that you hired us to apply, and we’ll buy them.”

What do they think you should do now?  In general, be patient.  Mr. Cook points to Charlie Munger’s observation:

I think the [Berkshire Hathaway’s] record shows the advantage of a peculiar mind-set – not seeking action for its own sake, but instead combining extreme patience with extreme decisiveness. It takes character to sit there with all that cash and do nothing. I didn’t get to where I am by going after mediocre opportunities.

Which is hard.  Several of the guys pointed to Seth Klarman’s decision to return $4 billion in capital to his hedge fund investors this month. Klarman made the decision in principle back in September, arguing that if there were no compelling investment opportunities, he’d start mailing out checks.  Two things are worth noting about Klarman: (1) his hedge funds have posted returns in the high teens for over 30 years and (2) he’s willing to sit at 33-50% cash for a long time if that’s what it takes to generate big long-term returns.

Few managers have Klarman’s record or ability to wait out markets.  Mr. Cinnamond noted, “there aren’t many fund managers with a long track record doing this because you’re so apt to get fired.”  Jeremy Grantham of GMO nods, declaring that “career risk” is often a greater driver of a manager’s decisions than market risk is.

In general, the absolute value guys suggest you think differently about their funds than you think about fully-invested relative value ones.  Cook and Bynum’s institutional partners think of them as “alternative asset managers,” rather than equity guys and they regard value-leaning hedge funds as their natural peer group.  John Deysher, manager of Pinnacle Value (PVFIX), recommends considering “cash-adjusted returns” as a viable measure, though Mr. Cinnamond disagrees since a manager investing in unpopular, undervalued sectors in a momentum driven market is still going to look inept.

Our bottom line: investors need to take a lot more responsibility if they’re going to thrive.  That means we’ve got to look beyond simple return numbers and ask, instead, about what decisions led to those returns.  That means actually reading your managers’ commentaries, contacting the fund reps with specific questions (if your questions are thoughtful rather more than knee-jerk, you’d be surprised at the quality of answers you receive) and asking the all-important question, “is my manager doing precisely what I hired him to do: to be stubbornly independent, fearful when others are greedy and greedy when others are fearful?” 

Alternately: buy a suite of broadly diversified, low-cost index funds.  There are several really solid funds-of-index-funds that give you broad exposure to market risk with no exposure to manager risk.  The only thing that you need to avoid at all costs is the herd: do not pay active management prices for the services of managers whose only goal is to be no different than every other timid soul out there.

The Absolute Value Guys



Absolute 2013 return

Relative 2013 return

ASTON River Road Independent Value ARIVX



bottom 1%

Beck, Mack & Oliver Partners BMPEX



bottom 3%

Cook & Bynum COBYX



bottom 1%

FPA Crescent FPACX *



top 5%

FPA International Value FPIVX



bottom 20%

Longleaf Partners Small-Cap LLSCX



bottom 23%

Oakseed SEEDX



bottom 8%

Pinnacle Value PVFIX



bottom 2%

Yacktman YACKX



bottom 17%

* FPACX’s “moderate allocation” competitors were caught holding bonds this year, dumber even than holding cash.

Don’t worry, relative value guys.  Morningstar’s got your back.

Earnings at S&P500 companies grew by 11% in 2013, through late December, and they paid out a couple percent in dividends.  Arguably, then, stocks are worth about 13% more than they were in January.  Unfortunately, the prices paid for those stocks rose by more than twice that amount.  Stocks rose by 32.4% in 2013, with the Dow setting 50 all-time record highs in the process. One might imagine that if prices started at around fair value and then rose 2.5 times as much as earnings did, valuations would be getting stretched.  Perhaps overvalued by 19% (simple subtraction of the earnings + dividend rise from the price + dividend rise)?

Not to worry, Morningstar’s got you covered.  By their estimation, valuations are up only 5% on the year – from fully valued in January to 5% high at year’s end.  They concluded that it’s certainly not time to reconsider your mad rush into US equities.  (Our outlook for the stock market, 12/27/2013.) While the author, Matthew Coffina, did approvingly quote Warren Buffett on market timing:

Charlie and I believe it’s a terrible mistake to try to dance in and out of it based upon the turn of tarot cards, the predictions of “experts,” or the ebb and flow of business activity. The risks of being out of the game are huge compared to the risks of being in it.

He didn’t, however, invoke what Warren Buffett terms “the three most important words in all of investing,” margin of safety.  Because you can’t be sure of a firm’s exact value, you always need to pay less than you think it’s worth – ideally 30 or 40% less – in order to protect your investors against your own fallible judgment. 

Quo Vadis Japan

moon on the edgeI go out of the darkness

Onto a road of darkness

Lit only by the far off

Moon on the edge of the mountains.


One of the benefits of having had multiple careers and a plethora of interests is that friends and associates always stand ready with suggestions for you to occupy your time. In January of 2012, a former colleague and good friend from my days with the Navy’s long-range strategic planning group suggested that I might find it interesting to attend the Second China Defense and Security Conference at the Jamestown Foundation. That is how I found myself seated in a conference room in February with roughly a hundred other people. My fellow attendees were primarily from the various alphabet soup governmental agencies and mid-level military officers. 

The morning’s presentations might best be summed up as grudging praise about the transformation of the Chinese military, especially their navy, from a regional force to one increasingly able to project power throughout Asia and beyond to carry out China’s national interests. When I finally could not stand it any longer, after a presentation during Q&A, I stuck my hand up and asked why there was absolutely no mention of the 600 pound gorilla in the corner of the room, namely Japan and the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force. The JMSDF was and is either the second or third largest navy in the world. It is considered by many professional observers to be extraordinarily capable. The silence that greeted my question was akin to what one would observe if I had brought in a dog that had peed on the floor. The moderator muttered a few comments about the JMSDF having fine capabilities. We then went on with no mention of Japan again. At that point I realized I had just learned the most important thing that I was going to take from the conference, that Japan (and its military) had become the invisible country of Asia. 

The New Year is when as an investor you reflect back on successes and mistakes. And if one is especially introspective, one can ponder why. For most of 2013, I was banging the drum on two investment themes that made sense to me:  (a) the Japanese equity market and (b) the Japanese currency – the yen – hedged back into U.S. dollars. The broad Japanese market touched highs this month not seen before this century. The dollar – yen exchange rate moved from 89.5 at the beginning of the year to 105.5. In tandem, the themes have proven to be quite profitable. Had an investment been made solely in the Wisdom Tree: Japan Hedged Equity ETF, a total return of 41.8% would have been achieved by the U.S. dollar investor. So, is this another false start for both the Japanese stock market and economy? Or is Japan on the cusp of an economic and political transformation?   

merry menWhen I mention to institutional investors that I think the change in Japan is real, the most common response I get is a concern about “Abenomics.” This is usually expressed as “They are printing an awful lot of money.”  Give me a break.  Ben Bernanke and his little band of merry Fed governors have effectively been printing money with their various QE efforts. Who thinks that money will be repaid or the devaluation of the U.S. dollar will be reversed?  The same can be said of the EU central bankers.  If anything, the U.S. has been pursuing a policy of beggar thy creditor, since much of our debt is owed to others.  At least in Japan, they owe the money to themselves. They have also gone through years of deflation without the social order and fabric of society breaking down. One wonders how the U.S. would fare in a similar long-term deflationary environment. 

I think the more important distinction is to emphasize what “Abenomics” is not.  It is not a one-off program of purchasing government bonds with a view towards going from a multi-year deflationary spiral to generating a few points of inflation.  It is a comprehensive program aimed at reversing Japan’s economic, political, and strategic slide of the past twenty years. Subsumed under the rubric of “Abenomics” are efforts to increase and widen the acceptance of child care facilities to enable more of Japan’s female talent pool to actively participate in the workforce, a shift in policy for the investments permitted in pension funds to dramatically increase domestic equity exposure, and incentives to transform the Japanese universities into research and resource engines. Similarly, the Japanese economy is beginning to open from a closed economy to one of free trade, especially in agriculture, as Japan has joined the Trans Pacific Partnership. Finally, public opinion has shifted dramatically to a willingness to contemplate revision of Japan’s American-drafted post-war Constitution. This would permit a standing military and a more active military posture. It would normalize Japan as a global nation, and restore a balance of interests and power in East Asia. The ultimate goal then is to restore the self-confidence of the Japanese nation.  So, what awakened Japan and the Japanese?

Strangely enough, the Chinese did it. I have been in Japan four times in the last twenty-two months, which does not make me an expert on anything. But it has allowed me to discern a shift in the mood of the country. Long-time Japan hands had told me that when public opinion in Japan shifts, it shifts all at once and moves together in the same direction. Several months ago, I asked a friend and investment manager who is a long-time resident of Tokyo what had caused that shift in opinion. His response was that most individuals, he as well, traced it to the arrest and detention by the Japanese Coast Guard, of a Chinese fishing vessel and its captain who had strayed into Japanese waters. China responded aggressively, embargoing rare earth materials that the Japanese electronics and automobile industries needed, and made other public bellicose noises. Riots and torching of Japanese plants in China followed, with what seemed to be the tacit approval of the Chinese government. Japan released the ship and its captain, and in Asian parlance, lost face. As my friend explained it, the Japanese public came to the conclusion that the Chinese government was composed of bad people whose behavior was unacceptable. Concurrently, Japan Inc. began to relocate its overseas investment away from China and into countries such as Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand, and Singapore.

From an investment point of view, what does it all mean? First, one should not look at Prime Minister Abe, Act II (remember that he was briefly in office for 12 months in 2006-2007) in a vacuum. Like Reagan and Churchill, he used his time in the “wilderness years” to rethink what he wanted to achieve for Japan and how he would set about doing it. Second, one of the things one learns about Japan and the Japanese is that they believe in their country and generally trust their government, and are prepared to invest in Japan. This is in stark contrast to China, where if the rumors of capital flows are to be believed, vast sums of money are flowing out of the country through Hong Kong and Singapore. So, after the above events involving China, Abe’s timing in return to office was timely. 

While Japanese equities have surged this year, that surge has been primarily in the large cap liquid issues that are easily studied and invested in by global firms. Most U.S. firms follow the fly-by approach. Go to Tokyo for a week of company meetings, and invest accordingly. Few firms make the commitment of having resources on the ground. That is why if you look at most U.S.-based Japan specialist mutual funds, they all own pretty much the same large cap liquid names, with only the percentages and sector weightings varying. There are tiers of small and mid-cap companies that are under-researched and under-invested in.  If this is the beginning of a secular bull market, as we saw start in the U.S. in 1982, Japan will just be at the beginnings of eliminating the value gap between intrinsic value and the market price of securities, especially in the more inefficiently-traded and under-researched companies. 

So, as Lenin once famously asked, “What is to be done?”  For most individuals, individual stock investments are out of the question, given the currency, custody, language, trading, and tax issues. For exposure to the asset class, there is a lot to be said for a passive approach through an index fund or exchange-traded fund, of which there are a number with relatively low expense ratios. Finally, there are the fifteen or so Japan-only mutual funds. I am only aware of three that are small-cap vehicles – DFA, Fidelity, and Hennessy. There are also two actively-managed closed end funds. I will look to others to put together performance numbers and information that will allow you to research the area and draw your own conclusions.  

japan funds

Finally, it should be obvious that Japan does not lend itself to simple explanations. As Americans, we are often in a time-warp, thinking that with the atomic bombs, American Occupation and force-fed Constitution, we successfully transformed Japan into a pacifist democratically-styled Asian theme park.  My conclusion is rather that what you see in Japan is not reality (whatever that is) but what they are comfortable with you seeing. I think for instance of the cultural differences with China in a business sense.  With the Chinese businessman, a signed contract is in effect the beginning of the negotiation.  For the Japanese businessman, a signed contract is a commitment to be honored to the letter.

I will leave you with one thing to ponder shared with me by a Japanese friend. She told me that the samurai have been gone for a long time in Japan. But, everyone in Japan still knows who the samurai families are and everyone knows who is of those families and who is not. And she said, everyone from those families still tends to marry into other samurai families.  So I thought, perhaps they are not gone after all.  

Edward Studzinski

From Day One …

… the Observer’s readers were anxious to have us publish lists of Great Funds, as FundAlarm did with its Honor Roll funds.  For a long time I demurred because I was afraid folks would take such a list too seriously.  That is, rather than viewing it as a collection of historical observations, they’d see it as a shopping list. 

After two years and unrelenting inquires, I prevailed upon my colleague Charles to look at whether we could produce a list of funds that had great track records but, at the same time, highlight the often-hidden data concerning those funds’ risks.  With that request and Charles’s initiative, the Great Owl Funds were launched.

And now Charles returns to that troubling original question: what can we actually learn about the future from a fund’s past?

In Search of Persistence

It’s 1993. Ten moderate allocation funds are available that have existed for 20 years or more. A diligent, well intended investor wants to purchase one of them based on persistent superior performance. The investor examines rolling 3-year risk-adjusted returns every month during the preceding 20 years, which amounts to 205 evaluation periods, and delightfully discovers Virtus Tactical Allocation (NAINX).

It outperformed nearly 3/4ths of the time, while it under-performed only 5%. NAINX essentially equaled or beat its peers 194 out of 205 periods. Encouraged, the investor purchases the fund making a long-term commitment to buy-and-hold.

It’s now 2013, twenty years later. How has NAINX performed? To the investor’s horror, Virtus Tactical Allocation underperformed 3/4ths of the time since purchased! And the fund that outperformed most persistently? Mairs & Power Balanced (MAPOX), of course.

Back to 1993. This time a more aggressive investor applies the same methodology to the large growth category and finds an extraordinary fund, named Fidelity Magellan (FMAGX).  This fund outperformed nearly 100% of the time across 205 rolling 3-year periods over 20 years versus 31 other long-time peers. But during the next 20 years…? Not well, unfortunately. This investor would have done better choosing Fidelity Contrafund (FCNTX). How can this be? Most industry experts would attribute the colossal shift in FMAGX performance to the resignation of legendary fund manager Peter Lynch in 1990.

virtus fidelity

MJG, one of the heavy contributors to MFO’s discussion board, posts regularly about the difficulty of staying on top of one’s peer group, often citing results from Standard & Poor’s Index Versus Active Indexing (SPIVA) reports. Here is the top lesson-learned from ten years of these reports:

“Over a five-year horizon…a majority of active funds in most categories fail to outperform indexes. If an investing horizon is five years or longer, a passive approach may be preferable.”

The December 2013 SPIVA “Persistence Scorecard” has just been published, which Joshua Brown writes insightfully about in “Persistence is a Killer.” The scorecard once again shows that only a small fraction of top performing domestic equity mutual funds remain on top across any 2, 3, or 5 year period.

What does mutual fund non-persistence look like across 40 years? Here’s one depiction:

mutual fund mural

The image (or “mural”) represents monthly rank by color-coded quintiles of risk-adjusted returns, specifically Martin Ratio, for 101 funds across five categories. The funds have existed for 40 years through September 2013. The calculations use total monthly returns of oldest share class only, ignoring any load, survivor bias, and category drift.  Within each category, the funds are listed alphabetically.

There are no long blue/green horizontal streaks. If anything, there seem to be more extended orange/red streaks, suggesting that if mutual fund persistence does exist, it’s in the wrong quintiles! (SPIVA actually finds similar result and such bottom funds tend to end-up merged or liquated.)

Looking across the 40 years of 3-year rolling risk-adjusted returns, some observations:

  • 98% of funds spent some periods in every rank level…top, bottom, and all in-between
  • 35% landed in the bottom two quintiles most of the time…that’s more than 1/3rd of all funds
  • 13% were in the top two bottom quintiles…apparently harder to be persistently good than bad
  • Sequoia (SEQUX) was the most persistent top performer…one of greatest mutual funds ever
  • Wall Street (WALLX) was the most persistent cellar dweller…how can it still exist?

sequoia v wall street

The difference in overall return between the most persistent winner and loser is breathtaking: SEQUX delivered 5.5 times more than SP500 and 16 times more than WALLX. Put another way, $10K invested in SEQUX in October 1973 is worth nearly $3M today. Here’s how the comparison looks:

sequx wallx sp500

So, while attaining persistence may be elusive, the motivation to achieve it is clear and present.

The implication of a lack of persistence strikes at the core of all fund rating methodologies that investors try to use to predict future returns, at least those based only on historical returns. It is, of course, why Kiplinger, Money, and Morningstar all try to incorporate additional factors, like shareholder friendliness, experience, and strategy, when compiling their Best Funds lists. An attempt, as Morningstar well states, to identify “funds with the highest potential of success.”

The MFO rating system was introduced in June 2013. The current 20-year Great Owls, shown below for moderate allocation and large growth categories, include funds that have achieved top performance rank over the past 20, 10, 5, and 3 year evaluation periods. (See Rating Definitions.)

20 year GOs

But will they be Great Owls next year? The system is strictly quantitative based on past returns, which means, alas, a gentle and all too ubiquitous reminder that past performance is not a guarantee of future results. (More qualitative assessments of fund strategy, stewardship, and promise are provided monthly in David’s fund profiles.) In any case and in the spirit of SPIVA, we will plan to publish periodically a Great Owl “Persistence Scorecard.”


It’s not exciting just because the marketers say it is

Most mutual funds don’t really have any investment reason to exist: they’re mostly asset gathering tools that some advisor created in support of its business model. Even the funds that do have a compelling case to make often have trouble receiving a fair hearing, so I’m sympathetic to the need to find new angles and new pitches to try to get journalists’ and investors’ attention.

But the fact that a marketer announces it doesn’t mean that journalists need to validate it through repetition. And it doesn’t mean that you should just take in what we’ve written.

Case in point: BlackRock Emerging Markets Long/Short Fund (BLSAX).  Here’s the combination of reasonable and silly statements offered in a BlackRock article justifying long/short investing:

For example, our access to information relies on cutting edge infrastructure to compile vast amounts of obvious and less-obvious sources of publicly available information. In fact, we consume a massive amount of data from more than 25 countries, with a storage capacity 4 times the Library of Congress and 8 times the size of Wikipedia. We take that vast quantity of publicly available information and filter and identify relevant pieces.

Reasonable statement: we do lots of research.  Silly statement: we have a really big hard drive on our computer (“a storage capacity of…”).  Why on earth would we care?  And what on earth does it mean?  “4 times the Library of Congress”?  The LoC digital collection – a small fraction of its total collection – holds three petabytes of data, a statement that folks immediately recognize as nonsensical.  3,000,000 gigabytes.  So the BlackRock team has a 12 petabyte hard drive?  12 petabytes of data?  How’s it used?  How much is reliable, consistent, contradictory or outdated?  How much value do you get from data so vast that you’ll never comprehend it?

NSA’s biggest “data farm” consumes 65 megawatts of power, has melted down 10 times, and – by the fed’s own reckoning – still hasn’t produced demonstrable security gains.  Data ≠ knowledge.

The Google, by the way, processes 20 petabytes of user-generated content per day.

Nonetheless, Investment News promptly and uncritically gloms onto the factoid, and then gets it twice wrong:

The Scientific Active Equity team takes quantitative investing to a whole new level. In fact, the team has amassed so much data on publicly traded companies that its database is now four times the size of Wikipedia and eight times the size of the Library of Congress (Jason Kephart, Beyond black box investing: Fund uses database four times the size of Wikipedia, 12/26/13).

Error 1: reversing the LoC and the Wikipedia.  Error 2: conflating “storage capacity” with “data.” (And, of course, confusing “pile o’ data” with “something meaningful.”)

MFWire promptly grabs the bullhorn to share the errors and the credulity:

This Fund Uses the Data of Eight Libraries of Congress (12/26/13, Boxing Day for our British friends)

The team managing the fund uses gigantic amounts of data — four times the size of Wikipedia and eight times the size of the Library of Congress — on public company earnings, analyst calls, news releases, what have you, to gain on insights into different stocks, according to Kephart.

Our second, perhaps larger, point of disagreement with Jason (who, in fairness, generally does exceptionally solid work) comes in his enthusiasm for one particular statistic:

That brings us to perhaps the fund’s most impressive stat, and the one advisers really need to keep their eyes on: its correlation to global equities.

Based on weekly returns through the third quarter, the most recent data available, the fund has a correlation of just 0.38 to the MSCI World Index and a correlation of 0.36 to the S&P 500. Correlations lower than 0.5 lead to better diversification and can lead to better risk-adjusted returns for the entire portfolio.

Uhhh.  No?

Why, exactly, is correlation The Golden Number?  And why is BlackRock’s correlation enough to make you tingle?  The BlackRock fund has been around just one year, so we don’t know its long-term correlation.  In December, it had a net market exposure of just 9% which actually makes a .36 correlation seem oddly high. BlackRock’s correlation is not distinctively low (Whitebox Long/Short WBLSX has a three-year correlation of 0.33, for instance). 

Nor is low correlation the hallmark of the best long-term funds in the group.  By almost any measure, the best long/short fund in existence is the closed Robeco Boston Partners L/S Equity Fund (BPLEX).  BPLEX is a five-star fund, a Lipper Leader, a Great Owl fund, with returns in the top 4% of its peer group over the past decade. And its long term correlation to the market: 75.  Wasatch Long/Short (FMLSX), another great fund with a long track record: 90. Marketfield (MFLDX), four-star, Great Owl: 67.

The case for BlackRock EM L/S is it’s open. It’s got a good record, though a short one.  In comparison to other, more-established funds, it substantially trails Long-Short Opportunity (LSOFX) since inception, is comparable to ASTON River Road (ARLSX) and Wasatch Long Short (FMLSX), while it leads Whitebox Long-Short (WBLSX), Robeco Boston Partners (BPLEX) and RiverPark Long/Short Opportunity (RLSFX). The fund has nearly $400 million in assets after one year and charges 2% expenses plus a 5.25% front load.  That’s more than ARLSX, WBLSX or FMLSX, though cheaper than LSOFX. 

Bottom Line: as writers, we need to guard against the pressures created by deadlines and the desire for “clicks.”  As readers, you need to realize we have good days and bad and you need to keep asking the questions we should be asking: what’s the context of this number?  What does it mean?  Why am I being given it? How does it compare?  And, as investors, we all need to remember that magic is more common in the world of Harry Potter than in the world we’re stuck with.

Wells Fargo and the Roll Call of the Wretched

Our Annual Roll Call of the Wretched highlights those funds which consistently, over a period of many years, trail their benchmark.  We noted that inclusion on the list signaled one of two problems:

  • Bad fund or
  • Bad benchmark.

The former problem is obvious.  The latter takes a word of explanation.  There are 7055 distinct mutual funds, each claiming – more or less legitimately – to be different from all of the others.   For the purpose of comparison, Morningstar and Lipper assign them to one of 108 categories.  Some funds fit easily and well, others are laughably misfit.  One example is RiverPark Short-Term High Yield Fund (RPHYX), which is a splendid cash management fund whose performance is being compared to the High-Yield group which is dominated by longer-duration bonds that carry equity-like risks and returns.

You get a sense of the mismatch – and of the reason that RPHYX was assigned one-star – when you compare the movements of the fund to the high-yield group.


That same problem afflicts Wells Fargo Advantage Short-Term High Yield Bond (SSTHX), an entirely admirable fund that returns around 4% per year over the long term in a category that delivers 50% greater returns with 150% greater volatility.  In Morningstar’s eyes, one star.

Joel Talish, one of the managing directors at Wells Fargo Advisors, raised the entirely reasonable objection that SSTHX isn’t wretched – it’s misclassified – and it shouldn’t be in the Roll Call at all. He might well be right. Our strategy has been to report all of the funds that pass the statistical screen, then to highlight those whose performance is better than the peer data suggest.  We don’t tend to remove funds from the list just because we believe that the ratings agencies are wrong. We’ve made that decision consciously: investors need to read these ubiquitous statistical screens more closely and more skeptically.  A pattern of results arises from a series of actions, and they’re meaningful only if you take the time to understand what’s going on. By highlighting solid funds that look bad because of a rater’s unexplained assignments, we’re trying to help folks learn how to look past the stars.

It might well be the case that highlighting and explaining SSTHX’s consistently one-star performance did a substantial disservice to the management team. It was a judgment call on our part and we’ll revisit it as we prepare future features.  For now, we’re hopeful that the point we highlighted at the start of the list: 

Use lists like the Roll Call of the Wretched or the Three Alarm Funds as a first step, not a final answer.  If you see a fund of yours on either list, find out why.  Call the adviser, read the prospectus, try the manager’s letter, post a question on our board.  There might be a perfectly good reason for their performance, there might be a perfectly awful one.  In either case, you need to know.

Observer Fund Profile

Each month the Observer provides in-depth profiles of notable funds that you’d otherwise not hear of.  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. 

RiverPark Strategic Income (RSIVX): RSIVX sits at the core of Cohanzick’s competence, a conservative yet opportunistic strategy that they’ve pursued for two decades and that offers the prospect of doubling the returns of its very fine Short-Term High Yield Fund.

Elevator Talk: Oliver Pursche, GMG Defensive Beta Fund (MPDAX)

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. 

PrintThe traditional approach to buffering the stock market’s volatility without entirely surrendering the prospect of adequate returns was to divide the portfolio between (domestic, large cap) stocks and (domestic, investment grade) bonds, at a ratio of roughly 60/40.  That strategy worked passably well as long as stocks could be counted on to produce robust returns and bonds could be counted on to post solid though smaller gains without fail.  As the wheels began falling off that strategy, advisors began casting about for alternative strategies. 

Some, like the folks at Montebello Partners, began drawing lessons from the experience of hedge funds and institutional alternatives managers.  Their conclusion was that each asset class had one or two vital contributions to make to the health of the portfolio, but that exposure to those assets had to be actively managed if they were going to have a chance of producing equity-like (perhaps “equity-lite”) returns with substantial downside protection.

investment allocation

Their strategy is manifested in GMG Defensive Beta, which launched in the summer of 2009.  Its returns have generally overwhelmed those of its multi-alternative peers (top 3% over the past three years, substantially higher returns since inception) though at the cost of substantially higher volatility.  Morningstar rates it as a five-star fund, while Lipper gives it four stars for both Total Return and Consistency of Return and five stars for Capital Preservation.

Oliver Pursche is the president of Gary M Goldberg Financial Services (hence GMG) one of the four founding co-managers of MPDAX.  Here are his 218 words (on whole, durn close to target) on why you should consider a multi alternative strategy:

Markets are up, and as a result, so are the risks of a correction. I don’t think that a 2008-like crash is in the cards, but we could certainly see a 20% correction at some point. If you agree with me, protecting your hard fought gains makes all the sense in the world, which is why I believe low-volatility and multi-alternative funds like our GMG Defensive Beta Fund will continue to gain favor with investors. The problem is that most of these new funds have no, or only a short track-record, so it’s difficult to know how they will actually perform in a prolonged downturn. One thing is certain, in the absence of a longer-term track record, low fees and low turnover tend to be advantageous to investors. This is why our fund is a no-load fund and we cap our fees at 1.49%, well below most of our peers, and our cap gain distributions have been minimal.

From my perspective, if you’re looking to continue to have market exposure, but don’t want all of the risks associated with investing in the S&P 500, our fund is ideally suited. We’re strategic and tactical at the same time and have demonstrated our ability to remain disciplined, which is (I think) why Morningstar has awarded us a 5 Star ranking.

MPDAX is a no-load fund with a single share class.  The minimum initial investment is $1,000.   Expenses are 1.49% on about $27 million in assets.

The fund’s website is functional but spare.  You get the essential information, but there’s no particular wealth of insight or commentary on this strategy.  There’s a Morningstar reprint available but you should be aware that the file contains one page of data reporting and five pages of definitions and disclaimers.

Our earlier Elevator Talks were:

  1. February 2013: Tom Kerr, Rocky Peak Small Cap Value (RPCSX), whose manager has a 14 year track record in small cap investing and a passion for discovering “value” in the intersection of many measures.  We’re saddened to report that Tom chose to liquidate the fund.
  2. March 2013: Dale Harvey, Poplar Forest Partners (PFPFX and IPFPX), a concentrated, contrarian value stock fund that offers “a once-in-a-generation opportunity to invest with a successful American Funds manager who went out on his own.”
  3. April 2013: Bayard Closser, Vertical Capital Income Fund (VCAPX), “a closed-end interval fund, VCAPX invests in whole mortgage loans and first deeds of trust. We purchase the loans from lenders at a deep discount and service them ourselves.”
  4. May 2013: Jim Hillary, LS Opportunity Fund (LSOFX), a co-founder of Marsico Capital Management whose worry that “the quality of research on Wall Street continues to decline and investors are becoming increasingly concerned about short-term performance” led to his faith in “in-depth research and long-term orientation in our high conviction ideas.”
  5. July 2013: Casey Frazier, Versus Capital Multi-Manager Real Estate Income Fund (VCMRX), a second closed-end interval fund whose portfolio “includes real estate private equity and debt, public equity and debt, and broad exposure across asset types and geographies. We target a mix of 70% private real estate with 30% public real estate to enhance liquidity, and our objective is to produce total returns in the 7 – 9% range net of fees.”
  6. August 2013: Brian Frank, Frank Value Fund (FRNKX), a truly all-cap value fund with a simple, successful discipline: if one part of the market is overpriced, shop elsewhere.
  7. August 2013: Ian Mortimer and Matthew Page of Guinness Atkinson Inflation Managed Dividend (GAINX), a global equity fund that pursues firms with “sustainable and potentially rising dividends,” which also translates to firms with robust business models and consistently high return on capital.
  8. September 2013: Steven Vannelli of GaveKal Knowledge Leaders (GAVAX), which looks to invest in “the best among global companies that are tapping a deep reservoir of intangible capital to generate earnings growth,” where “R&D, design, brand and channel” are markers of robust intangible capital. From launch through the end of June, 2013, the fund modestly outperformed the MSCI World Index and did so with two-thirds less volatility
  9. October 2013: Bashar Qasem of Wise Capital (WISEX), which provides investors with an opportunity for global diversification in a fund category (short term bonds) mostly distinguished by bland uniformity.
  10. November 2013: Jeffrey Ringdahl of American Beacon Flexible Bond (AFXAX) gives teams from Brandywine Global, GAM and PIMCO incredible leeway wth which to pursue “positive total return regardless of market conditions.” Since inception the fund has noticeably outrun its “nontraditional bond” peers with reasonable volatility.

Conference Call Highlights

conference-callOn December 9th, about 50 of us spent a rollicking hour with David Sherman of Cohanzick Asset Management, discussing his new fund: RiverPark Strategic Income Fund (RSIVX).  I’m always amazed at how excited folks can get about short-term bonds and dented credits.  It’s sort of contagious.

David’s first fund with RiverPark, the now-closed Short Term High Yield (RPHYX), was built around Cohanzick’s strategy for managing its excess cash.  Strategic Income represents their seminal, and core, strategy to fixed-income investing.  Before launching Cohanzick in 1996, David was a Vice President of Leucadia National Corporation, a holding company that might be thought of as a mini-Berkshire Hathaway. His responsibilities there included helping to manage a $3 billion investment portfolio which had an opportunistic distressed securities flair.  When he founded Cohanzick, Leucadia was his first client.  They entrusted him with $150 million, this was the strategy he used to invest it.

Rather than review the fund’s portfolio, which we cover in this month’s profile of it (below), we’ll highlight strategy and his response to listener questions.

The fund focuses on “money good” securities.  Those are securities where, if held to maturity, he’s confident that he’ll get his entire principal and all of the interest due to him.  They’re the sorts of securities where, if the issuer files for bankruptcy, he still anticipates eventually receiving his principal and interest plus interest on his interest.  Because he expects to be able to hold securities to maturity, he doesn’t care about “the taper” and its effects – he’ll simply hold on through any kerfuffle and benefit from regular payments that flow in much like an annuity stream.  These are, he says, bonds that he’d have his mother hold.

Given that David’s mother was one of the early investors in the fund, these are bonds his mother holds.  He joked that he serves as a sort of financial guarantor for her standard of living (if her portfolio doesn’t produce sufficient returns to cover her expenses, he has to reach for his checkbook), he’s very motivated to get this right.

While the fund might hold a variety of securities, they hold little international exposure and no emerging markets debt. They’re primarily invested in North American (77%) and European(14%)  corporate debt, in firms where the accounting is clear and nations where the laws are. The fund’s investment mandate is very flexible, so they can actively hedge portfolio positions (and might) and they can buy income-producing equities (but won’t).

The portfolio focuses on non-investment grade securities, mostly in the B – BB range, but that’s consistent with his intention not to lose his investors’ money. He values liquidity in his investments; that is to say, he doesn’t get into investments that he can’t quickly get out of.  The fund has been letting cash build, and it’s now about 30% of the portfolio.  David’s general preference is to get out too early and lose some potential returns, rather than linger too long and suffer the risk of permanent impairment.

There were rather more questions from callers than we had time to field.  Some of the points we did get to talk about:

David is not impressed with the values available in one- to three-year bonds, they’ve been subject to too much buying by the anxious herd.  He’s currently finding better values in three- to five-year bonds, especially those which are not included in the major bond indexes.  There is, he says, “a lot of high yield value outside of indexed issues.”

About 50% of the corporate bond market qualifies as “high yield,” which gives him lots of opportunities.

This could function as one’s core bond portfolio.  While there will be more NAV volatility because of mark-to-market rules (that is, you have to ask “what would I get if I stupidly decided to sell my entire portfolio in the midst of a particular day’s market panic”), the risk of permanent impairment of capital occurs only if he’s made a mistake.

Munis are a possibility, but they’re not currently cheap enough to be attractive.

If there’s a limited supply of a security that would be appropriate for both Short-Term and here, Short-Term gets dibs.

Cohanzick is really good at pricing their portfolio securities.  At one level, they use an independent pricing service.  At another, getting the price right has been a central discipline since the firm’s founding and he’s comfortable with his ability to do so even with relatively illiquid names.

At base, David believes the fund can generate returns in the 7-8% range with minimal risk of capital loss.  Given his record with Cohanzick and RPHYX, we are confident that he’s capable of delivering on that promise.  By way of full disclosure: In aligning our mouths and our money, both Chip and I added RSIVX to our personal portfolios this fall.  Once we work out all of the Observer’s year-end finances, we also intend to transfer a portion of the money now in MFO’s credit union savings account into an investment in this fund.

For folks interested but unable to join us, here’s the complete audio of the hour-long conversation.

The RSIVX conference call

As with all of these funds, we’ve created a new featured funds page for the RiverPark Strategic Income Fund, pulling together all of the best resources we have for the fund.

January Conference Call: Matt Moran, ASTON River Road Long/Short

astonLast winter we spent time talking with the managers of really promising hedged funds, including a couple who joined us on conference calls.  The fund that best matched my own predilections was ASTON River Road Long/Short (ARLSX), extensive details on which appear on our ARLSX Featured Fund Page.   In our December 2012 call, manager Matt Moran argued that:

  1. The fund might outperform the stock market by 200 bps/year over a full, 3-5 year market cycle.
  2. The fund can maintain a beta at 0.3 to 0.5, in part because of their systematic Drawdown Plan.
  3. Risk management is more important than return management, so all three of their disciplines are risk-tuned.

I was sufficiently impressed that I chose to invest in the fund.  That does not say that we believe this is “the best” long/short fund (an entirely pointless designation), just that it’s the fund that best matched my own concerns and interests.  The fund returned 18% in 2013, placing it in the top third of all long/short funds.

Matt and co-manager Dan Johnson have agreed to join us for a second conversation.  That call is scheduled for Wednesday, January 15, from 7:00 – 8:00 Eastern.  Please note that this is one day later than our original announcement. Matt has been kicking around ideas for what he’d like to talk about.  His short-list includes:

  • How we think about our performance in 2013 and, in particular, why we’re satisfied with it given our three mandates (equity-like returns, reduced volatility, capital preservation)
  • Where we are finding value on the long side.  It’s a struggle…
  • How we’re surviving on the short side.  It’s a huge challenge.  Really, how many marginal businesses can keep hanging on because of the Fed’s historic generosity?  Stocks must ultimately earn what underlying business earns and a slug of these firms are earning …
  • But, too, our desire not to be carried out in body bags on short side.
  • The fact that we sleep better at night with Drawdown Plan in place.  


January conference call registerIf you’d like to join in, just click on register and you’ll be taken to the Chorus Call site. In exchange for your name and email, you’ll receive a toll-free number, a PIN and instructions on joining the call. If you register, I’ll send you a reminder email on the morning of the call.

Remember: registering for one call does not automatically register you for another. You need to click each separately. Likewise, registering for the conference call mailing list doesn’t register you for a call; it just lets you know when an opportunity comes up. 

For those of you new to our conference calls, here’s the short version: we set up an audio-only phone conversation, you register and receive an 800-number and a PIN, our guest talks for about 20 minutes on his fund’s genesis and strategy, I ask questions for about 20, and then our listeners get to chime in with questions of their own.  A couple days later we post an .mp3 of the call and highlights of the conversation. 


Over two hundred readers have signed up for a conference call mailing list. About a week ahead of each call, I write to everyone on the list to remind them of what might make the call special and how to register. If you’d like to be added to the conference call list, just drop me a line.

February Conference Call: Joshua B. Parker and Alan Salzbank, RiverPark / Gargoyle Hedged Value

We extend our conversation with hedged fund managers in a conversation with Messrs. Parker and Salzbank, whose RiverPark / Gargoyle Hedged Value (RGHVX) we profiled last June, but with whom we’ve never spoken. 


Gargoyle is a converted hedge fund.  The hedge fund launched in 1999 and the strategy was converted to a mutual fund on April 30, 2012.  Rather than shorting stocks, the strategy is to hold a diversified portfolio mid- to large-cap value stocks, mostly domestic, and to hedge part of the stock market risk by selling a blend of index call options. That value focus is both distinctive and sensible; the strategy’s stock portfolio has outperformed the S&P500 by 4.5% per year over the past 23 years. The options overlay generates 1.5 – 2% in premium income per month. The fund ended 2013 with a 29% gain, which beat 88% of its long/short peers.

That call is scheduled for Wednesday, February 12, from 7:00 – 8:00 Eastern.  We’ll provide additional details in our February issue.  


February conference call registerIf you’d like to join in, just click on register and you’ll be taken to the Chorus Call site. In exchange for your name and email, you’ll receive a toll-free number, a PIN and instructions on joining the call. If you register, I’ll send you a reminder email on the morning of the call.

Launch Alert: Vanguard Global Minimum Volatility Fund (VMVFX)

vanguardVanguard Global Minimum Volatility Fund (VMVFX) launched on December 12, 2013.  It’s Vanguard’s answer to the craze for “smart beta,” a strategy that seemingly promises both higher returns and lower risk over time.  Vanguard dismisses the possibility with terms like “new-age investment alchemy,” and promise instead to provide reasonable returns with lower risk than an equity investor would otherwise be subject to.  They are, they say, “trying to deliver broadly diversified exposure to the equity asset class, with lower average volatility over time than the market. We will use quantitative models to assess the expected volatility of stocks and correlation to one another.”  They also intend to hedge currency risk in order to further dampen volatility. 

Most portfolios are constructed with an eye to maximizing returns within a set of secondary constraints (for example, market cap).  Volatility is then a sort of fallout from the system.  Vanguard reverses the process here by working to minimize the volatility of an all-equity portfolio within a set of secondary constraints dealing with diversification and liquidity.  Returns are then a sort of fallout from the design.  Vanguard recently explained the fund’s distinctiveness in Our new fund offering: What it is and what it isn’t.

The fund will be managed by James D. Troyer, James P. Stetler, and Michael R. Roach.  They are members of the management teams for about a dozen other Vanguard funds.

The Investor share class has a $3,000 minimum initial investment.  The opening expense ratio is 0.30%.

MFS made its first foray into low-volatility investing this month, launching MFS Low Volatility Equity (MLVAX) and MFS Low Volatility Global Equity (MVGAX) just one week before Vanguard. The former will target a volatility level that is 20% lower than that of the S&P 500 Index over a full market cycle, while the latter will target 30% less volatility than the MSCI All Country World Index.  The MFS funds charge about four times what Vanguard does.

Launch Alert II: Meridian Small Cap Growth Advisor (MSGAX)

meridianMeridian Small Cap Growth Fund launched on December 16th.  The prospectus says very little about what the managers will be doing: “The portfolio managers apply a ‘bottom up’ fundamental research process in selecting investments. In other words, the portfolio managers analyze individual companies to determine if a company presents an attractive investment opportunity and if it is consistent with the Fund’s investment strategies and policies.”

Nevertheless, the fund warrants – and will receive – considerable attention because of the pedigree of its managers.  Chad Meade and Brian Schaub managed Janus Triton (JATTX) together from 2006 – May 2013.  During their tenure, they managed to turn an initial $10,000 investment into $21,400 by the time they departed; their peers would have parlayed $10,000 into just over $14,000.  The more remarkable fact is that the managed it with a low turnover (39%, half the group average), relatively low risk (beta = .80, S.D. about 3 points below their peers) strategy.  Understandably, the fund’s assets soared to $6 billion and it morphed from focused on small caps to slightly larger names.  Regrettably, Janus decided that wasn’t grounds for closing the fund.

Messrs Meade and Schaub joined Arrowpoint Partners in May 2013.  Arrowpoint famously is the home of a cadre of Janus alumni (or escapees, depending):  David Corkins, Karen Reidy, Tony Yao, Minyoung Sohn and Rick Grove.  Together they managed over $2 billion.  In June, they purchased Aster Investment Management, advisor to the Meridian funds, adding nearly $3 billion more in assets.  We’ll reach out to the Arrowpoint folks early in the new year.

The Advisor share class is available no-load and NTF through brokerages like Scottrade, with a $2,500 minimum initial investment.  The opening expense ratio is 1.60%.

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 March, 2014 and some of the prospectuses do highlight that date.

And there were a lot of funds targeting a year-end launch. Every day David Welsch, firefighter/EMT/fund researcher, scours new SEC filings to see what opportunities might be about to present themselves. This month he tracked down 15 no-load retail funds in registration, which represents our core interest. That number is down from what we’d normally see because these funds won’t launch until February 2014; whenever possible, firms prefer to launch by December 30th and so force a lot of funds into the pipeline in October.

Interesting entries this month include:

Artisan High Income Fund will invest in high yield corporate bonds and debt.  There are two major distinctions here.  First, it is Artisan’s first fixed-income fund.  Second, Artisan has always claimed that they’re only willing to hire managers who will be “category-killers.”  If you look at Artisan’s returns, you’ll get a sense of how very good they are at that task.  Their new high-yield manager, and eventual head of a new, autonomous high-yield team, is Bryan C. Krug who ran the $10 billion, five star Ivy High Income Fund (WHIYX) for the past seven years.  The minimum initial investment will be $1000 for Investor shares and $250,000 for Advisor shares.  The initial expense ratio will be 1.25% for both Investor and Advisor shares.

Brown Advisory Japan Alpha Opportunities Fund will pursue total return by investing principally in Japanese stocks.  The fund will be constructed around a series of distinct “sleeves,” each with its own distinct risk profile but they don’t explain what they might be. They may invest in common and preferred stock, futures, convertibles, options, ADRs and GDR, REITs and ETFs.  While they advertise an all-cap portfolio, they do flag small cap and EM risks.  The fund will be managed by a team from Wellington Management.  The minimum initial investment will be $5000.  The initial expense ratio will be 1.36%. 

Perritt Low Priced Stock Fund will pursue long-term capital appreciation by investing in small cap stocks priced at $15 or less.  I’m a bit ambivalent but could be talked into liking it.  The lead manager also runs Perritt Microcap (PRCGX) and Ultra MicroCap (PREOX), both of which are very solid funds with good risk profiles.  Doubtless he can do it here.  That said, the whole “under $15” thing strikes me as a marketing ploy and a modestly regrettable one. What benefit does that stipulation really offer the investors?  The minimum initial investment will be $1000, reduced to $250 for all sorts of good reasons, and the initial expense ratio will be 1.5%. 

Manager Changes

On a related note, we also tracked down 40 fund manager changes.  The most intriguing of those include what appears to be the abrupt dismissal of Ken Feinberg, one of the longest-serving managers in the Davis/Selected Funds, and PIMCO’s decision to add to Bill Gross’s workload by having him fill in for a manager on sabbatical.


There are really very few emerging markets investors which whom I’d trust my money.  Robert Gardiner and Andrew Foster are at the top of the list.  There are notable updates on both this month.

grandeur peakGrandeur Peak Emerging Opportunities (GPEOX) launched two weeks ago, hasn’t released a word about its portfolio, has earned one half of one percent for its investors . . . and has drawn nearly $100 million in assets.  Mr. Gardiner and company have a long-established plan to close the fund at $200 million.  I’d encourage interested parties to (quickly!) read our review of Grandeur Peak’s flagship Global Reach fund.  If you’re interested in a reasonably assertive, small- to mid-cap fund, you may have just a few weeks to establish your account before the fund closes.  The advisor does not intend to market the fund to the general public until February 1, by which time it might well be at capacity.

Investors understandably assume that an e.m. small cap fund is necessarily, and probably substantially, riskier than a more-diversified e.m. fund. That assumption might be faulty. By most measures (standard deviation and beta, for example) it’s about 15% more volatile than the average e.m. fund, but part of that volatility is on the upside. In the past five years, emerging markets equities have fallen in six of 20 quarters.   We can look at the performance of DFA’s semi-passive Emerging Markets Small Cap Fund (DEMSX) to gauge the downside of these funds. 

DFA E.M. Small Cap …

No. of quarters

Falls more


Fall equally (+/- 25 bps)


Falls less




The same pattern is demonstrated by Templeton E.M. Small Cap (TEMMX): higher beta but surprising resilience in declining quarters.  For aggressive investors, a $2,000 foot-in-the-door position might well represent a rational balance between the need for more information and the desire to maintain their options.

Happily, there’s an entirely-excellent alternative to GPEOX and it’s not (yet) near closing to new investors.

Seafarer LogoSeafarer Overseas Growth & Income (SFGIX and SIGIX) is beginning to draw well-earned attention. Seafarer offers a particularly risk-conscious approach to emerging markets investing.  It offers a compact (40 names), all-cap portfolio (20% in small- and microcap names and 28% in mid-caps, both vastly higher than its peers) that includes both firms domiciled in the emerging markets (about 70%) and those headquartered in the developing world but profiting from the emerging one (30%). It finished 2013 up 5.5%, which puts it in the top tier of all emerging markets funds. 

That’s consistent with both manager Andrew Foster’s record at his former charge (Matthews Asian Growth & Income MACSX which was one of the two top Asian funds in existence through his time there) and Seafarer’s record since launch (it has returned 20% since February 2012 while its average peer made less than 4%). Assets had been growing briskly through the fund’s first full year, plateaued for much of 2013 then popped in December: the fund moved from about $40 million in AUM to $55 million in a very short period. That presumably signals a rising recognition of Seafarer’s strength among larger investors, which strikes me as a very good thing for both Seafarer and the investors.

On an unrelated note, Oakseed Opportunity (SEEDX) has added master limited partnerships to its list of investable securities. The guys continue negotiating distribution arrangements; the fund became available on the Fidelity platform in the second week of December, 2013. They were already available through Schwab, Scottrade, TDAmeritrade and Vanguard.

Briefly Noted . . .

The Gold Bullion Strategy Fund (QGLDX) has added a redemption fee of 2.00% for shares sold within seven days of purchase because, really, how could you consider yourself a long-term investor if you’re not willing to hold for at least eight days?

Legg Mason Capital Management Special Investment Trust (LMSAX) will transition from being a small- and mid-cap fund to a small cap and special situations fund. The advisor warns that this will involve an abnormal turnover in the portfolio and higher-than-usual capital gains distributions. The fund has beaten its peers precisely twice in the past decade, cratered in 2007-09, got a new manager in 2011 and has ascended to … uh, mediocrity since then. Apparently “unstable” and “mediocre” is sufficient to justify someone’s decision to keep $750 million in the fund. 

PIMCO’s RealRetirement funds just got a bit more aggressive. In an SEC filing on December 30, PIMCO shifted the target asset allocations to increase equity exposure and decrease real estate, commodities and fixed income.  Here’s the allocation for an individual with 40 years until retirement


New allocation

Old allocation


62.5%, with a range of 40-70%

55%, same range

Commodities & real estate

20, range 10-40%

25, same range

Fixed income

17.5, range 10-60%

20, same range

Real estate and commodities are an inflation hedge (that’s the “real” part of RealRetirement) and PIMCO’s commitment to them has been (1) unusually high and (2) unusually detrimental to performance.


Effective January 2, 2014, BlackRock U.S. Opportunities Portfolio (BMEAX) reopened to new investors. Skeptics might note that the fund is large ($1.6 billion), overpriced (1.47%) and under-performing (having trailed its peers in four of the past five years), which makes its renewed availability a distinctly small win.

Speaking of “small wins,” the Board of Trustees of Buffalo Funds has approved a series of management fees breakpoints for the very solid Buffalo Small Cap Fund (BUFSX).  The fund, with remains open to new investors despite having nearly $4 billion in assets, currently pays a 1.0% management fee to its advisor.  Under the new arrangement, the fee drops by five basis points for assets from $6 to $7 billion, another five for assets from $7-8 and $8-9 then it levels out at 80 bps for assets over $9 billion.  Those gains are fairly minor (the net fee on the fund at $7 billion is $69.5 million under the new arrangement versus $70 million under the old) and the implication that the fund might remain open as it swells is worrisome.

Effective January 1, 2014, Polaris Global Value Fund (PGVFX) has agreed to cap operating expenses at 0.99%.  Polaris, a four-star fund with a quarter billion in assets, currently charges 1.39% so the drop will be substantial. 

The investment minimum for Institutional Class shares of Yacktman Focused Fund (YAFFX) has dropped from $1,000,000 to $100,000.

Vanguard High-Yield Corporate Fund (VWEHX) has reopened to new investors.  Wellington Management, the fund’s advisor, reports that  “Cash flow to the fund has subsided, which, along with a change in market conditions, has enabled us to reopen the fund.”

CLOSINGS (and related inconveniences)

Driehaus Select Credit Fund (DRSLX) will close to most new investors on January 31, 2014. The strategy capacity is about $1.5 billion and the fund already holds $1 billion, with more flowing in, so they decided to close it just as they closed its sibling, Driehaus Active Income (LCMAX). You might think of it as a high-conviction, high-volatility fixed income hedge fund.

Hotchkis & Wiley Mid-Cap Value (HWMIX) is slated to close to new investors on March 1, 2014. Ted, our board’s most senior member, opines “Top notch MCV fund, 2.8 Billion in assets, and superior returns.”  I nod.

Sequoia (SEQUX) closed to new investors on December 10th. Their last closure lasted 25 years.

Vanguard Capital Opportunity Fund (VHCOX), managed by PRIMECAP Management Company, has closed again. It closed in 2004, opened the door a crack in 2007 and fully reopened in 2009.  Apparently the $2 billion in new assets generated a sense of concern, prompting the reclosure.


Aberdeen Diversified Income Fund (GMAAX), a tiny fund distinguished more for volatility than for great returns, can now invest in closed-end funds.  Two other Aberdeen funds, Dynamic Allocation (GMMAX) and Diversified Alternatives (GASAX), are also now permitted  to invest, to a limited extent, in “certain direct investments” and so if you’ve always wanted exposure to certain direct investments (as opposed to uncertain ones), they’ve got the funds for you.

American Independence Core Plus Fund (IBFSX) has changed its name to the American Independence Boyd Watterson Core Plus Fund, presumably in the hope that the Boyd Watterson name will work marketing magic.  Not entirely sure why that would be the case, but there it is.

Effective December 31, 2013, FAMCO MLP & Energy Income Fund became Advisory Research MLP & Energy Income Fund. Oddly, the announcement lists two separate “A” shares with two separate ticker symbols (INFIX and INFRX).

In February Compass EMP Long/Short Fixed Income Fund (CBHAX) gets rechristened Compass EMP Market Neutral Income Fund and it will no longer be required to invest at least 80% in fixed income securities.  The change likely reflects the fact that the fund is underwater since its November 2013 inception (its late December NAV was $9.67) and no one cares (AUM is $28 million).

In yet another test of my assertion that giving yourself an obscure and nonsensical name is a bad way to build a following (think “Artio”), ING reiterated its plan to rebrand itself as Voya Financial.  The name change will roll out over the first half of 2014.

As of early December, Gabelli Value Fund became Gabelli Value 25 Fund (GABVX). And no, it does not hold 25 stocks (the portfolio has nearly 200 names).  Here’s their explanation: “The name change highlights the Fund’s overweighting of its core 25 equity positions and underscores the upcoming 25th anniversary of the Fund’s inception.” And yes, that does strike me as something that The Mario came up with and no one dared contradict.

GMO, as part of a far larger fund shakeup (see below), has renamed and repurposed four of its institutional funds.  GMO International Core Equity Fund becomes GMO International Large/Mid Cap Equity Fund, GMO International Intrinsic Value Fund becomes GMO International Equity Fund, GMO International Opportunities Equity Allocation Fund becomes GMO International Developed Equity Allocation Fund, and GMO World Opportunities Equity Allocation Fund morphs (slightly) into GMO Global Developed Equity Allocation Fund, all on February 12, 2014. Most of the funds tweaked their investment strategy statements to comply with the SEC’s naming rules which say that if you have a distinct asset class in your name (large/midcap equity), you need to have at least 80% of your portfolio in that class. 

Effective February 28, MainStay Intermediate Term Bond Fund (MTMAX) becomes MainStay Total Return Bond Fund.

Nuveen NWQ Flexible Income Fund (NWQIX), formerly Nuveen NWQ Equity Income Fund has been rechristened as Nuveen NWQ Global Equity Income Fund, with James Stephenson serving as its sole manager.  If you’d like to get a sense of what “survivorship bias” looks like, you might check out Nuveen’s SEC distributions filing and count the number of funds with lines through their names.

Old Westbury Global Small & Mid Cap Fund (OWSMX) has been rechristened as Old Westbury Small & Mid Cap Fund. It’s no longer required to have a global portfolio, but might.  It’s been very solid, with about 20% of its portfolio in ETFs and the rest in individual securities.

At the meeting on December 3, 2013, the Board approved a change in Old Westbury Global Opportunities Fund’s (OWGOX) name to Old Westbury Strategic Opportunities Fund.  Let’s see: 13 managers, $6 billion in assets, and a long-term record that trails 70% of its peers.  Yep, a name change is just what’s needed!


Jeez, The Shadow is just a wild man here.

On December 6, 2013, the Board of the Conestoga Funds decided to close and liquidate the Conestoga Mid Cap Fund (CCMGX), effective February 28, 2014.  At the same time, they’re launched a SMid cap fund with the same management team.  I wrote the advisor to ask why this isn’t just a scam to bury a bad track record and get a re-do; they could, more easily, just have amended Mid Cap’s principal investment strategy to encompass small caps and called it SMid Cap.  They volunteered to talk then reconsidered, suggesting that they’d be freer to walk me through their decision once the new fund is up and running. I’m looking forward to the opportunity.

Dynamic Energy Income Fund (DWEIS), one of the suite of former DundeeWealth funds, was liquidated on December 31, 2013.

Fidelity has finalized plans for the merger of Fidelity Europe Capital Appreciation Fund (FECAX) into Fidelity Europe Fund (FIEUX), which occurs on March 21.

The institutional firm Grantham, Mayo, van Otterloo (GMO) is not known for precipitous action, so their December announcement of a dozen fund closures is striking.  One set of funds is simply slated to disappear:

Liquidating Fund

Liquidation Date

GMO Real Estate Fund

January 17, 2014

GMO U.S. Growth Fund

January 17, 2014

GMO U.S. Intrinsic Value Fund

January 17, 2014

GMO U.S. Small/Mid Cap Fund

January 17, 2014

GMO U.S. Equity Allocation Fund

January 28, 2014

GMO International Growth Equity Fund

February 3, 2014

GMO Short-Duration Collateral Share Fund

February 10, 2014

GMO Domestic Bond Fund

February 10, 2014

In addition, the Board has approved the termination of GMO Asset Allocation International Small Companies Fund and GMO International Large/Mid Cap Value Fund, neither of which had commenced operations.

They then added two sets of fund mergers: GMO Debt Opportunities Fund into GMO Short-Duration Collateral Fund (with the freakish coda that “GMO Short-Duration Collateral Fund is not pursuing an active investment program and is gradually liquidating its portfolio” but absorbing Debt Opportunities gives it reason to live) and GMO U.S. Flexible Equities Fund into GMO U.S. Core Equity Fund, which is expected to occur on or about January 24, 2014.

Not to be outdone, The Hartford Mutual Funds announced ten fund mergers and closures themselves.  Hartford Growth Fund (HGWAX) is merging with Hartford Growth Opportunities Fund (HGOAX), Hartford Global Growth (HALAX) merges with Hartford Capital Appreciation II (HCTAX) and Hartford Value (HVFAX) goes into Hartford Value Opportunities (HV)AX), all effective April 7, 2014. None of which, they note, requires shareholder approval. I have real trouble seeing any upside for the funds’ investors, since most going from one sub-par fund into another and will see expenses drop by just a few basis points. The exceptions are the value funds, both of which are solid and economically viable on their own. In addition, Hartford is pulling the plug on its entire target-date retirement line-up. The funds slated for liquidation are Hartford Target Retirement 2010 through 2050. That dirty deed will be done on June 30, 2014. 

Highbridge Dynamic Commodities Strategy Fund (HDSAX) is slated to be liquidated and dissolved (an interesting visual image) on February 7, 2014. In the interim, it’s going to cash.

John Hancock Sovereign Investors Fund (SOVIX) will merge into John Hancock Large Cap Equity Fund (TAGRX), on or about April 30, 2014.

Principal SmallCap Growth Fund II (PPMIX) will be absorbed by SmallCap Growth Fund I (PGRTX) on or about April 25, 2014.

It’s with some sadness that we bid adieu to Tom Kerr and his Rocky Peak Small Cap Value Fund (RPCSX), which liquidated on December 30.  The fund sagged from “tiny” to “microscopic” by the end of its run, with under a million in assets.  Its performance in 2013 was pretty much calamitous, which was both curious and fatal.  Tom was an experienced manager and sensible guy who will, we hope, find a satisfying path forward. 

In a sort of three-for-one swap, Pax World International Fund (PXIRX) and Pax MSCI EAFE ESG Index ETF (EAPS) are merging to form the Pax World International ESG Index Fund.

On October 21, 2013, the Board of Directors of the T. Rowe Price Summit GNMA Fund (PRSUX) approved a proposed merger with, and into, T. Rowe Price GNMA Fund (PRGMX).

The Vanguard Managed Payout Growth Focus Fund (VPGFX) and Vanguard Managed Payout Distribution Focus Fund (VPDFX) are each to be reorganized into the Vanguard Managed Payout Growth and Distribution Fund (VPGDX) on or about January 17, 2014.

W.P. Stewart & Co. Growth Fund (WPSGX) is merging into the AllianceBernstein Concentrated Growth Fund (WPCSX), which has the same manager, investment discipline and expenses of the WPS fund.  Alliance acquired WPS in December, so the merger was a sort of foregone conclusion.

Wegener Adaptive Growth Fund (WAGFX) decided, on about three days’ notice, to close and liquidate at the end of December, 2013.  It had a couple very solid years (2008 and 2009) then went into the dumper, ending with a portfolio smaller than my retirement account.

A small change

navigationOur navigation menu is growing. If you look along the top of our page, you’ll likely notice that “Featured Funds” is no longer a top-level menu item. Instead the “Featured Funds” category can now be found under the “Fund” or “The Best” menus. Replacing it as a new top-level menu is “Search Tools”, which is the easiest way to directly access new search functionality that Accipiter, Charles, and Chip have been working on for the past few months.

Under Search Tools, you’ll find:

  1. Risk Profile – designed to help you understand the different measures of a fund’s risk profile. No one measure of risk captures the full picture and most measures of risk are not self-explanatory. Our Risk Profile reporter allows you to enter a single ticker symbol for any fund and it will generate a short, clear report, in simple, conversational English, that walks you through the various means of risk and returns and will provide you with the profiles for a whole range of possible benchmarks. Alternatively, entering multiple ticker symbols will return a tabular results page, making side-by-side comparisons more convenient.
  2. Great Owls – allows you to screen our Great Owl Funds – those which have top tier performance in every trailing period of three years or more – by category or profile. We know that past performance should never be the primary driver of your decision-making, but working from a pool of consistently superior performers and learning more about their risk-return profile strikes us as a sensible place to start.
  3. Fund Dashboard – a snapshot of all of the funds we’ve profiled, is updated monthly and is available both as a .pdf and as a searchable and sortable search.
  4. Miraculous Multi-Search – Accipiter’s newest screening tool helps us search Charles’ database of risk elements. Searches are available by fund name, category, risk group and age group. There’s even an option to restrict the results to GreatOwl funds. Better yet, you can search on multiple criteria and further refine your results list by choosing to hide certain results.

In Closing . . .

Thank you, dear friends.  It’s been a remarkable year.  In December of 2012, we served 9000 readers.  A year later, 24,500 readers made 57,000 visits to the Observer in December – a gain of 150%.  The amount of time readers spend on site is up, too, by about 50% over last year.  The percentage of new visitors is up 57%.  But almost 70% of visits are by returning readers.

It’s all the more striking because we’re the antithesis of a modern news site: our pieces tend to be long, appear once a month and try to be reflective and intelligent.  NPR had a nice piece that lamented the pressure to be “first, loud and sensational” (This is (not) the most important story of the year, 12/29/2013).  The “reflective and intelligent” part sort of reflects our mental image of who you are. 

We’ve often reminded folks of their ability to help the Observer financially, either through our partnership with Amazon (they rebate us about 7% of the value of items purchased through our link) or direct contributions.  Those are both essential and we’re deeply grateful to the dozens of folks who’ve acted on our behalf.  This month we’d like to ask for a different sort of support, one which might help us make the Observer better in the months ahead.

Would you tell us a bit about who you are and why you’re here?  We do not collect any information about you when you visit. The cosmically-talented Chip found a way to embed an anonymous survey directly in this essay, so that you could answer a few questions without ever leaving the comfort of your chair.  What follows are six quick questions.  We’re setting aside questions about our discussion board for now, since it’s been pretty easy to keep in touch with the folks there.  Complete as many as you’re comfortable with.

Create your free online surveys with SurveyMonkey , the world’s leading questionnaire tool.

We’ll share as soon as we hear back from you.

Thanks to Deb (the first person ever to set up an automatic monthly contribution to the site, which was really startling when we found out), to David and the other contributors scattered (mostly) in warm states (and Indianapolis), and to friends who’ve shared books, cookies, well-wishes and holiday cheer.

Finally, thanks to the folks whose constant presence makes the Observer happen: the folks who’ve spent this entire century supporting the discussion board (BobC, glampig, rono, Slick, the indefatigable Ted, and Whakamole among them) and the hundred or so folks regularly on the board; The Shadow, who can sense the presence of interesting SEC filings from a mile away; Accipiter, whose programming skills – generally self-taught – lie behind our fund searches; Ed, who puzzles and grumbles; Charles, who makes data sing; and the irreplaceable Chip, friend, partner and magician.  I’m grateful to you all and look forward to the adventures of the year ahead.

As ever,


RiverPark Strategic Income Fund (RSIVX), January 2014

Objective and strategy

The fund is seeking high current income and capital appreciation consistent with the preservation of capital. The manager does not seek the highest available return.  He’s pursuing 7-8% annual returns but he will not “reach for returns” at the risk of loss of capital.  The portfolio will generally contain 30-40 fixed income securities, all designated as “money good” but the majority also categorized as high-yield.  There will be limited exposure to corporate debt in other developed nations and no direct exposure to emerging markets.  While the manager has the freedom to invest in equities, they are unlikely ever to occupy a noticeable slice of the portfolio. 


RiverPark Advisors, LLC.   RiverPark was formed in 2009 by former executives of Baron Asset Management.  The firm is privately owned, with 84% of the company being owned by its employees.  They advise, directly or through the selection of sub-advisers, the seven RiverPark funds.


David K. Sherman, president and founder of the subadvisor, Cohanzick Management, LLC. Mr. Sherman founded Cohanzick in 1996 after a decade spent in various director and executive positions with Leucadia National Corporation. Mr. Sherman has a B.S. in Business Administration from Washington University and an odd affection for the Philadelphia Eagles. He is also the manager of the recently soft-closed RiverPark Short Term High Yield Fund (RPHYX).

Strategy capacity and closure

The strategy has a capacity of about $2 billion but its execution requires that the fund remain “nimble and small.”  As a result, management will consider asset levels and fund flows carefully as they move in the vicinity of their cap.

Management’s stake in the fund

Collectively the professionals at RiverPark and Cohanzick have invested more than $3 million in the fund, including $2.5 million in “seed money” from Mr. Sherman and RiverPark’s president, Morty Schaja. Both men are increasing their investment in the fund with a combination of “new money” and funds rebalanced from other investments.

Opening date

September 30, 2013

Minimum investment

$1,000 minimum initial investment for retail shares. There is no minimum for subsequent investments if payment is mailed by check; otherwise the minimum is $100.

Expense ratio

1.25% after waivers of 0.40% on assets of $116 million (as of December, 2013).


RiverPark Strategic Income has a simple philosophy, an understandable strategy and a hard-to-explain portfolio.  The combination is, frankly, pretty compelling.

The philosophy: don’t get greedy.  After a quarter century of researching and investing in distressed, high-yield and special situations fixed income securities, Mr. Sherman has concluded that he can either make 7% with minimal risk of permanent loss, or he could shoot for substantially higher returns at the risk of losing your money.  He has consistently and adamantly chosen the former.

The strategy: invest in “money good” fixed-income securities.  “Money good” securities are where the manager is very sure (very, very sure) that he’s going to get 100% of his principal and interest back, no matter what happens.  That means 100% if the market tanks.  And it means a bit more than 100% if the issuer goes bankrupt, since he’ll invest in companies whose assets are sufficient that, even in bankruptcy, creditors will eventually receive their principal plus their interest plus their interest on their interest.

Such securities take a fair amount of time to ferret out and might occur in relatively limited quantities, so that some of the biggest funds simply cannot pursue them.  But, once found, they generate an annuity-like stream of income for the fund regardless of market conditions.

The portfolio: in general, the fund is apt to dwell somewhere near the border of short- and intermediate-term bonds.  The fact that shorter duration bonds became the investment du jour for many anxious investors in 2013 meant that they were bid up to unreasonable levels, and Mr. Sherman found greater value in 3- to 5-year issues.

The manager has a great deal of flexibility in investing the fund’s assets and often finds “orphaned” issues or other special situations which are difficult to classify.  As he and RiverPark’s president, Morty Schaja, reflected on the composition of the portfolio, they imagined six broad categories that might help investors better understand what the fund owns.  They are:

  1. Short Term High Yield overlap – securities that are also holdings in the RiverPark Short Term High Yield Fund.
  2. Buy and hold – securities that hold limited credit risk, provide above market yields and might reasonably be held to redemption.
  3. Priority-based – securities from issuers who are in distress, but which would be paid off in full even if the issue were to go bankrupt.  Most investors would instinctively avoid such issues but Mr. Sherman argues that they’re often priced at a discount and are sufficiently senior in the capital structure that they’re safe so long as an investor is willing to wait out the bankruptcy process in exchange for receiving full recompense. An investor can, he says, “get paid a lot of money for your willingness to go through the process.” Cohanzick calls these investments “above-the-fray securities of dented credits”.
  4. Off the beaten path – securities that are not widely-followed and/or are less liquid. These might well be issues too small or too inconvenient for a manager responsible for billions or tens of billions of assets, but attractive to a smaller fund.
  5. Rate expectations – securities that present opportunities because of rising or falling interest rates.  This category would include traditional floating rate securities and opportunities that present themselves because of a difference between a security’s yield to maturity and yield to worst.
  6. Other – which is all of the … other stuff.

Fixed-income investing shouldn’t be exciting.  It should allow you to sleep at night, knowing that your principal is safe and that you’re earning a real return – something greater than the rate of inflation.  Few fixed-income funds lately have met those two expectations and the next few years are not likely to be kind to traditional fixed-income funds.  RiverPark’s combination of opportunism and conservatism, illustrated in the return graph below, offer a rare and appealing combination.


Bottom Line

In all honesty, about 80% of all mutual funds could shut their doors today and not be missed.  They thrive by never being bad enough to dump, nominally active funds whose strategy and portfolio are barely distinguishable from an index. The mission of the Observer is to help identify the small, thoughtful, disciplined, active funds whose existence actually matters.

David Sherman runs such funds. His strategies are labor-intensive, consistent, thoughtful, disciplined and profitable.  He has a clear commitment to performance over asset gathering, and to caution over impulse.  Folks navigating the question “what makes sense in fixed-income investing these days?”  owe it to themselves to learn more about RSIVX.

Fund website

RiverPark Funds

RiverPark Strategic Income Fund

Fact Sheet


While the Observer has neither a stake in nor a business relationship with either RiverPark or Cohanzick, both individual members of the Observer staff and the Observer collectively have invested in RPHYX and/or RSIVX.

© Mutual Fund Observer, 2014. All rights reserved. The information here reflects publicly available information current at the time of publication. For reprint/e-rights contact us.

RiverPark Strategic Income Fund (RSIVX)

The fund:

RiverPark Strategic Income Fund (RSIVX)RiverPark Logo


David Sherman, Cohanzick Management

The call:

On Monday, December 9th, Morty Schaja, RiverPark president, and David Sherman, fund manager, joined me and about 50 Observer readers for an hour-long conversation about the fund and their approach to it.

Highlights of the call include:

  • The fund focuses on “money good” securities.  Those are securities where, if held to maturity, he’s confident that he’ll get his entire principal and all of the interest due to him. They’re the sorts of securities where, if the issuer files for bankruptcy, he still anticipates eventually receiving his principal and interest plus interest on his interest. Because he expects to be able to hold securities to maturity, he doesn’t care about “the taper” and its effects – he’ll simply hold on through any kerfuffle and benefit from regular payments that flow in much like an annuity stream.  These are, he says, bonds that he’d have his mother hold.
  • While the fund might hold a variety of securities, they hold little international exposure and no emerging markets debt. They’re primarily invested in North American (77%) and European(14%) corporate debt, in firms where the accounting is clear and nations where the laws are. 
  • The portfolio focuses on non-investment grade securities, mostly in the B – BB range, but that’s consistent with his intention not to lose his investors’ money.  He values liquidity in his investments; that is to say, he doesn’t get into investments that he can’t quickly get out of.  The fund has been letting cash build, and it’s now about 30% of the portfolio.  David’s general preference is to get out too early and lose some potential returns, rather than linger too long and suffer the risk of permanent impairment.

There were rather more questions from callers than we had time to field.  Some of the points we did get to talk about:

David is not impressed with the values available in one- to three-year bonds, they’ve been subject to too much buying by the anxious herd.  He’s currently finding better values in three- to five-year bonds, especially those which are not included in the major bond indexes.  There is, he says, “a lot of high yield value outside of indexed issues.”

About 50% of the corporate bond market qualifies as “high yield,” which gives him lots of opportunities.

This could function as one’s core bond portfolio.  While there will be more NAV volatility because of mark-to-market rules (that is, you have to ask “what would I get if I stupidly decided to sell my entire portfolio in the midst of a particular day’s market panic”), the risk of permanent impairment of capital occurs only if he’s made a mistake.

Munis are a possibility, but they’re not currently cheap enough to be attractive.

If there’s a limited supply of a security that would be appropriate for both Short-Term and here, Short-Term gets dibs.

Cohanzick is really good at pricing their portfolio securities.  At one level, they use an independent pricing service.  At another, getting the price right has been a central discipline since the firm’s founding and he’s comfortable with his ability to do so even with relatively illiquid names.

At base, David believes the fund can generate returns in the 7-8% range with minimal risk of capital loss.  Given his record with Cohanzick and RPHYX, we are confident that he’s capable of delivering on that promise.  By way of full disclosure: In aligning our mouths and our money, both Chip and I added RSIVX to our personal portfolios this fall.  Once we work out all of the Observer’s year-end finances, we also intend to transfer a portion of the money now in MFO’s credit union savings account into an investment in this fund.

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

The profile:

The Mutual Fund Observer profile of RSIVX, December 2013.


RiverPark Funds website

Fund Focus: Resources from other trusted sources

December 1, 2013

Dear friends,

Welcome.  Do you think it a coincidence that the holiday season occurs at the least promising time of the year?  The days are getting shorter and, for our none-too-distant ancestors, winter represented a period of virtual house arrest.  Night was a time of brigands and beasts.  Even in the largest cities, respectable folks traveled abroad after dark only with armed guard.  In villages and on farms, travel on a clouded night risked disappearance and death.  The homes of all but the richest citizens were, contrary to your mental fantasy of roaring hearths and plentiful candles, often a single room that could boast a single flickering rushlight.  The hungry months of late winter were ahead.

YuleAnd so they did what any sensible group would do.  They partied.  One day’s worth of oil became eight nights’ worth of light; Jewish friends gathered, ate and gifted.  Bacchus reigned from our Thanksgiving to the Winter Solstice, and the Romans drank straight through it.  The Kalash people of Pakistan sang, danced, lit bonfires and feasted on goat tripe “and other delicacies” (oh, yum!).  Chinese and Korean families gathered and celebrated with balls of glutinous rice (more yum!).  Welsh friends dressed up like wrens (yuh), and marched from home to home, singing and snacking.  Romans in the third century CE celebrated Dies Natalis Solis Invicti (festival of the birth of the Unconquered Sun) on December 25th, a date later borrowed by Christians for their own mid-winter celebration.  Some enterprising soul, having consumed most of the brandy, inexplicably mashed together figs, stale bread and the rest of the brandy.  Figgy pudding was born and revelers refused to go until they got some (along with a glass of good cheer).

Few of these celebrations recognized a single day, they brought instead Seasons Greetings.  Fewer still celebrated individual success or personal enrichment, they instead brought to the surface the simple truth that we often bury through the rest of the year: we are infinitely poorer alone in our palaces than we are together in our villages.

Season’s greetings, dear friends.

But curb yer enthusiasm

Small investors and great institutions alike are partaking in one of the market’s perennial ceremonies: placing your investments atop an ever-taller pile of dried kindling and split logs.  All of the folks who hated stocks when they were cheap are desperate to buy them now that they’re expensive.

We have one word for you: Don’t.

Or, at the very least, don’t buy them until you’re clear why they weren’t attractive to you five years ago but are calling so loudly to you now.  We’re not financial planners, much like market visionaries, but some very careful folks forecast disappointment for starry-eyed stock investors in the years ahead.

Sam Lee, editor of Morningstar ETFInvestor, warned investors to “Expect Below-Average Stock Returns Ahead” based on his reading of the market’s cyclically-adjusted price/earnings ratio.  He wrote, on November 21, that:

The Shiller P/E recently hit 25. When you invert that you get is another measure that I like: the cyclically adjusted earnings yield. The inverse of the Shiller P/E, 1 divided by 25 is about 0.04, or 4%. And this is the smooth earnings yield of the market. This is actually, I think, a reasonable forecast for what the market can be expected to return during the next 10, 20 years. And a 4% real expected return is well below the historical average of 6.5%. 

The Shiller P/E is saying that the market is overvalued relative to history, that you can expect about 2 percentage points less per year over a long period of time. .. if you believe that the market is mean reverting to its historical Shiller P/E, and that the past is a reasonable guide to the future, then you can expect lower returns than the naive 4% forecast return that I provided.

The institutional investors at Grantham, Mayo, van Otterloo (GMO) believe in the same tendency of markets to revert to their mean valuations and profits to revert to their mean levels (that is, firms can’t achieve record profit levels forever – some combination of worker demands to share the wealth and predatory competitors drawn by the prospect of huge profits, will drive them back down).  After three years of research on their market projection models, GMO added some factors that slightly increased their estimate of the market’s fair value and still came away from the projection that US stocks are poised to trail inflation for the rest of this decade.  Ben Inker writes:

In a number of ways it is a “clean sheet of paper” look at forecasting equities, and we have broadened our valuation approach from looking at valuations through the lens of sales to incorporating several other methods. It results in about a 0.7%/year increase in our forecast for the S&P 500 relative to the old model. On the old model, fair value for the S&P 500 was about 1020 and the expected return for the next seven years was -2.0% after inflation.

On the new model, fair value for the S&P 500 is about 1100 and the expected return is -1.3% per year for the next seven years after inflation. For those interested in the broader U.S. stock market, our forecast for the Wilshire 5000 is a bit worse, at -2.0%, due to the fact that small cap valuations are even more elevated than those for large caps.

In 2013, the average equity investor made inflation plus about 28%.  Through the remainder of the decade, optimists might give you inflation plus 2, 3 or 4%.  Bearish realists are thinking inflation minus 1 or 2%.

The Leuthold Group, looking at the market’s current valuation, is at most masochistically optimistic: they project that a “normal” bear market, starting now, would probably not trim much more than 25% off your portfolio.

What to do?  Diversify, keep expenses aligned with the value added by your managers, seek some income from equities and take time now – before you forget and before some market event makes you want to look away forever – to review your portfolio for balance and performance.  As an essential first step, remember the motto:

Off with their heads!


As the Thanksgiving holiday passes and you begin year-end financial planning, we say it’s time to toss out the turkeys.  There are some funds that we’re not impressed with but which have the sole virtue that they’re not rolling disasters. You know: the overpriced, bloated index-huggers that seemed like the “safe” choice long ago. And now, like mold or lichen, they’ve sort of grown on you.

Fine. Keep ‘em if you must. But at least get rid of the rolling disasters you’ve inherited. There are a bunch of funds whose occasional flashes of adequacy and earnest talk of new paradigms, great rotations, sea changes, and contrarian independence simply can’t mask the fact that they suck. A lot. For a long time.

It’s time to work through your portfolio, fund by fund, and answer the simple question: “if I didn’t already own this fund, is there any chance on earth I’d buy it?” If the answer is “no,” sell.

Mutual Fund Observer is an outgrowth of FundAlarm, whose iconic Three Alarm Funds list continually identified the worst of the worst in the fund industry. For the last several years we’ve published our own Roll Call of the Wretched, an elite list of funds whose ineptitude stretches over a decade or more. In response to requests that arrive every month, we’re happy to announce the re-introduction of the Three Alarm Funds list which will remain an ongoing service of the Observer. So here we go!


 It’s easy to create lists of “best” and “worst” funds.  It’s easier still to screw them up.  The two ways that happens is the inclusion of silly criteria and the use of invalid peer groups.  As funds become more distinctive and less like the rest of the herd, the risk of such invalid comparisons grows.

Every failing fund manager (or his anxious marketing maven) has an explanation for why they’re not nearly as bad as the evidence suggests.  Sometimes they’re right, mostly they’re just sad and confused.

Use lists like the Roll Call of the Wretched or the Three Alarm Funds as a first step, not a final answer.  If you see a fund of yours on either list, find out why.  Call the adviser, read the prospectus, try the manager’s letter, post a question on our board.  There might be a perfectly good reason for their performance, there might be a perfectly awful one.  In either case, you need to know.

The Observer’s Annual “Roll Call of the Wretched”

If you’re resident in one of the two dozen states served by Amazon’s wine delivery service, you might want to buck up your courage with a nice 2007 Domaine Gerard Charvin Chateauneuf du Pape Rhône Valley Red before you settle in to enjoy the Observer’s annual review of the industry’s Most Regrettable funds. Just as last year, we looked at funds that have finished in the bottom one-fourth of their peer groups for the year so far. And for the preceding 12 months, three years, five years and ten years. These aren’t merely “below average.” They’re so far below average they can hardly see “mediocre” from where they are.

When we ran the screen in 2011, there were 151 consistently awful funds, the median size for which is $70 million. In 2012 there were . . . 151 consistently awful funds, the median size for which is $77 million. And now? 152 consistently awful funds (I love consistency), the median size of which is $91 million.

Since managers love to brag about the consistency of their performance, here are the most consistently awful funds that have over a billion in assets. Funds repeating from last year are flagged in red.




AllianceBernstein Wealth Appreciation Strategy (AWAAX)

Large blend


Like many of the Wretched, 2008 was pivotal: decent before, then year after year of bad afterward

CRA Qualified Investment (CRAIX)

Intermediate bond


Virtue has its price: The Community Reinvestment Act requires banks make capital available to the low- and moderate-income communities in which they operate. That’s entirely admirable but the fund’s investors pay a price: it trails 90% of its intermediate-bond peers.

DWS Equity Dividend A (KDHAX)

Large value


2012 brought a new team but the same results: its trailed 90% of its peers. The current crew is the 9th, 10th and 11th managers to try to make it work.

Eaton Vance Short Duration Strategy (EVSGX)

Multi-sector bond


A pricey, closed fund-of-funds whose below-average risk does compensate for much below average returns.

Hussman Strategic Growth (HSGFX)

Long/short equity


Dr. Hussman is brilliant. Dr. Hussman has booked negative annual returns for the past 1, 3, 5 and 10 years. Both statements are true, you just need to decide which is relevant.

MainStay High Yield Corporate (MKHCX)

High-yield bond


Morningstar likes it because, despite trailing 80% of its peers pretty much permanently, it does so with little risk.

Pax World Balanced (PAXWX)

Aggressive allocation


Morningstar analysts cheered for the fund (“worth a look, good option, don’t give up, check this fund out”) right up to the point when they started pretending it didn’t exist. Their last (upbeat) analysis was July 2011.

Pioneer A (PIODX)

Large blend


The fund was launched in 1928. The lead manager joined in 1986. The fund has sucked since 2007.

Pioneer Mid-Cap Value A (PCGRX)

Mid-cap value


Five bad years in a row (and a lead manager whose held the job of six years). Coincidence?

Putnam Global Health Care A (PHSTX)



About 30% international, compared to 10-20% for its peers. That’s a pretty poor excuse for its performance, since it’s not required to maintain an exposure that high.

Royce Low Priced Stock (RYLPX)

Small growth


A once-fine fund that’s managed three consecutive years in the bottom 5% of its peer group. Morningstar is unconcerned.

Russell LifePoints Equity Growth (RELEX)

World stock


Has trailed its global peers in 10 of the past 11 years which shows why the ticker isn’t RELAX

State Farm LifePath 2040 (SAUAX)



A fund of BlackRock funds, it manages to trail its peers two years in three

Thrivent Large Cap Stock (AALGX)

Large blend.


The AAL in the ticker stands for Aid Association for Lutherans. Let me offer even more aid to my Lutheran brethren: buy an index fund.

Wells Fargo Advantage S/T High Yield (STHBX)

High yield


A really bad benchmark category for a short-term fund. Judged as a short-term bond fund, it pretty consistently clubs the competition.

Some funds did manage to escape this year’s Largest Wretched Funds list, though the strategies vary: some went extinct, some took on new names, one simply shrank below our threshold and a few rose all the way to mediocrity. Let’s look:

BBH Broad Market (BBBMX)

An intermediate bond fund that got a new name, BBH Limited Duration (think of it as entering the witness protection program) and a newfound aversion to intermediate-term bonds, which accounts for its minuscule (under 1%) but peer-beating returns.

Bernstein International (SIMTX)

A new management team guided it to mediocrity in 2013. Even Morningstar recommends that you avoid it.

Bernstein Tax-Managed International (SNIVX)

The same new team as at SIMTX and results just barely north of mediocre.

DFA Two-Year Global Fixed Income (DFGFX)

Fundamentally misclassified to begin with, Morningstar now admits it’s “better as an ultrashort bond fund than a global diversifier.” Which makes you wonder why Morningstar adamantly keeps it as a global bond fund rather than as …

Eaton Vance Strategic Income (ETSIX)

As of November 1, 2013, a new name, a new team and a record about as bad as always.

Federated Municipal Ultrashort (FMUUX)

Another bad year but not quite as awful as usual!

Invesco Constellation

Gone! Merged into Invesco American Franchise (VAFAX). Constellation was, in the early 90s, an esteemed aggressive growth fund and it was the first fund I ever owned. But then it got very, very bad.

Invesco Global Core Equity (AWSAX)

“This fund isn’t headed in the right direction,” quoth Morningstar. Uh, guys? It hasn’t been headed in the right direction for a decade. Why bring it up now? In any case, it escaped our list by posting mediocre but not wretched results in 2013.

Oppenheimer Flexible Strategies (QVOPX)

As bad as ever, maybe worse, but it’s (finally) slipped below the billion dollar threshold.

Thornburg Value A (TVAFX)

Thornburg is having one of its periodic brilliant performances: up 38% over the past 12 months, better than 94% of its peers. Over the past decade it’s had three years in the top 10% of its category and has still managed to trail 75% of its peers over the long haul.

While most Roll Call funds are small enough that they’re unlikely to trouble you, there are 50 more funds with assets between $100 million and a billion. Check to see if any of these wee beasties are lurking around your portfolio:

Aberdeen Select International

AllianceBern Tx-Mgd Wlth Appr

AllianzGI NFJ Mid-Cap Value C

Alpine Dynamic Dividend

BlackRock Intl Bond

BlackRock Natural Resources


Brandywine Advisors Midcap Growth

Brown Advisory Intermediate

ClearBridge Tactical Dividend

CM Advisors

Columbia Multi-Advisor Intl Eq

Davis Government Bond B

Davis Real Estate A

Diamond Hill Strategic Income

Dreyfus Core Equity A

Dreyfus Tax-Managed Growth A

Fidelity Freedom 2000

Franklin Double Tax-Free Income

Gabelli ABC AAA

Gabelli Entpr Mergers & Acquis

GAMCO Global Telecommunication

Guggenheim StylePlus – Lg Core

GuideMark World ex-US Service

GuideStone Funds Cnsrv Allocat


Invesco Intl Core Equity

Ivy Small Cap Value A

JHancock Sovereign Investors A

Laudus Small-Cap MarketMasters

Legg Mason Batterymarch Emerging

Madison Core Bond A

Madison Large Cap Growth A

MainStay Government B

MainStay International Equity

Managers Cadence Capital Appre

Nationwide Inv Dest Cnsrv A

Neuberger Berman LgCp Discp Gr

Oppenheimer Flexible Strategie

PACE International Fixed Income

Pioneer Classic Balanced A

PNC Bond A

Putnam Global Utilities A

REMS Real Estate Income 50/50

SEI Conservative Strategy A (S

Sentinel Capital Growth A

Sterling Capital Large Cap Val

SunAmerica GNMA B

SunAmerica Intl Div Strat A

SunAmerica US Govt Securities

Thrivent Small Cap Stock A

Touchstone International Value

Waddell & Reed Government Secs

Wells Fargo Advantage Sm/Md Cap



Morningstar maintains a favorable analyst opinion on three Wretched funds, is Neutral on three (Brandywine BRWIX, Fidelity Freedom 2000 FFFMX and Pioneer PIODX) and Negative on just four (Hussman Strategic Growth HSGFX, Oppenheimer Flexible Strategies QVOPX and two State Farm LifePath funds). The medalist trio are:

Royce Low-Priced Stock RYLPX

Silver: “it’s still a good long-term bet.” Uhh, no. By Morningstar’s own assessment, it has consistently above average risk, below average returns, nearly $2 billion in assets and high expenses. There are 24 larger small growth funds, all higher five year returns and all but one have lower expenses.

AllianzGI NFJ Mid-Cap Value PQNAX

Bronze: “a sensible strategy that should win out over time.” But it hasn’t. NFJ took over management of the fund in 2009 and it continues to trail about 80% of its mid-cap value peers. Morningstar argues that the market has been frothy so of course sensible, dividend-oriented funds trail though the amount of “froth” in the mid-cap value space is undocumented.

MainStay High Yield Corporate MKHCX

Bronze: “a sensible option in a risky category.”  We’re okay with that: it captures about 70% of its peers downside and 92% of their upside. Over the long term it trails about 80% of them, banking about 6-7% per year. Because it’s highly consistent and has had the same manager since 2000, investors can at least made an informed judgment about whether that’s a profile they like.

And now (drum roll, please), it’s the return of a much-loved classic …

Three Alarm Funds Redux

alarm bellsRoy Weitz first published the legacy Three Alarm fund list in 1996. He wanted to help investors decide when to sell mutual funds. Being on the list was not an automatic sell, but a warning signal to look further and see why.

“I liken the list to the tired old analogy of the smoke detector. If it goes off, your house could be on fire. But it could also be cobwebs in the smoke detector, in which case you just change the batteries and go back to sleep,” he explained in a 2002 interview.

Funds made the list if they trailed their benchmarks for the past 1, 3, and 5 year periods. At the time, he grouped funds into only five equity (large-cap, mid-cap, small-cap, balanced, and international) and six specialty “benchmark categories.” Instead of pure indices, he used actual funds, like Vanguard 500 Index Fund VFINX, as benchmarks. Occasionally, the list would catch some heat because “mis-categorization” resulted in an “unfair” rating. Some things never change.

At the end of the day, however, Mr. Weitz wanted “to highlight the most serious underperformers.” In that spirit, MFO will resurrect the Three Alarm fund list, which will be updated quarterly along with the Great Owl ratings. Like the original methodology, inclusion on the list will be based entirely on absolute, not risk-adjusted, returns over the past 1, 3, and 5 year periods.

Since 1996, many more fund categories exist. Today Morningstar assigns over 90 categories across more than 7500 unique funds, excluding money market, bear, trading, volatility, and specialized commodity. MFO will rate the new Three Alarm funds using the Morningstar categories. We acknowledge that “mis-categorization” may occasionally skew the ratings, but probably much less than if we tried to distill all rated funds into just 11 or so categories.

For more than two-thirds of the categories, one can easily identify a reasonable “benchmark” or reference fund, thanks in part to the proliferation of ETFs. Below is a sample of these funds, sorted first by broad investment Type (FI – Fixed Income, AA – Asset Allocation, EQ – Equity), then Category:


Values in the table include the 3-year annualized standard deviation percentage (STDEV), as well as annualized return percentages (APR) for the past 1, 3, and 5 year periods.

A Return Rating is assigned based how well a fund performs against other funds in the same category during the same time periods. Following the original Three Alarm nomenclature, best performing funds rate a “2” (highlighted in blue) and the worst rate a “-2” (red).

As expected, most of the reference funds rate mid range “0” or slightly better. None produce top or bottom tier returns across all evaluation periods. The same is true for all 60 plus category reference funds. Selecting reference funds in the other 30 categories remains difficult because of their diversity.

To “keep it simple” MFO will include funds on the Three Alarm list if they have the worst returns in their categories across all three evaluation periods. More precisely, Three Alarm Funds have absolute returns in the bottom quintile of their categories during the past 1, 3, and 5 years. Most likely, these funds have also under-performed their “benchmarks” over the same three periods.

There are currently 316 funds on the list, or fewer than 6% of all funds rated. Here are the Three Alarm Funds in the balanced category, sorted by 3 year annualized return:


Like in the original Three Alarm list, a fund’s Risk Rating is assigned based a “potential bad year” relative to other funds in the same category. A Risk Rating of “2” (highlighted in red) goes to the highest risk funds, while “-2” (blue) goes to the lowest risk funds. (Caution: This rating measures a fund’s risk relative to other funds in same category, so a fund in a high volatility category like energy can have high absolute risk relative to market, even if it has a low risk rating in its category.)

“Risk” in this case is based on the 3 year standard deviation and return values. Specifically, two standard deviations are subtracted from the return value. The result is then compared with other funds in the category to assign a rating. The rating is a little more sensitive to downside than the original measure as investors have experienced two 50% drawdowns since the Three Alarm system was first published.

While never quite as popular as the Three Alarm list, Mr. Weitz also published an Honor Roll list. In the redux system, Honor Roll funds have returns in the top quintile of their categories in the past 1, 3, and 5 years. There are currently 339 such funds.

The Three Alarm, Honor Roll, and Reference funds can all be found in a down-loadable *.pdf version.


Funds that are hard to love

Not all regrettable funds are defined by incompetent management. Far from it. Some have records good enough that we really, really wish that they weren’t so hard to love (or easy to despise). High on our list:

Oceanstone Fund (OSFDX)

Why would we like to love it? Five-star rating from Morningstar. Small asset base. Flexible mandate. Same manager since launch. Top 1% returns over the past five years.

What makes it hard to love? The fund is entirely opaque and the manager entirely autocratic. Take, for example, this sentence from the Statement of Additional Information:

Ownership of Securities: As of June 30, 2013, the dollar range of shares in the Fund beneficially owned by James J. Wang and Yajun Zheng is $500,001-$1,000,000.

Mr. Wang manages the fund. Ms. Zheng does not. Nor is she a director or board member; she is listed nowhere else in the prospectus or the SAI as having a role in the fund. Except this: she’s married to Mr. Wang. Which is grand. But why is she appearing in the section of the manager’s share ownership?

Mr. Wang was the only manager to refuse to show up to receive a Lipper mutual fund award. He’s also refused all media attempts to arrange an interview and even the chairman of his board of trustees sounds modestly intimidated by him. His explanation of his investment strategy is nonsense. He keeps repeating the magic formula: IV = IV divided by E, times E. No more than a high school grasp of algebra tells you that this formula tells you nothing. I shared it with two professors of mathematics, who both gave it the technical term “vacuous.” It works for any two numbers (4 = 4 divided by 2, times 2) but it doesn’t allow you to derive one value from the other.

The fund’s portfolio turns over at triple the average rate, consists of just five stocks and a 70% cash stake.

Value Line Asset Allocation Fund (VLAAX)

Why would we like to love it? Five-star rating from Morningstar. Consistency below-average to low risk. Small asset base. Same manager for 20 years. Top tier returns over the past decade.

What makes it hard to love? Putting aside the fact that the advisory firm’s name is “value” spelled backward (“Eulav”? Really guys?), it’s this sentence:

Ownership of Securities. None of the portfolio managers of the Value Line Asset Allocation Fund own shares of the Fund. The portfolio manager of the Value Line Small Cap Opportunities Fund similarly does not own shares of that Fund.

It’s also the fact that I’ve tried, on three occasions, to reach out to the fund’s advisor to ask why no manager ever puts a penny alongside his shareholders but they’ve never responded to any of the queries.

But wait! There’s 


Four things strike us as quite good:

  1. You probably aren’t invested in any of the really rotten funds!
  2. Even if you are, you know they’re rotten and you can easily get out.
  3. There are better funds – ones more appropriate to your needs and personality – available.
  4. We can help you find them!

Accipiter, Charles and Chip have been working hard to make it easier for you to find funds you’ll be comfortable with. We’d like to share two and have a third almost ready, but we need to be sure that our server can handle the load (we might a tiny bit have precipitated a server crash in November and so we’re being cautious until we can arrange a server upgrade).

The Risk Profile Search is designed to help you understand the different measures of a fund’s risk profile. Most fund profiles reduce a fund’s risks to a single label (“above average”) or a single stat (standard deviation = 17.63). Unfortunately, no one measure of risk captures the full picture and most measures of risk are not self-explanatory (how would you do on a pop quiz over the Martin Ratio?). Our Risk Profile Reporter allows you to enter a single ticker symbol for any fund and it will generate a short, clear report, in simple, conversational English, that walks you through the various means of risk and returns and will provide you with the profiles for a whole range of possible benchmarks. Alternatively, entering multiple ticker symbols will return a tabular results page, making side-by-side comparisons more convenient.

The Great Owl Search Engine allows you to screen our Great Owl Funds – those which have top tier performance in every trailing period of three years or more – by category or profile. We know that past performance should never be t