February 2017 IssueLong scroll reading

AMG Chicago Equity Partners Balanced Fund (MBEAX)

By David Snowball

Objective and strategy

The managers aim to provide “high total investment return, consistent with the preservation of capital and prudent economic risk.” The fund normally holds 50-75% in equities with the remainder in bonds and cash. The equity sleeve is mostly mid- to large-cap US stocks; direct foreign investment is minimal. The income sleeve is mostly high quality, intermediate-term bonds. The managers have the freedom to invest up to 25% in high-yield securities or in longer maturity bonds but, mostly, don’t.

Adviser

AMG (Affiliated Managers Group) advises the fund. AMG partners with forty small, distinctive investment management firms which then offer funds or separately managed accounts through the AMG umbrella. Its partner firms include River Road, Yacktman and SouthernSun. AMG has about $730 billion in assets under management.

Chicago Equity Partners manages the fund. CEP is a Chicago-based (duh) firm founded in 1989 to provide “bespoke equity offerings” to institutional clients. They have more than 100 institutional clients and about $10 billion in assets under management. AMG holds a 60% stake in CEP.

Manager

The fund is managed by a team whose senior member is Robert Kramer. Mr. Kramer and Patricia Halper handle the fund’s equity investments; Michael Budd and Curt Mitchell are responsible for the fixed-income sleeve while the asset allocation is set by the firm’s investment policy committee. Mr. Kramer is a founding partner of CEP, a member of the quantitative analysis group and has managed the fund since 2000. Ms. Halper is also a Managing Director and member of the quantitative analysis group with responsibility for refining the models. They are co-CIO’s of the firm’s equity strategy and jointly responsible for overseeing the equity team. She’s been with the fund since May, 2016 and with the firm for 19 years. Curt Mitchell heads the fixed income team and is the CIO for fixed income; Michael Budd specializes in mortgage, asset-backed and agency securities and assists Mitchell. Both have managed the fund since 2006. Ms. Halper and Mr. Mitchell head the firm’s asset allocation committee.

Strategy capacity and closure

The managers anticipate no meaningful constraints in the foreseeable future since they have a small fund trading in with highly-liquid asset classes.

Management’s stake in the fund

According to the most recent Statement of Additional Information, none of the managers own any shares in the fund. One of the managers disagrees, noting that at least a couple of the managers do have investments in the fund. An inquiry is underway.

Opening date

January 2, 1997.

Minimum investment

$2,000 on the “N” (formerly “Investor”) shares, reduced to $1,000 for IRAs. The lower-cost “I” and “Z” share classes have minimums of $100,000 and $5,000,000, respectively.

Expense ratio

1.09%, after waivers, on assets of $175 million (technically $174,156,893, as of 2/1/17).

Comments

The evidence is indisputable: we’re cowards. All investors talk about “investing for the long term” and “short-term volatility is just noise, just a part of the game,” which are nice sentiments. Unfortunately, they’re not descriptions of investor behavior: investors undercut their gains by trading too much, buying too late and selling too early. That’s particularly pronounced with ETFs, which are destructively easy to trade, and high-volatility strategies, which are terrifying to hold.

That often means that funds which balance equities, bonds and cash in their portfolios are an investor’s least exciting and most profitable choice. The best might offer 80% of the stock market’s gains with just 60% of its risks. That’s called an “asymmetrical risk-reward profile.”

The Observer recognizes that fact and our fund screener is calibrated to be much more risk-aware than most. Each month we screen decades’ worth of data to answer the question, which managers are earning their keep? That is, which managers consistently offer positive absolute return with the least risk? In assessing balanced funds, we don’t just compare those funds against an anonymous peer group, but also against two excellent, low-cost alternatives from Vanguard: the utterly passive Balanced Index (VBINX) which is always and only 60% CRSP U.S. Total Stock Market Index and 40% Bloomberg Barclays U.S. Aggregate Float Adjusted Bond Index and Vanguard STAR (VGSTX), a fund of actively-managed Vanguard funds.

If you don’t glance at a Martin Ratio of 0.82 and think “cool! Excellent score on the most risk-sensitive measure, I’m feeling good,” we’ve prepared a simple translation for you in the table below. We tell you what each metric, above, actually measures and then how MBEAX’s performance over this particular 10-year-period compares to the others.

A quick example: APR %/yr translates to “annual percentage return, for the period measured, expressed in percents.” In the table below we describe those as the raw (i.e., not risk-adjusted) returns and let you know that MBEAX had higher raw returns than its peers or STAR.

How do you measure success?

CEP Balanced vs its peer group vs Balanced Index vs STAR
Raw returns APR CEP wins Tie! CEP wins
Worst-case loss MaxDD CEP wins CEP wins CEP wins
Time it takes to recover from the worst case Recvry CEP wins CEP wins CEP wins
Normal volatility Std Dev CEP wins CEP wins CEP wins
Bad volatility DS Dev CEP wins CEP wins CEP wins
Combined effect of big losses and small recovery Ulcer CEP wins CEP wins CEP wins
Losses during months when the market is falling a lot Bear market dev CEP wins CEP wins CEP wins
Standard balance of risk and return Sharpe CEP wins CEP wins CEP wins
A more risk-sensitive balance of risk and return Sortino CEP wins CEP wins CEP wins
A very risk-sensitive balance of risk and return Martin CEP wins CEP wins CEP wins

That comparison measures a meaningful period, we think: the span of time since the current management team fully settled in-place until now. If you do the same calculations for two other meaningful periods – the full market cycle that includes the 2007-09 crash and the current bull market plus the down market cycle that covers the 2007-09 crash – you see the exact same pattern. By every measure of reward, risk and risk-reward balance that we employed, CEP outperformed its peers (by a lot) and two entirely-excellent competitors.

Readers with MFO Premium access are able to look at the data for themselves by entering “MBEAX” into the multi-screener. We default to including the comparisons above. For those just interested in the data on the full- and down-market cycles I just mentioned, there’s a “Commentary” post with the tables for you at MFO Premium. Here is link to full Risk Profile.

The picture changes over shorter time periods, and that’s important to you.

The fund’s 1-, 3- and 5-year data show some wins and some losses, particularly against a purely-passive competitor. That makes perfect sense: a steadily rising, some say irrationally rising, market always punishes risk-conscious strategies and rewards maximum exposure to risk assets. Our ten-year and full-cycle comparisons take into account the reality of markets that rise and fall; shorter, arbitrary periods reflect just the upside performance.

And MBEAX is risk conscious. Manager Patricia Halper notes that “we ‘re very focused on risk control, which is reflected in the fact that our downside capture ratios are consistently in the top decile.” She describes the fund as “a pretty straightforward balanced fund, the sort of fund an investor would use as a core holding.” As we’ve researched the fund, we’ve come to agree that its strength is in a risk-conscious discipline and consistently strong execution of the strategy. There are no bells or whistles. The equity sleeve offers broadly diversified exposure to the domestic market, which noticeably more mid- and small-cap exposure but noticeably less direct international exposure than its peers. The fixed income sleeve targets mostly intermediate-term, high quality bonds. The asset allocation overlay allows for substantial changes in equity exposure, but significant tilts are infrequent. “We’re pretty slow moving on that,” Ms. Halper allows. “We’ve had 12 shifts since 2006, but exposure typically stays around 60-65%.”

That’s reflected in the fund’s high correlation to a 60/40 index; over the full market cycle, the correlation is .99.

Are there reasons for caution? Two occur to us.

First, long-term lead equity manager David C. Coughenour, a founding partner of CEP, resigned in January 2017. The equity team is now led by Robert Kramer, who has also managed the fund since 2000 and is also a founding partner at CEP. Given the fund’s reliance on quantitative screens and the team’s tenure, that risk seems manageable.

Second, the retail shares call an above-average expense ratio (1.09%) and expenses, as CEP itself notes in a white paper, matter. Expenses are, in part, a function of asset base: larger funds enjoy economies of scale which the best of them actively pass along to their investors. The picture is better when we compare MBEAX to other flexible funds with under a billion in assets; against that group, MBEAX is in the lowest-cost third. And, they might reasonably argue, “we’ve been earning our keep for a long time now.”

We agree.

Bottom Line

If you are willing to wager your financial security on the bet that the long bull markets in stocks and bonds, abetted by sensible and far-sighted actions being pushed by the president, will continue into the foreseeable future, you’re best served by a passive product that gives you naked exposure to those conditions. If you are increasingly dubious about how markets and economies will react to those same forces, you need to strongly consider entrusting a larger share of your assets to experienced, risk-conscious managers who’ve gotten it right in the past. The Chicago Equity Partners are one such set of managers.

Fund website

AMG Chicago Equity Partners Balanced

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About David Snowball

David Snowball, PhD (Massachusetts). Cofounder, lead writer. David is a Professor of Communication Studies at Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois, a nationally-recognized college of the liberal arts and sciences, founded in 1860. For a quarter century, David competed in academic debate and coached college debate teams to over 1500 individual victories and 50 tournament championships. When he retired from that research-intensive endeavor, his interest turned to researching fund investing and fund communication strategies. He served as the closing moderator of Brill’s Mutual Funds Interactive (a Forbes “Best of the Web” site), was the Senior Fund Analyst at FundAlarm and author of over 120 fund profiles. David lives in Davenport, Iowa, and spends an amazing amount of time ferrying his son, Will, to baseball tryouts, baseball lessons, baseball practices, baseball games … and social gatherings with young ladies who seem unnervingly interested in him.