Intrepid Income (ICMUX), March, 2014

Objective and strategy

The fund is pursuing both high current income and capital appreciation. The fund primarily invests in shorter-term high-yield corporate bonds, bank debt, convertibles and U.S. government securities. They have the option of buying a wider array of income-producing securities, including investment-grade debt, dividend-paying common or preferred stock. It shifts between security types based on what the manager’s believe offers the best risk-adjusted prospective returns and is also willing to hold cash. The portfolio is generally very concentrated. 

Adviser

Intrepid Capital Management of Jacksonville Beach, Florida. Intrepid, founded in 1994, primarily serves high net worth individuals.  As of December 30, 2013, it had $1.4 billion in assets under management. Intrepid advises the four Intrepid funds (Capital, Small Cap, Disciplined Value and Income).

Manager

Jason Lazarus, with the help of Ben Franklin, and Mark Travis. Messrs. Franklin and Lazarus joined Intrepid in 2008 after having completed master’s degrees at the University of North Florida and Florida, respectively. Mr. Travis is a founding partner and has been at Intrepid Capital since 1994. Before that, he was Vice President of the Consulting Group of Smith Barney and its predecessor firms for ten years.

Strategy capacity and closure

The managers estimate they might be able to handle up to $1 billion in this strategy. Currently the strategy manifests itself here, in balanced separate accounts and in the fixed-income portion of Intrepid Capital Fund (ICMBX/ICMVX).  In total, they’re currently managing about $300 million.   

Management’s stake in the fund

All of the managers have investments in the fund. Mr. Lazarus has invested between $50,000 – 100,000; Mr. Franklin has invested between $10,000 – 50,000 and Mr. Travis has between $100,000 – 500,000. That strikes me as entirely reasonable for relatively young investors committing to a relatively conservative fund.

Opening date

You get your pick! The High-Yield Fixed Income strategy, originally open only to private clients, was launched on April 30, 1999.  The fund’s Investor class was launched on July 2, 2007 and the original Institutional class on August 16, 2010.

Minimum investment

$2,500.  On January 30, 2014, the Investor and Institutional share classes of the fund were merged. Technically the surviving fund is institutional, but it now carries the low minimum formerly associated with the Investor class.

Expense ratio

0.90% on assets of $106 million. With the January 2014 merger, retail investors saw a 25 bps reduction in their fees, which we celebrate.

Comments

There are some very honorable ways to end up with a one-star rating from Morningstar.  Being stubbornly out-of-step with the herd is one path, being assigned to an inappropriate peer group is another. 

There are a number of very good conservative managers running short-term high yield bond funds who’ve ended up with one star because their risk-return profiles are so dissimilar from their high-yield bond peer group.  Few approach the distinction with as much panache as Intrepid Income:

intrepid

Why the apparent lack of concern for a stinging and costly badge? Two reasons, really. First, Intrepid was founded on the value of independence from the investment herd. Mr. Lazarus reports that “the firm is set up to avoid career risk which frequently leads to closet-indexing.  Mark and his dad [Forrest] started it, Mark believes in the long-term so managers are evaluated on process rather than on short-term outcomes. If the process is right but the returns don’t match the herd in the short term, he doesn’t care.”  Their goal, and expectation, is to outperform in the long-term. And so, doing the right thing seems to be a more important value than getting recognized.

In support of that observation, we’ll note that Intrepid once employed the famously independent Eric Cinnamond, now of Aston/River Road Independent Value (ARIVX), as a manager – including on this fund.

Second, they recognize that their Morningstar rating does not reflect the success of their strategy. Their intention was to provide reasonable return without taking unnecessary risks. In an environment where investment-grade bonds look to return next-to-nothing (by GMO’s most recent calculations, the aggregate US bond market is priced to provide a real – after inflation – yield of 0.4% annually for the remainder of the decade), generating a positive real return requires looking at non-investment-grade bonds (or, in some instances, dividend-paying equities). 

They control risk – which they define as “losing money” or “permanent loss of capital,” as opposed to short-term volatility – in a couple ways.

First, they need to adopt an absolute value discipline – that is, a willingness both to look hard for mispriced securities and to hold cash when there are no compelling options in the securities market – in order to avoid the risk of permanent impairment of capital. That generally leads them to issuers in healthy industries, with predictable free cash flow and tangible assets. It also leads to higher-quality bonds which yield a bit less but are much more reliable.

Second, they tend to invest in shorter-term bonds in order to minimize interest rate risk. 

If you put those pieces together well, you end up with a low volatility fund that might earn 3.5 to 4.5% in pricey markets and a multiple of that in attractively valued ones. Because they’ve never had a bond default and they rarely sell their bonds before they’re redeemed (Mr. Lazarus recalls that “I can count on two hands the number of core bond positions we’ve sold in the past five years,” though he also allows that they’ve sold some small “opportunistic” positions in things like convertibles), they can afford to ignore the day-to-day noise in the market. 

In short, you end up with Intrepid Income, a fund which might comfortably serve as “a big part of your mother’s retirement account” and which “lots of private clients use as their core fixed-income fund.”

In both the short- and long-term, their record is excellent.  The longest-term picture comes from looking at the nearly 15 year record of the High-Yield Fixed Income strategy which is manifested both in separate accounts and, for the past seven years, in this fund.

riskreturn 

Since inception, the strategy has earned 7.25% annually, trailing the Merrill Lynch high-yield index by just 38 basis points.  That’s about 94% of the index’s total return with about 60% of its volatility.  Over most shorter periods (in the three to ten year range), annual returns have been closer to 5-6%.

In the shorter term, we can look at the risks and returns of the fund itself.  Here’s Intrepid Income charted against its high-yield peer group.

intrepid chart 

By every measure, that’s a picture of very responsible stewardship of their shareholders’ money.  The fund’s beta is around 0.25, meaning that it is about one-fourth as volatile as its peers. Its standard deviation from inception to January 2014 is just 5.52 while its peers are around nine. Its maximum drawdown – 14.6% – occurred over a period of just three months (September – November 2008) before the fund began rebounding. 

Bottom Line

The fund’s careful, absolute value focus – shorter term, higher quality high-yield bonds and the willingness to hold cash when no compelling values present themselves – means that it will rarely keep up with its longer-term, lower quality, fully invested peer group.

And that’s good. By the Observer’s calculation, Intrepid Income qualifies as a “Great Owl” fund. That’s determined by looking at the fund’s risk-adjusted returns (measured by the fund’s Martin Ratio) for every period longer than one year and then recognizing only funds which are in the top 20% for every period. Intrepid is one of the few high-yield funds that have earned that distinction. While this is not a cash management account, it seems entirely appropriate for conservative investors who are looking for real absolute returns and have a time horizon of at least three to five years. You owe it to yourself to look beyond the star rating to the considerable virtues the fund holds.

Fund website

We think it’s entirely worth looking at both the Intrepid Income Fund homepage and the homepage for the underlying High-Yield Fixed Income strategy. Because the strategy has a longer public record and a more sophisticated client base, the information presented there is a nice complement to the fund’s documentation.

© 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.

Manager changes, November 2018

In the course of a normal month we’ll highlight 60-70 manager changes in equity and allocation funds. We mostly skip bond funds because, frankly, it’s a danged rare fixed income team that’s materially affected by the departure of a single individual. In a really quiet month, 40 funds and ETFs saw partial or complete team changes.

By far the most consequential was the announced departure of Zeke Ashton from Centaur Total Return (TILDX), a fund that he’s managed with discipline, style and success since its inception. The folks at Intrepid Capital continue thinning their management team. We reported Jayme Wiggins departure from Intrepid Endurance and Select last month, Jason Lazarus departs Capital and Income this month.  Intrepid remains among the few firms maintaining an absolute value discipline in Continue reading →

Intrepid International Fund (ICMIX)

Objective and strategy

The fund seeks long-term capital appreciation by investing in an international, all-cap portfolio. The fund is non-diversified and its primary focus is on developed markets. Its strategy is benchmark-agnostic, so its country, industry and sector weightings may differ substantially from those in its benchmark index or peer group. Its process capitalizes on market disruptions, fear, and volatility to generate bargains. The fund plans to hold between 15-50 different companies, may hold substantial cash and is typically hedges its currency exposure when cost effective.

The fund is intended for Continue reading →

Intrepid Endurance (ICMAX), April 2016

Objective and strategy

The fund pursues long-term capital appreciation by investing in high quality small cap equities, which they’ll only buy and hold when they’re undervalued. “Small stocks” are stocks comparable in size to those in common indexes like the Russell 2000; currently, that means a maximum cap of $6.5 billion. The fund can hold domestic and international common stocks, preferred stocks, convertible preferred stocks, warrants, and options. They typically hold 15-50 securities. High quality businesses, typically, are “internally financed companies generating cash in excess of their business needs, with predictable revenue streams, and in industries with high barriers to entry.” The managers calculate the intrinsic value of a lot of small companies, though very few are currently selling at an acceptable discount to those values. As a result, the fund has about two-thirds of its portfolio in cash (as of March 2016). When opportunities present themselves, though, the managers deploy their cash quickly; in 2011, the fund moved from 40% cash down to 20% in the space of two weeks.  

Adviser

Intrepid Capital Management. Intrepid was founded in 1994 by the father and son team of Forrest and Mark Travis. It’s headquartered in Jacksonville, Florida; the location is part of a conscious strategy to distance themselves from Wall Street’s groupthink. Rather distinctively, their self-description stresses the importance of the fact that their managers have rich, active lives (“some of us surf … others spend weekends at kids’ football games”) outside of work. That focus “makes us a better company and better managers.” They are responsible for “approximately $800 million for individuals and institutional investors through a combination of separately managed accounts, no-load mutual funds, and a long/short hedge fund.” They advise six mutual funds.

Manager

Jayme Wiggins, Mark Travis and Greg Estes. Mr. Wiggins, whose first name is pronounced “Jay Mee,” is the lead manager and the guy responsible for the fund’s day-to-day operations. His career is just a bit complex: right after college, he joined Intrepid in 2002 where he worked as an analyst on the strategy before it even became a fund. In 2005 Jayme took over the high-yield bond strategy which, in 2007, was embodied in the new Intrepid Income Fund (ICMUX). In 2008, he left to pursue his MBA at Columbia. While he was away, Endurance’s lead manager Eric Cinnamond left to join River Road Asset Management. Upon his return in September 2010, Jayme became lead manager here. Mr. Travis is one of Intrepid’s founders and the lead manager on Intrepid Capital (ICMBX). Mr. Estes, who joined the firm in 2000, is lead manager of Intrepid Disciplined Value (ICMCX). Each member of the team contributes to each of the firm’s other funds.

Strategy capacity and closure

The managers would likely begin discussions about the fund’s assets when it approaches the $1 billion level, but there’s no firm trigger level. What they learned from the past was that too great a fraction of the fund’s assets represented “hot money,” people who got excited about the fund’s returns without ever becoming educated about the fund’s distinctive strategy. When the short-term returns didn’t thrill them, they fled. The managers are engaged now in discussions about how to attract more people who “get it.” Their assessment of the type of fund flows, as much as their amount, will influence their judgment of how and when to act.

Management’s stake in the fund

All of the fund’s managers have personal investments in it. Messrs. Travis and Wiggins have between $100,000 and $500,000 while Mr. Estes has between $10,000 and $50,000. The fund’s three independent directors also all have investments in the fund; it’s the only Intrepid fund where every director has a personal stake.

Opening date

The underlying small cap strategy launched in October, 1998; the mutual fund was opened on October 3, 2005.

Minimum investment

$2,500 for Investor shares, $250,000 for Institutional (ICMZX) shares.

Expense ratio

1.40% on assets of approximately $250 million (as of 3/30/16).

Comments

Start with two investing premises that seem uncontroversial:

  1. You should not buy businesses that you’ll regret owning. At base, you wouldn’t want to own a mismanaged, debt-ridden firm in a dying industry.
  2. You should not pay prices that you’ll regret paying. If a company is making a million dollars a year, no matter how attractive it is, it would be unwise to pay $100 million for it.

If those strike you as sensible premises, then two conclusions flow from them:

  1. You should not buy funds that invest in businesses regardless of their quality or price. Don’t buy trash, don’t pay ridiculous amounts even for quality goods.
  2. You should buy funds that act responsibly in allocating money based on the availability of quality businesses at low prices. Identify high quality goods that you’d like to own, but keep your money in your wallet until they’re on a reasonable sale.

The average investor, individual and professional, consistently disregards those two principles. Cap-weighted index funds, by their very nature, are designed to throw your money at whatever’s been working recently, regardless of price or quality. If Stock A has doubled in value, its weighting in the index doubles and the amount of money subsequently devoted to it by index investors doubles. Conversely, if Stock B halves in value, its weighting is cut in half and so is the money devoted to it by index funds.

Most professional investors, scared to death of losing their jobs because they underperformed an index, position their “actively managed” funds as close to their index as they think they can get away with. Both the indexes and the closet indexers are playing a dangerous game.

How dangerous? The folks at Intrepid offer this breakdown of some of the hot stocks in the S&P 500:

Four S&P tech stocks—Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, and Google (the “FANGs”)—accounted for $450 billion of growth in market cap in 2015, while the 496 other stocks in the S&P collectively lost $938 billion in capitalization. Amazon’s market capitalization is $317 billion, which is bigger than the combined market values of Walmart, Target, and Costco. These three old economy retailers reported trailing twelve month GAAP net income of nearly $17 billion, while Amazon’s net income was $328 million.

As of late March, 2016, Amazon trades at 474 times earnings. The other FANG stocks sell for multiples of 77, 330 and 32. Why are people buying such crazy expensive stocks? Because everyone else is buying them.

That’s not going to end well.

The situation among small cap stocks is worse. As of April 1, 2016, the aggregate price/earnings ratio for stocks in the small cap Russell 2000 index is “nil.” It means, taken as a whole, those 2000 stocks had no earnings over the past 12 months. A year ago, the p/e was 68.4. In late 2015, the p/e ratios for the pharma, biotech, software, internet and energy sectors of the Russell 2000 were incalculable because those sectors – four of five are very popular sectors – have negative earnings.

“Small cap valuations,” Mr. Wiggins notes, “are pretty obscene. In historical terms, valuations are in the upper tier of lunacy. When that corrects, it’s going to get really bad for everybody and small caps are going to be ground zero.”

At the moment, just 50 of 2050 active U.S. equity mutual funds are holding significant cash (that is, 20% or more of total assets). Only nine small cap funds are holding out. That includes Intrepid Endurance whose portfolio is 67% cash.

Endurance looks for 30-40 high-quality companies, typically small cap names, whose prices are low enough to create a reasonable margin of safety. Mr. Wiggins is not willing to lower his standards – for example, he doesn’t want to buy debt-ridden companies just because they’re dirt cheap – just for the sake of buying something. You’ll see the challenge he faces as you consider the Observer’s diagram of the market’s current state and Endurance’s place in it.

venn

It wasn’t always that way. By his standards, “that small cap market was really cheap in ‘09 to fairly-priced in 2011 but since then it’s just become ridiculously expensive.”

For now, Mr. Wiggins is doing what he needs to do to protect his investors in the short term and enrich them in the longer term. He’s got 12 securities in the portfolio, in addition to the large cash reserve. He’s been looking further afield than usual because he’d prefer being invested to the alternative. Among his recent purchases are the common stock of Corus Entertainment, a small Canadian firm that’s Canada’s largest owner of women’s and children’s television networks, and convertible shares in EZcorp, an oddly-structured (hence mispriced) pawn shop operator in the US and Mexico.

While you might be skeptical of a fund that’s holding so much cash, it’s indisputable that Intrepid Endurance has been the single best steward of its shareholders’ money over the full market cycle that began in the fall of 2007. We track three sophisticated measures of a fund’s risk-return tradeoff: its Sharpe ratio, Sortino ratio and Martin ratio.

Endurance has the highest score on all three risk-return ratios among all small cap funds – domestic, global, and international, value, core and growth.  

We track short-term pain by looking at a fund’s maximum drawdown, its Ulcer index which measures the depth and duration of a drawdown, its standard deviation and downside deviation.

Endurance has the best or second best record, among all small cap funds, on all of those risk measures. It also has the best performance during bear market months.

And it has substantially outperformed its peers. Over the full cycle, Endurance has returned 3.6% more annually than the average small-value fund. Morningstar’s Katie Reichart, writing in December 2010, reported that “the fund’s annualized 12% gain during [the past five years] trounced nearly all equity funds, thanks to the fund’s stellar relative performance during the market downturn.”

Bottom Line

Endurance is not a fund for the impatient or impetuous. It’s not a fund for folks who love the thrill of a rushing, roaring bull market. It is a fund for people who know their limits, control their greed and ask questions like “if I wanted to find a fund that I could trust to handle the next seven to ten years while I’m trying to enjoy my life, which would it be?” Indeed, if your preferred holding period for a fund is measured in weeks or months, the Intrepid folks would suggest you go find some nice ETF to speculate with. If you’re looking for a way to get ahead of the inevitable crash and profit from the following rebound, you owe it to yourself to spend some time reading Mr. Wiggins’ essays and doing your due diligence on his fund.

Fund website

Intrepid Endurance Fund

© Mutual Fund Observer, 2016. All rights reserved. The information here reflects publicly available information current at the time of publication. For reprint/e-rights contact us.

June 2015, Funds in Registration

Catalyst/Auctos Managed Futures Multi-Strategy Fund

Catalyst/Auctos Managed Futures Multi-Strategy Fund will pursue capital appreciation uncorrelated to global equity markets. The plan is to “employ nine unique trading models, which are applied to the four investment sub-strategies” in order to gain absolute returns through both rising and falling price cycles. The fund will be managed by Kevin Jamali. Catalyst is an alternatives manager whose other two managed futures funds have done quite well. The initial expense ratio capped at 1.99%, though with a management fee of 1.75%, it’s hard to see how that’s going to be sustainable. The minimum initial investment is $2,500, reduced to for $100 for account established with an AIP.

Fulcrum Diversified Absolute Return Fund

Fulcrum Diversified Absolute Return Fund will seek long-term absolute returns. I have no idea of what they’re actually going to do. The prospectus specifies that they’ll invest in a mix of asset classes, apparently through derivatives, with a target portfolio volatility of 12%. There’s no clear explanation of why that’s a good thing or how it might play out in terms of returns. The fund will be managed by a mostly-British team from Fulcrum Asset Management. The advisor has a European UCITS using this strategy; it’s returned 5.6% annually over its first three years. The initial expense ratio will be 1.45% for Advisor shares. The minimum initial investment for Advisor shares is $1,000.

Intrepid Select Fund

Intrepid Select Fund will seek long-term capital appreciation. The plan is to invest in a global, non-diversified portfolio of common stocks, preferred stocks, convertible preferred stocks, warrants, options and foreign securities. The fund will be managed by  a team of investment professionals led by Mark Travis, Intrepid’s president. The same team manages Intrepid’s other funds which are substantially better than Morningstar’s ratings would lead you to believe. They have an aversion to losing money, which means they have exceptional cash reserves in the range of 50-75%, and at least one of the funds (Income ICMUX) is noticeably misclassified. The initial expense ratio will be 1.40%. The minimum initial investment is $2,500.

TIAA-CREF Social Choice International Equity Fund

TIAA-CREF Social Choice International Equity Fund will seek a favorable long-term total return, reflected in the performance of ESG-screened international stocks. MSCI will provide the ESG screens and the fund will target developed international markets. The fund will be managed by Philip James (Jim) Campagna and Lei Liao. The managers’ previous experience seems mostly to be in index funds. The initial expense ratio will be 0.79%. The minimum initial investment is $2,500, reduced to $2,000 for various tax-advantaged products.

TIAA-CREF Social Choice Low Carbon Equity Fund

TIAA-CREF Social Choice Low Carbon Equity Fund will seek a favorable long-term total return, reflected in the performance of ESG-screened US stocks. MSCI will provide the ESG screens, which will be supplemented by screens looking for firms who “demonstrate leadership in managing and mitigating their current carbon emissions and (2) have limited exposure to oil, gas, and coal reserves.” I understand the moral imperative and the appeal to CREF’s core constituency (university and non-profit employees), though I’m not aware of the merits of the investment case for this strategy. The fund will be managed by Philip James (Jim) Campagna and Lei Liao. The managers’ previous experience seems mostly to be in index funds. The initial expense ratio will be 0.71%. The minimum initial investment is $2,500, reduced to $2,000 for various tax-advantaged products.

TIAA-CREF Short-Term Bond Index Fund

TIAA-CREF Short-Term Bond Index Fund will seek favorable long-term total return, mainly from current income, by investing in domestic, investment-grade short term bonds. The fund will be managed by Lijun (Kevin) Chen and James Tsang. The initial expense ratio will be 0.47%. The minimum initial investment is $2,500, reduced to $2,000 for various tax-advantaged products.

Trillium All Cap Fund

Trillium All Cap Fund will seek long term capital appreciation by investing in an all-cap portfolio of “stocks with high quality characteristics and strong environmental, social, and governance records.” Up to 20% of the portfolio might be overseas. The fund will be managed by Elizabeth Levy and Stephanie Leighton of Trillium Asset Management. Levy managed Winslow Green Large Cap from 2009-11, Leighton managed ESG money at SunLife of Canada and Pioneer. The initial expense ratio is capped at 1.25% for retail shares. The minimum initial investment is $5000. It appears that the advisor will first launch Institutional ($100,000/0.90%) shares in July. It’s not clear when the Retail shares will debut.

Trillium Small/Mid Cap Fund

Trillium Small/Mid Cap Fund will seek long term capital appreciation by investing in a portfolio of small- to mid-cap “stocks with high quality characteristics and strong environmental, social, and governance records.” Small- to mid- is defined as stocks comparable in size to those in the S&P 1000, a composite of the S&P’s small and mid-cap indexes. Up to 20% of the portfolio might be overseas. The fund will be managed by Laura McGonagle and Matthew Patsky of Trillium Asset Management. Trillium oversees about $2.2 billion in assets. McGonagle was previously a research analyst at Adams, Harkness and Hill and is distantly related to Professor Minerva McGonagall. Patsky was Director of Equity Research for Adams, Harkness & Hill and a manager of the Winslow Green Solutions Fund. The initial expense ratio is capped at 1.38% for retail shares. The minimum initial investment is $5000. It appears that the advisor will first launch Institutional ($100,000/0.98%) shares in July. It’s not clear when the Retail shares will debut.

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.” TheStreet.com 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.

interestinmutualfunds

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.

rebalancing_1

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.

rebalancing_2

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.

highyield

[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

ASHAX

2.41

0.85

Eaton Vance Short Duration High Income A

ESHAX

1.85

Fidelity Short Duration High Income

FSAHX

2.88

0.8

First Trust Short Duration High Income A

FDHAX

2.65

1.25

Fountain Short Duration High Income A

PFHAX

3.01

Intrepid Income

ICMUX

2.75

5

 

 

JPMorgan Short Duration High Yield A

JSDHX

2.24

0.89

MainStay Short Duration High Yield A

MDHAX

3.22

1.05

RiverPark Short Term High Yield (closed)

RPHYX

2.03

3.8

1.25

Shenkman Short Duration High Income A

SCFAX

1.88

1

Wells Fargo Advantage S/T High Yield Bond A

SSTHX

1.3

5

5.07

0.81

Westwood Short Duration High Yield A

WSDAX

1.65

1.15

Zeo Strategic Income

ZEOIX

2.32

4.1

1.38

Vanguard High Yield Corporate (benchmark 1)

VWEHX

5.46

9.9

10.7

 

Vanguard Short Term Corporate (benchmark 2)

VBISX

1.03

1.1

2.17

 

Short-term high yield composite average

 

2.34

4.2

5.07

 

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.

largecapcore

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 www.fundfox.com 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.)

Order

  • 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.)

Briefs

  • 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.

dailyalts

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!)

highexpenses

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.

SMALL WINS FOR INVESTORS

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!

OLD WINE, NEW BOTTLES

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.

OFF TO THE DUSTBIN OF HISTORY

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.

fundchart

 

etfdeathwatchRon Rowland, founder of Invest With an Edge and editor of AllStarInvestor.com, 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!

David

 

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.

Adviser

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.

Managers

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.

Comments

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).

ZEOIX

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. Zeo.com 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.

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:

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:

outofthebox

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:

tencycles_1

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:

tencycles_2
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.

tencycles_3a

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:

tencycles_4

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:

tencycles_5

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.

tencycles_6

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.

26Mar14/Charles

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:

presidio

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

Qualification

Aggregate investment in the 23 funds overseen

Jack Retired president of Brinson Chevrolet, Tarboro NC

$0

Michael President, Commercial Real Estate Services, Rocky Mount, NC

0

Theo Senior Partner, Community Financial Institutions Consulting, a sole proprietorship in Rocky Mount, NC

0

James President, North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance, “the diversity partner of choice for Fortune 500 companies”

0

J Buckley President, Standard Insurance and Realty, Rocky Mount NC

0

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:

jubax

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 TheStreet.com, 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).

Updates

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

ARE YOU ACTIVE?  WOULD YOU LIKE SOMEONE TO NOTICE?

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.

SMALL WINS FOR INVESTORS

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.

OLD WINE, NEW BOTTLES

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.

OFF TO THE DUSTBIN OF HISTORY

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.

David

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.

lighthouse

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.

Fund

Ticker

Active share

Benchmark

Stocks

Artisan Emerging Markets (Adv)

ARTZX

79.0

MSCI Emerging Markets

90

Artisan Global Equity

ARTHX

94.6

MSCI All Country World

57

Artisan Global Opportunities

ARTRX

95.3

MSCI All Country World

41

Artisan Global Value

ARTGX

90.5

MSCI All Country World

46

Artisan International

ARTIX

82.6

MSCI EAFE

68

Artisan International Small Cap

ARTJX

97.8

MSCI EAFE Small Cap

45

Artisan International Value

ARTKX

92.0

MSCI EAFE

50

Artisan Mid Cap

ARTMX

86.3

Russell Midcap Growth

65

Artisan Mid Cap Value

ARTQX

90.2

Russell Value

57

Artisan Small Cap

ARTSX

94.2

Russell 2000 Growth

68

Artisan Small Cap Value

ARTVX

91.6

Russell 2000 Value

103

Artisan Value

ARTLX

87.9

Russell 1000 Value

32

Barrow All-Cap Core Investor 

BALAX

92.7

S&P 500

182

Diamond Hill Select

DHLTX

89

Russell 3000 Index

35

Diamond Hill Large Cap

DHLRX

80

Russell 1000 Index

49

Diamond Hill Small Cap

DHSIX

97

Russell 2000 Index

68

Diamond Hill Small-Mid Cap

DHMIX

97

Russell 2500 Index

62

DoubleLine Equities Growth

DLEGX

88.9

S&P 500

38

DoubleLine Equities Small Cap Growth

DLESX

92.7

Russell 2000 Growth

65

Driehaus EM Small Cap Growth

DRESX

96.4

MSCI EM Small Cap

102

FPA Capital

FPPTX

97.7

Russell 2500

28

FPA Crescent

FPACX

90.3

Barclays 60/40 Aggregate

50

FPA International Value

FPIVX

97.8

MSCI All Country World ex-US

23

FPA Perennial

FPPFX

98.9

Russell 2500

30

Guinness Atkinson Global Innovators

IWIRX

99

MSCI World

28

Guinness Atkinson Inflation Managed Dividend

GAINX

93

MSCI World

35

Linde Hansen Contrarian Value

LHVAX

87.1 *

Russell Midcap Value

23

Parnassus Equity Income

PRBLX

86.9

S&P 500

41

Parnassus Fund

PARNX

92.6

S&P 500

42

Parnassus Mid Cap

PARMX

94.9

Russell Midcap

40

Parnassus Small Cap

PARSX

98.8

Russell 2000

31

Parnassus Workplace

PARWX

88.9

S&P 500

37

Pinnacle Value

PVFIX

98.5

Russell 2000 TR

37

Touchstone Capital Growth

TSCGX

77

Russell 1000 Growth

58

Touchstone Emerging Markets Eq

TEMAX

80

MSCI Emerging Markets

68

Touchstone Focused

TFOAX

90

Russell 3000

37

Touchstone Growth Opportunities

TGVFX

78

Russell 3000 Growth

60

Touchstone Int’l Small Cap

TNSAX

97

S&P Developed ex-US Small Cap

97

Touchstone Int’l Value

FSIEX

87

MSCI EAFE

54

Touchstone Large Cap Growth

TEQAX

92

Russell 1000 Growth

42

Touchstone Mid Cap

TMAPX

96

Russell Midcap

33

Touchstone Mid Cap Growth

TEGAX

87

Russell Midcap Growth

74

Touchstone Mid Cap Value

TCVAX

87

Russell Midcap Value

80

Touchstone Midcap Value Opps

TMOAX

87

Russell Midcap Value

65

Touchstone Sands Capital Select

TSNAX

88

Russell 1000 Growth

29

Touchstone Sands Growth

CISGX

88

Russell 1000 Growth

29

Touchstone Small Cap Core

TSFAX

99

Russell 2000

35

Touchstone Small Cap Growth

MXCAX

90

Russell 2000 Growth

81

Touchstone Small Cap Value

FTVAX

94

Russell 2000 Value

75

Touchstone Small Cap Value Opps

TSOAX

94

Russell 2000 Value

87

William Blair Growth

WBGSX

83

Russell 3000 Growth

53

*        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.”

                    Nietzsche

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.

27Feb2014/Charles

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 http://quicktake.morningstar.com/Fund/RatingsAndRisk.asp?Symbol=OSTIX.

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):

mlp

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.

    Portfolio

    Conestoga Mid Cap

    Russell Mid-cap Growth

    Mid-cap Growth Peers

    % large to mega cap

    0

    35

    23

    % mid cap

    86

    63

    63

    % small to micro cap

    14

    2

    14

    Average market cap

    5.1M

    10.4M

    8.4M

     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

Ratio

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

Ratio

Direxion Monthly Small Cap Bull 2X Fund

2 for 1

Direxion Monthly NASDAQ-100® Bull 2X Fund

5 for 1

 SMALL WINS FOR INVESTORS

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.

OLD WINE, NEW BOTTLES

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.

OFF TO THE DUSTBIN OF HISTORY

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.

wordle

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 http://www.mutualfundobserver.com/discuss/discussions.  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,

David