KL Allocation Fund (GAVAX/GAVIX), June 2020

Objective and strategy

The fund is trying to grow capital, with the particular goal of beating the MSCI All Country World Index over the long term while maintaining an emphasis on capital preservation. The fund allocates assets between stocks (10-90%), fixed-income securities (10-90%), and cash depending on market conditions. The equity portion of the portfolio is invested in stocks of firms that they designate as “knowledge leaders.” Knowledge Leaders are a group of the world’s leading innovators with deep reservoirs of intangible capital. These companies often possess competitive advantages such as strong brand, proprietary knowledge, or a unique distribution mechanism. Knowledge Leaders are largely Continue reading →

KL Allocation Fund (formerly GaveKal Knowledge Leaders), (GAVAX/GAVIX), August 2014

At the time of publication, this fund was named GaveKal Knowledge Leaders Fund.

Objective and strategy

The fund is trying to grow capital, with the particular goal of beating the MSCI World Index over the long term. They invest in between 40 and 60 stocks of firms that they designate as “knowledge leaders.” By their definition, “Knowledge Leaders” are a group of the world’s leading innovators with deep reservoirs of intangible capital. These companies often possess competitive advantages such as strong brand, proprietary knowledge or a unique distribution mechanism. Knowledge leaders are largely service-based and advanced manufacturing businesses, often operating globally.” Their investable universe is mid- and large-cap stocks in 24 developed markets. They buy those stocks directly, in local currencies, and do not hedge their currency exposure. Individual holdings might occupy between 1-5% of the portfolio.


GaveKal Capital (GC). GC is the US money management affiliate of GaveKal Research Ltd., a Hong Kong-based independent research boutique. They manage over $600 million in the Knowledge Leaders fund and a series of separately managed accounts in the US as well as a European version (a UCITS) of the Knowledge Leaders strategy.


Steven Vannelli. Mr. Vannelli is managing director of GaveKal Capital, manager of the fund and lead author of the firm’s strategy for how to account for intangible capital. Before joining GaveKal, he served for 10 years at Denver-based money management firm Alexander Capital, most recently as Head of Equities. He manages about $600 million in assets and is assisted by three research analysts, each of whom targets a different region (North America, Europe, Asia).

Strategy capacity and closure

With a large cap, global focus, they believe they might easily manage something like $10 billion across the three manifestations of the strategy.

Active share

91. “Active share” measures the degree to which a fund’s portfolio differs from the holdings of its benchmark portfolio.  High active share indicates management which is providing a portfolio that is substantially different from, and independent of, the index. An active share of zero indicates perfect overlap with the index, 100 indicates perfect independence. The active share for the Knowledge Leaders Fund is 91, which reflects a very high level of independence from its benchmark MSCI World Index.

Management’s stake in the fund

Minimal. Mr. Vannelli seeded the fund with $250,000 of his own money but appears to have disinvested over time. His current stake is in the $10,000-50,000 range. As one of the eight partners as GaveKal, he does have a substantial economic stake in the advisor. There is no corporate policy encouraging or requiring employee investment in the fund and none of the fund’s directors have invested in it.

Opening date

September 30, 2010 for the U.S. version of the fund. The European iteration of the fund launched in 2006.

Minimum investment


Expense ratio

1.5% on A-share class (1.25% on I-share class) on domestic assets of $190 million, as of July 2014.


The stock investors have three nemeses:

  • Low long-term returns
  • High short-term volatility
  • A tendency to overpay for equities

Many managers specialize in addressing one or two of these three faults. GaveKal thinks they’ve got a formula for addressing three of three.

Low long-term returns: GaveKal believes that large stocks of “intangible capital” are key drivers of long-term returns and has developed a database of historic intangible-adjusted financial data, which it believes gives it a unique perspective. Intangible capital represents investments in a firm’s future profitability. It includes research and development investments but also expenditures to upgrade the abilities of their employees. There’s unequivocal evidence that such investments drive a firm’s long-term success. Sadly, current accounting practices punish firms that make these investments by characterizing them as “expenses,” the presence of which make the firm look less attractive to short-term investors. Mr. Vannelli’s specialty has been in tracking down and accurately characterizing such investments in order to assess a firm’s longer-term prospects. By way of illustration, research and development investments as a percentage of net sales are 8.3% in the portfolio companies but only 2.4% in the index firms.

High short-term volatility: there’s unequivocal empirical and academic research that shows that investors are far more cowardly than they know. While we might pretend to be gunslingers, we’re actually likely to duck under the table at the first sign of trouble. Knowing that, the manager works to minimize both security and market risk for his investors. They limit the size of any individual position to 5% of the portfolio. They entirely screen out a number of high leverage sectors, especially those where a firm’s fate might be controlled by government policies or other macro factors. The excluded sectors include financials, commodities, utilities, and energy. Conversely, many of the sectors with high concentrations of knowledge leaders are defensive.  Health care, for example, accounts for 86 of the 565 stocks in their universe.

Finally, they have the option to reduce market exposure when some combination of four correlation and volatility triggers are pulled. They monitor the correlation between stocks and bonds, the correlation between stocks within a broad equity index, the correlation between their benchmark index and the VIX and the absolute level of the VIX. In high risk markets, they’re at least 25% in cash (as they are now) and might go to 40% cash. When the market turns, though, they will move decisively back in: they went from 40% cash to 3% in under two weeks in late 2011.

A tendency to overpay: “expensive” is always relative to the quality of goods that you’re buying. GaveKal assigns two grades to every stock, a valuation grade based on factors such as price to free cash flow relative both to a firm’s own history and to its industry’s and a quality grade based on an analysis of the firm’s balance sheet, cash flow and income statement. Importantly, Gavekal uses its proprietary intangible-adjusted metrics in the analysis of value and quality.

The analysts construct three 30 stock regional portfolios (e.g., a 30 stock European portfolio) from which Mr. Vannelli selects the 50-60 most attractively valued stocks worldwide.

In the end, you get a very solid, mildly-mannered portfolio. Here are the standard measures of the fund against its benchmark:



MSCI World




Standard deviation






Maximum drawdown



Upside capture



Downside capture



Annualized return, since inception



While the US fund was not in operation in 2008, the European version was. The European fund lost about 36% in 2008 while its benchmark fell 46%.  Since the US fund is permitted a higher cash stake than its European counterpart, it follows that the fund’s 2008 outperformance might have been several points higher.

Bottom Line

This is probably not a fund for investors seeking unwaveringly high exposure to the global equities market. Its cautious, nearly absolute-return, approach to has led many advisors to slot it in as part of their “nontraditional/liquid alts” allocation. The appeal to cautious investors and the firm’s prodigious volume of shareholder communications, including weekly research notes, has led to high levels of shareholder loyalty and a prevalence of “sticky money.” While I’m perplexed by the fact that so little of the sticky money is the manager’s own, the fund has quietly made a strong case for its place in a conservative equity portfolio.

Fund website

GaveKal Knowledge Leaders. While you’re there, read the firm’s white paper on Intangible Economics and their strategy presentation (2014) which explains the academic research, the accounting foibles and the manager’s strategy in clear language.

© 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.

Retrospection is a Hard Metric to Match

I turned 66 last week and bought a retirement home in Colorado last month. By most measures, I am prepared for retirement with pensions, social security, and savings. I continue to work for several reasons including the uncertainties of markets facing seismic shifts. In the 50 years since I was in high school, so much has changed, both good and bad. These secular trends that have occurred in my life have significance for young and old investors. As Bear Bryant said, “Offense sells tickets, but defense wins championships.”

In Section #1 I look at seven long term trends that will Continue reading →

Inflation, Trends, and Market Manipulation

This past week has seen some significant market turmoil as the yield on 10-year treasuries climbed quickly to 1.5% while the S&P 500 dipped 2.5% on Thursday, February 25th. I show the Moving Average Convergence Divergence indicator below. The trends are short-term bearish. In this article, I focus on funds that lost less than a half percent on Thursday and were trending up over the past several months for clues on where to invest with the possibility of inflation rising.

This article is divided into four sections for those Continue reading →

Enough…in the Coming Lost Decade

How much is “enough” to retire when there are likely to be multiple decades of low returns due to high starting valuations with low yields and dividends?

  • Section 1 of this article summarizes the investment philosophies of John Bogle, Warren Buffett, Ed Easterling, Charles Ellis, Benjamin Graham, and Howard Marks.
  • Section 2 looks at the benefits of combining actively and passively managed funds to reduce risk.
  • Section 3 shows the impact of high valuations and inflation for over 120 years.
  • Section 4 covers stock and bond performance during secular bear markets with rising inflation and interest rates.
  • Section 5 looks at nearly two dozen lower risk funds for investors seeking “all-weather” funds or safer yield.
  • Section 6 provides estimates of “enough” for retirement in the coming decades.

Readers can skip to Continue reading →

Searching for Yield in the Coming Lost Decade

In this article, I look at Janus Henderson Flexible Bond (JANFX), BlackRock iShares Aaa – A Rated Corporate Bond ETF (QLTA), Carillon Reams Unconstrained Bond (SUBFX), BBH Income (BBNIX), T Rowe Price Multi-Strategy Total Return (TMSRX), Advisory Research Strategic Income (ADVNX), and Vanguard LifeStrategy Income Inv (VASIX) as potential income funds to own during a lost decade that starts with high valuations and low interest rates. The second section looks at why I expect the next decade to have low returns for equity and bonds. The third section looks at Risk to Reward comparisons for Continue reading →

Narrowing the Shopping List to DRSK, GAVAX, HSTRX, and TMSRX

One of the questions that I am sometimes asked is why do I own so many funds? The answer is that I have a dual-income family with different employer sponsors, different types of tax-advantaged accounts, brokerage accounts, and that I like to set aside a portion of my assets to invest according to the business cycle and trends. With Mutual Fund Observer, computers, and the internet, it is no more difficult or costly to manage 20 or more funds than it is 5.

I identified in Flexible Portfolio Funds With High Risk-Adjusted Returns that KL Allocation (GAVAX), a Flexible Portfolio Fund, is one Continue reading →

June 1, 2020

Dear friends,

Welcome to summer.

All of us hope that it’s not going to be a long, hot one.

Some months it’s easy to write a welcome note, some months not. This is one of those latter times. Over the night just passed there were ongoing instances of “civil unrest” (the police chief’s term) with a caravan of 100 cars proceeding from one shopping plaza to the next. Four people – including a police officer simply driving his car – were shot; two, not including the officer, died. Many of the caravanning cars bore Minnesota plates. That followed a Continue reading →

Steven and Sisyphus

Active management, as a discipline, is hard.

Active management, as a sustainable business, is harder.

Active management, as a sustainable business run by an independent investment boutique, no matter how skilled, is crazy hard, getting crazier and getting harder.

When, on top of all that, it feels like a megalithic corporation has it out for you, you’d surely feel like it’s time to surrender and put Sisyphus on the Continue reading →

Briefly noted

It’s been an unusually busy month in the industry, with nearly three dozen funds liquidated or slated for liquidation, as well as a surprising number of open funds closing to new investors and closed funds opening to them. And, as ever, the “smoke and marketing” crowd has re-branded a bunch of funds; most, not surprisingly, aren’t very good. Continue reading →

Briefly Noted


Third Avenue Management, Marty Whitman and former president David Barse have agreed to a $14.25 million cash settlement of a lawsuit brought on behalf of investors in Third Avenue Focused Credit. The fund, if you recall, made headlines first through huge losses in the completely illiquid positions that dominated the portfolio, then by moving all of its assets into a locked trust which kept investors from reclaiming their money. The plan was to liquidate the illiquid when “rational” prices prevailed; after about 18 months, that process is still not complete. The whole mess has cost Third Avenue over $3 billion in assets and threatened its Continue reading →

Briefly Noted . . .

Herewith are notes about the month’s announced changes in the fund industry: closings, openings, name changes, liquidations and more.

Thanks, as ever, to the anonymous and indefatigable Shadow for his yeoman’s work in keeping me, and the members of MFO’s discussion board, current on a swarm of comings and goings.

Effective mid-January, 2017, the AB Wealth Appreciation Strategy (AWAAX) and AB Balanced Wealth Strategy (ABWAX) will no longer invest in other AllianceBernstein funds. Instead, they’ll invest directly in equities. Color me “confused.” The funds currently seem to hold shares of just one AB fund (Multi-manager Alternative Strategies) along with a ton of individual equities. Continue reading →

February 1, 2015

Dear friends,

Investing by aphorism is a tricky business.

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

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

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

And Gore, accepting the Nobel Prize:

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

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

Weiji, Will Robinson! Weiji!

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

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

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

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

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

Snowball and the power of positive stupidity

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

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

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

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

It’s a nice feeling. 

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

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

Pure equity:

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

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

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

Pure income

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


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


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

Impure funds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Edward A. Studzinski

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Genius, succession and transition at Third Avenue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Many outsiders noted not just the departure of long-tenured members of the Third Avenue community, but also the tendency to replace some those folks with outsiders, including Robert Rewey, Tim Bui and Victor Cunningham. The most prominent change was the arrival, in 2014, of Robert Rewey, the new head of the “value equity team.” Mr. Rewey formerly was a portfolio manager at Cramer Rosenthal McGlynn, LLC, where his funds’ performance trailed their benchmark (CRM Mid Cap Value CRMMX, CRM All Cap Value CRMEX and CRM Large Cap Opportunity CRMGX) or exceeded it modestly (CRM Small/Mid Cap Value CRMAX). Industry professionals we talked with spoke of “a rolling coup,” the intentional marginalization of Mr. Whitman within the firm he created and the influx of outsiders. Understandably, the folks at Third Avenue reject that characterization, noting that Mr. Whitman is still at TAM, that he attends every research meeting and was involved in every hiring decision.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where are they now?

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Top developments in fund industry litigation

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


  • The court granted Vanguard‘s motion to dismiss shareholder litigation regarding two international funds’ holdings of gambling-related securities: “the court concludes that plaintiffs’ claims are time barred and alternatively that plaintiff has not established that the Board’s refusal to pursue plaintiffs’ demand for litigation violated Delaware’s business judgment rule.” Defendants included independent directors. (Hartsel v. Vanguard Group Inc.)


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


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


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

The Alt Perspective: Commentary and news from DailyAlts.

dailyaltsBy Brian Haskin, editor of DailyAlts.com

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

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

Asset Flows 2014

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

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

Asset Flows and Growth Rates 2014

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

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

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

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

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

Observer Fund Profiles

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

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

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

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

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

Conference Call Highlights: Bernie Horn, Polaris Global Value

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


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

A couple caller questions struck me as particularly helpful:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

Funds in Registration

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

Manager Changes

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

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

Briefly Noted . . .

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

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

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


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

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

CLOSINGS (and related inconveniences)

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Closing . . .

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

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

out the front window

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

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

Until then, be safe!


August 1, 2014

Dear friends,

We’ve always enjoyed and benefited from your reactions to the Observer. Your notes are read carefully, passed around and they often shape our work in the succeeding months. The most common reaction to our July issue was captured by one reader who shared this observation:

Dear David: I really love your writing. I just wish there weren’t so much of it. Perhaps you could consider paring back a bit?

Each month’s cover essay, in Word, ranges from 22 – 35 pages, single-spaced. June and July were both around 30 pages, a length perhaps more appropriate to the cool and heartier months of late autumn and winter. In response, we’ve decided to offer you the Seersucker Edition of Mutual Fund Observer. We, along with the U.S. Senate, are celebrating seersucker, the traditional fabric of summer suits in the South. Light, loose and casual, it is “a wonderful summer fabric that was designed for the hot summer months,” according to Mississippi senator Roger Wicker. In respect of the heat and the spirit of bipartisanship, this is the “light and slightly rumpled” edition of the Observer that “retains its fashionable good looks despite summer’s heat and humidity.”

Ken Mayer, some rights reserved

Ken Mayer, some rights reserved

For September we’ll be adding a table of contents to help you navigate more quickly around the essay. We’ll target “Tweedy”, and perhaps Tweedy Browne, in November!

“There’ll never be another Bill Gross.” Lament or marketing slogan?

Up until July 31, the market seemed to be oblivious to the fact that the wheels seemed to be coming off the global geopolitical system. We focused instead on the spectacle of major industry players acting like carnies (do a Google image search for the word, you’ll get the idea) at the Mississippi Valley Fair.

Exhibit One is PIMCO, a firm that we lauded as having the best record for new fund launches of any of the Big Five. In signs of what must be a frustrating internal struggle:

PIMCO icon Bill Gross felt compelled to announce, at Morningstar, that PIMCO was “the happiest place in the world” to work, allowing that only Disneyland might be happier. Two notes: 1) when a couple says “our marriage is doing great,” divorce is imminent, and 2) Disneyland is, reportedly, a horrible place to work.

(Reuters, Jim King)

(Reuters, Jim King)

Gross also trumpeted “a performance turnaround” which appears not to be occurring at Gross’s several funds, either an absolute return or risk-adjusted return basis.

After chasing co-CIO Mohammed el-Erian out and convincing fund manager Jeremie Banet (a French national whose accent Gross apparently liked to ridicule) that he’d be better off running a sandwich truck, Gross took to snapping at CEO Doug Hodge for his failure to stanch fund outflows.

PIMCO insiders have reportedly asked Mr. Gross to stop speaking in public, or at least stop venting to the media. Mr. Gross threatened to quit, then publicly announced that he’s never threatened to quit.

Despite PIMCO’s declaration that the Wall Street Journal article that detailed many of these promises was “full of untruths and mischaracterizations that are unworthy of a major news daily,” they’ve also nervously allowed that “Pimco isn’t only Bill Gross” and lamented (or promised) that there will never been another PIMCO “bond king” after Gross’s departure.

Others in the industry, frustrated that PIMCO was hogging the silly season limelight, quickly grabbed the red noses and cream pies and headed at each other.


The most colorful is the fight between Morningstar and DoubleLine. On July 16, Morningstar declared that “On account of a lack of information … [DoubleLine Total Return DBLNX] is Not Ratable.” That judgment means that DoubleLine isn’t eligible for a metallic (Gold, Silver, Bronze) Analyst Rating but it doesn’t affect that fund’s five-star rating or the mechanical judgment that the $34 billion fund has offered “high” returns and “below average” risk. Morningstar’s contention is that the fund’s strategies are so opaque that risks cannot be adequately assessed at arm’s length and the DoubleLine refuses to disclose sufficient information to allow Morningstar’s analysts to understand the process from the inside. DoubleLine’s rejoinder (which might be characterized as “oh, go suck an egg!”) is that Morningstar “has made false statement about DoubleLine” and “mischaracterized the fund,” in consequence of which they’ll have “no further communication with Morningstar.com” (“How Bad is the Blood Between DoubleLine and Morningstar?” 07/18/2014).

DoubleLine declined several requests for comment on the fight and, specifically, for a copy of the reported eight page letter of particulars they’d sent to Morningstar. Nadine Youssef, speaking for Morningstar, stressed that

It’s not about refusing to answer questions—it’s about having sufficient information to assign an Analyst Rating. There are a few other fund managers who don’t answer all of our questions, but we assign an Analyst Rating if we have enough information from filings and our due diligence process.

If a fund produced enough information in shareholder letters and portfolios, we could still rate it. For example, stock funds are much easier to assess for risk because our analysts can run good portfolio analytics on them. For exotic mortgages, we can’t properly assess the risk without additional information.

It’s a tough call. Many fund managers, in private, deride Morningstar as imperious, high-handed, sanctimonious and self-serving. Others aren’t that positive. But in the immediate case Morningstar seems to be acting with considerable integrity. The mere fact that a fund is huge and famous can’t be grounds, in and of itself, for an endorsement by Morningstar’s analysts (though, admittedly, Morningstar does not have a single Negative rating on even one of the 234 $10 billion-plus funds). To the extent that this kerfuffle shines a spotlight on the larger problem of investors placing their money in funds whose strategies that don’t actually understand and couldn’t explain, it might qualify as a valuable “teachable moment” for the community.

Somewhere in there, one of the founders of DoubleLine’s equity unit quit and his fund was promptly liquidated with an explanation that almost sounded like “we weren’t really interested in that fund anyway.”

Waddell & Reed, adviser to the Ivy Funds, lost star manager Bryan Krug to Artisan.  He was replaced on Ivy High Income (IVHIX) by William Nelson, who had been running Waddell & Reed High Income (UNHIX) since 2008. On July 9th Nelson was fired “for cause” and for reasons “unrelated to his portfolio management responsibilities,” which raised questions about the management of nearly $14 billion in high-yield assets. They also named a new president, had their stock downgraded, lost a third high-profile manager, drew huge fund inflows and blew away earnings expectations.

charles balconyRecovery Time

In the book “Practical Risk-Adjusted Performance Measurement,” Carl Bacon defines recovery time or drawdown duration as the time taken to recover from an individual or maximum drawdown to the original level. In the case of maximum drawdown (MAXDD), the figure below depicts recovery time from peak. Typically, for equity funds at least, the descent from peak to valley happens more quickly than the ascent from valley to recovery level.


An individual’s risk tolerance and investment timeline certainly factor into expectations of maximum drawdown and recovery time. As evidenced in “Ten Market Cycles” from our April commentary, 20% drawdowns are quite common. Since 1956, the SP500 has fallen nearly 30% or more eight times. And, three times – a gut wrenching 50%. Morningstar advises that investors in equity funds need “investment horizons longer than 10 years.”

Since 1962, SP500’s worst recovery time is actually a modest 53 months. Perhaps more surprising is that aggregate bonds experienced a similar duration, before the long bull run.  The difference, however, is in drawdown level.


 During the past 20 years, bonds have recovered much more quickly, even after the financial crisis.


Long time MFO board contributor Bee posted recently:

MAXDD or Maximum Drawdown is to me only half of the story.

Markets move up and down. Typically the more aggressive the fund the more likely it is to have a higher MAXDD. I get that.

What I find “knocks me out of a fund” in a down market is the fund’s inability to bounce back.

Ulcer Index, as defined by Peter Martin and central to MFO’s ratings system, does capture both the MAXDD and recovery time, but like most indices, it is most easily interpreted when comparing funds over same time period. Shorter recovery times will have lower UIcer Index, even if they experience the same absolute MAXDD. Similarly, the attendant risk-adjusted-return measure Martin Ratio, which is excess return divided by Ulcer Index, will show higher levels.

But nothing hits home quite like maximum drawdown and recovery time, whose absolute levels are easily understood. A review of lifetime MAXDD and recoveries reveals the following funds with some dreadful numbers, representing a cautionary tale at least:


In contrast, some notable funds, including three Great Owls, with recovery times at one year or less:


On Bee’s suggestion, we will be working to make fund recovery times available to MFO readers.

edward, ex cathedraFlash Geeks and Other Vagaries of Life …..

By Edward Studzinski

“The genius of you Americans is that you never make clear-cut stupid moves, only complicated stupid moves which make us wonder at the possibility that there may be something to them which we are missing.”

                Gamal Abdel Nasser

Some fifteen to twenty-odd years ago, before Paine Webber was acquired by UBS Financial Services, it had a superb annual conference. It was their quantitative investment conference usually held in Boston in early December. What was notable about it was that the attendees were the practitioners of what fundamental investors back then considered the black arts, namely the quants (quantitative investors) from shops like Acadian, Batterymarch, Fidelity, Numeric, and many of the other quant or quasi-quant shops. I made a point of attending, not because I thought of myself as a quant, but rather because I saw that an increasing amount of money was being managed in this fashion. WHAT I DID NOT KNOW COULD HURT BOTH ME AND MY INVESTORS.

Understanding the black arts and the geeks helped you know when you might want to step out of the way

One of the things you quickly learned about quantitative methods was that their factor-based models for screening stocks and industries, and then constructing portfolios, worked until they did not work. That is, inefficiencies that were discovered could be exploited until others noticed the same inefficiencies and adjusted their models accordingly. The beauty of this conference was that you had papers and presentations from the California Technology, MIT, and other computer geeks who had gone into the investment world. They would discuss what they had been working on and back-testing (seeing how things would have turned out). This usually gave you a pretty good snapshot of how they would be investing going forward. If nothing else, it helped you to know when you might want to step out of the way to keep from being run-over. It was certainly helpful to me in 1994. 

In late 2006, I was in New York at a financial markets presentation hosted by the Santa Fe Institute and Bill Miller of Legg Mason. It was my follow-on substitute for the Paine Webber conference. The speakers included people like Andrew Lo, who is both a brilliant scientist at MIT and the chief scientific officer of the Alpha Simplex Group. One of the other people I chanced to hear that day was Dan Mathisson of Credit Suisse, who was one of the early pioneers and fathers of algorithmic trading. In New York then on the stock exchanges people were seeing change not incrementally, but on a daily basis. The floor trading and market maker jobs which had been handed down in families from generation to generation (go to Fordham or NYU, get your degree, and come into the family business) were under siege, as things went electronic (anyone who has studied innovation in technology and the markets knows that the Canadians, as with air traffic control systems, beat us by many years in this regard). And then I returned to Illinois, where allegedly the Flat Earth Society was founded and still held sway. One of the more memorable quotes which I will take with me forever is this. “Trying to understand algorithmic trading is a waste of time as it will never amount to more than ten per cent of volume on the exchanges. One will get better execution by having” fill-in-the blank “execute your trade on the floor.” Exit, stage right.

Flash forward to 2014. Michael Lewis has written and published his book, Flash Boys. I have to confess that I purchased this book and then let it sit on my reading pile for a few months, thinking that I already understood what it was about. I got to it sitting in a hotel room in Switzerland in June, thinking it would put me to sleep in a different time zone. I learned very quickly that I did not know what it was about. Hours later, I was two-thirds finished with it and fascinated. And beyond the fascination, I had seen what Lewis talked about happen many times in the process of reviewing trade executions.

If you think that knowing something about algorithmic trading, black pools, and the elimination of floor traders by banks of servers and trading stations prepares you for what you learn in Lewis’ book, you are wrong. Think about your home internet service. Think about the difference in speeds that you see in going from copper to fiber optic cable (if you can actually get it run into your home). While much of the discussion in the book is about front-running of customer trades, more is about having access to the right equipment as well as the proximity of that equipment to a stock exchange’s computer servers. And it is also about how customer trades are often routed to exchanges that are not advantageous to the customer in terms of ultimate execution cost. 

Now, a discussion of front running will probably cause most eyes to glaze over. Perhaps a better way to think about what is going on is to use the term “skimming” as it might apply for instance, to someone being able to program a bank’s computers to take a few fractions of a cent from every transaction of a particular nature. And this skimming goes on, day in and day out, so that over a year’s time, we are talking about those fractions of cents adding up to millions of dollars.

Let’s talk about a company, Bitzko Kielbasa Company, which is a company that trades on average 500,000 shares a day. You want to sell 20,000 shares of Bitzko. The trading screen shows that the current market is $99.50 bid for 20,000 shares. You tell the trader to hit the bid and execute the sale at $99.50. He types in the order on his machine, hits sell, and you sell 100 shares of Bitzko at $99.50. The bid now drops to $99.40 for 1,000 shares. When you ask what happened, the answer is, “the bid wasn’t real and it went away.” What you learn from Lewis’ book is that as the trade was being entered, before the send/execute button was pressed, other firms could read your transaction and thus manipulate the market in that security. You end up selling your Bitzko at an average price well under the original price at which you thought you could execute.

How is it that no one has been held accountable for this yet?

So, how is it that no one has been held accountable for this yet? I don’t know, although there seem to be a lot of investigations ongoing. You also learn that a lot here has to do with order flow, or to what exchange a sell-side firm gets to direct your order for execution. The tragi-comic aspect of this is that mutual fund trustees spend a lot of time looking at trading evaluations as to whether best execution took place. The reality is that they have absolutely no idea on whether they got best execution because the whole thing was based on a false premise from the get-go. And the consultant’s trading execution reports reflect none of that.

Who has the fiduciary obligation? Many different parties, all of whom seem to hope that if they say nothing, the finger will not get pointed at them. The other side of the question is, you are executing trades on behalf of your client, individual or institutional, and you know which firms are doing this. Do you still keep doing business with them? The answer appears to be yes, because it is more important to YOUR business than to act in the best interests of your clients. Is there not a fiduciary obligation here as well? Yes.

I would like to think that there will be a day of reckoning coming. That said, it is not an easy area to understand or explain. In most sell-side firms, the only ones who really understood what was going on were the computer geeks. All that management and the marketers understood was that they were making a lot of money, but could not explain how. All that the buy-side firms understood was that they and their customers were being disadvantaged, but by how much was another question.

As an investor, how do you keep from being exploited? The best indicators as usual are fees, expenses, and investment turnover. Some firms have trading strategies tied to executing trades only when a set buy or sell price is triggered. Batterymarch was one of the forerunners here. Dimensional Fund Advisors follows a similar strategy today. Given low turnover in most indexing strategies, that is another way to limit the degree of hurt. Failing that, you probably need to resign yourself to paying hidden tolls, especially as a purchaser or seller of individual securities. Given that, being a long-term investor makes a good bit of sense. I will close by saying that I strongly suggest Michael Lewis’ book as must-reading. It makes you wonder how an industry got to the point where it has become so hard for so many to not see the difference between right and wrong.

What does it take for Morningstar to notice that they’re not noticing you?

Based on the funds profiled in Russ Kinnel’s July 15th webcast, “7 Under the Radar Funds,” the answer is about $400 million and ten years with the portfolio.


Ten year record

Lead manager tenure (years)

AUM (millions)





Becker Value BVEFX




FPA Perennial FPPFX




Royce Special Equity Multi-Cap RSEMX




Bogle Small Cap Growth BOGLX




Diamond Hill Small to Mid Cap DHMAX




Champlain Mid Cap CIPMX








Let’s start with the obvious: these are pretty consistently solid funds and well worth your consideration. What most strikes me about the list is the implied judgment that unless you’re from a large fund complex, the threshold for Morningstar even to admit that they’ve been ignoring you is dauntingly high. While Don Phillips spoke at the 2013 Morningstar Investment Conference of an initiative to identify promising funds earlier in their existence, that promise wasn’t mentioned at the 2014 gathering and this list seems to substantiate the judgment that from Morningstar’s perspective, small funds are dead to them.

That’s a pity given the research that Mr. Kinnel acknowledges in his introduction…when it comes to funds, bigger is simply not better.

Investors might be beginning to suspect the same thing. Kevin McDevitt, a senior analyst on Morningstar’s manager research team (that’s what they’re calling the folks who cover mutual funds now), studied fund flows and noticed two things:

  1. Starting in early 2013, investors began pouring money into “risk on” funds. “Since the start of 2013, flows into the least-volatile group of funds have basically been flat. During that same six-quarter stretch, investors poured nearly $125 billion into the most-volatile category of funds.” That is, he muses, reminiscent of their behavior in the years (2004-07) immediately before the final crisis.
  2. Investors are pouring money into recently-launched funds. He writes: “What’s interesting about this recent stretch is that a sizable chunk of inflows has gone to funds without a three-year track record. If those happen to be higher-risk funds too, then people really have embraced risk once more. It’s pretty astonishing that these fledgling funds have collected more inflows over the past 12 months through June ($154 billion) than the other four quartiles (that is, funds with at least a three-year record) combined ($117 billion).”

I’ve got some serious concerns about that paragraph (you can’t just assume newer funds as “higher-risk funds too”) and I’ve sent Mr. McDevitt a request for clarification since I don’t have any ideas of what “the other four quartiles” (itself a mathematical impossibility) refers to. See “Investors Show Willingness to Buy Untested Funds,” 07/31/2014.

That said, it looks like investors and their advisors might be willing to listen. Happily, the Observer’s willing to speak with them about newer, smaller, independent funds.  Our willingness to do so is based on the research, not simple altruism. Small, nimble, independent, investment-driven rather than asset-driven works.

And so, for the 3500 funds smaller than the smallest name on Morningstar’s list and the 4100 smaller than the average fund on this list, be of good cheer! For the 141 small funds that have a better 10-year record than any of these, be brave! To the 17 unsung funds that have a five-star rating for the past three years, five years, ten years and overall, your time will come!

Thanks to Akbar Poonawala for bringing the webcast to my attention!

What aren’t you reading this summer?

If you’re like me, you have at your elbow a stack of books that you promised yourself you were going to read during summer’s long bright evenings and languid afternoons.  Mine includes Mark Miodownik’s Stuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials that Shape Our Manmade World (2013) and Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (2012). Both remain in lamentably pristine condition.

How are yours?

Professor Jordan Ellenberg, a mathematician at Wisconsin-Madison, wrote an interesting but reasonably light-hearted essay attempting to document the point at which our ambition collapses and we surrender our pretensions of literacy.  He did it by tracking the highlights that readers embed in the Kindle versions of various books.  His thought is that the point at which readers stop highlighting text is probably a pretty good marker of where they stopped reading it.  His results are presented in “The Summer’s Most Unread Book Is…” (7/5/14). Here are his “most unread” nominees:

Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman : 6.8% 
Apparently the reading was more slow than fast. To be fair, Prof. Kahneman’s book, the summation of a life’s work at the forefront of cognitive psychology, is more than twice as long as “Lean In,” so his score probably represents just as much total reading as Ms. Sandberg’s does.

A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking: 6.6% 
The original avatar backs up its reputation pretty well. But it’s outpaced by one more recent entrant—which brings us to our champion, the most unread book of this year (and perhaps any other). Ladies and gentlemen, I present:

Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty: 2.4% 
Yes, it came out just three months ago. But the contest isn’t even close. Mr. Piketty’s book is almost 700 pages long, and the last of the top five popular highlights appears on page 26. Stephen Hawking is off the hook; from now on, this measure should be known as the Piketty Index.

At the other end of the spectrum, one of the most read non-fiction works is a favorite of my colleague Ed Studzinski’s or of a number of our readers:

Flash Boys by Michael Lewis : 21.7% 
Mr. Lewis’s latest trip through the sewers of financial innovation reads like a novel and gets highlighted like one, too. It takes the crown in my sampling of nonfiction books.

What aren’t you drinking this summer?

The answer, apparently, is Coca-Cola in its many manifestations. US consumption of fizzy drinks has been declining since 2005. In part that’s a matter of changing consumer tastes and in part a reaction to concerns about obesity; even Coca-Cola North America’s president limits himself to one 8-ounce bottle a day. 

Some investors, though, suspect that the problem arises from – or at least is not being effectively addressed by – Coke’s management. They argue that management is badly misallocating capital (to, for example, buying Keurig rather than investing in their own factories) and compensating themselves richly for the effort.

Enter David Winters, manager of Wintergreen Fund (WGRNX). While some long-time Coke investors (that would be Warren Buffett) merely abstain rather than endorse management proposals, Mr. Winters loudly, persistently and thoughtfully objects. His most public effort is embodied in the website Fix Big Soda

David’s aged more gracefully than have I. Rich, smart, influential and youthful. Nuts.

David’s aged more gracefully than have I. Rich, smart, influential and youthful. Nuts.

This is far from Winters’ first attempt to influence the direction of one of his holdings. He stressed two things in a long ago interview with us: (1) the normal fund manager’s impulse to simply sell and let a corporation implode struck him as understandable but defective, and (2) the vast majority of management teams welcomed thoughtful, carefully-researched advice from qualified outsiders. But some don’t, preferring to run a corporation for the benefit of insiders rather than shareholders or other stakeholders. When Mr. Winters perceives that a firm’s value might grow dramatically if only management stopped being such buttheads (though I’m not sure he uses the term), he’s willing to become the catalyst to unlock that value for the benefit of his own shareholders. A fairly high profile earlier example was his successful conflict with the management of Florida real estate firm Consolidated-Tomoka.

You surely wouldn’t want all of your managers pursuing such a strategy but having at least one of them gives you access to another source of market-independent gains in your portfolio. So-called “special situation” or “distressed” investments can gain value if the catalyst is successful, even if the broader market is declining.

Observer Fund Profiles:

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

This month we profile two funds that offer different – and differently successful – takes on the same strategy. There’s a lot of academic research that show firms which are seriously and structurally devoted to innovation far outperform their rivals. These firms can exist in all sectors; it’s entirely possible to have a highly innovative firm in, say, the cement industry. Conversely, many firms systematically under-invest in innovation and the research suggests these firms are more-or-less doomed.

Why would firms be so boneheaded? Two reasons come to mind:

  1. Long-term investments are hard to justify in a market that demands short-term results.
  2. Spending on research and training are accounted as “overhead” and management is often rewarded for trimming unnecessary overhead.

Both of this month’s profiles target funds that are looking for ways to identify firms that are demonstrably and structurally (that is, permanently) committed to innovation or knowledge leadership. While their returns are very different, each is successful on its own terms.

GaveKal Knowledge Leaders (GAVAX) combines a search for high R&D firms with sophisticated market risks screens that force it to reduce its market exposure when markets begin teetering into “the red zone.” The result is an equity portfolio with hedge fund like characteristics which many advisors treat as a “liquid alts” option.

Guinness Atkinson Global Innovators (IWIRX) stays fully invested regardless of market conditions in the world’s 30 most innovative firms. What started in the 1990s as the Wired 40 Index Fund has been crushing its competition as an actively managed for fund over a decade. Lipper just ranked it as the best performing Global Large Cap Growth fund of the past year. And of the past three years. Also the #1 performer for the past five years and, while we’re at it, for the past 10 years as well.

Elevator Talk: Jim Cunnane, Advisory Research MLP & Energy Income Fund (INFRX/INFIX)

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.

The Observer has presented the case for investing in Master Limited Partnerships (MLPs) before, both when we profiled SteelPath Alpha (now Oppenheimer SteelPath Alpha MLPAX) and in our Elevator Talk with Ted Gardiner of Salient MLP Alpha and Energy Infrastructure II (SMLPX). Here’s the $0.50 version of the tale:

MLPs are corporate entities which typically own energy infrastructure. They do not explore for oil and they do not refine it, but they likely own the pipelines that connect the E&P firm with the refiner. Likewise they don’t mine the coal nor produce the electricity, but might own and maintain the high tension transmission grid that distributes it.

MLPs typically make money by charging for the use of their facilities, the same way that toll road operators do. They’re protected from competition by the ridiculously high capital expenses needed to create infrastructure. The rates they charge as generally set by state rate commissions, so they’re very stable and tend to rise by slow, predictable amounts.

The prime threat to MLPs is falling energy demand (for example, during a severe recession) or falling energy production.

From an investor’s perspective, direct investment in an MLP can trigger complex and expensive tax requirements. Indeed, a fund that’s too heavily invested in MLPs alone might generate those same tax headaches.

That having been said, these are surprisingly profitable investments. The benchmark Alerian MLP Index has returned 17.2% annually over the past decade with a dividend yield of 5.2%. That’s more than twice the return of the stock market and twice the income of the bond market.

The questions you need to address are two-fold. First, do these investments make sense for your portfolio? If so, second, does an actively-managed fund make more sense than simply riding an index. Jim Cunnane thinks that two yes’s are in order.

jimcunnaneMr. Cunnane manages Advisory Research MLP & Energy Infrastructure Fund which started life as a Fiduciary Asset Management Company (FAMCO) fund until the complex was acquired by Advisory Research. He’d been St. Louis-based FAMCO’s chief investment officer for 15 years. He’s the CIO for the MLP & Energy Infrastructure team and chair of AR’s Risk Management Committee. He also manages two closed-end funds which also target MLPs: the Fiduciary/Claymore MLP Opportunity Fund (FMO) and the Nuveen Energy MLP Total Return Fund (JMF). Here are his 200 words (and one picture) on why you might consider INFRX:

We’re always excited to talk about this fund because it’s a passion of ours. It’s a unique way to manage MLPs in an open-end fund. When you look at the landscape of US energy, it really is an exciting fundamental story. The tremendous increases in the production of oil and gas have to be accompanied by tremendous increases in energy infrastructure. Ten years ago the INGA estimated that the natural gas industry would need $3.6 billion/year in infrastructure investments. Today the estimate is $14.2 billion. We try to find great energy infrastructure and opportunistically buy it.

There are two ways you can attack investing in MLPs through a fund. One would be an MLP-dedicated portfolio but that’s subject to corporate taxation at the fund level. The other is to limit direct MLP holdings to 25% of the portfolio and place the rest in attractive energy infrastructure assets including the parent companies of the MLPs, companies that might launch MLPs and a new beast called a YieldCo which typically focus on solar or wind infrastructure. We have the freedom to move across the firms’ capital structure, investing in either debt or equity depending on what offers the most attractive return.

Our portfolio in comparison to our peers offers a lot of additional liquidity, a lower level of volatility and tax efficiency. Despite the fact that we’re not exclusively invested in MLPs we manage a 90% correlation with the MLP index.

While there are both plausible bull and bear cases to be made about MLPs, our conclusion is that risk and reward is fairly balanced and that MLP investors will earn a reasonable level of return over a 10-year horizon. To account for the recent strong performance of MLPs, we are adjusting our long term return expectation down to 5-9% per annum, from our previous estimate of 6-10%. We also expect a 10% plus MLP market correction at some point this year.

The “exciting story” that Mr. Cunnane mentioned above is illustrated in a chart that he shared:


The fund has both institutional and retail share classes. The retail class (INFRX) has a $2500 minimum initial investment and a 5.5% load.  Expenses are 1.50% with about $725 million in assets.  The institutional share class (INFIX) is $1,000,000 and 1.25%. Here’s the fund’s homepage.

Funds in Registration

The Securities and Exchange Commission requires that funds file a prospectus for the Commission’s review at least 75 days before they propose to offer it for sale to the public. The release of new funds is highly cyclical; it tends to peak in December and trough in the summer.

This month the Observer’s other David (research associate David Welsch) tracked down nine new no-load funds in registration, all of which target a September launch. It might be the time of year but all of this month’s offerings strike me as “meh.”

Manager Changes

Just as the number of fund launches and fund liquidations are at seasonal lows, so too are the number of fund manager changes.  Chip tracked down a modest 46 manager changes, with two retirements and a flurry of activity at Fidelity accounting for much of the activity.

Top Developments in Fund Industry Litigation – July 2014

fundfoxFundfox 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 Lawsuit

  • In a copyright infringement lawsuit, the publisher of Oil Daily alleges that KA Fund Advisors (you might recognize them as Kayne Anderson) and its parent company have “for years” internally copied and distributed the publication “on a consistent and systematic basis,” and “concealed these activities” from the publisher. (Energy Intelligence Group, Inc. v. Kayne Anderson Capital Advisors, LP.)


  • The court granted American Century‘s motion for summary judgment in a lawsuit that challenged investments in an illegal Internet gambling business by the Ultra Fund. (Seidl v. Am. Century Cos.)


  • Plaintiffs filed their opposition to BlackRock‘s motion to dismiss excessive-fee litigation regarding its Global Allocation and Dividend Equity Funds. (In re BlackRock Mut. Funds Advisory Fee Litig.)
  • First Eagle filed a motion to dismiss an excessive-fee lawsuit regarding its Global and Overseas Funds. (Lynn M. Kennis Trust v. First Eagle Inv. Mgmt., LLC.)
  • J.P. Morgan filed a motion to dismiss an excessive- fee lawsuit regarding its Core Bond, High Yield, and Short Duration Bond Funds. (Goodman v. J.P. Morgan Inv. Mgmt., Inc.)


  • Opting against a motion to dismiss, ING filed an answer in the fee lawsuit regarding its Global Real Estate Fund. (Cox v. ING Invs. LLC.)

– – –

A potentially fascinating case arose just a bit after David shared his list with us. A former Vanguard employee is suing Vanguard, alleging that they illegally dodged billions in taxes. While Vanguard itself warns that “The issues presented in the complaint are far too complex to get a full and proper hearing in the news media” (the wimps), it appears that the plaintiff has two allegations:

  1. That Vanguard charges too little for their services; they charge below-market rates while the tax code requires that, for tax purposes, transactions be assessed at market rates. A simple illustration: if your parents rented an apartment to you for $300/month when anyone else would expect to pay $1000/month for the same property, the $700 difference would be taxable to you since they’re sort of giving you a $700 gift each month.
  2. That Vanguard should have to pay taxes on the $1.5 billion “contingency reserve” they’ve built.

Joseph DiStephano of the Philadelphia Inquirer, Vanguard’s hometown newspaper, laid out many of the issues in “Vanguard’s singular model is under scrutiny,” 07/30/2014. If you’d like to be able to drop legalese casually at your next pool party, you can read the plaintiff’s filing in State of New York ex rel David Danon v. Vanguard Group Inc.


Aston/River Road Long-Short (ARLSX) passed its three year anniversary in May and received its first Morningstar rating recently. They rated it as a four-star fund which has captured a bit more of the upside and a bit less of the downside than has its average peer. The fund had a bad January (down more than 4%) but has otherwise been a pretty consistently above average, risk-conscious performer.

Zac Wydra, manager of Beck, Mack and Oliver Partners Fund (BMPEX), was featured in story in the Capitalism and Crisis newsletter. I suspect the title, “Investing Wisdom from Zac Wydra,” likely made Zac a bit queasy since it rather implies that he’s joined the ranks of the Old Dead White Guys (ODWGs) also with Graham and Dodd.

akreHere’s a major vote of confidence: Effective August 1, 2014, John Neff and Thomas Saberhagen were named as co-portfolio managers for the Akre Focus Fund. They both joined Mr. Akre’s firm in 2009 after careers at William Blair and Aegis Financial, respectively. The elevation is striking. Readers might recall that Mr. Akre was squeezed out after running FBR Focus (now Hennessy Focus HFCSX) for 13 years. FBR decided to cut Mr. Akre’s contract by about 50% (without reducing shareholder expenses), which caused him to launch Akre Focus using the same discipline. FBR promptly poached Mr. Akre’s analysts (while he was out of town) to run their fund in his place. At that point, Mr. Akre swore never to repeat the mistake and to limit analysts to analyzing rather than teaching them portfolio construction. Time and experience with the team seems to have mellowed the great man. Given the success that the rapscallions have had at HFCSX, there’s a good chance that Mr. Akre, now in his 70s, has trained Neff and Saberhagen well which might help address investor concerns about an eventual succession plan.

Seafarer Overseas Growth & Income (SFGIX) passed the $100 million AUM threshold in July and is in the process of hiring a business development director. Manager Andrew Foster reports that they received a slug of really impressive applications. Our bottom line was, and is, “There are few more-attractive emerging markets options available.” We’re pleased that folks are beginning to have faith in that conclusion.

Stewart Capital Mid Cap Fund (SCMFX) has been named to the Charles Schwab’s Mutual Fund OneSource Select List for the third quarter of 2014. It’s one of six independent mid-caps to make the list. The recognition is appropriate and overdue.  Our Star in the Shadow’s profile of the fund concluded that it was “arguably one of the top two midcap funds on the market, based on its ability to perform in volatile rising and falling markets. Their strategy seems disciplined, sensible and repeatable.” That judgment hasn’t changed but their website has; the firm made a major and welcome upgrade to it last year.

Briefly Noted . . .

Yikes. I mean, really yikes. On July 28, Aberdeen Asset Management Plc (ADN) reported that an unidentified but “very long standing” client had just withdrawn 4 billion pounds of assets from the firm’s global and Asia-Pacific region equity funds. The rough translation is $6.8 billion. Overall the firm saw over 8 billion pounds of outflow in the second quarter, an amount large enough that even Bill Gross would feel it.

We all have things that set us off. For some folks the very idea of “flavored” coffee (poor defenseless beans drenched in amaretto-kiwi goo) will do it. For others it’s the designated hitter rule or plans to descrecate renovate Wrigley Field. For me, it’s fund managers who refuse to invest in their own funds, followed closely behind by fund trustees who refuse to invest in the funds whose shareholders they represent.

Sarah Max at Barron’s published a good short column (07/12/14) on the surprising fact that over half of all managers have zero (not a farthing, not a penny, not a thing) invested in their own funds. The research is pretty clear (the more the insiders’ interests are aligned with yours, the better a fund’s risk-adjusted performance) and the atmospherics are even clearer (what on earth would convince you that a fund is worth an outsider’s money if it’s not worth an insider’s?). That’s one of the reasons that the Observer routinely reports on the manager and director investments and corporate policies for all of the funds we cover. In contrast to the average fund, small and independent funds tend to have persistently, structurally high levels of insider commitment.


On June 30, both the advisory fee and the expense cap on The Brown Capital Management International Equity Fund (BCIIX) were reduced. The capped e.r. dropped from 2.00% to 1.25%.

Forward Tactical Enhanced Fund (FTEAX) is dropping its Investor Share class expense ratio from 1.99% to 1.74%. Woo hoo! I’d be curious to see if they drop their portfolio turnover rate from its current 11,621%.  (No, I’m not making that up.)

Perritt Ultra MicroCap Fund (PREOX) reopened to new investors on July 8. It had been closed for three whole months. The fund has middling performance at best and a tiny asset base, so there was no evident reason to close it and no reason for either the opening or closing was offered by the advisor.

CLOSINGS (and related inconveniences)

Effective at the close of business on August 15, 2014, Grandeur Peak Emerging Opportunities Fund (GPEOX/GPEIX) the Fund will close to all purchases. There are two exceptions, (1) individuals who invested directly through Grandeur Peak and who have either a tax-advantaged account or have an automatic investing plan and (2) institutions with an existing 401(k) arrangement with the firm. The fund reports about $370M in assets and YTD returns of 11.6% through late July, which places it in the top 10% of all E.M. funds. There are a couple more G.P. funds in the pipeline and the guys have hinted at another launch sooner rather than later, but the next gen funds are likely more domestic than international.

Effective as of the close of business on October 31, 2014, the Henderson European Focus Fund (HFEAX) will be closed to new purchases. The fund sports both top tier returns and top tier volatility. If you like charging toward closing doors, it’s available no-load and NTF at Schwab and elsewhere.

Parametric Market Neutral Fund (EPRAX) closed to new investors on July 11, 2014. The fund is small and slightly under water since inception. Under those circumstances, such closures are sometimes a signal of bigger changes – new management, new strategy, liquidation – on the horizon.

tweedybrowneCiting “the lack of investment opportunities” and “high current cash levels” occasioned by the five year run-up in global stock prices, Tweedy Browne announced the impending soft close of Tweedy, Browne Global Value II (TBCUX).  TBCUX is an offshoot of Tweedy, Browne Global Value (TBGVX) with the same portfolio and managers but Global Value often hedges its currency exposure while Global Value II does not. The decision to close TBCUX makes sense as a way to avoid “diluting our existing shareholders’ returns in this difficult environment” since the new assets were going mostly to cash. Will Browne planned “to reopen the Fund when new idea flow improves and larger amounts of cash can be put to work in cheap stocks.”

Here’s the question: why not close Global Value as well?

The good folks at Mount & Nadler arranged for me to talk with Tom Shrager, Tweedy’s president. Short version: they have proportionately less  inflows into Global Value but significant net inflows, as a percentage of assets, into Global Value II. As a result, the cash level at GV II is 26% while GV sits at 20% cash. While they’ve “invested recently in a couple of stocks,” GV II’s net cash level climbed from 21% at the end of Q1 to 26% at the end of Q2. They tried adding a “governor” to the fund (you’re not allowed to buy $4 million or more a day without prior clearance) which didn’t work.

Mr. Shrager describes the sudden popularity of GV II as “a mystery to us” since its prime attraction over GV would be as a currency play and Tweedy doesn’t see any evidence of a particular opportunity there. Indeed, GV II has trailed GV over the past quarter and YTD while matching it over the past 12 months.

At the same time, Tweedy reports no particular interest in either Value (TWEBX, top 20% YTD) or High Dividend Yield Value (TBHDX, top 50% YTD), both at 11% cash.

The closing will not affect current shareholders or advisors who have been using the fund for their clients.


Alpine Foundation Fund (ADABX) has been renamed Alpine Equity Income Fund. The rechristened version can invest no more than 20% in fixed income securities. The latest, prechange portfolio was 20.27% fixed income. Over the longer term, the fund trails its “aggressive allocation” peers by 160 – 260 basis points annually and has earned a one-star rating for the past three, five and ten year periods. At that point, I’m not immediately convinced that a slight boost in the equity stake will be a game-changer for anyone.

On October 1, the billion dollar Alpine Ultra Short Tax Optimized Income Fund (ATOAX) becomes Alpine Ultra Short Municipal Income Fund and promises to invest, mostly, in munis.

Effective October 1, SunAmerica High Yield Bond (SHNAX)becomes SunAmerica Flexible Credit. The change will free the fund of the obligation of investing primarily in non-investment grade debt which is good since it wasn’t particularly adept at investing in such bonds (one-star with low returns and above average risk during its current manager’s five-year tenure).


theshadowThanks, as always, go to The Shadow – an incredibly vigilant soul and long tenured member of the Observer’s discussion community for his contributions to this section.  Really, very little gets past him and that gives me a lot more confidence in saying that we’ve caught of all of major changes hidden in the ocean of SEC filings.


CM Advisors Defensive Fund (CMDFX)has terminated the public offering of its shares and will discontinue its operations effective on or about August 1, 2014.”  Uhhh … what would be eight weeks after launch?


Direxion U.S. Government Money Market Fund (DXMXX) will liquidate on August 20, 2014.  I’m less struck by the liquidation of a tiny, unprofitable fund than by the note that “the Fund’s assets will be converted to cash.”  It almost feels like a money market’s assets should be describable as “cash.”

Geneva Advisors Mid Cap Growth Fund (the “Fund”) will be closed and liquidated on August 28. 2014. That decision comes nine months after the fund’s launch. While the fund’s performance was weak and it gathered just $4 million in assets, such hasty abandonment strikes me as undisciplined and unprofessional especially when the advisor reminds its investors of “the importance of … a long-term perspective when it comes to the equity portion of their portfolio.”  The fund representatives had no further explanation of the decision.

GL Macro Performance Fund (GLMPX) liquidated on July 30, 2014.  At least the advisor gave this fund 20 months of life so that it had time to misfire with style:


The Board of Trustees of Makefield Managed Futures Strategy Fund (MMFAX) has concluded that “it is in the best interests of the Fund and its shareholders that the Fund cease operations.” Having lost 17% for its few investors since launch, the Board probably reached the right conclusion.  Liquidation is slated for August 15, 2014.

Following the sudden death of its enigmatic manager James Wang, the Board of the Oceanstone Fund (OSFDX) voted to liquidate the portfolio at the end of August. The fund had unparalleled success from 2007-2012 which generated a series of fawning (“awesome,” “the greatest investor you’ve never heard of,” “the most intriguing questions in the mutual fund world today”) stories in the financial media.  Mr. Wang would neither speak to be media nor permit his board to do so (“he will be upset with me,” fretted one independent trustee) and his shareholder communications were nearly nonexistent. His trustees rightly eulogize him as “very sincere, hard working, humble, efficient and caring.” Our sympathies go out to his family and to those for whom he worked so diligently.

Pending shareholder approval, Sentinel Capital Growth Fund (BRGRX) and Sentinel Growth Leaders Fund (BRFOX) will be merged into Sentinel Common Stock Fund (SENCX) sometime this fall. Here’s the best face I can put on the merger: SENCX isn’t awful.

Effective October 16, SunAmerica GNMA (GNMAX) gets merged into SunAmerica U.S. Government Securities (SGTAX). Both funds fall just short of mediocre (okay, they both trail 65 – 95% of their peers over the past three, five and ten year periods so maybe it’s “way short” or “well short”) and both added two new managers in July 2014.  We wish Tim and Kara well with their new charges.

With shareholder approval, the $16 million Turner All Cap Growth Fund (TBTBX) will soon merge into the Turner Midcap Growth Fund (TMGFX). Midcap has, marginally, the better record but All Cap has, massively, the greater assets so …

In Closing . . .

I’m busily finishing up the outline for my presentation to the Cohen Client Conference, which takes place in Milwaukee on August 20 and 21. The working title of my talk is “Seven things that matter, two that don’t … and one that might.” My hope is to tie some of the academic research on funds and investing into digestible snackage (it is at lunchtime, after all) that attempts to sneak a serious argument in under the cover of amiable banter. I’ll let you know how it goes.

I know that David Hobbs, Cook and Bynum’s president, will be there and I’m looking forward to a chance to chat with him. He’s offered some advice about the thrust of my talk that was disturbingly consistent with my own inclinations, which should worry at least one of us. I’ll be curious to get his reaction.

We’re also hoping to cover the Morningstar ETF Conference en masse; that is, Charles, Chip, Ed and I would like to meet there both to cover the presentations (Meb Faber, one of Charles’s favorite guys, and Eugene Fama are speaking) and to debate about ways to strengthen the Observer and better serve you folks. A lot depends on my ability to trick my colleagues into covering two of my classes that week. Perhaps we’ll see you there?

back2schoolMy son Will, still hobbled after dropping his iPad on a toe, has taken to wincing every time we approach the mall. It’s festooned with “back to school sale! Sale! sale!” banners which seem, somehow, to unsettle him.

Here’s a quick plug for using the Observer’s link to Amazon.com. If you’d like to spare your children, grandchildren, and yourself the agony of the mall parking lot and sound of wailing and keening, you might consider picking some of this stuff up online. The Observer receives a rebate equal to about 6% on whatever is purchased through our link. It’s largely invisible to you – if costs nothing extra and doesn’t involve any extra steps on your part – but it generates the majority of the funds that keep the lights on here.

Here are some ways to make support easy:

  • Click on our Amazon link and bookmark it for easy referral.
  • Look to your right, the dang thing is continually floating over there ->
  • In Chrome, set us as one of your start pages.  On the upper right of your screen, click on the three horizontal bars then click “settings.”  You’ll see this option:


Click on “Set pages” then simply paste the Observer link in along with wherever else you like to start. Each time you open Chrome, it’ll launch several tabs including your regular homepage and our Amazon page.

  • If, like many, you’re not comfortable with Amazon’s plan to take over everything …
    amazonfeel free to resort to PayPal or the USPS. It all helps and it’s all detailed on our Support Us page.

Finally, we offer cheerful greetings to our curiously large and diligent readership in Cebu City, Philippines; Cebu Citizens spend about a half hour on site per visit, about five times the global average. Greetings, too, to the good folks in A Coruña in the north of Spain. You’ve been one of our most persistent international audiences.  The Madrileños are fewer in number, but diligent in their reading. To our sole Ukrainian visit, Godspeed and great care.

As ever,


September 1, 2013

Dear friends,

richardMy colleagues in the English department are forever yammering on about this Shakespeare guy.I’m skeptical. First, he didn’t even know how to spell his own name (“Wm Shakspē”? Really?). Second, he clearly didn’t understand seasonality of the markets. If you listen to Gloucester’s famous declamation in Richard III, you’ll see what I mean:

Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
And all the clouds that lour’d upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.
Now are our brows bound with victorious wreaths;
Our bruised arms hung up for monuments;
Our stern alarums changed to merry meetings,
Our dreadful marches to delightful measures.

It’s pretty danged clear that we haven’t had anything “made glorious summer by the sun of [New] York.” By Morningstar’s report, every single category of bond and hybrid fund has lost money over the course of the allegedly “glorious summer.” Seven of the nine domestic equity boxes have flopped around, neither noticeably rising nor falling.

And now, the glorious summer passed, we enter what historically are the two worst months for the stock market. To which I can only reply with three observations (The Pirates are on the verge of their first winning season since 1992! The Steelers have no serious injuries looming over them. And Will’s fall baseball practices are upon us.) and one question:

Is it time to loathe the emerging markets? Again?

Yuh, apparently. A quick search in Google News for “emerging markets panic” turns up 3300 stories during the month of August. They look pretty much like this:


With our preeminent journalists contributing:


Many investors have responded as they usually do, by applying a short-term perspective to a long-term decision. Which is to say, they’re fleeing. Emerging market bond funds saw a $2 billion outflow in the last week of August and $24 billion since late May (Emerging Markets Fund Flows Investors Are Dumping Emerging Markets at an Accelerating Pace, Business Insider, 8/30/13). The withdrawals were indiscriminate, affecting all regions and both local currency and hard currency securities. Equity funds saw $4 billion outflows for the week, with ETFs leading the way down (Emerging markets rout has investors saying one word: sell, Marketwatch, 8/30/13).

In a peculiar counterpoint, Jason Kepler of Investment News claims – using slightly older data – that Mom and pop can’t quit emerging-market stocks. And that’s good (8/27/13). He finds “uncharacteristic resiliency” in retail investors’ behavior. I’d like to believe him. (The News allows a limited number of free article views; if you’d exceeded your limit and hit a paywall, you might try Googling the article title. Or subscribing, I guess.)

We’d like to make three points.

  • Emerging markets securities are deeply undervalued
  • Those securities certainly could become much more deeply undervalued.
  • It’s not the time to be running away.

Emerging markets securities are deeply undervalued

Wall Street Ranter, an anonymous blogger from the financial services industry and sometime contributor to the Observer’s discussion board, shared two really striking bits of valuation data from his blog.

The first, “Valuations of Emerging Markets vs US Stocks” (7/20/13) looks at a PIMCO presentation of the Shiller PE for the emerging markets and U.S., then at how such p/e ratios have correlated to future returns. Shiller adjusts the market’s price/earnings ratio to eliminate the effect of atypical profit margins, since those margins relentlessly regress to the mean over time. There’s a fair amount of research that suggests that the Shiller PE has fair predictive validity; that is, abnormally low Shiller PEs are followed by abnormally high market returns and vice versa.

Here, with Ranter’s kind permission, is one of the graphics from that piece:


At June 30, 2013 valuations, this suggests that US equities were priced for 4% nominal returns (2-3% real), on average, over the next five years while e.m. equities were priced to return 19% nominal (17% or so real) over the same period. GMO, at month’s end, reached about the same figure for high quality US equities (3.1% real) but a much lower estimate (6.8%) for emerging equities. By GMO’s calculation, emerging equities were priced to return more than twice as much as any other publicly traded asset class.

Based on recent conversations with the folks at GMO, Ranter concludes that GMO suspects that changes in the structure of the Chinese economy might be leading them to overstate likely emerging equity returns. Even accounting for those changes, they remain the world’s most attractive asset class:

While emerging markets are the highest on their 7 year forecast (approx. 7%/year) they are treating it more like 4%/year in their allocations . . . because they believe they need to account for a longer-term shift in the pace of China’s growth. They believe the last 10 years or so have skewed the mean too far upwards. While this reduces slightly their allocation, it still leaves Emerging Markets has one of their highest forecasts (but very close to International Value … which includes a lot of developed European companies).

Ranter offered a second, equally striking graphic in “Emerging Markets Price-to-Book Ratio and Forward Returns (8/9/13).”


At these levels, he reports, you’d typically expect returns over the following year of around 55%. That data is available in his original article. 

In a singularly unpopular observation, Andrew Foster, manager of Seafarer Overseas Growth & Income (SFGIX/SIGIX), one of the most successful and risk-alert e.m. managers (those two attributes are intimately connected), notes that the most-loathed emerging markets are also the most compelling values:

The BRICs have underperformed to such an extent that their aggregate valuation, when compared to the emerging markets as a whole, is as low as it has been in eight years. In other words, based on a variety of valuation metrics (price-to-book value, price-to-prospective-earnings, and dividend yield), the BRICs are as cheap relative to the rest of the emerging markets as they have been in a long time. I find this interesting. . . for the (rare?) subset of investors contemplating a long-term (10-year) allocation to EM, just as they were better off to avoid the BRICs over the past 5 years when they were “hot,” they are likely to be better off over the next 10 years emphasizing the BRICs now they are “not.”

Those securities certainly could become much more deeply undervalued.

The graphic above illustrates the ugly reality that sometimes (late ’98, all of ’08), but not always (’02, ’03, mid ’11), very cheap markets become sickeningly cheap markets before rebounding. Likewise, Shiller PE for the emerging markets occasionally slip from cheap (10-15PE) to “I don’t want to talk about it” (7 PE). GMO mildly notes, “economic reality and investor behavior cause securities and markets to overshoot their fair value.”

Andrew Foster gently dismisses his own predictive powers (“my record on predicting short-term outcomes is very poor”). At the same time, he finds additional cause for short-term concern:

[M]y thinking on the big picture has changed since [early July] because currencies have gotten into the act. I have been worried about this for two years now — and yet even with some sense it could get ugly, it has been hard to avoid mistakes. In my opinion, currency movements are impossible to predict over the short or long term. The only thing that is predictable is that when currency volatility picks up, is likely to overshoot (to the downside) in the short run.

It’s not the time to be running away.

There are two reasons driving that conclusion. First, you’ve already gotten the timing wrong and you’re apt to double your error. The broad emerging markets index has been bumping along without material gain for five years now. If you were actually good at actively allocating your portfolio, you’d have gotten out in the summer of 2007 instead of thinking that five consecutive years of 25%+ gains would go on forever. And you, like the guys at Cook and Bynum, would have foregone Christmas presents in 2008 in order to plow every penny you had into an irrationally, shockingly cheap market. If you didn’t pull it off then, you’re not going to pull it off this time, either.

Second, there are better options here than elsewhere. These remain, even after you adjust down their earnings and adjust them down again, about the best values you’ll find. Ranter grumbles about the thoughtless domestic dash:

Bottom line is I fail to see, on a relative basis, how the US is more tempting looking 5 years out. People can be scared all they want of catching a falling knife…but it’s a lot easier to catch something which is only 5 feet in the air than something that is 10 feet in the air.

If you’re thinking of your emerging markets stake as something that you’ll be holding or building over the next 10-15 years (as I do), it doesn’t matter whether you buy now or in three months, at this level or 7% up or down from here. It will matter if you panic, leave and then refuse to return until the emerging markets feel “safe” to you – typically around the top of the next market cycle.

It’s certainly possible that you’re systemically over-allocated to equities or emerging equities. The current turbulence might well provide an opportunity to revisit your long-term plan, and I’d salute you for it. My argument here is against actions driven by your gut.

Happily, there are a number of first rate options available for folks seeking risk-conscious exposure to the emerging markets. My own choice, discussed more fully below, is Seafarer. I’ve added to my (small investor-sized) account twice since the market began turning south in late spring. I have no idea of whether those dollars with be worth a dollar or eighty cents or a plugged nickel six months from now. My suspicion is that those dollars will be worth more a decade from now having been invested with a smart manager in the emerging markets than they would have been had I invested them in domestic equities (or hidden them away in a 0.01% bank account). But Seafarer isn’t the only “A” level choice. There are some managers sitting on large war chests (Amana Developing World AMDWX), others with the freedom to invest across asset classes (First Trust/Aberdeen Emerging Opportunities FEO) and even some with both (Lazard Emerging Markets Multi-Strategy EMMOX).

To which Morningstar says, “If you’ve got $50 million to spend, we’ve got a fund for you!”

On August 22nd, Morningstar’s Fund Spy trumpeted “Medalist Emerging-Markets Funds Open for Business,” in which they reviewed their list of the crème de la crème emerging markets funds. It is, from the average investor’s perspective, a curious list studded with funds you couldn’t get into or wouldn’t want to pay for. Here’s the Big Picture:


Our take on those funds follows.

The medalist …

Is perfect for the investor who …

Acadian EM (AEMGX)

Has $2500 and an appreciation of quant funds

American Funds New World (NEWFX)

Wants to pay 5.75% upfront

Delaware E.M. (DEMAX)

Wants to pay 5.75% upfront for a fund whose performance has been inexplicably slipping, year by year, in each of the past five calendar years.


Has $50,000,000 to open an account

Harding Loevner E.M. Advisor (HLEMX)

Is an advisor with $5000 to start.

Harding Loevner Inst E.M. (HLMEX)

Has $500,000 to start

ING JPMorgan E.M. Equity (IJPIX)

Is not the public, since “shares of the Portfolio are not offered to the public.”

Parametric E.M. (EAEMX)

Has $1000 and somewhat modest performance expectations

Parametric Tax-Mgd E.M. Inst (EITEX)

Has $50,000 and tax-issues best addressed in his e.m. allocation

Strategic Advisers E.M. (FSAMX)

Is likewise not the general public since “the fund is not available for sale to the general public.”

T. Rowe Price E.M. Stock (PRMSX)

Has $2500 and really, really modest performance expectations.

Thornburg Developing World A (THDAX)

Doesn’t mind paying a 4.50% load

Our recommendations differ from theirs, given our preference for smaller funds that are actually available to the public. Our shortlist:

Amana Developing World (AMDWX): offers an exceedingly cautious take on an exceedingly risky slice of the world. Readers were openly derisive of Amana’s refusal to buy at any cost, which led the managers to sit on a 50% cash stake while the market’s roared ahead. As those markets began their swoon in 2011, Amana began moving in and disposing of more than half of its cash reserves. Still cash-rich, the fund’s relative performance is picking up and its risks remain very muted.

First Trust/Aberdeen Emerging Opportunity (FEO): one of the first emerging markets balanced funds, it’s performed very well over the long-term and is currently selling at a substantial discount to NAV: 12.6%, about 50% greater than its long-term average. That implies that investors might see something like a 5% arbitrage gain once the current panic abates, above and beyond whatever the market provides.

Grandeur Peak Emerging Markets Opportunities (GPEOX): the Grandeur Peak team has been brilliantly successful both here and at Wasatch. Their intention is to create a single master fund (Global Reach) and six subsidiary funds whose portfolios represent slices of the master profile. Emerging Markets has already cleared the SEC registration procedures but hasn’t launched. The Grandeur Peak folks say two factors are driving the delay. First, the managers want to be able to invest directly in Indian equities which requires registration with that country’s equity regulators. They couldn’t begin the registration until the fund itself was registered in the US. So they’re working through the process. Second, they wanted to be comfortable with the launch of Global Reach before adding another set of tasks. Give or take the market’s current tantrum (one manager describes it as “a taper tantrum”), that’s going well. With luck, but without any guarantees, the fund might be live sometime in Q4.

Seafarer Overseas Growth & Income (SFGIX): hugely talented manager, global portfolio, risk conscious, shareholder-centered and successful.

Wasatch Frontier Emerging Small Countries (WAFMX): one of the very few no-load, retail funds that targets the smaller, more dynamic markets rather than markets with billions of people (India and China) or plausible claim to be developed markets (e.g., Korea). The manager, Laura Geritz, has been exceedingly successful. Frontier markets effectively diversify emerging markets portfolios and the fund has drawn nearly $700 million. The key is that Wasatch is apt to close the fund sooner rather than later.

Snowball’s portfolio

Some number of folks have, reasonably enough, asked whether I invest in all of the funds I profile (uhhh … there have been over 150 of them, so no) or whether I have found The Secret Formula (presumably whatever Nicholas Cage has been looking for in all those movies). The answer is less interesting than the question.

I guess my portfolio construction is driven by three dictums:

  1. Don’t pretend to be smarter than you are
  2. Don’t pretend to be braver than you are
  3. There’s a lot of virtue in doing nothing

Don’t pretend to be smarter than you are. If I knew which asset classes were going to soar and which were going to tank in the next six months or year or two, two things would happen. First, I’d invest in the winners. Second, I’d sell my services to ridiculously rich people and sock them with huge and abusive fees that they’d happily pay. But, I don’t.

As a result, I tend to invest in funds whose managers have a reasonable degree of autonomy about investing across asset classes, rather than ones pigeonholed into a small (style) box. That’s a problem: it makes benchmarking hard, it makes maintaining an asset allocation plan hard and it requires abnormally skilled managers. My focus has been on establishing a strategic objective (“increasing exposure to fast growing economies”) and then spending a lot of time trying to find managers whose strategies I trust, respect and understand.

Don’t pretend to be braver than you are. Stocks have a lot in common with chili peppers. In each case, you get a surprising amount of benefit from a relatively small amount of exposure. In each case, increasing exposure quickly shifts the pleasure/pain balance from pleasantly piquant to moronically painful. Some readers think of my non-retirement asset allocation is surprisingly timid: about 50% stocks, 30% bonds, 20% cash equivalents. They’re not much happier about my 70% equity stake in retirement funds. But, they’re wrong.

T. Rowe Price is one of my favorite fund companies, in part because they treat their investors with unusual respect. I found two Price studies, in 2004 and again in 2010, particularly provocative. Price constructed a series of portfolios representing different levels of stock exposure and looked at how the various portfolios would have played out over the past 50-60 years.

The original study looked at portfolios with 20/40/60/80/100% stocks. The update dropped the 20% portfolio and looked at 0/40/60/80/100%. Below I’ve reproduced partial results for three portfolios. The original 2004 and 2010 studies are available at the T. Rowe Price website.


20% stocks

60% stocks

100% stocks


Conservative mix, 50% bonds, 30% cash

The typical “hybrid”

S&P 500 index

Years studied




Average annual return (before inflation)




Number of down years




Average loss in a down year




Standard deviation




Loss in 2008




* based on 20% S&P500, 30% one-year CDs, 50% total bond index

 Over a 10 year period – reasonable for a non-retirement account – a portfolio that’s 20% stocks would grow from $10,000 to $21,000. A 100% stock portfolio would grow to $28,000. Roughly speaking, the conservative portfolio ends up at 75% of the size of the aggressive one but a pure stock portfolio increases the probability of losing money by 400% (from a 6% chance to 23%), increases the size of your average loss by 2500% (from 0.5% to 12.5%) and triples your volatility. Somewhere in there, it will face the real prospect of a 51% loss, which is the average maximum drawdown for large core stock funds that have been around 20 years or more. Sadly, there’s no way of knowing whether the 51% loss will occur in Year One (where you might have some recovery time) or Year Ten (where you’d be toast).

At 50% equities, I might capture 80% of the market’s gain with 50% of its volatility. If domestic bonds weren’t in such dismal straits, a smaller stock exposure might be justifiable. But they suck so I’m stuck.

There’s a lot of virtue in doing nothing. Our action tends to be a lot more costly than our inaction, so I change my target allocation slowly and change my fund line-up slowly. I’ve held a few retirement plan funds (e.g., Fidelity Low Priced Stock FLPSX) for decades and a number of non-retirement funds since their inception. In general, I’ll only add a fund if it represents an entirely new opportunity set or if it’s replacing an existing fund. On average, I might change out one fund every year or two.

My retirement portfolio is dominated by the providers in Augustana’s 403(b) plan: Fidelity, T. Rowe Price and TIAA-CREF. The college contribution to retirement goes exclusively into TIAA-CREF. CREF Stock accounts for 68%, TIAA Real Estate holds 22% and the rest is in a target-date fund. The Fidelity and Price allocations mirror one another: 33% domestic stock (with a value bias), 33% international stock (with an emerging markets bias) and 33% income (of the eclectic Spectrum Income/Global High Income sort).

My non-retirement portfolio is nine funds and some cash waiting to be deployed.



Portfolio weight

What was I, or am I, thinking?

Artisan Int’l Value



I bought Artisan Int’l (ARTIX) in January 1996 because of my respect for Artisan and Mr. Yockey’s record. I traded-in my ARTIX shares and bought Int’l Value as soon as it launched because of my respect for Artisan, Mr. Samra and O’Keefe’s pedigree and my preference for value investing. Right so far: the fund is top 1% returns for the year-to-date and the trailing 1-, 3-, 5- and 10-year periods. I meditated upon switching to the team’s Global Value Fund (ARTGX) which has comparable returns, more flexibility and fewer assets.

Artisan Small Value



I bought Artisan Small Cap (ARTSX) in the weeks before it closed, also January 1996, for the same reasons I bought ARTIX. And I traded it for Small Cap Value in late 1997 for the same reasons I traded International. That original stake, to which I added regularly, has more than quadrupled in value. The team has been out-of-step with the market lately which, frankly, is what I pay them for. I regret only the need to sell some of my shares about seven years ago.

FPA Crescent



Crescent is my surrogate for a hedge fund: Mr. Romick has a strong contrarian streak, the ability to invest in almost anything and a phenomenal record of having done so. If you really wanted to control your asset allocation, this would make it about impossible. I don’t.

Matthews Asia Strategic Income



I bought MAINX in the month after the Observer profiled the fund. Matthews is first rate, the arguments for reallocating a portion of my fixed-income exposure from developed to developing markets struck me as sound and Ms. Kong is really sharp.

And it’s working. My holding is still up about 3% while both the world bond group and Aberdeen Asia Bond trail badly. She’s hopeful that pressure of Asian currencies will provoke economic reform and, in the meantime, has the freedom to invest in dollar-denominated bonds.

Matthews Asian Growth & Income



I originally bought MACSX while Andrew Foster was manager, impressed by its eclectic portfolio, independent style and excellent risk management. It’s continued to do well after his departure. I sold half of my stake here to invest in Seafarer and haven’t been adding to it in a while because I’m already heavily overweight in Asia. That said, I’m unlikely to reduce this holding either.

Northern Global Tactical Asset Allocation



I bought BBALX shortly after profiling it. It’s a fund-of-index-funds whose allocation is set by Northern’s investment policy committee. The combination of very low expenses (0.64%), very low turnover portfolios, wide diversification and the ability to make tactical tilts is very attractive. It’s been substantially above average – higher returns, lower volatility – than its peers since its 2008 conversion.

RiverPark Short Term High Yield



Misplaced in Morningstar’s “high yield” box, this has been a superb cash management option for me: it’s making 3-4% annually with negligible volatility.

Seafarer Overseas Growth & Income



I’m impressed by Mr. Foster’s argument that many other portions of the developing world are, in 2013, where Asia was in 2003. He believes there are rich opportunities outside Asia and that his experience as an Asia investor will serve him in good stead as the new story rolls out. I’m convinced that having an Asia-savvy manager who has the ability to recognize and make investments beyond the region is prudent.

T. Rowe Price Spectrum Income



This is a fund of income-oriented funds and it serves as the second piece of the cash-management plan for me. I count on it for about 6% returns a year and recognize that it might lose money on rare occasion. Price is steadfastly sensible and investor-centered and I’m quite comfortable with the trade-off.




This is the holding pool in my Scottrade account.

Is anyone likely to make it into my portfolio in 2013-14? There are two candidates:

ASTON/River Road Long-Short (ARLSX). We’ve both profiled the fund and had a conference call with its manager, both of which are available on the Observer’s ARLSX page. I’m very impressed with the quality and clarity of their risk-management disciplines; they’ve left little to chance and have created a system that forces them to act when it’s time. They’ve performed well since inception and have the prospect of outperforming the stock market with a fraction of its risk. If this enters the portfolio, it would likely be as a substitute for Northern Global Tactical since the two serve the same risk-dampening function.

RiverPark Strategic Income (not yet launched). This fund will come to market in October and represents the next step out on the risk-return spectrum from the very successful RiverPark Short Term High Yield (RPHYX). I’ve been impressed with David Sherman’s intelligence and judgment and with RPHYX’s ability to deliver on its promises. We’ll be doing fairly serious inquiries in the next couple months, but the new fund might become a success to T. Rowe Price Spectrum Income.

Sterling Capital hits Ctrl+Alt+Delete

Sterling Capital Select Equity (BBTGX) has been a determinedly bad fund for years. It’s had three managers since 1993 and it has badly trailed its benchmark under each of them. The strategy is determinedly nondescript. They’ve managed to return 3.2% annually over the past 15 years. That’s better – by about 50 bps – than Vanguard’s money market fund, but not by much. Effective September 3, 2013, they’re hitting “reformat.”

The fund’s name changes, to Sterling Capital Large Cap Value Diversified Fund.

The strategy changes, to a “behavioral financed” based system targeting large cap value stocks.

The benchmark changes, to the Russell 1000 Value

And the management team changes, to Robert W. Bridges and Robert O. Weller. Bridges joined the firm in 2008 and runs the Sterling Behavioral Finance Small Cap Diversified Alpha. Mr. Weller joined in 2012 after 15 years at JPMorgan, much of it with their behavioral finance team.

None of which required shareholders’ agreement since, presumably, all aspects of the fund are “non-fundamental.” 

One change that they should pursue but haven’t: get the manager to put his own money at risk. The departing manager was responsible for five funds since 2009 and managed to find nary a penny to invest in any of them. As a group, Sterling’s bond and asset allocation team seems utterly uninterested in risking their own money in a lineup of mostly one- and two-star funds. Here’s the snapshot of those managers’ holdings in their own funds:

stategic allocation

You’ll notice the word “none” appears 32 times. Let’s agree that it would be silly to expect a manager to own tax-free bonds anywhere but in his home jurisdiction. That leaves 26 decisions to avoid their own funds out of a total of 27 opportunities. Most of the equity managers, by contrast, have made substantial personal investments.

Warren Buffett thinks you’ve come to the right place

Fortune recently published a short article which highlighted a letter that Warren Buffett wrote to the publisher of the Washington Post in 1975. Buffett’s an investor in the Post and was concerned about the long-term consequences of the Post’s defined-benefit pension. The letter covers two topics: the economics of pension obligations in general and the challenge of finding competent investment management. There’s also a nice swipe at the financial services industry, which most folks should keep posted somewhere near their phone or monitor to review as you reflect on the inevitable marketing pitch for the next great financial product.


I particularly enjoy the “initially.” Large money managers, whose performance records were generally parlous, “felt obliged to seek improvement or at least the approach of improvement” by hiring groups “with impressive organizational charts, lots of young talent … and a record of recent performance (pg 8).” Unfortunately, he notes, they found it.

The pressure to look like you were earning your keep led to high portfolio turnover (Buffett warns against what would now be laughably low turnover: 25% per annum). By definition, most professionals cannot be above average but “a few will succeed – in a modest way – because of skill” (pg 10). If you’re going to find them, it won’t be by picking past winners though it might be by understanding what they’re doing and why:


The key: abandon all hope ye who invest in behemoths:


For those interested in Buffett’s entire reflection, Chip’s embedded the following:

Warren Buffett Katharine Graham Letter

And now for something completely different …

We can be certain of some things about Ed Studzinski. As an investor and co-manager of Oakmark Equity & Income (OAKBX), he was consistently successful in caring for other people’s money (as much as $17 billion of it), in part because he remained keenly aware that he was also caring for their futures. $10,000 entrusted to Ed and co-manager Clyde McGregor on the day Ed joined the fund (01 March 2000) would have grown to $27,750 on the day of his departure (31 December 2011). His average competitor (I’m purposefully avoiding “peer” as a misnomer) would have managed $13,900.

As a writer and thinker, he minced no words.

The Equity and Income Fund’s managers have both worked in the investment industry for many decades, so we both should be at the point in our careers where dubious financial-industry innovations no longer surprise us. Such an assumption, however, would be incorrect.

For the past few quarters we have repeatedly read that the daily outcomes in the securities markets are the result of the “Risk On/Risk Off” trade, wherein investors (sic?) react to the most recent news by buying equities/selling bonds (Risk On) or the reverse (Risk Off). As value investors we think this is pure nonsense. 

Over the past two years, Ed and I have engaged in monthly conversations that I’ve found consistently provocative and information-rich. It’s clear that he’s been paying active attention for many years to contortions of his industry which he views with equal measures of disdain and alarm. 

I’ve prevailed upon Ed to share a manager’s fuss and fulminations with us, as whim, wife and other obligations permit. His first installment, which might also be phrased as the question “Whose skin in the game?” follows.

“Skin in the Game, Part One”

“Virtue has never been as respectable as money.” Mark Twain

One of the more favored sayings of fund managers is that they like to invest with managements with “skin in the game.” This is another instance where the early Buffett (as opposed to the later Buffett) had it right. Managements can and should own stock in their firms. But they should purchase it with their own money. That, like the prospect of hanging as Dr. Johnson said, would truly clarify the mind. In hind sight a major error in judgment was made by investment professionals who bought into the argument that awarding stock options would beneficially serve to align the interests of managements and shareholders. Never mind that the corporate officers should have already understood their fiduciary obligations. What resulted, not in all instances but often enough in the largest capitalization companies, was a class of condottieri such as one saw in Renaissance Italy, heading armies that spent their days marching around avoiding each other, all the while being lavishly paid for the risks they were NOT facing. This sub-set of managers became a new entitled class that achieved great personal wealth, often just by being present and fitting in to the culture. Rather than thinking about truly long-term strategic implications and questions raised in running a business, they acted with a short-duration focus, and an ever-present image of the current share price in the background. Creating sustainable long-term business value rarely entered into the equation, often because they had never seen it practiced.

I understood how much of a Frankenstein’s monster had been created when executive compensation proposals ended up often being the greater part of a proxy filing. A particularly bothersome practice was “reloading” options annually. Over time, with much dilution, these programs transferred significant share ownership to management. You knew you were on to something when these compensation proposals started attracting negative vote recommendations. The calls would initially start with the investor relations person inquiring about the proxy voting process. Once it was obvious that best practices governance indicated a “no” vote, the CFO would call and ask for reconsideration.

How do you determine whether a CEO or CFO actually walks the walk of good capital allocation, which is really what this is all about? One tip-off usually comes from discussions about business strategy and what the company will look like in five to ten years. You will have covered metrics and standards for acquisitions, dividends, debt, share repurchase, and other corporate action. Following that, if the CEO or CFO says, “Why do you think our share price is so low?” I would know I was in the wrong place. My usual response was, “Why do you care if you know what the business value of the company is per share? You wouldn’t sell the company for that price. You aren’t going to liquidate the business. If you did, you know it is worth substantially more than the current share price.” Another “tell” is when you see management taking actions that don’t make sense if building long-term value is the goal. Other hints also raise questions – a CFO leaves “because he wants to enjoy more time with his family.” Selling a position contemporaneously with the departure of a CFO that you respected would usually leave your investors better off than doing nothing. And if you see the CEO or CFO selling stock – “our investment bankers have suggested that I need to diversify my portfolio, since all my wealth is tied up in the company.” That usually should raise red flags that indicate something is going on not obvious to the non-insider.

Are things improving? Options have gone out of favor as a compensation vehicle for executives, increasingly replaced by the use of restricted stock. More investors are aware of the potential conflicts that options awards can create and have a greater appreciation of governance. That said, one simple law or regulation would eliminate many of the potential abuses caused by stock options. “All stock acquired by reason of stock option awards to senior corporate officers as part of their compensation MAY NOT BE SOLD OR OTHERWISE DISPOSED OF UNTIL AFTER THE EXPIRATION OF A PERIOD OF THREE YEARS FROM THE INDIVIDUAL’S LAST DATE OF SERVICE.” Then you might actually see the investors having a better chance of getting their own yachts.

Edward A. Studzinski

If you’d like to reach Ed, click here. An artist’s rendering of Messrs. Boccadoro and Studzinski appears below.


Introducing Charles’ Balcony

balconeySince his debut in February 2012, my colleague Charles Boccadoro has produced some exceedingly solid, data-rich analyses for us, including this month’s review of the risk/return profiles of the FundX family of funds. One of his signature contributions was “Timing Method Performance Over Ten Decades,” which was widely reproduced and debated around the web.

We’re pleased to announce that we’ve collected his essays in a single, easy-to-access location. We’ve dubbed it “Charles’ Balcony” and we even stumbled upon this striking likeness of Charles and the shadowy Ed Studzinski in situ. I’m deeply hopeful that from their airy (aerie or eery) perch, they’ll share their sharp-eyed insights with us for years to come.

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. 

Advisory Research Strategic Income (ADVNX): you’ve got to love a 10 month old fund with a 10 year track record and a portfolio that Morningstar can only describe as 60% “other.” AR converted a successful limited partnership into the only no-load mutual fund offering investors substantial access to preferred securities.

Beck, Mack and Oliver Partners (BMPEX): we think of it as “Dodge and Cox without the $50 billion in baggage.” This is an admirably disciplined, focused equity fund with a remarkable array of safeguards against self-inflicted injuries.

FPA Paramount (FPRAX): some see Paramount as a 60-year-old fund that seeks out only the highest-quality mid-cap growth stocks. With a just-announced change of management and philosophy, it might be moving to become a first-rate global value fund (with enough assets under management to start life as one of the group’s most affordable entries).

FundX Upgrader (FUNDX): all investors struggle with the need to refine their portfolios, dumping losers and adding winners. In a follow-up to his data-rich analysis on the possibility of using a simple moving average as a portfolio signal, associate editor Charles Boccadoro investigated the flagship fund of the Upgrader fleet.

Tributary Balanced (FOBAX): it’s remarkable that a fund this consistently good – in the top tier of all balanced funds over the past five-, ten-, and fifteen-year periods and a Great Owl by my colleague Charles’ risk/return calculations – hasn’t drawn more attention. It will be more remarkable if that neglect continues despite the recent return of the long-time manager who beat pretty much everyone in sight.

Elevator Talk #8: Steven Vannelli of GaveKal Knowledge Leaders (GAVAX)

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

Steve w logo

Steven Vannelli, Manager

GaveKal Knowledge Leaders (GAVAX) believes in investing only in firms that are committed to being smart, so where did the dumb name come from? GaveKal is a portmanteau formed from the names of the firm’s founders: Charles Gave, Anatole Kaletsky and Louis-Vincent Gave. Happily it changed the fund’s original name from GaveKal Platform Company Fund (named after its European counterpart) to Knowledge Leaders. 

GaveKal, headquartered in Hong Kong, started in 2001 as a global economics and asset allocation research firm. Their other investment products (the Asian Balanced Fund – a cool idea which was rechristened Asian Absolute Return – and Greater China Fund) are available to non-U.S. investors as, originally, was Knowledge Leaders. They opened a U.S. office in 2006. In 2010 they deepened their Asia expertise by acquiring Dragonomics, a China-focused research and advisory firm.

Knowledge Leaders has generated a remarkable record in its two-plus years of U.S. operation. They look to invest in “the best among global companies that are tapping a deep reservoir of intangible capital to generate earnings growth,” where “R&D, design, brand and channel” are markers of robust intangible capital. From launch through the end of June, 2013, the fund modestly outperformed the MSCI World Index and did so with two-thirds less volatility. Currently, approximately 30% of the portfolio is in cash, down from 40% earlier in summer.

Manager Steven Vannelli researches intangible capital and corporate performance and leads the fund’s investment team. Before joining GaveKal, he spent a decade at Alexander Capital, a Denver-based investment advisor. Here’s Mr. Vannelli’s 200 words making his case:

We invest in the world’s most innovative companies. Decades of academic research show that companies that invest heavily in innovation are structurally undervalued due to lack of information on innovative activities. Our strategy capitalizes on this market inefficiency.

To find investment opportunities, we identify Knowledge Leaders, or companies with large stores of intangible assets. These companies often operate globally across an array of industries from health care to technology, from consumer to capital goods. We have developed a proprietary method to capitalize a company’s intangible investments, revealing an important, invisible layer of value inherent to intangible-rich companies. 

The Knowledge Leaders Strategy employs an active strategy that offers equity-like returns with bond-like risk. Superior risk-adjusted returns with low correlation to market indices make the GaveKal Knowledge Leaders Strategy a good vehicle for investors who seek to maximize their risk and return objectives.

The genesis of the strategy has its origin in the 2005 book, Our Brave New World, by GaveKal Research, which highlights knowledge as a scare asset.

As a validation of our intellectual foundation, in July, the US Bureau of Economic Analysis began to capitalize R&D to measure the contribution of innovation spending on growth of the US economy.

The minimum initial investment on the fund’s retail shares is $2,500. There are also institutional shares (GAVIX) with a $100,000 minimum (though they do let financial advisors aggregate accounts in order to reach that threshold). The fund’s website is clean and easily navigated. It would make a fair amount of sense for you to visit to “Fund Documents” page, which hosts the fund’s factsheet and a thoughtful presentation on intangible capital

Our earlier Elevator Talks were:

  1. February 2013: Tom Kerr, Rocky Peak Small Cap Value (RPCSX), whose manager has a 14 year track record in small cap investing and a passion for discovering “value” in the intersection of many measures: discounted cash flows, LBO models, M&A valuations and traditional relative valuation metrics.
  2. March 2013: Dale Harvey, Poplar Forest Partners (PFPFX and IPFPX), a concentrated, contrarian value stock fund that offers “a once-in-a-generation opportunity to invest with a successful American Funds manager who went out on his own.”
  3. April 2013: Bayard Closser, Vertical Capital Income Fund (VCAPX), “a closed-end interval fund, VCAPX invests in whole mortgage loans and first deeds of trust. We purchase the loans from lenders at a deep discount and service them ourselves.”
  4. May 2013: Jim Hillary, LS Opportunity Fund (LSOFX), a co-founder of Marsico Capital Management whose worry that “the quality of research on Wall Street continues to decline and investors are becoming increasingly concerned about short-term performance” led to his faith in “in-depth research and long-term orientation in our high conviction ideas.”
  5. July 2013: Casey Frazier, Versus Capital Multi-Manager Real Estate Income Fund (VCMRX), a second closed-end interval fund whose portfolio “includes real estate private equity and debt, public equity and debt, and broad exposure across asset types and geographies. We target a mix of 70% private real estate with 30% public real estate to enhance liquidity, and our objective is to produce total returns in the 7 – 9% range net of fees.”
  6. August 2013: Brian Frank, Frank Value Fund (FRNKX), a truly all-cap value fund with a simple, successful discipline: if one part of the market is overpriced, shop elsewhere.
  7. August 2013: Ian Mortimer and Matthew Page of Guinness Atkinson Inflation Managed Dividend (GAINX), a global equity fund that pursues firms with “sustainable and potentially rising dividends,” which also translates to firms with robust business models and consistently high return on capital.

Upcoming conference call: A discussion of the reopening of RiverNorth Strategy Income (RNDLX)

rivernorth reopensThe folks at RiverNorth will host a conference call between the fund’s two lead managers, Patrick Galley of RiverNorth and Jeffrey Gundlach of DoubleLine, to discuss their decision to reopen the fund to new investors at the end of August and what they see going forward (the phrase “fear and loathing” keeps coming up). 

The call will be: Wednesday, September 18, 3:15pm – 4:15pm CDT

To register, go to www.rivernorthfunds.com/events/

The webcast will feature a Q&A with Messrs. Galley and Gundlach.

RNDLX (RNSIX for the institutional class), which the Observer profiled shortly after launch, has been a very solid fund with a distinctive strategy. Mr. Gundlach manages part of his sleeve of the portfolio in a manner akin to DoubleLine Core Fixed Income (DLFNX) and part with a more opportunistic income strategy. Mr. Galley pursues a tactical fixed-income allocation and an utterly unique closed-end fund arbitrage strategy in his slice. The lack of attractive opportunities in the CEF universe prompted the fund’s initial closure. Emily Deter of RiverNorth reports that the opening “is primarily driven by the current market opportunity in the closed-end fund space. Fixed-income closed-end funds are trading at attractive discounts to their NAVs, which is an opportunity we have not seen in years.” Investment News reported that fixed-income CEFs moved quickly from selling at a 2% premium to selling at a 7% discount. 

That’s led Mr. Galley’s move from CEFs from occupying 17% of the portfolio a year ago to 30% today and, it seems, he believes he could pursue more opportunities if he had more cash on hand.

Given RiverNorth’s ongoing success and clear commitment to closing funds well before they become unmanageable, it’s apt to be a good use of your time.

The Observer’s own series of conference calls with managers who’ve proven to be interesting, sharp, occasionally wry and successful, will resume in October. We’ll share details in our October issue.

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.

Every day David Welsch, an exceedingly diligent research assistant at the Observer, scours new SEC filings to see what opportunities might be about to present themselves. David tracked down nearly 100 new funds and ETFs. Many of the proposed funds offer nothing new, distinctive or interesting. Some were downright mystifying. (Puerto Rico Shares? Colombia Capped ETF? The Target Duration 2-month ETF?) There were 26 no-load funds or actively-managed ETFs in registration with the SEC this month. 

Funds in registration this month won’t be available for sale until, typically, the end of October or early November 2013.

There are probably more interesting products in registration this month than at any time in the seven years we’ve been tracking them. Among the standouts:

Brown Advisory Strategic European Equity Fund which will be managed by Dirk Enderlein of Wellington Management. Wellington is indisputably an “A-team” shop (they’ve got about three-quarters of a trillion in assets under management). Mr. Enderlein joined them in 2010 after serving as a manager for RCM – Allianz Global Investors in Frankfurt, Germany (1999-2009). Media reports described him as “one of Europe’s most highly regarded European growth managers.”

DoubleLine Shiller Enhanced CAPE will attempt to beat an index, Shiller Barclays CAPE® US Sector TR USD Index, which was designed based on decades of research by the renowned Robert Shiller. The fund will be managed by Jeffrey Gundlach and Jeffrey Sherman.

Driehaus Micro Cap Growth Fund, a converted 15 year old hedge fund

Harbor Emerging Markets Equity Fund, which will be sub-advised by the emerging markets team at Oaktree Capital Management. Oaktree’s a first-tier institutional manager with a very limited number of advisory relationships (primarily with Vanguard and RiverNorth) in the mutual fund world. 

Meridian Small Cap Growth, which will be the star vehicle for Chad Meade and Brian Schaub, who Meridian’s new owner hired away from Janus. Morningstar’s Greg Carlson described them as “superb managers” who were “consistently successful during their nearly seven years at the helm” of Janus Triton.

Plus some innovative offerings from Northern, PIMCO and T. Rowe Price. Details and the list of all of the funds in registration are available at the Observer’s Funds in Registration page or by clicking “Funds” on the menu atop each page.

Manager Changes

On a related note, we also tracked down a record 85 fund manager changes. Investors should take particular note of Eric Ende and Stephen Geist’s exit from FPA Paramount after a 13 year run. The change is big enough that we’ve got a profile of Paramount as one of the month’s Most Intriguing New Funds.


brettonBretton Fund (BRTNX) is now available through Vanguard. Manager Stephen Dodson writes that after our conference call, several listeners asked about the fund’s availability and Stephen encouraged them to speak directly with Vanguard. Mirabile dictu, the Big V was receptive to the idea.

Stephen recently posted his most recent letter to his shareholders. He does a nice job of walking folks through the core of his investing discipline with some current illustrations. The short version is that he’s looking for firms with durable competitive advantages in healthy industries whose stocks are selling at a substantial discount. He writes:

There are a number of relevant and defensible companies out there that are easily identifiable; the hard part is finding the rare ones that are undervalued. The sweet spot for us continues to be relevant, defensible businesses at low prices (“cheap compounders”). I continue to spend my waking hours looking for them.

Q2 2013 presented slim pickin’s for absolute value investors (Bretton “neither initiated nor eliminated any investments during the quarter”). For all of the market’s disconcerting gyrations this summer, Morningstar calculates that valuations for its Wide Moat and Low Business Uncertainty groups (surrogates for “high quality stocks”) remains just about where they were in June: undervalued by about 4% while junkier stocks remain modestly overvalued.

Patience is hard.

Briefly Noted . . .

Calamos loses another president

James Boyne is resigning as president and chief operating officer of Calamos Investments effective Sept. 30, just eight months after being promoted to president. The firm has decided that they need neither a president nor a chief operating officer. Those responsibilities will be assumed “by other senior leaders” at the firm (see: Black, Gary, below). The preceding president, Nick P. Calamos, decided to “step back” from his responsibilities in August 2012 when, by coincidence, Calamos hired former Janus CEO Gary Black. To describe Black as controversial is a bit like described Rush Limbaugh as opinionated.

They’re not dead yet!

not-dead-yetBack in July, the Board of Caritas All-Cap Growth (CTSAX): “our fund is tiny, expensive, bad, and pursues a flawed investment strategy (long stocks, short ETFs).” Thereupon they reached a sensible conclusion: euthanasia. Shortly after the fund had liquidated all of its securities, “the Board was presented with and reviewed possible alternatives to the liquidation of the Fund that had arisen since the meeting on July 25, 2013.”

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. 


(I don’t know more about the firm because they have a one page website.)

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.

Diamond Hill goes overseas, a bit

Effective September 1, 2013, Diamond Hill Research Opportunities Fund (DHROX) gains the flexibility to invest internationally (the new prospectus allows that it “may also invest in non-U.S. equity securities, including equity securities in emerging market countries”) and the SEC filing avers that they “will commence investing in foreign securities.” The fund has 15 managers; I’m guessing they got bored. As a hedge fund (2009-2011), it had a reasonably mediocre record which might have spurred the conversion to a ’40 fund. Which has also had a reasonably mediocre lesson, so points to the management for consistency!

Janus gets more bad news

Janus investors pulled $2.2 billion from the firm’s funds in July, the worst outflows in more than three years. A single investor accounted for $1.3 billion of the leakage. The star managers of Triton and Venture left in May. And now this: they’re losing business to Legg Mason.

The Board of Trustees of Met Investors Series Trust has approved a change of subadviser for the Janus Forty Portfolio from Janus Capital Management to ClearBridge Investments to be effective November 1, 2013 . . . Effective November 1, 2013, the name of the Portfolio will change to ClearBridge Aggressive Growth Portfolio II.

Matthews chucks Taiwan

Matthews Asia China (MCHFX), China Dividend (MCDFX) and Matthews and China Small Companies (MCSMX) have changed their Principal Investment Strategy to delete Taiwan. The text for China Dividend shows the template:

Under normal market conditions, the Matthews China Dividend Fund seeks to achieve its investment objective by investing at least 80% of its net assets, which include borrowings for investment purposes, in dividend-paying equity securities of companies located in China and Taiwan.


Under normal market conditions, the Matthews China Dividend Fund seeks to achieve its investment objective by investing at least 80% of its nets assets, which include borrowings for investment purposes, in dividend-paying equity securities of companies located in China.

A reader in the financial services industry, Anonymous Dude, checked with Matthews about the decision. AD reports

The reason was that the SEC requires that if you list Taiwan in the Principal Investment Strategies portion of the prospectus you have to include the word “Greater” in the name of the fund. They didn’t want to change the name of the fund and since they could still invest up to 20% they dropped Taiwan from the principal investment strategies. He said if the limitation ever became an issue they would revisit potentially changing the name. Mystery solved.
The China Fund currently has nothing investing in Taiwan, China Small is 14% and China Dividend is 15%. And gracious, AD!

T. Rowe tweaks

Long ago, as a college administrator, I was worried about whether the text in a proposed policy statement might one day get us in trouble. I still remember college counsel shaking his head confidently, smiling and saying “Not to worry. We’re going to fuzz it up real good.” One wonders if he works for T. Rowe Price now? Up until now, many of Price’s funds have had relatively detailed and descriptive investment objectives. No more! At least five of Price’s funds propose new language that reduces the statement of investment objectives to an indistinct mumble. T. Rowe Price Growth Stock Fund (PRGFX) goes from

The fund seeks to provide long-term capital growth and, secondarily, increasing dividend income through investments in the common stocks of well-established growth companies.


The fund seeks long-term capital growth through investments in stocks.

Similar blandifications are proposed for Dividend Growth, Equity Income, Growth & Income and International Growth & Income.

Wasatch redefines “small cap”

A series of Wasatch funds, Small Growth, Small Value and Emerging Markets Small Cap are upping the size of stocks in their universe from $2.5 billion or less to $3.0 billion or less. The change is effective in November.

Can you say whoa!? Or WOA?

The Board of Trustees of an admittedly obscure little institutional fund, WOA All Asset (WOAIX), has decided that the best way to solve what ails the yearling fund is to get it more aggressive.

The Board approved certain changes to the Fund’s principal investment strategies. The changes will be effective on or about September 3, 2013. . . the changes in the Fund’s strategy will alter the Fund’s risk level from balanced strategy with a moderate risk level to an aggressive risk level.

Here’s the chart of the fund’s performance since inception against conservative and moderate benchmarks. While that might show that the managers just need to fire up the risk machine, I’d also imagine that addressing the ridiculously high expenses (1.75% for an institutional balanced fund) and consistent ability to lag in both up and down months (11 of 16 and counting) might actually be a better move. 


WOA’s Trustees, by the way, are charged with overseeing 24 funds. No Trustee has a dollar invested in any of those funds.


The Board of Trustees of the Direxion Funds and Rafferty Asset Management have decided to make it cheaper for you to own a bunch of funds that you really shouldn’t own. They’re removed the 25 bps Shareholder Servicing Fee from

  • Direxion Monthly S&P 500® Bull 2X Fund
  • Direxion Monthly S&P 500® Bear 2X Fund
  • Direxion Monthly NASDAQ-100® Bull 2X Fund
  • Direxion Monthly Small Cap Bull 2X Fund
  • Direxion Monthly Small Cap Bear 2X Fund
  • Direxion Monthly Emerging Markets Bull 2X Fund
  • Direxion Monthly Latin America Bull 2X Fund
  • Direxion Monthly China Bull 2X Fund
  • Direxion Monthly Commodity Bull 2X Fund
  • Direxion Monthly 7-10 Year Treasury Bull 2X Fund
  • Direxion Monthly 7-10 Year Treasury Bear 2X Fund
  • Dynamic HY Bond Fund and
  • U.S. Government Money Market Fund.

Because Eaton Vance loves you, they’ve decided to create the opportunity for investors to buy high expense “C” class shares of Eaton Vance Bond (EVBCX). The new shares will add a 1.00% back load for sales held less than a year and a 1.70% expense ratio (compared to 0.7 and 0.95 for Institutional and A, respectively). 

The Fairholme Fund (FAIRX) reopened to new investors on August 19, 2013. The other Fairholme family funds, not so much.

The Advisor Class shares of Forward Select Income Fund (FSIMX) reopened to new investors at the end of August.

The Board of Directors of the Leuthold Global Industries Fund (LGINX) has agreed to reduce the Fund’s expense cap from 1.85% to 1.60%.

JacksonPark Capital reduced the minimum initial investment on Oakseed Opportunity Institutional shares (SEDEX) from $1 million to $10,000. Given the 18% lower fees on the institutional class (capped at 1.15% versus 1.40% for retail shares), reasonably affluent retail investors ought to seriously consider pursuing the institutional share class. That said, Oakseed’s minimum investment for the retail shares, as low as $100 for accounts set up with an AIP, are awfully reasonable.

RiverNorth DoubleLine Strategic Income (RNDLX/RNSIX) reopened to new investors at the end of August. Check the “upcoming conference calls” feature, above, for more details.

Westcore Blue Chip Dividend Fund (WTMVX ) lowered the expense ratio on its no-load retail shares from 1.15% to 0.99%, effective September 1. They also changed from paying distributions annually to paying them quarterly. It’s a perfectly agreeable, mild-mannered little fund: stable management, global diversified, reasonable expenses and very consistently muted volatility. You do give up a fair amount of upside for the opportunity to sleep a bit more quietly at night.

CLOSINGS (and related inconveniences)

American Beacon Stephens Small Cap Growth Fund (STSGX) will close to new investors, effective as of September 16, 2013. The no-class share class has returned 11.8% while its peers made 9.3% and it did so with lower volatility. The fund is closing at a still small $500 million.

Neither high fees nor mediocre performance can dim the appeal of AQR Multi-Strategy Alternative Fund (ASANX/ASAIX). The fund has drawn $1.5 billion and has advertised the opportunity for rich investors (the minimum runs between $1 million and $5 million) to rush in before the doors swing shut at the end of September. It’s almost always a bad sign that a fund feels the need to close and the need to put up a flashing neon sign six weeks ahead.

Morgan Stanley Institutional Global Franchise (MSFAX) will close to new investors on Nov. 29, 2013. The current management team came on board four years ago (June 2009) and have posted very good risk-adjusted returns since then. Investors might wonder why a large cap global fund with a small asset base needs to close. The answer is that the mutual fund represents just the tip of the iceberg; this team actually manages almost $17 billion in this strategy, so the size of the separate accounts is what’s driving the decision.


At the end of September Ariel International Equity Fund (AINTX) becomes Ariel International Fund and will no longer be required to invest at least 80% of its assets in equities. At the same time, Ariel Global Equity Fund (AGLOX) becomes Ariel Global Fund. The advisor avers that it’s not planning on changing the funds’ investment strategies, just that it would be nice to have the option to move into other asset classes if conditions dictate.

Effective October 30, Guggenheim U.S. Long Short Momentum Fund (RYAMX) will become plain ol’ Guggenheim Long-Short Fund. In one of those “why bother” changes, the prospectus adds a new first sentence to the Strategy section (“invest, under normal circumstances, at least 80% of its assets in long and short equity or equity-like securities”) but maintains the old “momentum” language in the second and third sentences. They’ll still “respond to the dynamically changing economy by moving its investments among different industries and styles” and “allocates investments to industries and styles according to several measures of momentum. “ Over the past five years, the fund has been modestly more volatile and less profitable than its peers. As a result, they’ve attracted few assets and might have decided, as a marketing matter, that highlighting a momentum approach isn’t winning them friends.

As of October 28, the SCA Absolute Return Fund (SCARX) will become the Granite Harbor Alternative Fund and it will no longer aim to provide “positive absolute returns with less volatility than traditional equity markets.” Instead, it’s going for the wimpier “long-term capital appreciation and income with low correlation” to the markets. SCA Directional Fund (SCADX) will become Granite Harbor Tactical Fund but will no longer seek “returns similar to equities with less volatility.” Instead, it will aspire to “long term capital appreciation with moderate correlation to traditional equity markets.” 

Have you ever heard someone say, “You know, what I’m really looking for is a change for a moderate correlation to the equity markets”? No, me neither.

Thomas Rowe Price, Jr. (the man, 1898-1983) has been called “the father of growth investing.” It’s perhaps then fitting that T. Rowe Price (the company) has decided to graft the word “Growth” into the names of many of its funds effective November 1.

T. Rowe Price Institutional Global Equity Fund becomes T. Rowe Price Institutional Global Focused Growth Equity Fund. Institutional Global Large-Cap Equity Fund will change its name to the T. Rowe Price Institutional Global Growth Equity Fund. T. Rowe Price Global Large-Cap Stock Fund will change its name to the T. Rowe Price Global Growth Stock Fund.

Effective October 28, 2013, USB International Equity Fund (BNIEX) gets a new name (UBS Global Sustainable Equity Fund), new mandate (invest globally in firms that pass a series of ESG screens) and new managers (Bruno Bertocci and Shari Gilfillan). The fund’s been a bit better under the five years of Nick Irish’s leadership than its two-star rating suggests, but not by a lot.

Off to the dustbin of history

There were an exceptionally large number of funds giving up the ghost this month. We’ve tracked 26, the same as the number of new no-load funds in registration and well below the hundred or so new portfolios of all sorts being launched. I’m deeply grateful to The Shadow, one of the longest-tenured members of our discussion board, for helping me to keep ahead of the flood.

American Independence Dynamic Conservative Plus Fund (TBBIX, AABBX) will liquidate on or about September 27, 2012.

Dynamic Canadian Equity Income Fund (DWGIX) and Dynamic Gold & Precious Metals Fund (DWGOX), both series of the DundeeWealth Funds, are slated for liquidation on September 23, 2013. Dundee bumped off Dynamic Contrarian Advantage Fund (DWGVX) and announced that it was divesting itself of three other funds (JOHCM Emerging Markets Opportunities Fund JOEIX, JOHCM International Select Fund JOHIX and JOHCM Global Equity Fund JOGEX), which are being transferred to new owners.

Equinox Commodity Strategy Fund (EQCAX) closed to new investors in mid-August and will liquidate on September 27th.

dinosaurThe Evolution Funds face extinction! Oh, the cruel irony of it.

Evolution Managed Bond (PEMVX) Evolution All-Cap Equity (PEVEX), Evolution Market Leaders (PEVSX) and Evolution Alternative Investment (PETRX) have closed to all new investment and were scheduled to liquidate by the end of September. Given their disappearance from Morningstar, one suspects the end came more quickly than we knew.

Frontegra HEXAM Emerging Markets Fund (FHEMX) liquidates at the end of September.

The Northern Lights Board of Trustees has concluded that “based on, among other factors, the current and projected level of assets in the Fund and the belief that it would be in the best interests of the Fund and its shareholders to discontinue the Hundredfold Select Global Fund (SFGPX).”

Perhaps the “other factors” would be the fact that Hundredfold trailed 100% of its peers over the past three- and five-year periods? The manager was unpaid and quite possibly the fund’s largest shareholder ($50-100k in a $2M fund). His Hundredfold Select Equity (SFEOX) is almost as woeful as the decedent, but Hundredfold Select Alternative (SFHYX) is in the top 1% of its peer group for the same period that the others are bottom 1%. That raises the spectre that luck, rather than skill, might be involved.

JPMorgan is cleaning house: JPMorgan Credit Opportunities Fund (JOCAX), JPMorgan Global Opportunities Fund (JGFAX) and JPMorgan Russia Fund (JRUAX) are all gone as of October 4.

John Hancock intends to merge John Hancock High Income (JHAQX) into John Hancock High Yield (JHHBX). I’m guessing at the fund tickers because the names in the SEC filing don’t quite line up with the Morningstar ones.

Legg Mason Esemplia Emerging Markets Long-Short Fund (SMKAX) will be terminated on October 1, 2013. Let’s see: hard-to-manage strategy, high risk, high expenses, high front load, no assets . . . sounds like Legg.

Leuthold Asset Allocation Fund (LAALX) is merging into Leuthold Core Investment Fund (LCORX). The Board of Directors approved a proposal for the Leuthold Asset Allocation to be acquired by the Leuthold Core, sometime in October 2013. Curious. LAALX, with a quarter billion in assets, modestly lags LCORX which has about $600 million. Both lag more mild-mannered funds such as Northern Global Tactical Asset Allocation (BBALX) and Vanguard STAR (VGSTX) over the course of LAALX’s lifetime. This might be less a story about LAALX than about the once-legendary Leuthold Core. Leuthold’s funds are all quant-driven, based on an unparalleled dataset. For years Core seemed unstoppable: between 2003 and 2008, it finished in the top 5% of its peer group four times. But for 2009 to now, it has trailed its peers every year and has bled $1 billion in assets. In merging the two, LAALX investors get a modestly less expensive fund with modestly better performance. Leuthold gets a simpler administrative structure. 

I halfway admire the willingness of Leuthold to close products that can’t distinguish themselves in the market. Clean Tech, Hedged Equity, Undervalued & Unloved, Select Equities and now Asset Allocation have been liquidated.

MassMutual Premier Capital Appreciation Fund (MCALX) will be liquidated, but not until January 24, 2014. Why? 

New Frontiers KC India Fund (NFIFX) has closed and began the process of liquidating their portfolio on August 26th. They point to “difficult market conditions in India.” The fund’s returns were comparable to its India-focused peers, which is to say it lost about 30% in 18 months.

Nomura Partners India Fund (NPIAX), Greater China Fund (NPCAX) and International Equity Fund (NPQAX) will all be liquidated by month’s end.

Nuveen Quantitative Enhanced Core Equity (FQCAX) is slated, pending inevitable shareholder approval, to disappear into Nuveen Symphony Low Volatility Equity Fund (NOPAX, formerly Nuveen Symphony Optimized Alpha Fund)

Oracle Mutual Fund (ORGAX) has “due to the relatively small size of the fund” underwent the process of “orderly dissolution.” Due to the relatively small size? How about, “due to losing 49.5% of our investors’ money over the past 30 months, despite an ongoing bull market in our investment universe”? To his credit, the advisor’s president and portfolio manager went down with the ship: he had something between $500,000 – $1,000,000 left in the fund as of the last SAI.

Quantitative Managed Futures Strategy Fund (QMFAX) will “in the best interests of the Fund and its shareholders” redeem all outstanding shares on September 15th.

The directors of the United Association S&P 500 Index Fund (UASPX/UAIIX) have determined that it’s in their shareholders’ best interest to liquidate. Uhhh … I don’t know why. $140 million in assets, low expenses, four-star rating …

Okay, so the Oracle Fund didn’t seem particularly oracular but what about the Steadfast Fund? Let’s see: “steadfast: firmly loyal or constant, unswerving, not subject to change.” VFM Steadfast Fund (VFMSX) launched less than one year ago and gone before its first birthday.

In Closing . . .

Interesting stuff’s afoot. We’ve spoken with the folks behind the surprising Oberweis International Opportunities Fund (OBIOX), which was much different and much more interesting that we’d anticipated. Thanks to “Investor” for poking us about a profile. In October we’ll have one. RiverPark Strategic Income is set to launch at the end of the month, which is exciting both because of the success of the other fund (the now-closed RiverPark Short Term High Yield Fund RPHYX) managed by David Sherman and Cohanzick Asset Management and because Sherman comes across as such a consistently sharp and engaging guy. With luck, I’ll lure him into an extended interview with me and a co-conspirator (the gruff but lovable Ed Studzinski, cast in the role of a gruff but lovable curmudgeon who formerly managed a really first-rate mutual fund, which he did).

etf_confMFO returns to Morningstar! Morningstar is hosting their annual ETF Invest Conference in Chicago, from October 2 – 4. While, on whole, we’d rather drop by their November conference in Milan, Italy it was a bit pricey and I couldn’t get a dinner reservation at D’O before early February 2014 so we decided to pass it up. While the ETF industry seems to be home to more loony ideas and regrettable business practices than most, it’s clear that the industry’s maturing and a number of ETF products offer low cost access to sensible strategies, some in areas where there are no tested active managers. The slow emergence of active ETFs blurs the distinction with funds and Morningstar does seem do have arranged both interesting panels (skeptical though I am, I’ll go listen to some gold-talk on your behalf) and flashy speakers (Austan Goolsbee among them). With luck, I’ll be able to arrange a couple of face-to-face meetings with Chicago-based fund management teams while I’m in town. If you’re going to be at the conference, feel free to wave. If you’d like to chat, let me know.

mfo-amazon-badgeIf you shop Amazon, please do remember to click on the Observer’s link and use it. If you click on it right now, you can bookmark it or set it as a homepage and then you won’t forget. The partnership with Amazon generates about $20/day which, while modest, allows us to reliably cover all of our “hard” expenses and underwrites the occasional conference coverage. If you’d prefer to consider other support options, that’s great. Just click on “support us” on the top menu bar. But the Amazon thing is utterly painless for you.

The Sufi poet Attar records the fable of a powerful king who asks assembled wise men to create a ring that will make him happy when he is sad, and vice versa. After deliberation the sages hand him a simple ring with the words “This too will pass.” That’s also true of whatever happens to the market and your portfolio in September and October.

Be brave and we’ll be with you in a month!