Category Archives: Profile

Sextant Growth (SSGFX), January 2007

By Editor

. . . from the archives at FundAlarm

These profiles have not been updated. The information is only accurate as of the original date of publication.

January 1, 2007

FundAlarm Annex – Fund Report

Objective

The fund seeks long-term growth by investing in common stocks, as well as convertible and preferred shares. While Morningstar classifies it as a mid-cap growth fund, the firm claims to follow a “value approach to investing” in looking at stocks with favorable potential over the next one to four years. They list a variety of predictable factors (revenue growth, p/e and p/b ratios, industry position and so on) in their selection criteria. No more than 5% of the fund may be invested in foreign companies.

Adviser

Saturna Capital. Saturna oversees four Sextant funds, the Idaho Tax-Free fund and two Amana funds. The Amana funds invest in accord with Islamic investing principles and were recognized as the best Islamic fund manager for 2005.

Manager

Nicholas Kaiser. Mr. Kaiser is president and founder of Saturna Capital. He has degrees from Chicago and Yale. In the mid 1970s and 1980s, he ran a mid-sized investment management firm (Unified Management Company) in Indianapolis. In 1989 he sold Unified and subsequently bought control of Saturna. As an officer of the Investment Company Institute, the CFA Institute, the Financial Planning Association and the No-Load Mutual Fund Association, he has been a significant force in the money management world. He’s also a philanthropist and is deeply involved in his community. By all accounts, a good guy all around. Morningstar must think so, too, because he’s a finalist for its 2006 Domestic Manager of the Year award.

Inception

December 30, 1990, though its name was then Northwest Growth Fund. Morningstar insists that the Growth Fund was launched in 1987. Saturna claims 1990, either October or December, for its predecessor fund and 1995 for the fund under its current configuration.

Minimum investment

$1,000 for regular accounts, $100 for IRAs.

Expense ratio

1.24% on an asset base of about $14 million. There’s a considerable performance adjustment built into the fee: management fee will change by as much as .3% based on performance in the trailing year. There’s also a 2% redemption fee.

Comments

This seems like a wonderfully admirable little fund. It should, in principle, do well. Expenses are quite low for such a tiny fund and management has linked its compensation to a solid performance fee. Its base management fee is 0.60% and the performance fee of up to 0.30% can cut the manager’s profits by half if he screws up. The fund holds stocks across all market capitalizations and ranges from deep value to growth holdings. The portfolio is pretty compact at 55 names, the manager is tax-sensitive and turnover is virtually non-existent. Morningstar reports 4% turnover, Saturna reports 0% for the year ending in May 2006. The fund reports virtually no frictional loss to taxes; that is, the annual tax cost on unsold shares trims less than 0.20% from the fund’s pre-tax returns. Finally, the manager, his employees and their families own nearly 40% of all outstanding shares. Which is good, since Mr. Kaiser’s pay is remarkably modest: $81,360 in total compensation for calendar 2005.

Happily, principle is aligned with practice. Sextant Growth has compiled a remarkable record for consistent excellence. It is one of just a tiny handful of equity funds that seems always above average, at least as measured by Morningstar’s metrics. Sextant Growth currently qualifies as four-star fund, but has also earned four stars for the preceding three-year, five-year and ten-year periods. For every trailing period, Morningstar gives it “above average” returns and “below average” risk.

Sextant Growth ranks in the top 15% of mid-cap growth funds over the long term, but the comparison is not terribly meaningful since the fund does not particularly target mid-caps (or, for that matter, growth stocks). It has returned 11.6% annually over the past decade and has substantially led the S&P 500 for the preceding three, five and ten years. It does tend to lag, but perform well, in growth markets: for example, it had a bottom decile rank in 2003 but still racked up gains of 26% and a bottom third rank in ’99 with returns of 41%.

Bottom line

The “Growth” name and “value” claim notwithstanding, this strikes me as a really solid core holding. The manager is experienced, the fund has prospered in a wide variety of market conditions, and the management firm seems highly principled. Kind of like a tiny little version of T. Rowe Price. It’s well deserving of substantially greater attention.

Company link

Sextant Growth Fund

Fact Sheet

 

Wasatch Global Opportunities (WAGOX), May 2010

By Editor

. . . from the archives at FundAlarm

These profiles have not been updated. The information is only accurate as of the original date of publication.

FundAlarm Annex – Fund Report
May 1, 2010

Objective

The Fund invests in small and micro cap foreign and domestic companies, though it reserves the right to put up to 35% in larger companies. Up to 90% of the portfolio may be in micro caps and up to 50% in emerging markets.  Currently the US is about 40% of the portfolio which, if I’ve read the prospectus rightly, is at the high end of the anticipated range.  The fund is technically non-diversified, but currently holds 330 stocks. They use quantitative screens to focus their attention, then “bottom up” analysis – including extensive, expensive company visits – to make the final selections.

Adviser

Wasatch Advisors of Salt Lake City, Utah.  Wasatch has been around since 1975.  It both advises the 18 Wasatch funds – including the recently acquired 1st Source funds – and manages money for high
net worth individuals and institutions. Across the board, the strength of the company lies in its ability to
invest profitably in smaller (micro- to mid-cap) companies.  As of January 2010, the firm had $7 billion
in assets under management, about $5 billion of which were in their funds.

Managers

Robert Gardiner and Blake Walker.  Mr. Gardiner had previously been Wasatch’s research director and managed three exceedingly strong Wasatch funds, Micro Cap, Micro Cap Value and Small Cap Value. With the launch of this fund, he gave up his other charges to focus here.  Mr. Walker co-managed Wasatch International Opportunities.  They both speak French.  Mais oui!

Management’s Stake in the Fund

Mr. Gardiner has over a million dollars in the fund.  Mr. Walker is in the $10,000 – $50,000 range, with a larger investment in his other fund.

Opening date

November 17, 2008. 

Minimum investment

$2,000 for regular accounts, $1,000 for IRAs and Coverdells.

Expense ratio

2.25% after waivers, which are in effect through January, 2011. There’s also a 2% redemption fee for shares held fewer than 60 days.  Don’t expect much of a price drop. International niche investing is an expensive proposition.  The International Growth fund, with a quarter billion in assets, still has expenses around 1.9%.  The prospect for any substantial reduction is further limited by Wasatch’s entirely-admirable tendency to close its funds while they’re still small enough to pursue their mandates effectively. 

Comments

There’s a lot to be said for investing with specialist firms. Firms that know what they’re after and foster a culture that focuses on their core competency, tend to succeed. It’s clear that Matthews is the place to go for Asia funds.  Royce is your single best bet for small cap value investing.  Bridgeway is better at quant work than pretty much anyone else.  And Wasatch is as close as we have to a small growth specialist.  They define themselves by their expertise in the area, though they’ve purchased funds with other mandates.  They promise incredibly thorough research, cross-team collaboration, and discipline in pursuit of “the World’s Best Growth Companies.”

They started with a couple very fine funds whose success drove them to quick closings.  While they’ve added more flavors of funds lately – Emerging Markets Small Cap, Microcap Value, and Global Tech – their focus on great, smaller companies has remained.

Mr. Gardiner is likely one of their best managers.  He ran, most famously, Wasatch Microcap from its inception through 2007.  His success there was stunning.  If you had invested $10,000 with Mr. Gardiner  on the day he opened Micro Cap and sold on the day he retired as manager, you would have made $129,000.  Put another way, your $10,000 investment would have grown by an additional $10,000 a year
for 12 years.  That is almost four times more than his peers managed in the same period. Microcap Value – in which both Roy and I have personal investments – did almost as well, both during the years in which he served as mentor to the fund’s managers and afterward.  His new charge is off to a similar performance: WAGOX has turned $10,000 into $20,000 from its launch at the end of 2008 to April 29, 2010.  Its world-stock peers have returned about half as much.

The managers recognize that such returns are unsustainable, and seem to expect turbulence ahead.  In their April 20th note to investors, Messrs. Gardiner and Walker sound a note of caution:

Given our view of the world, our main focus continues to be on quality. In each and every market, including emerging markets, we are trying to invest in what we consider to be the highest-quality
names. If the global economy ends up growing faster than we expect, stocks of high-quality companies may not lead the market, but they should do just fine. And if we see the type of subdued growth we envision, we believe high-quality stocks will do better than average.

Investing is never a sure thing.  Several of Wasatch’s star funds have faded.  Wasatch, here and in its
other funds, are purposefully targeting higher risk, higher return asset classes.  That tends to make for “lumpy” returns: a string of great years followed by a few intensely painful ones. And Wasatch charges a lot – over 2% on average for their international and global offerings – for its services.

That saidWasatch tends to find and keep strong employees.  They’ve got a track record for “tight” closings to protect their funds.  Their communications are timely and informative and, in the long run, they reward
their investors confidence. 

Bottom Line

This is a choice, not an echo.  Most “global” funds invest in huge, global corporations.  While that dampens risk, it also tends to dampen rewards and produces rather less diversification value for a portfolio.  This bold newer fund goes where virtually no one else does: tiny companies across the globe.  Only Templeton Global Smaller Companies (TEMGX) – with a value bent and a hefty sales load – comes close. Folks looking for a way to add considerable diversity to the typical large/domestic/balanced portfolio really owe it to themselves to spend some time here.

Fund website

Wasatch Global Opportunities

Fact Sheet

 

FundAlarm © 2010

American Century LIVESTRONG funds: Income (ARTOX), 2015 (ARFIX), 2025 (ARWIX), 2035 (ARYIX) and 2045 (AROIX), June 2006

By Editor

. . . from the archives at FundAlarm

These profiles have not been updated. The information is only accurate as of the original date of publication.

June 1, 2006

FundAlarm Annex – Fund Report

Objective

These are “funds of funds” which grow increasingly conservative as the
retirement target date approaches.

Adviser

American Century Investment Management.  American Century is located in Kansas City and manages about $80 billion through 70 funds.  That slightly overstates the case since 10 of their offerings – the LIVESTRONG and One Choice groups – are “funds of funds.”

Manager

Jeffrey Tyler and Irina Torelli.  Mr. Tyler is the lead manager and has been managing money for American Century since 1987.  Ms. Torelli joined the firm as a quant analyst in 1997 and became a co-manager in 2005.

Opening date

August 31, 2004.  Formerly called the “My Retirement” funds (another marketing gem), they were rebranded as LIVESTRONG funds on May 15, 2006.

Minimum investment

$2500 for both regular and tax-sheltered accounts, and $2000 for a Coverdell Education Savings Account.  The IRA minimum is $500 if you establish a monthly automatic investing plan.

Expense ratio

The Investor class shares are 0.2% above and beyond the underlying funds’ operating expenses. The total expense ratios range from 0.77% for the Income Portfolio to 0.95% for 2045.

Comments

The LIVESTRONG funds, like the MY RETIREMENT ones before them, invest in 14 other American Century funds.  The funds had very modest performance in their first year or so of operation and drew little interest from retail investors.  In rebranding the funds as  LIVESTRONG, American Century did four things:

  • It acquired Lance Armstrong as a spokesmodel.
  • It agreed to contribute at least $1 million of corporate – not investor – money to the Lance Armstrong Foundation in each of the next several years.
  • It eliminated tobacco companies from the investment mix.
  • And it latched on to a sort of goofy marketing slogan (“Get your Lance face on!”), accompanied by a very odd website.

All of which is unobjectionable, despite some snickering from the pundit gallery (“Tour de Funds”).  The Armstrong Foundation is
generally well-respected and highly-rated by the charity watchdog groups.  There’s a logical tie for the American Century funds, whose founder and founder’s wife are both cancer survivors.  The founder already supports a cancer research center. Fidelity has already led the way on celebrity spokesmodels (Sir Paul McCartney) and a number of other fund companies (Ariel and Bridgeway among them)  have charitable missions.

But none of that offers a reason to invest in the funds.  They seem a tiny bit more costly and noticeably less aggressive than the offerings from the Big Three.  Here, for example, is a comparison of American Century’s target-date 2025 fund to those of the Big Three:

 

American Cent.

Fidelity

Price

Vanguard*

 US stocks

50

58

60

71

Int’l stocks

15

15

19

11

Bonds

30

20

15

18

Cash

5

7

5

0

Expenses

.88

.75

.82

.20

*The Vanguard portfolio reflects changes that will occur early in June, 2006. We reported on those earlier.

The LIVESTRONG funds are distinguished by their annual asset mix adjustment, while the others wait for five years.  The LIVESTRONG funds also hold a few international bonds (something like a half percent for 2025), a little real estate (2%), some emerging markets equity exposure (3%), and the manager is meditating upon commodities.

Bottom line

It’s not clear that there’s any particular reason to choose these funds over their competitors. Retirement investors seeking a more-aggressive portfolio might consider T. Rowe Price and then make their own contribution (and receive their own tax deduction) to a worthy charity such as the Armstrong Foundation.  (While you’re at it, send a little to FundAlarm as well.)

Company website

Livestrong Portfolios 

 

Al Frank Fund (VALUX), April 2008

By Editor

. . . from the archives at FundAlarm

These profiles have not been updated. The information is only accurate as of the original date of publication.

April 1, 2008

FundAlarm Annex – Fund Report

Objective

The objective of the Al Frank Fund is long-term capital appreciation. The manager selects equity securities that he believes are out of favor and undervalued, then purchases and holds them until it believes that the securities have reached a fair value. That tends to take a while, so portfolio turnover is quite low and the portfolio is quite diverse: just under 300 holdings, across all valuations and size ranges. Currently the portfolio is comprised mostly of U.S. names.

Adviser

Al Frank Asset Management. The adviser, named for its late founder, manages two mutual funds (Al Frank and Al Frank Dividend Value) and about 800 separate accounts. Altogether, it manages about $750 million in assets.

Managers

John Buckingham and Jessica Chiaverini. Mr. Buckingham is the Chief Investment Officer for Al Frank, which he joined in 1987. He’s responsible for the fund’s day-to-day management. He’s also the Director of Research and editor of both The Prudent Speculator and the TechValue Report newsletters. Ms. Chiaverini works mostly with the firm’s separate accounts and the analysts.

Management’s Stake in the Fund

Mr. Buckingham has between $100,000 and $500,000 in each of the funds and owns about 20% of the adviser. Ms. Chiaverini has a marginal investment in the fund, but does buy many of the individual stocks recommended by The Prudent Speculator and held in the fund. Because Al Frank is part of the Advisers Series Trust, which provides the fund’s administrative and legal services, their board is actually a group designated to oversee all of the Advisers Series funds. As a result, they generally have no investment in either of the Al Frank funds.

Opening date

January 2, 1998.

Minimum investment

$1,000 for regular and IRA/UGMA accounts.

Expense ratio

1.50% after an expense cap that the advisor has agreed to extend “indefinitely.” There’s a 2.0% redemption fee on shares held fewer than sixty days.

Comments

Since I’m working on next week’s quizzes for my Advertising and Social Influence class at Augustana, I thought I’d toss in a short quiz for you folks, too. Here’s the set-up to the question:

Fund-tracker Morningstar provides an analysis in visual form of each mutual fund’s “ownership zone.” They define the “ownership zone” this way:

Ownership zones are the shaded areas of the style box intended to be a visual measure of a fund’s style scope–that is, the primary area of a fund’s ownership within the style box. Some key points to remember about the ownership zone are that it encompasses 75% of the stock holdings in the fund’s portfolio, and that it is centered around a centroid that is determined using an asset-weighted calculation.

Please match each fund with its corresponding ownership zone:

a. Al Frank Fund b. Fidelity Low-Priced Stock c. Vanguard Total Stock Market

 

1. 2. 3.

 

If you thought Fidelity’s Low-Priced is represented by image #1, you get a point. If you thought Vanguard’s Total Stock Market index is represented by index #3, you’re wrong. Terribly wrong. Image #3 represents a picture of the Al Frank Fund’s holdings.

For a fund whose ticker is VALUX, you might imagine . . . well, you know, “value” stocks in the portfolio. And while Mr. Buckingham thinks of himself as a value investor, he is wary of letting his portfolio get anchored merely to traditional value sectors like financials and utilities (the latter of which, by the way, he does not own). He argues that non-traditional realms, like tech, can offer good – and occasionally spectacular – values which are missed when you stick strictly to traditional valuation metrics. He argues that tech firms (the subject of his TechValue Report) might have no earnings but nonetheless represent legitimate “value” investments if the business shows evidence of substantial growth potential and the available valuations are at the low end of their historic ranges. He write:

In short, we seek bargains wherever they reside. If Blue-Chips seem cheap, we buy them. If technology stocks appear undervalued, we snap them up. We believe that limiting our investment universe by market-cap or value-versus-growth distinctions likely will serve only to limit our potential returns.

As new money comes (slowly, he grumps) into the fund, Mr. Buckingham rebalances the portfolio by investing in the new names with the most compelling valuations rather than adding to his existing positions. He argues that having a sprawling portfolio offers the best prospect for long-term success, in part because much of a portfolio’s gain is driven by a relative handful of wildly successful investments. Since it’s hard to predict which invest will be spectacular as opposed to merely “good” and since something like a third of any good investor’s choices “simply don’t work out,” he holds “200 or more stocks in our Funds, to improve our chances of owning those rare few stocks that everyone wishes they’d noticed earlier. This disciplined approach makes it possible for us to put patience – perhaps the most elusive of investment qualities – to work.” Skeptics might recall that Joel Tillinghast, on the short list of the best investment managers ever to work for Fidelity, consistently holds 700 or more stocks in his Fidelity Low-Priced Stock (FLPSX) portfolio. That’s complemented by the fact that Mr. Buckingham’s newsletter, “The Prudent Speculator has evolved to become the #1 newsletter as ranked by The Hulbert Financial Digest in its fifteen-, twenty- and twenty-five-year categories for total return performance through May 31, 2007.”

Over the decade of Al Frank fund’s existence, it’s landed in the top 2% of its peer group clocking in with annual returns of 12.7%, which tops the S&P500 and its mid-cap blend peer group by about 5% a year. Its absolute returns over the past five years – 19% annually – are stronger while its relative returns and about the same as for the longer period. The headache for investors comes in the pattern of year-to-year performance that leads to those strong, long-term numbers.

 


Year


Peer Group Ranking


2001


Top 10%


2002


Bottom 10%


2003


Top 10%


2004


Bottom 10%


2005


Top 10%


2006


Bottom 10%


2007


Just below average

 

On whole, that pattern doesn’t bother him. Citing Warren Buffett’s famous dictum, “At Berkshire, we would rather earn a lumpy 15% over time than a smooth 12%,” Mr. Buckingham takes lumpiness as an inevitable consequence of independent thinking.

Bottom Line

Al Frank definitely offers lumpy returns. The manager neither aspires to nor achieves smoothly mediocre results. He tends to make a lot of money for his investors, but punctuates periods of stout returns with periods where a good glass of stout might be called for. For folks willing to take the bad with the good, they’ve got access to a strong track record and devoutly original thinking.

Fund website

http://www.alfrankfunds.com/

FundAlarm © 2008

Driehaus International Small Cap Growth (DRIOX), November 2007

By Editor

. . . from the archives at FundAlarm

These profiles have not been updated. The information is only accurate as of the original date of publication.

November 1, 2007

FundAlarm Annex – Fund Report

Objective

The Driehaus International Small Cap Growth Fund seeks to maximize capital appreciation.  The Fund invests primarily in equity securities of smaller capitalization non-U.S. companies exhibiting strong growth characteristics. The fund invests at least 80% of its net assets in the equity securities of non-U.S. small capitalization companies, currently that is companies whose market capitalization is less than $2.5 billion at the time of investment.

Adviser

Driehaus Capital Management LLC, which was organized in 1982 to provide investment advice to high net worth individuals and institutions. As of July 31, 2007, it managed approximately $4.4 billion in assets. Driehaus runs three other mutual funds: Emerging Markets Growth (closed to new investors), International Discovery, and International Yield Opportunities (new in 2007).

Managers

Howard Schwab and David Mouser. Schwab is the lead manager here and was the lead manager for the Driehaus International Opportunities Fund, L.P., the predecessor limited partnership from its inception in August, 2002 until it transformed into this mutual fund. Schwab is also a co-manager of the Driehaus Emerging Markets Growth Fund and, for several months, helped manage the Driehaus International Equity Yield Fund. Mr. Mouser has “certain responsibilities” for investment decision-making on fund, “subject to Mr. Schwab’s approval,” just as he did with the limited partnership.

Management’s Stake in the Fund

Technically none, since the fund began operation after the date of the last SAI.

Opening date

September 17, 2007. If you don’t like that date, you could choose July 1, 2001 (the date on which Schwab began managing separate accounts using this strategy) or August 1, 2002 (the date that they launched the International Opportunities Fund, L.P., whose assets and strategies the mutual fund inherits). Technically you might also choose February 26, 2007, the date that the fund was “established as a series of Driehaus Mutual Funds” but apparently had no assets or investors. It’s a little confusing, but it does offer a certain richness of data.

Minimum investment

$10,000 for regular accounts, $2,000 for IRAs. The minimum subsequent investment for regular accounts is high, at $2,000, but it’s only $100 with an automatic investment plan. In any case, it’s a lot more affordable for most of us than the $20 million minimum required for a separate account that uses this same strategy.

Expense ratio

1.95% on assets of $101 million. The expense ratio is not likely to drop much because it includes a fairly high (1.50%) management fee which is not configured to decline as assets grow.

Comments

DRIOX represents an interesting case for investors. It’s a new fund but it’s directly derived from two predecessor entities. There are separately managed accounts with combined assets of $210 million and there was a Limited Partnership with assets of $100 million, both managed by the same guys with the same strategies. But they were also managed under very different legal structures (for example, the L.P.s don’t have to pay out distributions the way that funds are required to do) for very different sorts of clients (that is, folks with $20 million or more to invest). In addition, Driehaus runs two other mutual funds with different management teams but with the same investment discipline.

In general, all Driehaus managers are growth guys who look for companies which have:

  • Dominant products or market niches
  • Improved sales outlook or opportunities
  • Demonstrated sales and earnings growth
  • Cost restructuring programs which are expected to positively affect company earnings
  • Increased order backlogs, new product introductions, or industry developments which are expected to positively affect company earnings

They also consider macroeconomic and technical information in evaluating stocks and countries for investment.

What might we learn from all of that data? Driehaus makes gobs of money for its investors.

  • The International Small Cap Growth separate accounts have returned 36.9% annually since inception. Their benchmark has returned 13.5% over the same period.
  • The International Opportunities LP returned 36.75% annually since inception. Its benchmark returned 27.3% over the same period.
  • Emerging Markets Growth fund (DREGX) has returned 22.3% annually since inception. Its benchmark returned 13.6%. Over the past five years it has returned 44.2% annually, while its Morningstar peer group returned 36.7%.
  • International Discovery fund (DRIDX) has returned 22.2% annually since inception. Its benchmark returned 7.2%. Over the past five years it has returned 34.4% annually, while its Morningstar peer group returned 24.0%.

While I’m generally not impressed by big numbers, those are really big performance advantages, delivered through a variety of investment vehicles over a considerable set of time frames.

There are two risks which are especially relevant here. The first is that Driehaus is a very aggressive investor. Morningstar classifies Emerging Markets Growth and International Discovery as having Above Average risk. Both of the funds have turnover rates around 200%. That aggressiveness is reflected in considerable swings in performance. International Discovery, for example, has the following peer ranks:

Year Morningstar Peer Rank, Percentile
2003

22

2004

97

2005

1

2006

90

2007

1

Emerging Markets shows the same saw-tooth pattern, though in a tighter range:

Year Morningstar Peer Rank, Percentile
2002

66

2003

14

2004

48

2005

14

2006

4

2007

31

The performance data for the International Small Growth separate accounts makes the strategy’s strengths and limits pretty clear. They calculate “capture ratios,” which are essentially volatility estimates which measure performance in rising and falling markets separately. A score of 100 means you rise (or fall) in synch with the market. A score of 110 up and 130 down means that you rise 10% more than the market when it’s going up and fall 30% more when it’s going down. Here are the most recent capture ratios, as of 9/30/07:

 

3 Years


5 Years


Upside


179.28


179.66


Downside


139.51


110.01

Which is to say, it rises 80% more in good times and drops 40% more in bad than does the market. You don’t want to be here when the rain is falling.

The second risk is Driehaus’s penchant for closing and/or liquidating funds. Driehaus had a bunch of other funds that they seem to have liquidated: Driehaus International Growth (DRIGX), Driehaus European Opportunity (DREOX) and Driehaus Asia Pacific Growth (DRAGX), all of which died in 2003. The very successful Emerging Markets Growth fund just closed to new investors.

Bottom Line

For investors with $10,000 to spare and a high tolerance for risk, this might be as good as bet for sheer, pulse-pounding, gut-wrenching, adrenaline-pumping performance as you’re going to find.

Fund website

http://www.driehaus.com/DRIOX.php

 

Guinness Atkinson Alternative Energy (GAAEX), September 2007

By Editor

. . . from the archives at FundAlarm

These profiles have not been updated. The information is only accurate as of the original date of publication.

September 1, 2007

FundAlarm Annex – Fund Report

Objective

The fund seeks long-term capital appreciation by investing in US and overseas of companies involved in the alternative energy or energy technology sectors, which includes companies that increase energy efficiency but excludes nuclear.

Adviser

Guinness Atkinson Asset Management, headquartered in Woodland Hills CA but also has offices in London. The company was founded by a number of then and former managers for Investec, a multinational investment firm. The firm manages mutual funds whose net assets are about $340 million.

Manager

Tim Guinness, Ed Guinness and Matthew Page. Tim Guinness is the lead manager, the firm’s Chief Investment Officer and manager of the Global Energy and Global Innovators funds. Immediately prior to founding GA, he was joint chairman of Investec. Ed Guinness, Tim’s son, has engineering and management degrees from Cambridge. Before joining Guinness Atkinson, he worked on tech investing at HSBC and risk arbitrage for Tiedemann Investment Group in New York. Matthew Page has a Master’s degree in Physics from Oxford and worked briefly at Goldman Sachs before joining GA.

Opening date

March 31, 2006.

Minimum investment

$5000 for regular accounts, $2500 for regular accounts for individuals who own shares in other GA funds, $1000 for IRAs and $100 for accounts opened with an automatic investing plan.

Expense ratio

1.7% and falling. There’s a 2% redemption fee on shares held for fewer than 30 days.

Comments

More than is usually the case, I feel like I’m on a precipice over a gaping dark chasm of ignorance. There are two questions – is there a strong case now for alternative energy investing? and if so, is there a strong case for making that investment through an open-end mutual fund? Those are good questions for which good answers would take pages. Multiple, many, numerous pages. Little of which I’m competent to write. As a result, I’ll try to offer the second-grader’s version of the story and will ask the indulgence of folks who have profound professional knowledge of the subject.

Is there a case now for alternative energy investing? Well, there’s certainly a case for alternative energy so there’s likely a parallel case for investing in the field. What’s the case?

  • The world is running out of affordable oil and gas 

While there’s no question of imminent physical exhaustion, a number of economists project the future price of oil based on the notion of “peak oil.” At base, the peak oil theory says that once half of the oil in a particular reservoir is withdrawn, the price for removing the other half escalates sharply. There’s no single, definitive estimate for when a peak has been passed, since every oil field has its own life cycle. In general, though, experts seem to agree that the US peaked in the early 1970s and the North Sea peaked in the early 2000s. The most pessimistic estimates claim that global production is has already passed its peak (this is a subject, by the way, that causes Saudi oil ministers to sputter mightily), with 54 of the world’s 65 major producing nations in decline. A more cautious study commissioned by the US Department of Energy (Hirsch, et al, Peaking Of World Oil Production: Impacts, Mitigation, & Risk Management, 2005) predicted the peak would be “soon,” by which they meant within 20 years. Natural gas is not substantially better off.

That study made two other important claims: (1) “As peaking is approached, liquid fuel prices and price volatility will increase dramatically, and, without timely mitigation, the economic, social, and political costs will be unprecedented.” And (2) “Viable mitigation options exist on both the supply and demand sides, but to have substantial impact, they must be initiated more than a decade in advance of peaking.”

A point rarely recognized is that much of the oil that remains is not light sweet crude; it’s generally a heavy, sour oil that’s hard to refine and a relatively poor source of higher distillates such as gasoline.

  • Fossil fuel consumption is irreparably affecting the global climate

You don’t actually need to believe this argument, you mostly need to agree that it is moving into the area of “commonly accepted wisdom,” since that’s what motivates governments and other organizations to act.

I’ll note, in passing, that I’m not a climatologist and so I’m not competent to judge the technical merit of what appears to be an enormous and growing body of peer-reviewed research which substantiates this claim. I am, as it turns out, trained to assess arguments. From that perspective, I’m note that those arguing against the theory of human-induced climate change generally support their case through deceptive and misleading arguments – they mischaracterize their sources, suppress inconvenient conclusions found in the research they cite, over-claim their own qualifications, and shift argument grounds midway through. The vast majority of the skeptics’ discourse appears in blogs rather than in peer-reviewed journals and little of it is research per se but rather they focus on often-narrow methodological critiques (one recent controversial was over a quarter-degree difference in a calculation). With the possibility that the future of human civilization hangs in the balance, we deserve much more honest debate.

  • In anticipation of the two preceding arguments, governments are going to push hard for alternatives to fossil fuels

Whether through taxation, carbon emission caps, subsidies or legal protections (e.g., relaxed siting requirements), governments around the world are moving to support the production of alternative energy.

The tricky question is the “now” part – is it currently prudent to invest in this field? The Guinness Atkinson folks are refreshingly blunt, both in print and on the phone, about the undeniable risks in the field:

. . . a large percentage of alternative energy companies are thinly traded small cap stocks . . . many of these companies are loss making or just beginning to produce profits [and] many alternative energy stocks have appreciated significantly recently as a result of increased energy prices (Guinness Atkinson, The Alternative Energy Revolution, March 2006).

In a phone conversation, Jim Atkinson (GA’s president) stressed that these were voluntary caveats that GA included because they wanted well-informed investors who were willing to hold on through inevitable, short-term dislocations. The company does, indeed, support the goal of informed investors. Their monthly Alternative Energy Briefs provides a richness of information that I’ve rarely seen from a fund company.

Three factors specific to Guinness Atkinson cut against these concerns: (1) the elder Mr. Guinness has a lot of experience in the field of energy investing. The Alternative Energy fund is the offspring of a successful, offshore global energy fund of his. Both of the younger fund managers have graduate training in technical fields (engineering and physics) which bears on their ability to read and assess information about firms and their technologies. And (2) they’re reasonable conservative in their choice of companies. By Mr. Guinness’ calculation, about 82% of the portfolio companies have “positive earnings forecasts for 2007.” That number climbs to 90% by 2008. Finally (3) they build risk management into portfolio construction. They expect to have 30 or so stocks in the portfolio and, in a perfect world, they’d assign 1/30th of their assets to each stock. Lacking perfect confidence in all of their companies, they assign a full share only to companies in which they have the greatest confidence, a half share to those in which they have fair confidence and a “research share” – that is, a very small amount – to those whose prospects are most speculative but which they’d like to track. The managers note that their poorest performers are generally held in the “research” pool, which both vindicates their stock assessment and limits the damage.

Is there a strong case for making that investment through an open-end mutual fund? I’m rather more confident that the answer here is, yes. The alternative channel for alternative energy investing is one of about three exchange traded funds:

  • PowerShares WilderHill Clean Energy

(PBW) which invests in clean energy and conservation technologies. Its top holding is Echelon Corporation which provides “control networking technology for automation systems.” Echelon’s website highlights their work in improving McDonald’s kitchens. Net assets are $1.1 billion with expenses of 0.70%.

  • Market Vectors Global Alternatives

(GEX) which tracks the Ardour Global Index (Extra Liquid) of companies “engaged in the business of alternative energy.” Net assets are $61 million, expense ratio is not available.

  • First Trust NASDAQ Clean Edge US Liquid

(QCLN) tracks the NASDAQ Clean Edge U.S. Index of “clean energy” companies, which includes lots of semiconductor makers. The fund has $23 million in assets.

There are several “clean technology” ETFs, which invest in pollution control, networking, and efficiency-supporting companies. There are, in addition, a number of specialized “green” mutual funds (Spectra Green) and ETFs (Claymore/LGA Green) which don’t particularly focus on the energy sector. They like, for example, Starbuck’s because of its commitment to recycling and environmental causes.

So why not an ETF? At base, the only argument for them is low-cost: their expense ratios are about 0.7% and Guinness’ is about 1.7%. That cost advantage is overstated by three factors: (1) Guinness e.r. is declining, their’s isn’t. (2) Brokerage fees aren’t included – each purchase of an ETF goes through a broker for whose services you pay. And (3) ETFs don’t trade at their net asset value. When ETFs trade at a premium, you actually pay for less than you get. Premiums on the alternative energy ETFs have run lately from 33 to 260 basis points. By way of translation, a fund with a 70 basis point expense ratio and a 260 basis point premium to NAV is costing an investor 3.3% to buy.

The arguments against the ETFs are (1) that they’re limited to liquid investments. That’s why you’ll notice the “liquid” in the names of several. That generally excludes them from investing in private placements or very small companies. (2) You have to have a lot of confidence in the quality of the underlying index. A number of commentators don’t. Of PowerShares WilderHill Clean Energy, which has more assets than all of the other investment options combined, Morningstar recently opined:

. . . this fund lacks a well-reasoned strategy as well as a sensible, diversified benchmark. Instead, its index holds lots of companies with unproven business models and speculative stock prices. For example, the index’s average return on equity is actually negative, despite its rich average price/earnings multiple of 25 (Analyst Report, 3/5/07).

They concluded that investors “would be better off with an active manager,” though that was not a particular endorsement of Guinness Atkinson. In addition, (3) ETFs can be sold short and otherwise made part of the arbitrage games of hedge fund managers. Which isn’t a recipe for stable returns.

Perhaps as a result, Guinness Atkinson has consistently outperformed the ETFs. It benchmarks its performance against the WilderHill Clean Energy index. Here are the performance comparisons, as of 7/30/07:

  Guinness WilderHill
YTD 30.60% 25.01%
Trailing twelve months 34.35 22.39
Since fund inception 14.53 0.64

 

Bottom Line

If I were to invest in alternative energy, I think there’s a strong case to be made for investing with an active manager who has broad discretion and considerable experience. The ETF’s cost advantages are simply not sufficient to overcome their design limitations. Even if Guinness did not have a corner on the market for no-load alternative energy funds, their excellent work in a range of other funds, thoughtful portfolio construction and broad expertise makes them a strong candidate for the role.

(By way of full disclosure, my wife – who has degrees in environmental planning and law – reviewed a bunch of the literature I’ve been working through and chose to invest several thousand dollars of her retirement account in the Guinness Atkinson fund.)

Fund website

http://www.gafunds.com/gaaex.asp. You’ll find links to the monthly Alternative Energy Briefs there.

For those interested in the peak oil theory, the DOE-commissioned study is available at http://www.netl.doe.gov/publications/others/pdf/Oil_Peaking_NETL.pdf.

Active M International Equity (NMIEX), November 2006, July 2010

By Editor

At the time of publication, this fund was named Northern Multi-Manager International Equity (NIEWX) Fund.

. . . from the archives at FundAlarm

These profiles have not been updated. The information is only accurate as of the original date of publication.

November 1, 2006
Update (posted July 1, 2010)

FundAlarm Annex – Fund Report

Objective

The fund seeks long-term capital appreciation through a diversified portfolio of non-U.S. securities. Income is “incidental.” It’s willing to invest in companies of any size, though primarily in the developed markets. The portfolio is allocated among four independent, outside managers.

Adviser

Northern Trust. The parent company was founded in 1889 and has about $650 billion in assets under management. Northern Trust Global Advisors (NGTA) has been managing money for institutional investors for about a quarter century.

Manager

Andrew Smith, Senior Vice President and Chief Investment Officer for NTGA since 2000. Before that, he managed about a billion dollars in asset allocation funds for Spectrum Investments. Smith’s task here is primarily to select and monitor the fund’s sub-advisers. The four current sub-advisers are:

  • Altrinsic Global Advisors – A Connecticut-based firm with about $3 billion under management. They focus on large, high quality companies. Northern describes them as having a “relative value style: expected to protect capital in negative markets.”
  • Nicholas-Applegate Capital Management – A California-based adviser with about $15 billion under management. These folks provide an aggressive-growth element to the portfolio.
  • Oechsle International Advisors – A Boston firm which oversees about $18 billion. This is a fairly GARP-y, conservative growth group. Oechsle was subject to a disciplinary action by the SEC in 1998 for failing to adequately supervise one of its private portfolio managers, who has since left the firm. Oechsle subsequently reimbursed its clients for the monetary losses they suffered.
  • Tradewinds NWQ Global Investors – This is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Nuveen Investments with about $23 billion under management. These folks pursue an “absolute value” style which is “distinguished by deep specialization, fundamental analysis and transparency.” In theory they’ll provide the best down-side protection for the portfolio.

Inception

June 22, 2006.

Minimum investment

$2,500 for regular accounts, $500 for IRAs and $250 with an automatic investment plan.

Expense ratio

1.45% after waivers, although only 1.59% even without the waivers. There’s also a 30-day, 2% redemption fee to discourage active traders.

Comments

The argument for Northern’s various multi-manager funds is pretty straightforward. Northern has been selecting investment managers for really rich people for 125 years. They’ve done it well enough that Northern has been entrusted with assets that are starting to creep up on the trillion dollar mark. They sorted through a set of 500 managers before selecting these four.

And, in general, they seem to be getting it right. Collectively Morningstar awards four-stars to Northern’s international fund line-up and praises their “very low” expense ratios. Nicholas-Applegate runs a bunch of pretty solid international funds, but their investment minimums are typically around a quarter million dollars. Tradewinds has only a few funds, but they’re solid, disciplined performers. Altrinsic and Oechsle’s public records are mostly with funds for sale to Canadian investors. In the US, they seem to serve mostly high net-worth individuals.

Northern positions this as a fairly aggressive choice. On their risk-reward spectrum, it occupies the fourth spot from the top behind the emerging markets, international real estate and international growth funds and next to their international index fund.

Bottom line

This fund is a calculated risk, in some ways more than most. You’re basically betting on Northern’s ability to assemble a group of superior investors whose services are not generally available. Mr. Smith has been doing this for better than 20 years and seems to be rising steadily within his profession. And Northern has been doing it, to the apparent satisfaction of “a well-heeled client” for better than a century. This seems to create a fair presumption in their favor, especially at a time when compelling choices in international funds are few.

Company link

http://www.northernfunds.com

November 1, 2006

Update (posted July 1, 2010)

Assets: $2.7 billion Expenses: 1.4%
YTD return (through 6/17/10): (4.0%)  

Our original thesis

This fund is a calculated risk, in some ways more than most. You’re basically betting on Northern’s ability to assemble a group of superior investors whose services are not generally available.

Our revised thesis

So far, so good.

Since inception, NMIEX has performed modestly better than its peers or its index. The fund is down about 6% since inception, its international core peer group is down about 7% and its primary benchmark is down about 9%. It has earned those modestly above-average returns with modestly below-average volatility. It substantially outperformed its peers and benchmark during the 2007-09 crash, slightly outperformed them in the May 2010 mini-crash and substantially trailed (47% for NMIEX versus 61% for its benchmark index) through during the 12 month surge following the market low. Both the better performance in the down market and the poorer performance, especially in the early phases of the rebound, are attributable to the same factor: the fund had only about half of the exposure to European financial stocks as did its peers.

In general, the seven Northern Multi-Manager funds have been entirely respectable performers over the short life spans. Like Price funds, they generally seem to do a bit better than the peers over time and rarely end a year in the basement. Northern has been pretty vigilant about monitoring the performance of its sub-advisors and has not been reluctant to replace teams that are drifting (mostly notably in the underperforming Small Cap NMMSX fund, where they’ve made three switches in about 12 months).

It’s regrettable that the fund’s expense ratio has remained virtually unchanged, despite the tripling of assets under management from 2007 through 2010. The 1.4% fee here compares to 1.1% for the average international fund, and rather less than that for the average large cap, developed market international fund.

This is a solid choice whose low minimum investment (down to $250 for folks setting up an automatic investment plan) and broad diversification might recommend it to a wide audience.

FundAlarm © 2006, 2010

Ariel Focus (ARFFX), May 2006 (updated September 2008)

By Editor

. . . from the archives at FundAlarm

These profiles have not been updated. The information is only accurate as of the original date of publication.

Fund name

Ariel Focus (ARFFX)

Objective

Non-diversified, mid- to large-cap domestic value fund. Generally speaking, the fund will invest in 20 stocks with a market cap in excess of $10 billion each; half of those stocks will be drawn from the portfolios of Ariel Fund or Ariel Appreciation. Ariel funds favor socially-responsible company management; the firm avoids tobacco, nuclear power and handgun companies. Ariel argues that such corporations face substantial, and substantially unpredictable, legal liabilities.

Adviser

Ariel Capital Management, LLC. Ariel manages $19 billion in assets, with $8 billion in its two veteran mutual funds. Ariel provides a great model of a socially-responsible management team: the firm helps run a Chicago public charter school, is deeply involved in the community, has an intriguing and diverse Board of Trustees, is employee-owned, and its managers are heavily invested in their own funds. One gets a clear sense that these folks aren’t going to play fast and loose either with your money or with the rules.

Manager(s)

Investment team led by Charlie Bobrinskoy (Ariel’s Vice Chairman and Director of Trading, previously with Salomon/Citigroup), and Tim Fidler (Ariel’s Director of Research).

Opening date

It varies. The firm ran in-house money using this strategy from March 1 through June 29 2005. The fund was offered to Illinois residents and Ariel employees beginning June 30, 2005. It became available nationally on February 1, 2006.

Minimum investment

$1000 for regular accounts, $250 for an IRA. The minimum is waived for investors establishing an automatic monthly investment of at least $50.

Expense ratio

1.25% (after expense waiver). Ariel estimates that first-year expenses would be 2.55% without the waiver. The waiver expires September 30th, 2006, but such waivers are generally renewed.

Comments

This is the latest entrant into the “I want to be like Warren Buffett” sweepstakes. I had the opportunity to speak with Tim Fidler, one of the co-managers, and he’s pretty clear that Mr. Buffett provides the model for Ariel investing, in general, and Ariel Focus, in particular. The managers are looking for companies with a sustainable economic advantage — Mr. Buffett calls them companies with “moats.” Ariel looks for “high barriers to entry, sustainable competitive advantages, predictable fundamentals that allow for double digit earnings growth, quality management teams, [and] solid financials.” In addition, Ariel espouses a concentrated, low-turnover, low-price style. Mr. Fidler had been reading Artisan Opportunistic’s materials and was struck by many similarities in the funds’ positioning; he characterized his fund as likely “more contrarian,” which might suggest more patience and longer holding times. (Artisan Opportunistic was discussed in last month’s FundAlarm Annex.)

Ironically, for all of the Buffett influence, there’s no overlap between Buffett’s (i.e., Berkshire Hathaway’s) 32-stock portfolio and the 20 stocks in Ariel Focus.

What might drive your investment consideration with Ariel Focus? Two factors:

  1. It’s a concentrated, non-diversified portfolio. That should, in theory, drive risk and return higher. In practice, the evidence for either proposition is mixed. There are four firms that each offer two funds with the same managers and the same value philosophy, one diversified and one focused. They are Oakmark/Select, Yacktman/Focused, ICAP Equity/Select, and Clipper/Focus (yes, I know, there’s been a recent manager change, but most of the three-year record was generated by the same management team). Generally speaking, the focused fund has exhibited higher volatility, but only by a little (the standard deviations for Oakmark and Oakmark Select are typical: 8.2% versus 8.9%). The question is whether you’re consistently paid for the greater risk,and the answer seems to be “no.” There’s only one of the four pairs for which the Sharpe ratio (a measure of risk-adjusted returns) is higher for the focused fund than for the diversified one. The differences are generally small but have, lately, favored diversification.
  2. The fund is building off a solid foundation. In general, 50% of the Focus portfolio will be drawn from names already in Ariel or Ariel Appreciation. Those are both solid, low-turnover performers with long track records. Focus will depend on the same 15 person management team as Ariel; most of those folks are long-tenured and schooled in Ariel’s discipline. Their task is to apply a fairly straightforward discipline to a limited universe of new, larger stocks, about 90 companies, in all. If they’re patient, it should work out. And they do have a reputation for patience (their corporate motto, after all, is “slow and steady wins the race”).

Bottom line

If you believe in buying and holding the stocks of good, established companies, this is an entirely worthwhile offering. The advisor’s high standards of corporate behavior are pure gravy.

Company link

Ariel Focus (Ariel Web site)

May 1, 2006

Update

(posted September 1, 2008)

Assets: $40 million

Expenses: 1.25%

YTD return: (4.8%)(as of 8/29/08)

Ariel Focus has been slowly gaining traction. Its first year (2006) was a disaster as the fund trailed 97% of its peers and 2007 was only marginally better with the fund trailing 79% of its peers. 2008 has been a different story, with the fund now leading 97% of its peers. That performance has helped the fund move back to the middle of the pack, with a three-year annual return of 2.3%.

The managers attribute most of their recent success, which began in the second half of 2007, to the hard-hit financial sector. Financials helped ARFFX because (1) they didn’t own many of them and (2) the companies they did hold – Berkshire-Hathaway, JPMorgan, Aflac – weren’t involved in the most-toxic part of the mess. They were also helped by the managers’ skepticism about the durability of the commodity and oil bubble, which has helped its consumer holdings in the past several months.

Unfortunately the fund’s improving fortunes haven’t been enough to forestall layoffs at Ariel. The company is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year but the party’s a bit bittersweet since it’s accompanied by the loss of a contract to manage part of Massachusetts’ retirement fund and the laying off of 18 staff members.

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