Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Possible Appeal of Long Term Mutual Fund Managers

One of the single toughest problems facing any investor is research. The information we seek is mostly conflicting, mostly difficult to understand and worse, readily available for the taking. The trouble is, access doesn't make the choices we need to make about where to put our money any easier.

You might consider the grocery store analogy. You may want to cook a whole chicken for dinner tonight but when standing at the meat counter you find three perhaps four different types of whole birds to chose from ranging from the very pricey organic variety to the very cheap store brand. They look alike, perhaps even clucked alike at one time. But what they are, besides all being chickens, different somehow.

Now mutual fund managers can hardly be compared to chickens. But in some ways, we have the same sort of conundrum facing us when it comes to a mutual fund selection. How much is the fund the manager and does it matter?

Mutual fund managers do have some appeal to certain investors. The longer the term some managers have, the more likely they will remain with the same investment style. Consider the long-term managers at these funds: Parnassus Fund (PARNX) which has had  Jerome Dodson as the fund's lead for 26 years,  Richard Aster Jr. of Meridian Growth (MERDX) has also put in just as many years and the grandfathers of the industry are people like Albert Nicholas who created his namesake Nicholas Fund (NICSX) and has managed it since its 1969 inception and perhaps the oldest fund manager Bernard Klawans who at 89 years old still runs the small Valley Forge Fund (VAFGX).

But is the same investment style still in style? Yes and no. Markets have remained essentially the same since they were conceived. And although we often consider them as impersonal entities, much like a Watson, they are not. Instead they are made up of people who, for want of a better term, want you to lose. There are two sides to every transaction and good will doesn't enter into the equation. Hiring a professional such as a mutual fund manager - and this is what you are doing - offers you box seats in the battle of who will win and who will lose in the marketplace.

Understanding the nuances of the markets is a timeless venture that involves understanding the players involved. Sure, computers have made the world smaller and faster and more efficient. Companies have broaden their customer bases and in the process made the oceans that separate the world seem like nothing more than a small pond. The world is at our doorstep.  But the people at the heart of every investment haven't evolved one iota since the markets were conceived.

It is still not about chasing the next new thing; it is about finding the things that no one really sees as bright and shiny, old investment ideas that have never changed. This is what older managers bring to the conversation. So that would be yes.

On the other hand, the reason these fund managers have remained at the helm for so long has more than a lot to do with who owns the fund family., The four above mentioned fund managers can't be fired from the positions they created. They can only step aside. So too long is perhaps too long.

Each fund manager must do three things. One they must create a portfolio that is sustainable and worth holding. Fund managers generally have ideas about how this is done and new fund managers will come on board and switch things around, selling one security in favor of another. So they initial year is generally a wash in terms of comparisons. By the five year mark, they should have settled in with their strategies in place. So five years is a good judge of turnover - a term that references how much of the portfolio has changed in the previous year. Less is better.
The second thing they must do is create returns that are better than an index and enough to pay the bills. If the expenses are low, this shouldn't be too much of problem provided the markets cooperate a little bit during those initial years in the lead position. Returns are tricky though. Weighed against fees, risk and a host of other obstacles, the number the fund posts can mean the difference in whether investors stay invested or turn a look for something more suitable.

Each exiting investor, aside from a no-confidence vote is a sale which forces a sale which in turn, creates some disruption to the investment plan. Get a lot of investors headed toward the door and no matter how good you think you are, you will not be able to sell enough to make ends meet for the remaining investors. This cascade effect was seen best in late 2008 when numerous investors ran rather than staying put and allowing the fund managers to keep the level head they were hired to have. So they must contend with investors and the markets.

The last thing a fund manager needs to contend with is the shareholders in the fund company. Many mutual fund companies are publicly traded entities which puts the manager in the middle of two sets of shareholders. One demands returns and the other demands returns and both consider themselves the most important part of the equation.

There are more than a handful of mutual funds that circumvent this one manager stewardship by using teams or even people and computers, the former to take the blame should things go awry. But some rules do apply across all mutual funds. New anything is not worth buying. A new fund, a new fund manager and new investment strategy are all worth giving a little time and latitude to before you invest. Let the folks who don't know any better buy first.

Three years is barely enough time to make a performance call on a mutual fund manager; five is better but ten tends to be best. Remember, the three parts to a fund manager's skill: the markets, the investors and the shareholders. Mastery of those masters is never done in a short period of time.

Paul Petillo is the managing editor of and a fellow Boomer

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