Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Mutual Funds in the Next Year

The difference between 2009 and 2010 will be dramatic. Investors, always looking for the next big move will unwind their positions in conservative funds - albeit late - and move into equity income funds that provide some stability (from large companies that are well-established) and income (through dividends).

The real winners for 2010 will be in dividends and the funds that invest in them. Often referred to as equity income investments, these funds will begin to shine as businesses begin to increase their profit sharing (which is what dividends are) even if they have not begun hiring.

More here.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Mutual Funds Explained: Topic of Fees

Mutual fund investing should be a simple process. It should be straightforward and easy to understand. Unfortunately, once we get involved, we bring our own set of behaviors to the process.

In our first discussion about performance comparisons for mutual funds, we looked at the downside of simply comparing side-by-side an actively managed fund with one of the indexes that are published. These indexes span a wide variety of categories in order to help investors understand how the broader market has done in relation to the fund they own.

Trouble is, no fund, not even index funds are able to buy in total, all of the stocks in a particular index. Yet, index funds are designed to come as close to the index they mimic. Any wide discrepancies, either higher than the index or lower than the index should raise a warning sign to current and new investors. This could point to a style drift, a process whereby the fund manager looks to stocks outside the parameters of the index to beef up returns. because in the world of mutual funds, one-hundredth of a percentage point can often sway the investor's decision of which fund to choose.

Often, this focus on returns drives the investor to funds that are the wrong ones for a long-term approach. Even almost five years since the publication of the paper b the Wharton School :"Why Does the Law of One Price Fail? An Experiment on Index Mutual Funds," by Madrian, James J. Choi, professor of finance at Yale, and David Laibson, economics professor at Harvard, folks still do not adequately take these costs into account.

In their experiment, they used index funds as the sole investment. The S&P 500 index, which tracks the 500 largest companies trading on the US exchanges should all have identical returns over the same period. The only difference lies in the fees the fund charges the investor. These fees are often touted as the lowest available and with good reason. The investment itself is passive. Managers buy and hold any underlying stocks in the portfolio until the index itself is readjusted.

Their concern before the experiment was based in the question: why, if index funds outperform actively managed mutual funds most of the time when held over long periods of time, such as twenty years or more, would an investor pay higher fees when index funds charge so much less? They pointed out that when an investor considers fees to relative performance, say when an actively managed fund matches the returns of a passively managed index, the investor will not consider fees as an important factor in the process. If both of the funds in this paragraph earned the same 10% over that twnety years, the difference in real dollars would be over $11,000.

To conduct their experiment, the chose only four funds, all S&P 500 index fund. They all varied slightly in overall fees with the performance of these funds almost identical. They could invest all of the hypothetical $10,000 in one fund, or divide the investment among many funds. The reward for outperforming their cohorts was an actual cash prize: the profits generated by the best performance over the course of a year.

They broke the students in the experiment into three groups: one received a prospectus accompanied by a returns sheet, one a prospectus accompanied by a fee sheet, and the last group, the control group, received only a prospectus. In each case, the prospectus was the same as the one any investor might receive upon request.

The result of the experiment indicated that disclosure did have an effect on the students in all three groups. The group with the returns sheet did the worst. Those that received fee information did better. What was most curious about the results: the students with the fee sheets could clearly see that one fund among the four offered the lowest fees yet not one student put all of their money i that fund despite the relative identical natures of the overall investments.

By no means does this say that fees are or should be the only force in your decision to buy a certain fund. But they should enter into the discussion at a much higher level that that of overall performance.

Next up, the role of the manager.

Paul Petillo is the Managing Editor of

Monday, December 7, 2009

A Performance Discussion on Mutual Funds

The last lines of Matthew P. Fink's book, "The Rise of the Mutual Fund" suggest that although he is a "worrier; nonetheless, I am optimistic". This speaks volumes to the "extraordinary success of mutual funds". Mr. Fink believes that despite the speculation about the maturity of the industry, it is far from falling from its exalted position. This elevated status is due, he writes "to adherence to high standards of fiduciary behavior".

Yet the mutual fund industry continues to be attacked for any number of reasons. The largest component of your 401(k) plan, your IRAs and the driving force behind numerous college savings plans, these investments are often questioned on their transparency, why they charge what they charge and even more commonly, why, if you win one quarter, can you not win the game.

Comparing Mutual Funds
There are numerous ways to compare mutual funds and none of them good. The rule of thumb for a fund is relatively straightforward: look for long-term performance (I have suggested that you also look to how well the fund manager did in poor markets rather than how they did during the good times), the cost of the fund (fees and expenses do not often tell the whole story but offer a telling sign of how much the fund manager trades and why), and the tenure of the manager in charge (an ever shifting picture as fund managers come and go and new managers look to put their investment stamp on the portfolio).

The subject of performance is often more confusing when actively managed funds are compared to indexes. These passive measures are poor indicators of what an active manager holds. This is why, so often, index investors make the claim that not only do passively managed funds offer a cost advantage but because the strategy of buy-and-hold limits volatility, they increase returns by limiting exposure to unnecessary risk. Your cost for less risk however can be higher than the low cost of these funds. Also consider that index funds do not hold all of the stocks in the indexes they mimic. And actively managed funds hold even less.

Looking at Past Performance
Performance also comes to the forefront when we look backwards. For quite sometime now, the mutual fund industry has warned investors that the past is no indication of the future. While this has been disclaimed as a method of disclosure, it is still one of the default guides for new and even seasoned investors when making the choice for which fund to buy.

Over the last decade we have had two bubbles and two market reactions to those events. Had you purchased a mutual fund, any fund as a bubble reached its peak, the previous five years would not have reflected the previous bull market's demise. I clearly remember the sigh of relief as the year 2001 was dropped from the 5 year returns in 2007. No longer would the bad bets made during the internet bubble show up as a stain on the investor information sheets. Ironically, even as some funds dove into the depths, they took the whole market down with them. (As did happen recently in 2008.)

Just by removing the bad year from the five-year returns made many funds appear much better to investors and they flocked to own them again. Averages suggest some odd things. A line-up of one hundred persons, ninety-eight of whom are six feet tall would not change the average if the person on one end was ten feet tall and the one on the other end was three feet in height.

But stock markets rarely have a peak that moves quickly from the bottom to the top whereas the bottom is often reached in less than six months. The top of a bull market takes five years, at least as witnessed over the last decade, to attain. This is not the case for any period prior to this. Bottoms were reached quickly while the top of the market was often a slow slog.

So we have the performance of actively managed mutual funds as compared by using index funds possessing some flaws. And past performance leaving us with no real picture of the future based on the past, how does one judge performance? Without considering fees, the worst day of a fund. Based on the simple idea that, if mutual funds are the primary holding in a retirement account and at one point in time, you will be begin to drawdown that account, picking the worst day to do so gives you a valuable peek at a worst case scenario. That is probably a truer indication of performance that averaging it our over a period in time. You can read more about low-mark performance here.

Next, a discussion about fees.

Paul Petillo is the Managing Editor of