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

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