Thursday, March 24, 2011

Hope for the Best: Picking Mutual Fund Winners

Picking winners is an exercise in hope. Picking winners amongst the thousands of mutual funds available in the actively traded world requires more than just hope. Mutual funds, for those of you who may not be well-versed in the subject, offer investors an opportunity to ride with a fund manager to investment success. To determine this success, the fund manager must beat the benchmark that the fund is best judged. These benchmarks are index funds.

Now I have mentioned here before, this is a less than perfect way to determine success. But it is all we have. No actively managed mutual fund owns, in the same proportion, the underlying portfolio of the index fund. Index fund advocates suggest that index funds offer the wide diversification needed to get investors from point A to point B and do so in a passive manner.

Actively managed mutual funds do something quite different. And investors who use them know this. Investors looking for just a little more from their investment dollar believe that there is always the chance that the fund they pick will outperform the index fund benchmark. Few do. But the effort is worth the gamble. So why is it that we look backwards in order to move forward? Is what happened important to what might happen?

When an investor buys an actively managed fund, they have two choices to help enable their decision. The first is what the focus of the fund is. Understanding the underlying investments, how the manager approaches the fund's individual charter, how often the fund needs to readjust to complete that task and whether the fund manager can accomplish this in a cost-effective manner all play into the decision of whether or not to buy in. These are forward looking mechanisms designed to give us some level of expectation.

The second tool we use in the decision making process uses the exact opposite methodology: where has the fund been. By no means is this a necessary tool. Yet it is often employed by index fund advocates to point out the error of the actively managed mutual funds. Based on where these funds have been, indexers point out that had these same investors used an index fund, they would have been better off.

But this is not why people invest in actively managed funds. They do so to fulfill some inner need to do better than average. So why if that is this case, do these same investors, who see themselves as better than average and more savvy than the rest, look in their rearview mirror to get some indication of what the road ahead holds for them?

What was will never be again. None of the fund screeners offered around the web, from CNBC's to Forbes to the brokerages to the Persistence Scorecard offered by the Standard and Poors give you any idea whether the fund you are considering will do good in the next quarter, the next year or even the next ten-years. In fact, all of these screeners suggesting who won in the previous time periods would be useless in picking the next benchmark beating fund.

There are several things to consider when looking to invest in an actively managed fund. At the moment right before purchase, every one is on equal footing. This is referred to as the initial opportunity set. Every fund manager is equally skilled and/or prone to the same luck. The differences lie in the cost of the fund in terms of administrative costs. This is somewhat similar to suggesting that every horse in the race has four legs.

Yet unlike a horse race, where lineage, training and numerous other factors come into play, at the beginning of the race, all mutual funds are essentially equal. Once the new quarter begins, the race is on to beat not only what the benchmark might achieve but what other funds might do as well. At the end of the race, unlike horse racing, the gamblers place their bets. Sounds odd when considered like that, but it is essentially what happens. When the quarter is complete, new investors look for the winners, something that has already occurred and buy in.

The S&P Persistence Scorecard suggests that you will be right about 25% of the time employing a method of picking past winners over the previous five years (a period that seems to be quite a long time). You would have done slightly worse trying to pick a long-term winner amongst the mid-cap sector; slightly better with a small-cap fund. What the Scorecard does not suggest is the shifts among the stocks in the small cap to mid cap to large cap arenas during that period depending on capitalization (a shift that can change with each bull or bear market, mergers and acquisitions or simply with bankruptcies).

In fact, the Persistence Scorecard suggest that the middle of the pack might be a better indicator of what might come. If the top quartile is predicted to not repeat and the bottom quartile should be not considered as potential winners in the future (most at the bottom of the scorecard will probably merge or be liquidated in the future because of this underperformance), that leaves the second and third tier funds as the next winners.

If past indicators tell us anything, it might be to look the other way. Or, they might suggest that last quarter's average will be the next quarter's winner. Whatever it is, some skill and a lot of luck keep the current winners at the top of the rankings. Which is why few do with any success. If you are picking your next opportunity based on what happened, you would be better off with an index fund. I say this because average in the actively managed mutual fund world is a bit more expensive than simply buying the index.

But if you think you know the future, your ability to pick the next winner will make the envy of your fellow investors. And considering the odds, you have about a one-in-four chance of doing so.

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