Commodities are a big part of these funds' portfolios, for better and for worse.
Commodities have been making a lot of financial headlines lately, for better and for worse. Most commodity prices have risen dramatically over the past year thanks to a variety of factors, including anticipated demand from emerging markets, unrest in the Middle East, and a desire to hedge against inflation and the falling dollar. Such a dramatic rise makes a pullback almost inevitable, and indeed, the past few weeks have seen commodity prices plunge amid increased economic skittishness and the exit of many speculators. Silver, which had been among the biggest gainers in the runup, fell 27% in the first week of May after hitting a 31-year high. Oil prices fell 15% in the same week, and major commodity indexes fell by double-digit percentages from their highs before rebounding somewhat in recent days.
These price gyrations illustrate the risks, but commodities can be a valuable addition to a portfolio if they're used in moderation and treated as a diversifier. There are a variety of ways for mutual fund investors to get such exposure. The most direct is through funds that specialize in commodities, either by tracking indexes composed of commodity futures, as in the $28 billion PIMCO Commodity Real Return Strategy PCRIX, or by owning stocks of commodity firms, as in Vanguard Precious Metals and Mining VGPMX or T. Rowe Price New Era PRNEX. There is also an ever-increasing number of exchange-traded funds specializing in commodities, ranging from broad-basket ETFs such as PowerShares DB Commodity Index Tracking DBC to highly specialized ones such as Global X Copper Miners ETF COPX.
Other types of funds can provide more indirect commodity exposure. For example, funds that specialize in Russia and Canada, the largest of which are ING Russia LETRX and Fidelity Canada FICDX, have very high commodity weightings (typically around 50% of assets) because of the prominence of commodity firms in those countries' stock markets. More-diversified emerging-markets stock funds, such as Templeton Developing Markets TEDMX, often have lots of commodity exposure as well, as do emerging-markets bond funds such as Fidelity New Markets Income FNMIX.
Then there are diversified funds with relatively high weightings in commodity stocks or other commodity-related investments. These funds can own commodities as part of a bet on macroeconomic trends, or because they find the stocks fundamentally attractive, or for some combination of these reasons. They will naturally have less exposure than the types of funds described above, but that exposure can still be significant and can have a major impact on these funds' relative returns. The following four funds--a large-cap domestic-stock fund, a small-cap domestic-stock fund, a global-stock fund, and a world-allocation fund--all have significantly more commodity weightings than their peers, and they're all very good funds with strong track records.
Columbia Value & Restructuring UMBIX
David Williams has run this fund for nearly 20 years, compiling an outstanding record by finding stocks trading at a discount to their long-term value and holding on to them for a long time. (He's planning to retire at the end of 2012; comanagers Guy Pope and Nick Smith will take over then.) For the past several years the portfolio has been heavy in energy and materials stocks, which currently make up about 40% of assets, far above the large-value category average. Williams thinks these stocks are cheap relative to their long-term asset values and that they'll benefit from trends in the global economy and help protect against inflation.
Allianz NFJ Small Cap Value PNVDX
This closed small-value fund's cautious approach, focused on cheap dividend-paying stocks, results in a fairly defensive portfolio. The dividend focus has led the managers to a big weighting in energy, including master limited partnerships such as Linn Energy LINE. But the top holdings also include a couple of agriculture-related stocks (Corn Products International CPO and Compass Minerals CMP) as well as precious-metals holdings such as Central Fund of Canada CEF (a closed-end fund that holds gold and silver bullion), Royal Gold RGLD, and IAMGold IMG.
Nuveen Tradewinds International Value NAIGX
This is one of several funds managed by the Tradewinds team overseen by CIO David Iben, all of which look for financially sound companies trading below their intrinsic values and none of which pay very much attention to benchmarks. This fund has big weightings in energy and materials stocks, especially gold miners, reflecting the belief of managers Peter Boardman and Alberto Crespo that these stocks are trading well below their intrinsic value. As of Feb. 28, 2011, this fund's top holding was Barrick Gold ABX and the top 10 included two other gold stocks (AngloGold Ashanti AU and Kinross Gold K) and three oil and gas stocks (Nexen NXY, Suncor Energy SU, and Royal Dutch Shell RDS.B). Siblings Nuveen Tradewinds Global All-Cap NWGAX and Nuveen Tradewinds Value Opportunities NVOAX have similarly heavy commodity exposure.