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A Rough Patch for Flexible Allocation Funds

Boring balanced funds plus one bold allocation manager rule the roost this year.

Russel Kinnel, 08/31/2010

Funds with bolder allocation strategies are struggling because of the Greek financial crisis.

In recent years, aggressive asset-allocation funds have run circles around traditional balanced funds. Some of these flexible funds cut back their stock holdings dramatically during the 2007-09 bear market--or even bet against stocks during part of the downturn. As a result, they emerged from the carnage as heroes. If they also leaned heavily on foreign stocks, they performed even better.

But it's been another story in 2010. Boring balanced funds, which typically keep about 60% of their assets in stocks and the rest in bonds and tend to focus on U.S. securities, have come on strong. Take Fidelity Balanced FBALX, which epitomizes dullness. It sticks with a 60/40 mix and keeps its sector weightings in line with those of Standard & Poor's 500-stock index. Year-to-date through August 25, the fund was up about 3%, topping 86% of its peers. Vanguard Balanced Index VBINX, as humdrum as they come, outpaced 88% of its rivals.

A Lousy Year
In the meantime, some funds with bolder allocation strategies, including those that shift assets all over the world, have seen some bold bets go bad. For example, Ivy Asset Strategy WASAX has lost 2.3% so far this year, worse than 90% of its peers. Leuthold Asset Allocation LAALX is down 3.4%, lagging 92% of its peers.PAGEBREAK

But one active allocator, Rob Arnott, is looking downright Delphic. Two funds he runs, PIMCO All Asset PASDX and PIMCO All Asset All Authority PAUDX, have gained 9% and 10%, respectively, so far this year. Both funds can invest in any of PIMCO's Institutional funds, giving Arnott the ability to tap nearly every asset class.

As you might guess, All Authority is the bolder of the two, permitting Arnott to short stocks (bet that their prices will fall) and to use leverage. A bearish outlook on the United States prompted Arnott to short 14% of All Authority's assets at the start of 2010. Although shorting Europe would have been even better, the bet against U.S. stocks paid off during the spring swoon, as did an outsize bet on emerging-markets stocks, which dropped about 3 percentage points less than Europe did. Arnott says emerging nations have stronger economies and healthier balance sheets than most developed countries. A move into Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities also paid off nicely.

One once-hot fund that has turned cold is Ivy Asset Strategy. Manager Michael Avery had also bet against U.S. stocks, so why has his fund struggled so much? As the Greek crisis intensified in early May, Avery grew more bearish and reportedly placed a big order to short the S&P 500 (through futures contracts on the index known as e-minis). Some observers have pinpointed that order, placed precisely at the time of the flash crash on May 6, as a contributor of that debacle. (Waddell & Reed, Ivy's parent, says that neither it nor the fund contributed to the sharp drop in the stock market that day--almost 1,000 points on the Dow Jones industrial average.)

In any event, Asset Strategy lost 8.4% in May, and it seems likely that part of the problem was that a chunk of those short-sale orders were placed near the market low on May 6. The Dow subsequently rebounded 600 points that afternoon.

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