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A Bear Market to Remember

How it's sparking richer fund analysis.

Karen Dolan, 04/21/2009

Stock and bond markets around the world have perked up lately, but the gloom of the past 18 months still hangs like a low dark cloud. In the years to come, we investors will surely be working to rebuild the nest eggs we've seen fractured--certainly battered, but hopefully we'll emerge a bit wiser.

Individually and as a group, our mutual fund analysts have spent a lot of time reflecting about what has happened over the past 18 months. We didn't predict how deep and severe this current crisis would become, but we're okay with that. We've never attempted to be macroeconomists or market strategists who can tell you where the Dow is headed. Our goal is to guide investors to the industry's best funds, not by focusing solely on what happened in the past, but by understanding how a fund's manager, strategy, fees, portfolio, and stewardship come together to form an investment case. We think we've done a good job achieving our goal over the long haul, but there have been cases along the way where we failed to spot the risk or challenge our own assumptions, as well as those of our readers', about investing in funds.

We've taken countless lessons away from this downturn already and we're still in the middle of learning more. The following four points don't represent a complete list of everything we've learned, but these are among the most noteworthy.

1. Value funds can lose more than you think.
Many, including us, have made the case for value-based investment strategies. Funds scrounging around the markets' bargain bin should offer better downside protection, because ignored and down-and-out stocks trading at discounts should be less susceptible to further declines. Numerous academic studies support the resiliency of value-based strategies, and some of the money managers with the best long-term records are practitioners of some flavor of value investing.

While the losses we've seen in the past 18 months have been deep, they are not the first for value funds. They got clocked by financials in 1990. The average large- and small-cap value fund lost by 6% and 14%, respectively, that year. And, although value funds looked like rock stars versus their punished growth rivals in the 2000-02 bear market, they still posted double-digit losses on average in 2002.

Any illusion of sturdiness for value funds was extinguished in this bear market, however. Value funds have posted steep losses, exceeding the slide experienced by their growth counterparts, the S&P 500 Index and value funds' own history.

I could go on for pages explaining why so many value strategies failed to preserve capital in this tough environment, but two key issues stand out. Most value funds focused too heavily on individual stocks without fully considering the bigger macroeconomic picture, and too many portfolio managers were caught holding companies with balance sheets they apparently didn't fully understand.

At the heart of the problem were the hefty financials-industry stakes in the value equity indexes and common to value funds. (Financial companies represented more than 30% of the Russell Value indexes at the market peak in October 2007.) Financials had been booming for years, so even though the stocks looked reasonably priced on common valuation metrics such as price/earnings and price/book ratios, they were indeed priced for perfection.

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