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How Highly Does Fidelity Rate?

A look at the hits and misses in Fidelity's lineup. 

Christopher Davis, 09/10/2012

Since launching the Morningstar Analyst Rating nearly a year ago, Morningstar analysts have assigned ratings to 80 Fidelity offerings. The rating, which is based on analysts' assessment of the people, process, performance, parent, and price behind the funds, now covers more than 1,000 funds in the United States.

As a shop, Fidelity fared decently. Of the 80 Fidelity funds Morningstar analysts rated, 45, or 56%, garnered a positive rating--that is, Bronze or better. A hefty chunk--31 funds--landed in Neutral territory, with just four earning a Negative rating. To put that in context, its largest competitors--American Funds, T. Rowe Price, and Vanguard--scored better. In American's case, 27 of 35 funds (77%) rated by Morningstar analysts notched positive ratings. At T. Rowe, 44 of 53 funds (81%) rated positively. Vanguard shone most brightly, with 74 of 80 rated funds (92%) notching positive ratings. None of the three shops had a Negative rating in its lineup.

At Fidelity, Bonds Shine
This isn't to say there aren't areas of strength. All 13 of Fidelity's Gold-rated offerings are bond funds. In part, that's because the funds are reasonably priced. More importantly, the Merrimack, N.H.-based bond operation boasts highly seasoned, tightly knit teams in both the taxable- and municipal-bond realms. The groups use cutting-edge technological tools to stay ahead of the competition, but their success also stems from sensible, straightforward processes. Jamie Pagliocco and the entire muni-bond team have delivered terrific long-term returns at funds such as Gold-rated Fidelity Tax-Free Bond FTABX without taking on loads of leverage and credit risk. And taxable-bond specialists like Bill Irving, Ford O'Neal, and Jeff Moore have built fine records at Gold-rated funds such as Fidelity Investment Grade Bond FBNDX and Fidelity Total Bond FTBFX with well-diversified portfolios and strong security-by-security research.

Fidelity's fixed-income lineup isn't entirely gold-plated, though. Fidelity New Markets Income FNMIX, which focuses on emerging-markets debt, and high-yield offering Fidelity Capital & Income FAGIX earned Silver ratings. The firm's developing-markets team is strong and capable but includes a lot of up-and-coming analysts; even Fidelity acknowledges it's a bit of a work in progress. And given Capital & Income's focus on some of the most dicey high-yield bonds, delivering truly superior risk-adjusted returns is by no means assured. I don't want to overstate my case, however. Silver is still a very strong rating. And the managers are no slouches. In fact, John Carlson received the Morningstar Fund Manager of the Year honors in 2011.

In Stocks, a Mixed Picture
Most of Fidelity's bond operation functions relatively autonomously, with separate offices in Merrimack, N.H. By sequestering the fixed-income folks from the Boston mother ship, Fidelity has helped insulate them from the cultural faults that hurt the equity funds' ratings.

To be sure, the stock funds enjoy many of the same advantages as their fixed-income counterparts. For one, costs are generally moderate. In fact, only one fund ranked Negative on price. And they play host to many experienced and talented managers, such as Contrafund's FCNTX Will Danoff, Low-Priced Stock's FLPSX Joel Tillinghast, and Growth Company's FDGRX Steve Wymer, among others.

Yet Fidelity has undermined these managers' potential for future success by letting their funds become too large. Heavy asset bases compromise their ability to successfully imple­ment their strategies. Both Danoff and Tillinghast have coped with their respective fund's girth by moving up the market-cap ladder, for example. And while size hasn't prevented Wymer from devoting a considerable chunk of his portfolio to mid- and small caps, he hasn't been able to do so without owning a significant portion of their outstanding shares. That limits his ability to move in and out of the stocks with ease. If not for these concerns, they likely would've been Gold-rated. Even so, the funds deserve plenty of credit for staying ahead of the competition, even as it's become harder for them to do so.

Where performance deteriorates as assets grow, there's reason to be less forgiving. Fidelity Diversified International's FDIVX Bill Bower, for example, has nicely beaten the foreign large-blend average and the MSCI EAFE since taking charge in 2001, but that's almost entirely thanks to the success he enjoyed between 2001 and 2005. Returns since have been middling--a weakness that coincides with rapid asset growth in the mid-2000s. The fund also became more large-cap-focused and less concentrated and took fewer sector bets, limiting Bower's ability to replicate his earlier showing. Diversified International may fare better in the future, but there's not enough evidence to bet on it, explaining its Neutral rating.

In other instances, lack of confidence in manage­ment's process hurt some funds' ratings. Fidelity's relatively new experiment with its multimanager approach is a case in point. Fidelity Balanced FBALX has employed this approach for longer than any other fund. Its long-term performance is strong, but that owes primarily to former longtime manager Larry Rakers (who now runs Silver-rated Fidelity Dividend Growth FDGFX). The multimanager approach, which divvies up the portfolio along sector lines to specialists in each area, has garnered mixed results since its late 2008 adoption. It's not that I find fault with the managers themselves. All have records of success picking stocks in their appointed sectors. But their combined portfolio's indexlike complexion makes it tough for the fund to deliver standout performance. For similar reasons, Morningstar analysts rated Fidelity Stock Selector All Cap FDSSX, which delegates stock selection to a group of Fidelity Select fund managers, a Neutral rating.

In one of Fidelity's four Negative ratings, Fidelity Advisor International Capital Appreciation FCPAX, there just wasn't much to like at all. Manager Sammy Simnegar is inexperienced, with just three years under his belt as a portfolio manager. His tenure has been quite tumultuous. And he recently shifted from a fast-trading, short-term-focused style to a more sedate reliance on high-quality stocks. There's nothing wrong with owning quality stocks, of course, but the shift struck me as abrupt and not especially well thought through. There's just no evidence the fund is likely to outperform.

While Simnegar's abrupt strategy shift led to a Negative rating for International Capital Appreciation, Fidelity Trend FTRNX and Fidelity Overseas FOSFX got Negative ratings after Fidelity installed new managers in 2012 with backgrounds that didn't mesh with their funds' mandates. Fidelity Trend's Dan Kelley, for example, took over diversified large-growth Trend after a brief stint at Fidelity Select Construction & Housing FSHOX, while Vincent Montemaggiore had little international experience when he took over Overseas.  

Using the Rating
While you can use the Analyst Rating with confidence, it, like any one data point, isn't necessarily a silver bullet. A positive rating will tell you a fund is likely to outperform, but it won't tell you whether that fund is right for you. Fidelity Leveraged Company Stock FLVCX, for example, is rated Silver, but some investors have found its volatility tough to stomach.

As always, you should under­stand what makes a fund tick, why you want to own it, and whether it really fits in with your portfo­lio. The Analyst Rating is a powerful tool, but it's one that should begin your investment search, not end it.

A version of this article appeared in the December 2011 Fidelity Funds Fund Family Report.

Christopher Davis is a senior fund analyst with Morningstar and editor of Morningstar's Fidelity Fund Family Report, a monthly newsletter that offers independent, no-holds-barred guidance on the pros and cons of this dominant fund family. He welcomes e-mail but cannot give investment advice. Click here for a free issue of the Fidelity Fund Family Report.
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