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The Active Fund That Defies Obsolescence

Vanguard Wellington is boring and old, but it keeps producing stellar risk-adjusted returns. Here’s how it does it.

Daniel Culloton, 02/12/2013

The strategy of Vanguard Wellington VWELX isn’t supposed to work anymore.

Since 2008’s debacle, many pundits and investors have declared the era of the buy-and-hold, 60%/40% stock/bond portfolio dead. It has become common to hear that the only way to build and preserve wealth is to be more tactical and flit among traditional and alternative asset classes.

This fund stands in quiet defiance of that trend. It continues to deliver competitive results with acceptable risk by keeping things simple and charging a very low fee. In many ways, it is the epitome of a stodgy old fund run by skilled active managers, one on the equity side and one on the fixed-income side.

It buys and holds dividend-paying stocks when the market frowns on them and trims them when they gain favor. Its bond portfolio eschews leverage and derivatives and favors higher-quality corporate bonds with yields that adequately compensate for their risks. The fund’s expense ratio is among the lowest for actively managed moderate-allocation funds, and its managers are seasoned and steeped in and committed to the fund’s approach. It has many desirable qualities.

At nearly $56 billion in assets, it is the fourth-biggest balanced fund in the United States, but its below-average turnover and slightly cross-grained predilections help it manage its girth. Indeed, during 2011’s maddening volatility, equity manager Ed Bousa bought stocks when they were weak and trimmed when they were strong. He took advantage of declines to buy cyclical companies like Ford F and Dow Chemical DOW and to add to positions like Microsoft MSFT. He reduced utility, health-care, and consumer staples stocks that had done well.

As it typically has for years, the fund currently has more in equities than its average moderate-allocation peer, but it hasn’t been riskier. It long-term volatility measures, such as standard deviation, are average to below-average for the peer group, and the fund has delivered investors more return for its risks, according to its 10-year Sortino ratio. There are also a lot of hedge funds that would love to have this fund’s 6% annualized return since Bousa arrived in 2000.

To explore how Vanguard Wellington does it, we will take a deep analytical look at the fund using the five pillars that Morningstar’s analysts use to determine their ratings: Process, Performance, People, Parent, and Price.

Process
This is the oldest balanced fund, and it has seen some strategy shifts and many manager changes in its time. The fund’s current approach, however, has been in place and consistently executed for more than 30 years.

is a guest author

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