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Our 5 Nominees for Fixed-Income Manager of the Year

A challenging landscape tested most bond funds in 2013, but a few managers stood out as worthy contenders for this year's top prize.

Michelle Canavan, 01/08/2014

Earlier this week, we announced the nominees for Morningstar's Domestic-Stock Fund Manager of the Year and International-Stock Fund Manager of the Year. Next up are the Fixed-Income Manager of the Year Nominees. (Nominees in the Allocationand Alternatives categories will be revealed on Thursday and Friday, respectively. All winners will be announced on Jan. 15.)

It was a challenging environment for fixed-income funds in 2013, as the broad-market benchmark Barclays U.S. Aggregate Bond Index lost money for the first time in more than 15 years. Federal Chairman Ben Bernanke rattled the bond markets with his announcement in May suggesting that the Fed would start to taper its purchases of bonds sooner than expected. That prospect sent ripples throughout the bond market. Investors’ fear over rising interest rates was realized as all but the shortest-maturity U.S. Treasury yields rose after bottoming for the year at the beginning of May. For instance, the 10-year Treasury, which began the year at 1.86%, climbed to nearly 3% by year-end. Many fixed-income sectors took it on the chin during the summer months of 2013 as a result, particularly longer-duration U.S. Treasuries, U.S. Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities, and emerging-markets debt, and haven't fully recovered. Meanwhile, against the backdrop of a generally improving housing market and broad economy, managers who were willing to take credit risk via high-yield corporates, nonagency mortgage-backed securities, and bank loans, for example, were rewarded. Several of this year's contenders also saw a long-held conservative stance toward interest-rate risk ultimately vindicated.

Although a strong showing in 2013 is an important criterion in selecting our nominees, we also want to recognize managers who have delivered superior long-term returns with sound strategies that continue to earn our analysts' confidence. As a result, all nominees have earned a Morningstar Analyst Rating of Bronze, Silver, or Gold, indicating that Morningstar's analysts think the funds will outperform their peers on a risk-adjusted basis over a full market cycle. This year's nominees for Fixed-Income Fund Manager of the Year are as follows:

Dodge & Cox Investment Policy Committee, Dodge & Cox Income DODIX 
2013 Return: 0.6%
Morningstar Category Rank (Percentile): 8

Dodge & Cox's seasoned 10-member investment policy committee has earned a nomination for Dodge & Cox Income’s 0.6% gain during 2013's challenging bond market conditions. While modest in absolute terms, it looks impressive compared with its Barclays Aggregate US Bond benchmark's 2% loss and tops the average intermediate-term bond fund by more than 2 percentage points. This fund's management team works off a three- to five-year investment horizon, and its patience with a number of long-term themes positioned the fund well for 2013's rocky bond markets. The team has run the portfolio with a relatively muted interest-rate profile in recent years, for example, and the fund went into 2013 with a 3.7 year duration, well short of its Barclays Aggregate US Bond benchmark and category norms. That caution helped when long-term Treasury yields spiked in mid-2013. Other positives included the fund's long-standing and substantial overweighting to corporates and, in particular, its preference for financial names.

Over longer periods of time, the fund has also drummed up an impressive track record. Its trailing returns through Dec. 31 all land in the best third or better of the intermediate-term bond category, and it has also stood out on a volatility-adjusted basis. A substantial corporate stake, including roughly 11% in high-yield, leaves it exposed if the economy were to weaken significantly, but the fund's stable and long-tenured investment team and thoughtful investment process bode well for its long-term prospects.

Dan Fuss, Matthew Eagan, and Elaine Stokes, Loomis Sayles Bond LSBRX
2013 Return: 5.5%
Morningstar Category Rank (Percentile): 16

Lead manager Dan Fuss and his team are no strangers to Fund Manager of the Year accolades: The group has been nominated multiple times in the past, with Fuss taking home the award in 1995 and the whole team winning in 2009. The team has earned another nod for 2013 thanks to Loomis Sayles Bond’s 5.5% gain, which landed ahead of more than 80% of its multisector bond competitors’ and outpaced its average peer's by 3.7 percentage points. In recent years, the team has increasingly positioned the portfolio for a period of gradually rising interest rates and an improving economy. To that end, the team socked roughly a fifth of the portfolio in high-yield bonds, while building a historically high 17% stake in a mix of common stock, convertibles, and convertible preferreds. A stake in Ireland, a contrarian bet when the position was initiated in 2010, continued to boost returns until it was sold during the year; a sizable position in the debt of financial companies was another area of strength.

It is not surprising to see this fund flourish in an environment that favors credit and equity risk over interest-rate risk, but its long-term record is similarly strong. Over the trailing 10 years, the fund has returned 7.7% on an annualized basis, a record that ranks in the top decile of the category. The fund's meaningful credit, currency, and, more recently, equity risk leaves it vulnerable to sharp declines in periods of market stress, and its relatively high historical standard deviation means the fund is not for the faint of heart. But for those patient investors with a high tolerance for risk, it has rewarded fundholders handsomely over the years.

Tad Rivelle, Stephen Kane, and Laird Landmann, Metropolitan West Total Return MWTRX  
2013 Return: 0.2%
Morningstar Category Rank (Percentile): 11

TCW/MetWest's fixed-income CIO Tad Rivelle and team won the Fixed-Income Fund Manager of the Year Award in 2005 and have been nominated multiple times in the past, including for Fund Manager of the Decade in 2009. At first glance, a 0.2% gain for 2013 hardly looks like something to cheer about, but it's an impressive feat when compared with broad fixed-income market indexes and the fund's intermediate-term bond competitors. The managers have long maintained a defensive stance toward interest-rate risk here, a bet that finally paid off in 2013. That positioning resulted in a rare slump for the fund in 2011 when Treasury yields dropped for much of that year and a flight to quality weighed on the fund’s relatively aggressive stance. But with an eye on the long term and a belief that investors were not being compensated at the prices offered to take interest-rate risk, the team held tight, maintaining a relatively short duration and very modest allocation to U.S. Treasuries. A sizable stake in nonagency residential mortgage-backed securities, a corner of the market where the team has cultivated significant expertise and resources, also gave a big boost to performance thanks to an improving U.S. housing market. 

Michelle Canavan is an analyst with Morningstar.

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