Home>Video>Fund Favorites and Follies Over 20 Years

Fund Favorites and Follies Over 20 Years

Wed, 19 Sep 2012

In this special 50-minute panel discussion, Morningstar's Christine Benz, Russ Kinnel, and John Rekenthaler chart fund investing's course over the last two decades, discuss investors' biggest challenges today, and reveal some of their favorite longtime picks.

+

Video Transcript

Susan Dziubinski: Good afternoon, and welcome to Morningstar FundInvestor's 20th Anniversary Celebration Roundtable. I am Susan Dziubinski. I'm the publisher of the Morningstar Investor Newsletters, and I'm also the moderator for this afternoon's event.

Twenty years ago this month, Morningstar published its first issue of Morningstar FundInvestor. The publication's mission then and now has been a simple one; to help mutual fund investors build and maintain portfolios that help them reach their goals.

I'm very lucky to be here this afternoon with three FundInvestor editors, our current editor and two of our former editors, and they're here to share with us their wisdom from the past 20 years.

I'd like to introduce first Russ Kinnel, current editor of Morningstar FundInvestor. Russ has been editing FundInvestor since 2004, and he also leads Morningstar's Fund Ratings Committee. Thank you for joining us.

Russ Kinnel: Good to be here.

Dziubinski: In the center is Christine Benz. Christine is our director of personal finance and a senior columnist for Morningstar.com, and Christine is also author of 30 Minute Money Solutions, a step-by-step guide to managing your finances.

And last but not least is John Rekenthaler. John is vice president of research for Morningstar. In this role, John oversees Morningstar's research methodologies, and John has played a very important role in creating many of the proprietary measures at Morningstar, including our Star Rating and Style Box.

So welcome everyone. Thank you for joining us this afternoon.

Russ, I want to start with you since you are the current editor of FundInvestor. Twenty years ago when we launched FundInvestor, we were trying to address the topics and concerns of the day. So I think the feature article was on style investing, and we had an article on the Morningstar Style Box, which also debuted in 1992. We featured a popular up-and-coming fund, Fidelity Disciplined Equity, and we also talked about strategic income funds, which were kind of new and on-the-scene and topical at that point.

So if you were publishing the first issue of FundInvestor today, what are those topics that are top of mind for you that you would be including in that issue?

Kinnel: Well, I think it has to be about "how do I get income," because in this environment, it's really hard to get income without taking on big risks, and the Fed has recently upped their ante with QE3, which is essentially a process by which they are buying a bunch of mortgage-backed bonds in an attempt to spur housing, in an attempt to keep interest rates low for the next three years.

So it's very hard to find good fixed-income opportunities and not take on too much risk. The hard answer, the short answer, is you can get a little bit of income, but you can't get what you used to get because there is just too much risk involved, rates are too low ...

Dziubinski: Right.

Kinnel: ...and unfortunately there's just not that much income out there.

Dziubinski: Christine, speaking of income, that's a great question for you as director of financial planning. What are some strategies you would offer to income-seekers today in this environment for getting an income that they need without taking on undue risk?

<TRANSCRIPT>

Christine Benz: I would echo Russ' comments. I think staying firmly attuned to valuation, what you are paying for the asset, in addition to whatever income it's kicking off, is essential. So you really do have to balance those two things. My concern is, when you look at where the money is going, that investors are really just focusing on that paycheck and not spending enough time thinking about the valuation that they are paying for whatever it is they are buying.

So I really like the dividend-growth-type strategies. So you will not see a dividend that's high in absolute terms, it may be even below what the market is yielding--or maybe right in line with what the market is yielding--but at least the companies that the fund owns have the opportunity to potentially grow their dividends over time. So I think that's a good strategy that kind of balances income with growth.

John Rekenthaler: It seems to me, in this environment, I mean, it's so hard to live on coupon alone. There are times...

Benz: Unless you are really wealthy.

Rekenthaler: There are times when living on coupon alone makes more sense. So my grandfather retired, he sold his house and put it into CDs paying 15%. ...

Benz: This was the 1980s, right?

Rekenthaler: This was the 1980s, yes. That's right. But now it seems more like you'd want to fashion a strategy, which is more complicated than living on coupon and not touching your principal, that is more of a total return strategy. In some years, you're going to build up and you are going to take out less than the accumulation of your total return because your assets went up in price. In some years, your assets are going to go down a bit. You are getting a little more market movement. But the notion of, "I'm retired, so I'm just going to go out there [with an income-only strategy]…"--this is how my parents approached their portfolio, and they were just basically in cash for it. They were also at a time where it wasn't the ideal strategy, but it was closer. But it seems really tough to do now. It's more complicated now.

Benz: You talk to people, and they'll say, "Well, I need 6% for my portfolio." Gosh, where do you get 6% in this environment?

Rekenthaler: Well, I know a place. I'll tell you later though.

Benz: But I'm guessing it has a fair amount of risk.

Rekenthaler: I've got to keep people here until the end of the show!

Kinnel: One of the things I like about the dividend growth strategies is not only do you have a decent dividend there, but it forces the manager into clean balance-sheet companies, because if you have a highly leveraged balance sheet, you are not going to have the prospects to grow that dividend. So there are actually some nice defensive characteristics, which showed up in 2008. So it's another good aspect for it. It's not risk-free, clearly, but there is some defensive component.

Benz: It kept products like that out of heavy financials exposure, for example.

Kinnel: Right.

Dziubinski: Can you give us maybe an example of a fund or two that fits the bill that you are talking about as far as dividend growth strategy that you've looked at?

Benz: Vanguard Dividend Growth VDIGX is one that I like. I think we also like the ETF version, the Dividend Appreciation ETF VIG; I think both products would sort of track a similar universe.

Kinnel: Right, the Dividend Growth being actively managed and the ETF being passive, but a similar pool.

Dziubinski: John, speaking of favorite funds, can you talk a little bit about one or two of the favorite funds from 20 years ago and where they are today and if there are any lessons to be learned from that for today's fund investor?

Rekenthaler: Yes. You asked me that question ahead of time, and it's got to be Fidelity Magellan. It had to be much larger than anything else. It was bigger, but it wasn't much larger. Fidelity Magellan in mid-1992 was $17 billion. Then there were a couple bond funds at $12 billion, Investment Company of America at $9 billion, a couple of American Funds there.

On lessons to be learned, well, obviously, the decline of Fidelity Magellan--the single largest fund and without a doubt the glamour fund in the fund industry, and the headline fund of the fund industry--is a lesson about change, and it's a lesson about the fact that even the best of active management is something you have to monitor; you just can't put your money in and say--in that case, it was a new manager; Peter Lynch had just retired after 15 years or so on the helm. But regardless of the situation, there's no sure thing when it comes to star managers and active managers, and I think that's pretty well-known now. That was less known in the early 1990s. I certainly would not have predicted it. I would have said, well, maybe it's going to regress to the mean, but it's been worse than the mean over that time period. I would not have predicted that.

On the other hand, the other lessons are pretty positive. There was one overpriced government bond fund that had a high expense ratio that was one of these brokerage-house-pushed funds from the 1980s that had about, Dean Witter Fund had about $10 billion. It wasn't a very good fund … It wasn't a disastrous investment for people, but it's overpriced for a government bond fund, and you'd have to call that a disappointment.

All the rest of the funds were fine. There were couple of Franklin funds--a muni fund and a government fund--the rest were low-expense funds. There were a couple of Vanguard funds on the list, a couple of investment companies. I guess that's the lesson: If you're in low-cost funds that are not doing anything too tricky, pretty straightforward and buying decent asset classes--large-cap value stocks, government bonds and so forth--you'll have a pretty good experience. Those funds have not disappointed people. They continue to be large, and people have done well with that.

So I would say that would be the lesson, and it echoes what you said, often simpler is better, and the people who kept it simple and kept their costs low did pretty well. Actually the money was reasonably rationally--when you look at the leaders list--it was pretty rationally invested for 20 years ago. It's not as if all of the top funds just went the other way; most of the top funds continued to have a fair amount of assets and have had pretty good results.

Kinnel: I think American Funds had a better model for managing a large sum of money, because they were divvied up among seven or eight managers, give some to the analysts, and Magellan is kind of a great illustration of just how painful it can be to run that much money under one person.

Rekenthaler: That's a great point. Clearly, the multimanager approach has had traction and has looked better over that 20-year period. Jack Bogle himself said that, that he had moved from early on giving an entire fund to a single manager, John Neff gets Windsor or whatever, to more and more of a multimanager approach, hedging your bets, not getting burnt by a single decision that you made, and American Funds is ahead of its time. It gets criticized a lot--people saying there is not clarity with this and you don't have enough guts and all that. But I think you'd have to say they were right in that and they've treated shareholders well with that, because it prevents those off years of bad relative performance where the clientele panics and investors get out at the wrong time--and we'll talk about that as well, the cycle of bad behavior.

Benz: I will say, John, though, I like American Funds too, but I do think that the true subadvisor model does that one better, in terms of giving the management company that arm's-length view of its managers and, I think, giving them more latitude to fire them if need be than is the case with the captive in-house.

Rekenthaler: It's certainly better in theory. In practice you wonder, though, if sometimes you'll maybe get too quick of a trigger finger taking action for action's sake, so sometimes it's a little bit better to be locked in. In theory, absolutely, in practice sometimes.

Dziubinski: Christine, when we first launched FundInvestor, we've always talked about a key part of it being talking to people about building portfolios, not just picking funds but actually assembling them together in a portfolio, and that's always been very important to what we do, not only in FundInvestor but at Morningstar.

What are you seeing today as some questions that you feel investors should be asking themselves about their portfolios, but maybe they are not? Are we asking ourselves the wrong questions?

Benz: Well, I think some investors are, which is why you see some investors looking back to the past decade and thinking about all of the volatility that they endured, and so they are gravitating toward very safe investments. So I think some investors are not asking themselves the right questions. I think the key questions focus around, what can I as an investor control? What things are within my sphere of control? So costs, obviously, a lot of Russ' research points to the value of low costs, not just for the investment funds that you pick, but also at every layer. How much you are paying your advisor. How much you are paying in trading costs.

Tax management, I would say, is another thing that at least might feel really uncertain right now, given all that's set to change in 2013. But staying attuned to what's happening with the tax regime as it intersects with your portfolio and planning to make adjustments as need be, planning to run the most tax-efficient portfolio that you possibly can.

And finally, asset allocation, coming up with a semi-sane asset allocation given where you are in your life. Not getting too fancy in terms of employing tactical strategies and really paying attention to what's happening with the election, and the fiscal cliff, and Europe, and everything else. But really saying, where am I in my life? How close am I to needing this money, and does that asset-allocation plan that I have sync up with my life stage? I think those are the key questions. They are pretty basic, but I think that, if investors come back to them, ultimately it will do good for their portfolios.

Dziubinski: Speaking of asset allocation, John, you recently published a study called "The Myth of the Dumb Fund Investor," that's related to asset allocation. Can you tell us a little bit about the research that you did and your findings and the takeaways are for it?

Rekenthaler: One thing is, I might want to change the title, because ultimately I do show investors are making mistakes. So I may need to rethink the title. So the myth I am responding to is the notion that fund investors are out there like dumb bunnies, selling off some fund that has underperformed and buying a hot fund and selling off another and then that one gets cold--the notion that they're doing bad fund picking. And if you believe this to be the case, then your prescription, as has been offered, is to put them all into index funds. But I looked and ran through the numbers, and if you just had kept all the money over time in the assets and the fund categories that they were, so … if you look at how the money that was invested in large-growth funds did over the past 10 years and you compared that to a large-growth index fund that was offered, and then large-blend and large-blend index fund, you go down all the categories--there wasn't much difference in performance. Overall the index funds performed a little bit better than people did with their fund selections in these categories. But not much better. Because the fund selections people made were pretty rational. They tended to move toward low-cost funds. They moved toward funds that had been successful in the past, and to a certain extent, a modest extent, there was performance persistence.

So … it doesn't fix the problem that's out there by putting people into index funds. It addresses a little bit, but it's the tip of the iceberg.

The real iceberg is the asset allocation. The real iceberg is people are in an asset class that performs badly. I mean, obviously the classic case would be they are in high-growth stocks through the late 1990s, and the new era and the boom, boom, boom in technology, then they get crushed and they get out of the market. Then by mid-2005 stocks are going up, so they get in there again, and then they get crushed in 2008. That's where the real damage is done.

But that's not going to be solved by putting people into index funds, because people do that with index funds, too. So, what I am trying to say is, yes, there is a problem out there, but it's not the problem that's commonly identified, where the solution is just to get people into indexing--which, by the way, people are kind of finding their way to doing that anyway with the growth of ETFs. That's still not going to solve the biggest damage that people do to their portfolios, which is asset allocation timing, basically buying high and selling low on asset allocation.

Dziubinski: Right. So people are actually pretty good fund-pickers, they are not great asset allocators.

Rekenthaler: They are good fund-pickers, not great asset allocators. Maybe that's my title. That's better.

Dziubinski: Glad I could help.

Rekenthaler: You always can! The other thing to mention is we still shouldn't point fingers at individual retail investors, which is often done. People say, well, retail investors are the dummies. Financial advisors fall prone to this. Institutional investors--I went through and looked at research on institutional investors--the highest equity exposure they ever had was in 1986-1987 before Black Monday, and in 1999. And the lowest equity exposure was exactly at the wrong time, too. So everybody does it. So, let's not just say, to the extent that this is a "dumb" problem, everybody is dumb out there. It's not just the retail fund investor. It's something that we all need to work on.

Dziubinski: Russ, that dovetails into a study you do annually for FundInvestor, which is called "Buy the Unloved." For those in our audience who are not FundInvestor subscribers and may not be familiar with the study, tell us a little bit what that's about and what is unloved right now.

Kinnel: It's really a contrarian strategy that essentially says, it pays to invest some more in the areas that are getting the most redemptions on a yearly basis, and then you hold that for three to five years, and then you trim investments in the most popular areas. It may simply work because it's pointing you to undervalued and away from overvalued. Historically it works pretty well, because essentially it's just getting you--John talked about people putting too much into stocks in 1999, then coming in just before the bear market--this would turn you around the other way. So it would've been saying, get away from large growth and tech in 1999. So it really turns that on its head.

So today what's unpopular? Large-cap U.S.? The three most-redeemed categories are large-growth, large-blend, large-value.

What's really interesting there is, they actually have really good returns. U.S. equities for the trailing three years have done better than foreign stocks and emerging markets and just about everything else. But I think what's going on is, instead of following returns, people are following headlines. The headlines are negative. We had the budget crisis a year ago, we've got a fiscal cliff coming up, and we hear about how China's doing so well and prospering. So, it seems like people are tuning out returns and focusing instead on headlines. I'm not sure that either one is actually a good idea, but it's really unusual given that we actually had really robust three-year returns in the U.S. market.

Dziubinski: That's interesting. So, Christine, what do you make of all this? John has this research and Russ is an advocate of using this contrarian strategy with a portion of your portfolio. From an asset allocation standpoint, what should we do to improve our results?

Benz: Well, I think making sure that you have a sensible baseline asset allocation is a good starting point. So, there are certainly a lot of online tools you can use to get your arms around asset allocation.

I also think this is an area where using a fee-only financial planner, maybe someone who is hourly--even if you're someone who is dedicated to crafting your own investment portfolio--just to get another set of eyes on your plan, I think, can be a great idea.

Then, for people who are inclined to be tactical, rebalancing really does add an element of a tactical strategy to your portfolio, even within the confines of a mostly strategic approach. So that strategy where you revisit that asset-allocation mix every year, say, and then rebalance it back to your targets, I think, will get you to a semi-contrarian place.

Kinnel: Right, I think it's really akin to Buy the Unloved--obviously rebalancing should be a bigger part of what you do in your portfolio--but there is a similar element to it...

Dziubinski: You are buying the unloved of your portfolio.

Kinnel: ...You are moving into what's done poorly and selling what's done well.

Rekenthaler: One thing I would advise with asset allocation is be very careful when adding a new asset class, because what happens is that something does really well, and then people that market that and people that have funds in that type of investment say, this is an asset class, and you should add that in your portfolio. And guess what--people listen when that "asset," that investment, has really good numbers behind it.

So some will say, "Real estate, … you should consider real estate funds to be an asset class, because look they have had great numbers!" Then they back-test and show you the last 10 or 15 years, how they would have helped your portfolio. Well, there is a decent chance you are buying into a hot market. I remember the arguments for Japan as an asset class. So, you go through that once in your life and you're not going to forget, because there were people that actually did buy in and start to say, I'm going to segment out and put a certain amount in Japan in 1990 as an asset class. That was not a good thing for anybody's portfolio. It's a big worry.

Dziubinski: Is there anything out there right now, that sort of fits the bill to what you're describing John, where it's sort of a faux asset class, maybe something that has done well for a few years that people are suddenly like, I need that in my portfolio?

Rekenthaler: Maybe I hear people talking about emerging-markets debt as an asset class. Now in one sense, the emerging markets, they are so big--China, Brazil, and so forth--that they at least are an economically large part of the globe, and there is an increasing amount of debt. So it doesn't feel forced, but so is Japan. [Emerging markets debt] hasn't been as hot as Japan, either. I guess that's the first thing that jumps out of me, but that's not a red light flashing, that's just maybe an amber.

Benz: Can I say long-short equity, though? I think that would fall into the category of maybe a "not necessary" asset class for most people.

Rekenthaler: I would absolutely say that. I hadn't thought about it on those lines; that's marketing to me.

Benz: That's what I think. I think with some of these funds, you know, the returns just haven't been there. The risk-reward profile hasn't been that great, and yet they are very costly. I just don't see that as an essential ingredient for most people.

Rekenthaler: If somebody sells it to me for 30 basis points annual expense ratio, I might start considering it an asset class, but not at 200 basis points.

Benz: No.

Kinnel: Remember after the earlier bear market in 2002, we had a lot of long-short and one 130-30 funds, and one, the timing was terrible because it was coming out after the bear market, and two, you had this sort of almost free-lunch promise that somehow they were going to make you money in an up market and prevent any losses in a down market. And long-short at least had some defensive characteristics; 130-30 didn't have any because actually you're 100% long. So they lost more than the typical fund in 2008.

Dziubinski: Right. Let's talk a little bit about Morningstar's approach to fund investing and what we do here day-in and day-out. John, how would you say in the past 20 years our approach to funds has changed? What has changed and what sort of remains the same?

Rekenthaler: It has changed quite a bit. I guess the way to characterize it is, I think we're looking more at the tree and less at the leaves. What I mean is, when I started at Morningstar, and it was in the early days, we started as a fund-by-fund research organization; those are our roots.

So we would look fund-by-fund and really think about this manager, this fund, this portfolio, and not much in context with what is this organization doing. … And I think that's a natural way to start and to learn. You need to learn by going into the details, and after a while, you can step back and start to see if you see patterns.

So I would say when you look back to 20 years ago, we were thinking a lot more like, well this one fund or these two funds from this organization we like, the other ones we don't like, and we were more picking, a fund-picking mindset. Now we have the Stewardship Grades … because after a while you say, wait a moment, at this organization, they just continually seem to have bad things happen: people leaving, and funds blowing up, and assets coming in at the wrong time. And then you see other organizations that are doing things right. Vanguard … was not even in the top 10 largest fund companies when I joined Morningstar. Now, it's easily the number one. So we've moved from fund-picking to thinking about organizational strategy issues and kind of aligning yourself with best practices, more of a best-practices mindset.

Benz: I remember the event that really crystalized that: It was the fund trading scandal where we realized we had all this internal knowledge about the quality of these firms in terms of their stewardship. In fact, we could practically name on a day-to-day basis which firms would come up in the headlines and which we thought were going to be safe. So then we realized, hey, we have all of this information here that we're not putting out there. So I do think that the whole group of work that we've done under the heading of stewardship has really taken some great internal knowledge and helped investors.

Rekenthaler: I remember we said, shoot, we've been gossiping about this inside the office, we should have gotten that out there for the investors! Then once the scandal started, we tried as quickly as we could to react. But we couldn't have--not anticipating the scandal--but saying ahead of time which organizations are likeliest to be clean if something happens, and which at least you might want to think twice about.

Kinnel: I think the fund company discussion isn't just about who is most ethical; it's also about, who is building a good investment culture, and this is the place where you are going to have better analysts, new mangers, better strategies developed, and so if you really look at that whole … and obviously they are pretty close together. Generally, the good investors and the good culture also are linked to the more ethical behavior. But you put it all together, it tells you something about the quality of management as well as the ethics.

It really matters, even when there isn't a scandal coming out, and I think one of the lessons I've learned over the last 20 years is how difficult it is once the genie is out of the bottle. Once things start to go badly for a fund company, it's really hard to get it all back together because you have outflows and that leads to managers leaving, managers leaving hurts performance, more outflows, and you have this negative cycle as opposed to the positive cycle.

One of the first fund companies I covered here was Dreyfus. They had been bought by Mellon Capital. Dreyfus had a lot of issues. Mellon brought in some smart people and tried and tried. The first group of managers didn't work out; they brought in some new managers. And then a few years ago they said, we're shutting down more or less all of the internal Dreyfus people; we're putting the funds with other people, just because it was so hard for them to do that.

You think about Putnam and AllianceBernstein caught in the scandal. Putnam also had some problems in the bear market previous to that. And they've had a very hard time building things back up and getting them to where they were really delivering good performance, really had stability of management, and that just shows how precious that culture is. The places where people really do want to have a career, it's really rare, and that's where you want to invest.

Dziubinski: Now, Russ, you lead the fund ratings committee. Give us a little peek behind that curtain. What role did stewardship play? Just give us a peek?

Kinnel: Well, more to what John was talking about, I think a lot of it is about management. So we already know the performance pretty well, but what we are thinking about is, they just brought in a couple of new analysts or a couple of portfolio managers, or they lost a couple of people. What does that tell us about, what's the background of the people who left, what's the background of the people who came in?

So a lot of it is kind of digging in to really understand the people behind the fund better and really see, does it all click, and then also just sussing out other issues with the portfolio, other issues with the strategy. They say they are doing this. What are the competitive advantages? That's really what our focus is. What's the competitive advantage, and is that going to make a fund a winner over the next 10 years? We're not trying to pick the winner over the next year, but really that's what we're focused on.

And the analysts bring in a lot of amazing research on individual funds, information from these fund company visits, that really is enlightening, and we're always trying to challenge each other on that to really get the right recommendation.

Dziubinski: So do you do a lot of challenging on the analysts?

Kinnel: Sure, I mean we all do. So sometimes it may be the case that I … just need to have something explained. We all want to understand it. But sure, we always want to make sure that the analysts have done all their homework and really dug into the portfolios, dug into the management, and it really all makes sense and there aren't any loose ends dangling.

Dziubinski: Right.

I want to put each of the panelists on the spot right now to talk a little bit about what they've learned during the past 20 years of FundInvestor. We talked a little bit about investment lessons. What would you say is your biggest investment lesson from the past 20 years, Christine?

Benz: Probably that less is more, and that less complicated is better. I certainly try to manage my own investments in that way, where I try to winnow it down to my highest-conviction holdings.

In general, I think keeping things pretty vanilla is a good strategy. Certainly avoiding new trendy investment types is a great way to stay out of trouble, but also just staying focused on tried-and-true investments and really trying to tune out things that aren't central to whatever your plan is about.

Dziubinski: John?

Rekenthaler: What I've learned in the last 20 years is it's a lot easier to manage for yourself than it is to manage money for other people. I've developed more of an appreciation for the pressures that fund managers face and financial advisors face. I did a newspaper contest for the New York Times about it, and that was 19 years ago or 20 years ago when it started.

When I run my own money, I have a pretty long time horizon. I'll put together a portfolio that will differ quite a bit from--I mean, there is no such thing as a world portfolio, … a "normal" portfolio, [but] I'll have more in emerging markets and I'll have more in value stocks. It's a fairly idiosyncratic portfolio, but there is a premium associated with value stocks, a premium associated with small cap, a little bit of high-yield, and so forth, and over a long period of time it performs pretty well. It's not even really more volatile, but it's more volatile relative to benchmark.

So I put together one of those, of course the next 18 months, the first 18 months, two years of the contest, this stuff is generally falling out of fashion relative to the more mainstream large-cap, government-bond type portfolios. A lot of people were saying, what are you, a complete idiot?

Eighteen months, two years of performance--you know if you are a portfolio manager, you'd be put on a watchlist after three years because you're near the bottom. If you're a financial advisor, your clients are starting to look elsewhere. …

You can see it's still part of my head with "The Myth of the Dumb Fund Investor" and the work I've done with asset allocation and just the pressures that get put on to people to move out of assets that are underperforming, and to get them to churn their asset allocation--and probably in the opposite direction of what Russ' research would say, which normally would say you're better off by moving into the more poorly performing assets.

So really the lesson that I've learned is about the institutional pressures associated with asset allocation. You had asked how Morningstar and FundInvestor changed; we didn't have anybody focused on asset allocation like Christine 20 years ago, and I think almost all of us through experience think more about that than we did back then because it's interwoven with your fund selection decisions.

Benz: I think one thing, John, that I would pick up on, too, is, I know I've done my homework on picking my investments. So when somebody is underperforming, I'm adding, that's the thing that year I'm going to be putting my money into, assuming that I'm still confident in that thesis.

And I would guess that all of us do that to some extent. We really do not use short-term underperformance as a reason to sell, but actually a reason to buy more.

Rekenthaler: I have a fund portfolio, I have stocks, too. I'm always looking to add to the stocks that have done the worst and should be trimming the stocks that have done the best.

Sometimes the stocks that have done the worst, there is a reason. I have bailed out of stocks that have done the worst, because … the fundamentals are declining. And you don't want to get out of a winning stock too early--you wouldn't have wanted to sell Apple in 2002, and so forth.

But as a general rule, look to feed your losers and trim your winners, which is the opposite of what often is said and done.

Kinnel: I would say, too, another key lesson is the one that's hardest for all individual investors, I think is just that short-term performance is very fleeting and doesn't tell you that much. You always want to look at a manager's total track record, so if they've got 12 years, look at 12 years. Don't lean too heavily on three years and don't read too much into three years, particularly if it's a new fund. I'd already learned that lesson by, I think it was 1998 or 1999, a reporter was calling to ask me about this awesome Firsthand Technology Value Fund, which...

Rekenthaler: There were no values in technology.

Kinnel: Well, that was one of the issues. That was the biggest issue.

Dziubinski: That was tip-off number one.

Kinnel: But anyway, they said, they were just incredulous that I wasn't gaga over this fund and its awesome couple of years, and they said, well, so why has it been successful? I said I wouldn't rule out luck. And I think it was later proven to be right. A later issue of a different magazine showed they had my name on a punching bag there. So I didn't win any friends with that. But I do think the point is that there's a lot of noise in short-term performance, and the better you can do to tune that out and look at the manager's long-term track record.

Obviously, if there are fundamental changes, that's something different. If key analysts have left or if the fund's gotten so big that they have to invest differently, you want to keep your eye out on the fundamentals, but the short-term performance changes very quickly. If a fund has top-quartile three-year returns today, in another three months, it could be bottom-quartile. It just changes a lot, and there's not that much information in short-term performance.

Dziubinski: So would you say it's a rule of thumb to avoid new funds? Is there any benefit to buying a new fund?

Kinnel: I would say, a new fund with a brand new manager, yes. If it's a new fund with an experienced manager or proven strategy, then sure I think it might be worth it. But generally, a new fund is a bad gamble, and we see the creation-and-destruction cycle is tremendous with new funds. So in other words, you see a lot of new funds come out and they take a lot of risk, and they don't do well, and a bunch of them get killed off. In 2007, we saw a lot of global real estate funds. Couldn't possibly have been a worse time to come out, and those were later killed off. So you want to choose carefully with new funds.

Benz: One other thing I would point out, too, is that you've got an industry where at least the secondary goal is to make things kind of complicated, and the more confused you are, the more likely you are to need some advice or need to be sold something.

Rekenthaler: And it can command a higher management fee, the more complicated that it is.

Benz: That too. So I think keeping that in the back of your mind, and certainly there are some countervailing examples. The whole target-date fund world, I think, is a great example of the industry trying to really simplify things for investors to help deliver better outcomes. But you also have a whole lot of other stuff that, to me, looks set out there to kind of mix people up, and make them think that they need guidance that they might not need, or products that they might not need.

So I think keeping that in the back of your mind, as you attempt to navigate and make sense of which new products might be worthy of your money, I think that that's a good concept.

Rekenthaler: Skepticism is healthy.

Dziubinski: Speaking of target date, Christine, you know a few years ago, target-date funds went through a lot of bad media coverage. What do you think of them today?

Benz: Well, I think it's a case-by-case thing. Most-target date funds right now are still wedded to a single fund company. So they're completely dependent on the quality of that fund company. And I know for that reason we like Vanguard's lineup, T. Rowe's, American Funds', JPMorgan's, I believe.

But it's a small subset; we don't like the whole universe, even though the concept is great in that it helps people make sense of the asset-allocation decision. It helps make sense of what asset allocation should like as time goes by. But I think you do have to choose carefully.

Dziubinski: So instead of focusing on the past 20 years, let's look forward to the next 10 years. What do each of you think are some of the biggest challenges facing fund investors over the next 10 years?

Rekenthaler: Well, I've said my bit, which is getting asset allocation right, and I'd like to say 10 years to now, we'll look back and people are having much more of a strategic allocation. First, having an allocation that's formulated in their mind rather than stumbling into one. Second, sticking to it. And third, when they are not sticking to it and changing for tactical reasons, probably going in the opposite direction that they are now doing and [instead] chasing cold assets rather than hot assets.

So if we can help people do that, that's better.

What I think people mostly have now is [lower] expenses, and that was a battle that was not won 20 years ago; it wasn't even won 10 years ago. If you look at the numbers, it's really the last five years or so that finally it sunk in that there are a lot of funds out there, a lot of different prices, why buy expensive, unless you have a really, really compelling reason? And it needs to be really compelling.

I think we kind of won the battle on expenses largely. Even the active funds that are getting the monies are pretty cheap active funds--they are not that much more than the index funds. So it's asset allocation we need to win over in the next 10 years.

Benz: I would point to two challenges. One, I think the interest rate environment is going to be a challenge, and I don't know that it will be in the next year or two, but in the next decade, yes. I think that it's hard to see the math adding up for bonds. We've had almost three decades worth of very good bond returns, thanks to declining interest rates, and I don't think that investors will have that tailwind going forward.

And then the other thing I would point to is, we've got baby boomers coming of age, hitting retirement, and figuring out how to do that decumulation is tricky. I think accumulation is a walk in the park compared to figuring out how to take this money that I've accumulated--assuming I've accumulated it, which is a separate problem; a lot of people have not accumulated enough--but assuming I've accumulated some money, how do I turn that into something like a paycheck when I'm retired. So I think those are two key challenges facing our investing population today.

Rekenthaler: There was a walk in Central Park at night in 2008.

Kinnel: I would say inflation is sort of related to your low interest rate theme. Not only do you have very low interest rates and low yields, but QE3 raises the specter of inflation yet again, and it doesn't take inflation to spike up much to really eat up that yield very quickly, especially if you're already retired and you need that income, and you can't grow very much to overcome that.

So I think things like commodities and TIPS are once again going to be useful to investors as a hedge, because I really think that risk is out there, and we don't know where we're going to go, but I think certainly that's one to be aware of.

Dziubinski: Let's turn to some of our questions from our audience that I want to get to. The first being a favorite of every webcast: What are some of your favorite funds today and why? Russ, do you want to start?

Kinnel: Sure, I do. I'll take all the good ones.

So I was thinking sort of old-school, new-school. So ones that we've been writing about in FundInvestor for many, many years that are still great: PRIMECAP, both under Vanguard and PRIMECAP Odyssey, just among the best growth investors, very strong fundamental investors.

Sequoia SEQUX, a classic value shop handed over to the next generation; I think they're doing a great job.

Loomis Sayles Bond LSBRX--Dan Fuss and Kathleen Gaffney, really good, more aggressive managers, obviously, but I think they know what they are doing and take intelligent risks.

Then, newer funds that we've probably only been writing about the last few years: Brown Management Small Company BCSIX, recently reopened, a great small-growth fund run out of Baltimore, very patient investors.

Matthews Asia Dividend MAPIX, another place to look for income. Asian stocks are now paying decent dividends and, again, you get some great growth exposure, and I think it's good to have some emerging-markets exposure, given that they're lower-debt economies.

Harbor Commodity Real Return HCMRX is my commodity play.

BBH Core Select BBTRX is a good old-school focused, high-quality fund. A really good, just basic, keep-it-simple fund.

Dziubinski: Christine?

Benz: I'll pick up on Russ' PRIMECAP idea. I own the PRIMECAP Core Fund, Vanguard PRIMECAP Core VPCCX. I like it a lot. I like it more even today, because they're not having the best year that they have had in recent memory, although I think decent in absolute terms.

Longleaf Partners LLPFX is another one of my personal holdings. It's one of those funds where I think some of the analysts look at that and say, why do you guys like that fund so much? I just really like its clearly articulated, clearly executed strategy of looking for companies that the managers think are trading at a big discount to what they think they are worth. So, I think it's a truly active portfolio, which is another thing I like. If I'm paying for active management, I want to see a truly active-looking portfolio.

Dziubinski: John?

Rekenthaler: My picks, I will admit to being a little, I guess, personal, idiosyncratic. Because I'm not really on the beat these days. I started off as a fund analyst, and I used to cover funds. In fact I've been around long enough when we used to have 777 funds in our old binder, and that was pretty much the industry, and I really could quite literally tell you the portfolio manager of every mutual fund. I'm a long ways away from that now, and my role in methodology has pulled me away. But I'll give you some personal picks.

One is PowerShares Financial PGF; that's an ETF. So one thing that's changed is I'm recommending an ETF, right, from an old mutual fund person. There are a lot of interesting strategies that are out there. The ETF market's development has been great for investors. There are definitely some fringe and strange products out there and some dangerous stuff and so forth, but overall it's been great in terms of the opportunity set offered to investors, the transparency of the portfolios, the low cost, and so forth.

I think this is a great opportunity. I've had this fund for a couple of years. It's invested in preferred stocks of largely banks, European banks. It's far from a cash substitute. So I don't offer it as a cash substitute. Maybe the way to think of it is sort of as a medium-risk kind of portfolio that moves around. It's preferred stock. But it's paying about a 6% yield, and actually in 2008, it got whacked as financials went down. But even though this is exposed to European banks, it's really been very steady through the whole euro crisis and such.

You're going to get paid unless these banks go under. So if they struggle a bit, that's fine. So really, this thing is only going to get knocked down if the news gets really bad with the bank assets, not just "kind of" bad. I think it's a pretty good businessperson's risk, as they say.

Another one, FPA Crescent FPACX--that's more familiar. We've had Steve Romick out at our conference quite a bit. I've moderated a couple of his panels--that's one way I know about the fund. I don't actually own this one, but I probably should. This is a great go-anywhere fund: stocks, bonds, not from a real model tactical asset allocation, but bottom-up. He sees values, and famously he saw a lot of value in high-yield securities around the end of 2008, early 2009, and bought in at the bottom when not many people do. And you've got to give credit for that.

But he has made a lot of good moves over time. This is another of what I would a call a medium-risk fund. In a way, it's a very distant cousin of the preferred fund, PowerShares Financial, that I mentioned, but probably the same kind of role in a portfolio, and this has some yield, too.

Finally, third, a shout-out to Artisan Global Fund ARTGX run by Dan O'Keefe. Dan's first job was here at Morningstar working for me, and he was a very bright young man then. Now he is a bright somewhat older man, and he's done great job. He was Manager of the Year, I think, for the International Fund of the Year.

Kinnel: Right, International Value ARTKX...

Rekenthaler: So, International Value is closed, but the Global Fund is open, and that's a classic value global fund.

Kinnel: And it's a fund that institutional investors have found, or they've got a good chunk in of institutional investors, but the mutual fund has escaped people's notice for some reason.

Dziubinski: Interesting. Another audience question: Should investors wait until after the election to reallocate their mutual fund portfolios?

John Rekenthaler: No.

Russ Kinnel: What he said.

Dziubinski: Can you expand on that?

Rekenthaler: In 25 years people always find reasons as to why now is uncertain. There is always an election coming, it was Y2K in 2000, we're in a war, and so forth and so forth. It never pans out at all. "Wait until Y2K gets settled and then buy." Well, actually, stocks went up like crazy until Y2K. Then Y2K went really well and then stocks went down...

Dziubinski: And then the market didn't [do well].

Rekenthaler: And the market didn't. It never makes any sense [to reallocate based on these factors]. Don't.

Christine Benz: One comment though: We do have a lot of tax law changes happening in 2013. Capital gains rates are going up. So, I would say if you have something that is too large a position in your portfolio that you wanted to lighten up on anyway, why not think about it?

Rekenthaler: That's fine, but that's not really the election...

Benz: No, it's more year-end.

Rekenthaler: That's more a tax law year change, OK. I'm with you on that.

Kinnel: And the other thing I think people fail to appreciate is just that these things are priced into the market every day. So, you go and come up with an estimate of who is going to win today, that probability is priced in. And the markets are very efficient that way, and in fact you think about health-care reform and some of the other things that have been out there, where you even could say this industry is going to be affected. And even then it's hard to make money on that. So I think really you don't want to get stuck. It's much better to keep moving and keep applying your plan, keep going. Generally, I think elections in particular, but a lot of these things have a hard-to-predict effect, and it's not really what should drive your decisions. As Christine says, you know your plans; you know your goals.

Rekenthaler: I'll go further and then say, it would cost you a lot of money in the last 20 years listening to the business press, because the business press tends to be pro-Republican. In 1992, when Bill Clinton got elected, [the press] said bad things are going to happen to the market, and the stock market went up a lot. Then under the George W. Bush years, "Great things are going to happen." In this case it was certainly not Bush's fault; he moved right in as the tech stocks were going down. And then Obama came in and "Bad things are going to happen to the market," and it's been back up.

I'm just saying I don't think who is the president has anything to do with market behavior, and I think we've got 20 years of evidence showing that. And you're going to get yourself hurt by following talk-show hosts and business press and such who are saying this because it doesn't play out. And you look at the predictions, and they don't play out. And I've seen people hurt themselves this way. "So-and-so is in office so I've got to get out of these assets. The world's going to end." No, it's not going to fall on you. It's a big world out there, and none of us affects things that much.

Kinnel: I think 2008 has everyone looking for the next Lehman Brothers because with hindsight you wish you'd sold when Lehman Brothers went under. But in fact, usually it's not the first domino of many, and it's not signaling a collapse. We have a lot of crises that don't go the way Lehman does, and so I think it's better to focus on the fundamentals and your own goals.

Dziubinski: One last, we have time for one more question--one more from the audience. How do you see absolute-return funds growing in the next few years?

Kinnel: I hope not very much. I think the ones called "absolute-return," I think it's a very hard job. Rates have already come down a lot since then, and so trying to get, say, an absolute return of 5% or 6% in this environment, you're going to either have to take a lot of risk or you're going to have to disappoint people, or you can do both. But I think some of the old-school ones, I think a First Eagle SoGen or First Eagle Global SGENX or some of the ones that are just trying to keep capital preservation in mind--that's great, but the ones that are promising a return or have "absolute return" in their strategy, most of those are pretty scary.

Rekenthaler: I want to jump in because this is exactly what I was going to say in a different way.

Dziubinski: Well, there we go.

Rekenthaler: I think of PowerShares Financial and FPA Crescent as absolute-return funds. They don't have the name "absolute return," but I bought them to be something that … there are times when they are going to struggle, but for most quarters, they got a fair amount of yield and they are that kind of behavior of their portfolio, I think you're much better off getting funds that have those characteristics but don't call themselves "absolute return" funds, because they're getting that from sort of conviction of a manager or strategy as opposed to the other top-down goal, and then I've got to figure out how to get a portfolio to match the goal. I like the other way.

So I think there's a place for absolute-return-type funds, recognizing nothing really is absolute return unless you get cash, but not so much the ones that are labeled that, and they tend to be more expensive, too.

Kinnel: Plain old balanced funds do a great job of reducing risks, diversifying you a lot, and I think they are not a bad place to be right now.

Rekenthaler: If you get a particularly conservative version of a balanced fund, more like a 30%-40% equity, that's not quite absolute return, but then again absolute-return funds aren't either.

Dziubinski: Well, that's all we have time for this afternoon. I would like to thank all of our panelists for joining us. I'd like to thank you all for joining us and watch for an email from us at Morningstar. We're going to be sending you a link to a special offer from Morningstar FundInvestor. We will also be letting you know once the transcript is available of this afternoon's event.

Thanks again. See you soon. Bye-bye.

  1. Related Videos
  2. Related Articles
  3. Comments
  1. Experts Answer Your Retirement Questions

    Financial planner Mark Balasa and Morningstar's Christine Benz and David Blanchett tackled viewers' most pressing retirement questions, from determining savings rates and income needs to planning for Social Security and maximizing retirement accounts.

  2. Session 2: Midyear Portfolio Checkup and Risk Factor Review

    Director of personal finance Christine Benz will help you check your true exposures and stress-test your holdings in session 2 of Morningstar's 2012 Midyear Financial Checkup.

  3. Your Nontraditional Bond Fund Might Surprise You

    And not in the good way, as Morningstar's Eric Jacobson cautions that numerous portfolios in the category have proved to be more volatile and have lower returns than some might think.

  4. A Portfolio Checkup in 6 Steps

    In this special midyear presentation, Morningstar's Christine Benz demonstrates how to gauge the viability of your current plan, evaluate positioning, troubleshoot risk factors, and much more.

  5. Fed Action Keeping Bond Funds Popular

    The Federal Reserve's bond purchases are contributing to greater inflows into fixed-income funds, while demand for stock funds is near multiyear lows.

  6. Answering Your Questions on Bonds

    Morningstar's Eric Jacobson responds to reader concerns about fixed income in the current low-rate environment, touching on duration, whether to sell holdings, the idea of moving into cash, and more.

  7. Managing the Risk of Outliving Your Assets

    Morningstar retirement expert David Blanchett covers the pros and cons associated with the key longevity insurance products.

  8. How to Make the Most of Your 401(k)

    In this special presentation, get the answers to key questions about the quality of your plan, whether your savings are on track with your goals, how to allocate assets, and what to do with assets when you leave your job.

blog comments powered by Disqus
Upcoming Events
Conferences
Webinars

©2014 Morningstar Advisor. All right reserved.