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Checking the Scorecard on Fidelity Funds

Christine Benz
Christopher Davis

Christine Benz: I'm Christine Benz for Morningstar.

Although, Fidelity has been eclipsed by larger rivals such as Vanguard, it still remains the fund industry's third-largest player based on assets under management.

Joining me to discuss how the firm stacks up on various measures is Christopher Davis. He is a senior fund analyst with Morningstar.

Chris, thank you so much for being with me.

Christopher Davis: Well, thanks for having me.

Benz: You have focused on Fidelity for many years for us, Chris, and you recently prepared kind of a scorecard that looked at the firm relative to other big fund companies on a variety of measures. One of them was performance, and that's obviously one that investors often focus on when evaluating a firm. What did you find in general when you looked at performance?

Davis: Well, Fidelity fares OK relative to the other big firms in terms of performance, especially if you look at more recent performance--say over the past three years--most of the funds ... performed well post-financial-crisis, but if you incorporate what happened during the financial crisis in performance, a lot of the funds, especially on the equity side of the house, don't look so strong.

Benz: So, why was that? Why did they not fare as well when you incorporate some of that bear market performance?

Davis: Well, a lot of the funds just weren't ready for the bear market. They were exposed to the most economically sensitive sectors. Many managers had big bets on energy stocks, industrials, basic materials, technology--all of these areas that really got creamed in the financial crisis. I think there just wasn't enough of a focus on risk control.

But on the bond side of the house, things are managed really differently there. You have a much temperate, more cautious way of managing money, and they navigated the financial crisis very well.

Benz: So, you would say it's sort of opposite sides of the coin. So, on the fixed-income side a little more cautious, fared well during the bear market, but more recently, even though we really like the bond funds, they have not fared quite as well as more aggressively position fixed-income funds?

Davis: Right. If you look at their performance relative to their peers, it's not bad, but it's more middling, and I think as a bond investor, you might be willing to live with that, because the whole idea of investing in bond funds is to preserve the capital and the money you have, and I think that's what these funds are particularly good at. So, they keep you in the hunt when times are good, but really save your behind when times are bad.

Benz: How about international equity? Is the story relatively similar to what has been going on with domestic equity?

Davis: I think that they have been consistently middling. So, if you look before the financial crisis and after the financial crisis, really you've looked at middling performance. They didn't fare particularly well during the crisis, and coming out of it, not so much as well. I think that's been a real weak spot at Fidelity.

The performance scorecard looked at funds on an asset-weighted basis. So we were looking at the performance of the biggest funds--they counted more than the smallest funds. And so big funds like Fidelity Contrafund and Fidelity Growth Company, they've been really strong performers. So, this measures how the average Fidelity investor has done, but if you look at how most Fidelity funds have done, you'd probably see a bit different picture.

Benz: So, Chris, if Fidelity obviously appears on a lot of 401(k) menus and investors have to choose among the firm's lineup, if I ask you to just, off the top of your head, give us your favorite Fidelity funds, not just in terms of performance, but in terms of whole picture, what are the first names that come to mind for you?

Davis: Well, I don't know if these are earth-shattering revelations. ... A lot of people have figured it out already. If you look at Fidelity Contrafund, which is pushing $100 billion in assets, I think that's still a really strong fund. Fidelity Low-Priced Stock, more than $30 billion in assets, but you really have two of the best money managers in the business there.

Fidelity Growth Company is a very popular staple in 401(k) plans, but I think people don't appreciate the charms of that. This is a relatively aggressive growth fund that has looked good over the past decade, which has been the worst period for aggressive growth investors, perhaps ever.

Benz: And fixed income, I know that there are some standouts there. I know that Morningstar, as a whole, likes the muni lineup quite a bit?

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Davis: Definitely. I think Fidelity Municipal Income would be one example, and there are several different iterations of that that have slightly different tweaks. Or Fidelity Total Bond, if you are investing in the taxable-bond universe.

Benz: So, Chris, in addition to looking at performance, you have also taken a look at stewardship broadly, and what constitutes stewardship. Let's talk about how Fidelity stacks up when we look at that overall shareholder friendliness of the firm's funds?

Davis: Well, I guess I'll start with the bright spots. I think they do well on some fronts. For example, their managers generally invest pretty heavily in the funds relative to other big fund families. They are not the best there, but that's probably their strongest suit relatively speaking, and so that means the manager's financial interests are aligned with shareholders'.

Manager compensation isn't necessarily industry-leading, but managers are paid by how well they perform on a longer-term-ish basis.

Benz: So there are performance fees for some of the funds, as well?

Davis: Yes, and so you will pay higher fees only if the performance relative to a benchmark is good, and so, I think that's a best practice [that] you don't see everywhere.

Benz: So those are bright spots. What are areas that you all think that the firm should do some work on if they want to improve their shareholder friendliness?

Davis: Well, I think that probably its weakest spot is that, I think, they really need to work on, not so much manager retention, but on keeping managers at funds for longer stretches ... And I'll give Fidelity credit for trying to improve here, but it takes quite a long time for you to actually see the improvement in the numbers. It's something they have certainly improved on, but at Fidelity ... often when one manager leaves, you get a new guy who has a completely different strategy, and so the fund you bought becomes a completely different fund. And if it's in your 401(k) or a Roth IRA, maybe you can easily move from one fund to the next, but otherwise that might be kind of difficult to do so from a tax perspective or whatnot. So, I think that that's something that they really need to improve upon.

Benz: Is there still that issue happening? I know in the past, if there was a smaller fund with a manager who was performing really well, sometimes he or she would get kicked upstairs to a larger fund, when that fund had a manager leave. Are they still doing that, or have they toned that down a little bit?

Davis: They've certainly toned it down. I mean, there are a lot of examples where managers have been promoted or been given other assignments, but they still keep their original fund. The only exception to that, and it was somewhat disappointing, is that Fidelity Magellan recently got a new manager, Jeff Feingold. He is a pretty strong investor, and Fidelity promised to keep him at his original fund, Fidelity Trend, when they did the manager change at Magellan, and they recently took him off that one. So, they are not perfect on that front, but they are getting better.

Benz: OK. Well, thank you, Chris, for this really helpful summary. I hope we can check in with you periodically and get your overview of the firm and hear about recent performance trends. Thank you for joining me.

Davis: Definitely. Thank you.

Benz: Thanks for watching. I'm Christine Benz for