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Fund Spy

Flowmageddon: Why Investors Should Watch Fund Flows

With money still flowing out of mutual funds, Morningstar's Russ Kinnel sees both pluses and warning signs for shareholders.

This article was published in the November issue of Morningstar FundInvestor.

There’s a little of that Roaring ‘20s feeling to the fund industry these days. 

A nine-year bull market has made fund companies tremendously profitable. You’ve heard about the move from active to passive funds, but today there is $11.7 trillion in actively managed funds. That’s huge increase from the first quarter of 2009. Obviously, appreciation has more than made up for outflows. 

Yet, beneath the surface there are signs that the industry faces tremendous challenges, and that will likely affect funds you own in the coming years. 

Today, 66% of actively managed U.S. equity funds are in outflows over the trailing 12 months ended in September. That’s remarkable considering the tremendous bull market. Across all asset classes, about $410 billion left actively managed funds from the start of 2015 through September 2018. However, that has been overcome by strong returns. The S&P 500 has gained 50% over that same time period and has nearly tripled since the start of 2009. 

So far, then, flows aren’t much of a problem. But the industry is very vulnerable to a bear market. If the market falls 30% and outflows accelerate to 25%, then you are looking at a tremendous decline. 

Another troubling sign for active funds: Until recently, the move to passive had been contained within domestic equity. However, in the third quarter, passive international equity funds saw $19 billion in net inflows and active international equity funds suffered $15 billion in net outflows. Passive funds from Vanguard and Fidelity (which launched zero-fee index funds) are big draws of late, while  Harbor International (HAINX) and a few other active funds have been hit hard. It could be a blip or the start of a trend.

Of course, you and I own funds, not fund companies, so their profitability only matters when it affects the funds. I think outflows will have both positive and negative effects. Either way, flows will increasingly have an impact on funds. Let’s start with the good stuff. 

Good Small-Cap Funds Remain Open
Normally at this stage of a bull market, nearly all the good actively managed small-cap funds would be closed in order to keep asset size from harming a manager’s ability to execute his strategy. Yes, some good ones are closed, but 19 small-cap, actively managed Morningstar Medalists are open.

For example, two small-cap funds with Morningstar Analyst Ratings of Gold,  T. Rowe Price QM U.S. Small-Cap Growth Equity (PRDSX) and  Wasatch Core Growth (WGROX), are open to new investors. A few years ago, Wasatch said it would close the fund if it reached $2.5 billion, but it is currently at $2.3 billion and is closing to third-party platforms on Dec. 5. 

There are also eight Silver-rated small-cap funds still open to new investors in the Morningstar 500, including  Alger Small Cap Focus (AOFAX) and  Janus Henderson Small Cap Value (JSCVX).

Your Bloated Large-Cap Fund Is Getting Less Bloated
The ideal scenario for active behemoths is to have a steady trickle of outflows. Nothing too dramatic, mind you, but a modest bit of shrinkage is good because it means the managers need fewer new ideas to add to the portfolio, can have greater weightings in top names, and can move down modestly in market cap.

The 20 largest actively managed funds across all asset classes cumulatively have shed about 20% of assets under management over the past three years. If investors want to give more wiggle room to managers of some giant funds at American, Fidelity, and Vanguard, then I’m all for it.

And no, that doesn’t mean the funds charge more. Of those 20 largest funds, only one is charging more today than three years ago:  PIMCO Income (PONAX). And PIMCO Income has the highest rate of inflows of any of the funds. It has taken in $14 billion in net flows the past 12 months.

Index Funds Will Be Better Off
Naturally, all those inflows mean index funds will keep getting cheaper, though there is not much room for the cheapest to cut. Alarmists have said that if too much money is in index funds, the funds will be harmed by the lack of price discovery and returns will lag. I’m not buying it. First, most money is still in active funds. Second, a lot of the money in index funds today would have been in very low-turnover pension funds 25 years ago. Is the effect really different? No.

Now the Bad Stuff
The coming shrinkage in active assets will bring consolidation. As I write this, Oppenheimer has agreed to be bought by Invesco. Fund company mergers are a mixed bag: They can lead to lower fees, and sometimes funds are moved from weaker to better teams as the new firm chooses who survives the merger. However, they also can lead to manager departures (Oppenheimer lost a manager to Artisan just as the news was coming out) and cost-cutting that hurts performance. In addition, mergers require more work from fundholders, who have to keep a sharp eye on their funds to make sure that manager or strategy changes haven’t been quietly implemented months after the company-level merger.

Fees May Rise
Of course, economies of scale work in reverse, too. Outflows can lead to higher expense ratios. However, the move to passive has meant many active firms have gotten religion on fees. Fidelity and BlackRock, for example, have been cutting fees.

Reviewing funds with three-year organic growth rates of worse than negative 50%, I found five that had significant increases in expense ratios over the past three years. For example,  Royce Total Return (RYTRX) had negative 65% organic growth, and expenses rose to 1.19% from 1.15%. 

Redemptions Can Hurt Performance
As I mentioned, a trickle out of  Fidelity Contrafund (FCNTX) or  American Funds Growth Fund of America (AGTHX) is probably a good thing. But what if it’s a torrent out of a less-liquid small-cap fund or a high-yield fund? For example, in foreign equities, small caps tend to be less liquid than in the United States, so outflows are a worry.  Oakmark International Small Cap (OAKEX) has shed $655 million and is now down to a $2 billion asset base.  Columbia Acorn International (ACINX) has shed $1.5 billion and is down to a $3.3 billion asset base. (Acorn’s outflows were one reason we downgraded the fund to Neutral.)

Domestically, I can see a few funds where redemptions must be challenging.  Fidelity Small Cap Value (FCPVX) has watched $1.2 billion leave over the past 12 months, leaving it with $2.6 billion. No doubt the outflows are spurred by two manager changes in rather rapid succession. Chuck Myers handed the fund to Derek Janssen in 2015, and Janssen turned it over to Clint Lawrence in 2017. Although Janssen was relatively experienced, Lawrence does not have much of a track record. We cut the fund to Neutral at the time of the change.

Bronze-rated  AllianzGI NFJ Small-Cap Value (PCVAX) has shed $920 million, taking it down to $1.9 billion. Middling returns are the likely reason for the outflows, though the fund also lost a co-lead manager in April 2018. On the plus side, most of the fund’s top holdings represent two days’ trading volume or less, so the flows may be more nuisance than disaster so far.

Perritt MicroCap Opportunities (PRCGX) plies less-liquid names, so I do have some concerns about outflows, even though they are a modest $51 million on a $163 million asset base. For example, its top holding is Northern Technologies International (NTIC). It holds 204,165 shares, but the stock typically trades about 7,000 shares a day. In fact, it looks like the fund didn’t trade the stock at all in the second quarter. In addition, this fund is reaching the point where it might not be profitable to run. The industry rule of thumb is about $100 million, and funds at that level or lower are much more likely to be merged out of existence. 

 Neuberger Berman Genesis (NBGNX) is another fund that may face challenges. It isn’t a micro-cap fund, but most of its top 10 holdings represent four days’ trading volume or more. The $10 billion fund has seen $2 billion in outflows. Maybe it could do with a smaller asset base, but the pace of outflows may be difficult to keep up with.

Silver-rated  Fidelity Small Cap Discovery (FSCRX) is closed to new investors, but it could reopen if flows were to become a problem. That would presumably slow down the rate of outflows. Still, the fund has four double-digit trading volume holdings its top 10 names, including top holding  Silgan Holdings (SLGN), which soaks up 10 days’ trading volume, and Enstar Group (ESGR), which accounts for 14 days’ trading volume. The fund has had $1.4 billion in redemptions, leaving it with $4 billion in assets. It hasn’t sold those two names but has trimmed J2 Global (JCOM) and Store Capital .

Threat to Firms
Many firms are prosperous now, but we’ve already seen a few firms either shut down entirely or give up on the mutual fund side of their business. In a bear market, I would expect many more of these cases as well as more mergers.

The Upshot
Clearly, flows are something investors should watch, and they will become much more of an issue in a down market. If you want to make a contrarian bet on a fund that has been out of favor for a while, be sure that the fund will be around for the rebound.

You can do that by choosing a giant fund company, or you can bet on a smaller one, but be sure to watch for layoffs and outflows. Of course, Morningstar analysts will be doing those things, too, and we’ll downgrade a fund if we think layoffs or outflows have impaired a fund’s ability to add value. 

Russel Kinnel does not own (actual or beneficial) shares in any of the securities mentioned above. Find out about Morningstar’s editorial policies.