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The Art of Fund Management

How mutual funds rip off investors with bad habits & excessive fees...

MUTUAL FUNDS are full of bad habits, writes Chris Mayer for the Rude Awakening, like a boy who can't stop picking his nose and burping at the dinner table.

   For example, the typical mutual fund turns over its entire portfolio at least once per year and owns 160 stocks. These are two things that often lead to mediocrity: too much trading and too many stocks.

Nowadays, investors even flip the funds, too. Forty years ago, the average holding period was 14 years. Now, people flip funds every few years. And all that churning fattens the brokers of the funds.

Often the funds also have unseemly arrangements to direct commissions to brokers who help market the funds.

Owning all those stocks also means the fund managers often know little about what they own. No individual stock matters much, nor does any single issue make much of a difference, so why bother looking at any of them in detail? It is little wonder the typical mutual fund puts in such an indifferent result.

But there is much more. I have written about this topic broadly before, but a new book by Louis Lowenstein called The Investor's Dilemma really hammers these points home. This is a book that will make your blood boil. You shouldn't buy another mutual fund until you've given the ideas in this book some thought.

I'm going to highlight the most important ideas for you in this section, and we'll also look at some things you should look for in a mutual fund.

   To begin with, the individual investor is in quite a pickle. Lacking the necessary time, interest or aptitude for investing in stocks, he or she often looks, naturally, to professionals. Usually, this means tucking some money into a mutual fund.

   But where to begin? The number of mutual funds out there grows like kudzu. There were 300 in 1980. There are over 4,800 today. Fidelity alone has over 300 funds, in 24 different flavors.

   You've no doubt seen the absurd slicing and dicing of mutual funds - mid-cap growth, small-cap value, large-cap blend, etc...

   These mutual funds are huge forces in the market these days. They own one out of every four shares of stock out there. It was only 8% as recently as 1990. And the reason there are so many – and why they are so large – is because running money is extremely profitable.

   A lot of brainpower goes into figuring out how to get your money in a fund. But as Lowenstein's book makes indelibly clear, most fund companies have little interest in how well investors actually do in their funds. Instead, mutual fund companies are most interested in growing the amount of assets they manage. This is how they get paid.

   Lowenstein runs through the example of T. Rowe Price, which is generally held as one of the better fund houses. T. Rowe earns a net profit of 28% after taxes. "It's difficult to think of many legal businesses with comparable returns," Lowenstein writes.

   Now it becomes clear why Fidelity has over 300 funds. "Fidelity is a marketing construct," Lowenstein writes, "not something fashioned to enhance the welfare of investors."

   Lowenstein also points out that mutual fund groups spend more on marketing than they do on running the funds. So it's not hard to understand why the management companies make all the money. Instead of investing in T. Rowe funds, you'd have done better investing in T. Rowe itself.

   Paul Samuelson, the famed economist, had a pithy quote on this: "There was only one place to make money in the mutual fund business, as there is only one place for a temperate man to be in a saloon: behind the bar and not in front of it."

   This is something the insiders understand well. Lowenstein goes through many examples, including Brian Rogers, chief investment officer of T. Rowe. Rogers has only $1 million in T. Rowe's funds. By contrast, he has $65 million in the management company. Again, he is not alone, nor is this at all atypical. Lowenstein has many more examples.

   In the old days, there was no management company to invest in. The mutual fund was a true trust. The first such open-end mutual fund to arrive on the scene opened its doors in Boston in 1924. A securities salesman named Edward Leffler hatched the idea, which Lowenstein calls "a uniquely American contribution to finance."

   The Massachusetts Investors Trust (MIT) was the first of its kind anywhere in the world. MIT held stocks for a long time, bought stock intelligently, and had extremely low costs. There was no management company and no incentive to bilk shareholders.

   But today, investors accept 1% management fees as reasonable, even if assessed on billions of dollars of assets. This despite the fact that the cost of managing money does not rise anywhere near proportionally with the funds invested. Fees should go down as funds get larger, although this almost never happens.

   Over many years, the old MIT standard died out. The new way of doing things meant setting up a separate management company. Now fees suddenly skyrocketed. And meantime, the mutual fund industry became a mess, filled with people just looking to keep pace with some benchmark.

   Are real estate stocks too high? Doesn't matter if you're running a real estate fund. You buy real estate stocks. All you gotta do is beat your benchmark. Even if it goes down 25% and you go down 20%, that's success in today's world.

   It's a sorry state of affairs. One fund describes in its shareholder letter a "fundamental...bottoms-up investment process" in the same year when it generated a 300% turnover ratio. That means it bought and sold stocks worth three times the portfolio's value during the course of the year. All this "flipping" means the old art of security analysis is dying. Few professional investors bother to look through SEC filings anymore.

   Nowadays, there is too much focus on what the price is doing. There is not enough on how the underlying business is doing. And there is this obsession with liquidity – the ability to buy and sell easily. Suffice it to say that if selling stock were more akin to the process of selling a house, investors would pay more attention to the details of what they were buying. I always think of Peter Lynch's great quote:

   "Investing without research is like playing stud poker and never looking at the cards."

   Too many funds invest without looking at the cards. But again, why bother when you own hundreds of stocks?

   There are exceptions, though. There are some good mutual funds. Here are some helpful points to help you find them:

  • Look for a small portfolio. The exact number is hard to say. Robert Rodriguez, a great fund manager, says 30-40. Joel Greenblatt says 32 stocks take out 96% of the risk of owning one. There is no right number, I imagine, just as there is no "right" amount of tequila in a margarita, but it probably lies somewhere in that range.
  • Look at the turnover rate. You can find this info with the performance data. A low turnover rate would be something like 25% or less. That implies a holding period of four years.
  • The fund should not be too large. The American Funds' Growth Fund of America has $190 billion – way too large to meaningfully invest in anything but the biggest companies. "The damage that size does to performance is the dirty little secret of the fund management business," says Jeremy Grantham. As a rule of thumb, I'd say less than $20 billion. Rodriguez capped his fund when it approached $2 billion. Again, the right number is hard to say, but it's somewhere in that range.
  • The intangibles are also important. Good fund managers often write good letters to shareholders, explaining their philosophy, talking about successes and failures. If you see boiler plate-type language, that's not a good sign. Again, managers matter.

   "True safety lies in a research-driven search for opportunities," Lowenstein concludes. I couldn't agree more. He points out how money management is often a "soulless business" in which people "don't really enjoy the challenge of searching here and there, far and wide, for the values that have escaped the crowd."

After a decade in corporate banking, Chris Mayer used his deep analytic approach towards stockpicking to beat the market 3-to-1 between 2004 and 2014 at newsletter publishers Agora Financial. Now moved to Bill Bonner's Bonner & Partners, his Chris Mayer's Focus service seeks shares with the possibility of returning 100-to-1.
See the full archive of Chris Mayer articles here.


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