Wednesday, May 29, 2013

the failure of mutual funds

We spend a lot of time harping on mutual funds. Frankly, they deserve it. Most underperform their benchmarks and charge fees multiple times higher than passive index funds. The result is a giant wealth transfer from investors to fund managers.

But after speaking with a fund manager recently, I realize this story is more complicated than I've made it out to be. Mutual fund investors may only have themselves to blame for awful returns.

Most dismal mutual-fund returns are the result of managers engaging in the classic "buy high, sell low" dance. But those buy and sell decisions don't necessarily reflect the will of the investment manager. Fund investors are constantly adding to and withdrawing from the fund's they invest in -- almost always at the worst time possible.

"You would be surprised how easy it is for a fund's investors to take control of the fund," the manager told me.

Imagine you're a smart fund manager who thinks stocks are overvalued. You don't have any good ideas to invest in. But you come into the office one morning and your secretary says, "Congratulations, your investors just sent you another $1 billion." What do you do? You can:
  • Keep it in cash or bonds.
  • Close down your fund and refuse new investments.
  • Grit your teeth and buy overvalued stocks.
The first choice isn't even an option for some funds, as their charters mandate that they stay almost fully invested. Even if they can, bulking up cash dilutes the investments of existing investors. Fund managers rarely take this option -- equity mutual fund cash levels have fluctuated in a tight band of between 4%-6% over the last decade.

The second option is the noble choice, but rarely occurs because funds earn fees on assets under management. When a fund manager goes to his or her boss and says, "I'd like to turn down $10 million in annual fees," the results are entirely predictable. Greenwich real estate doesn't buy itself, you know.

Option three is usually what happens.

Now imagine it's 2009, and everything is going to hell in a handbasket. Stocks are the cheapest you've seen in your career, and the last thing you want to do is sell them. But you come into the office one morning and your secretary says, "Your investors want to withdraw $5 billion."

You only have one option to meet that demand: sell cheap stocks. Forget about all the buying opportunities -- your traders are working overtime to liquidate the portfolio whether you like it or not.

Sadly, that affects all of a fund's investors. Even if one fund investor has a long-term outlook and no intention of selling, the fund's buy and sell actions can be dictated by maniac deposits and panic withdrawals. Other investors' decisions can hurt you. That's why they call it a mutual fund.

Take Bill Miller of Legg Mason. Miller was one the best investors in the 1990s and early 2000s before suffering huge losses during the financial crisis that sullied his long-term track record.

What happened? In part, he made some bad calls. But Miller's early success and media fame led investors to give him a net $4.4 billion in new cash to invest just as stocks were getting expensive last decade. As his skill came into question, they then yanked nearly $10 billion out just as stocks were the cheapest they had been in years. Miller's wisdom didn't really matter last decade. His investors were calling the shots.

***

[6/5/13 - see also Investor Nirvana by James J. Cramer, Worth, May 1997]

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