In a field of about 8,000, very few mutual funds truly stand out. But every so often, you'll stumble across some that are destined for the record books. Here are four of them:
Oldest Fund: MFS Massachusetts Investors Trust (MITTX)
The story: The Massachusetts Investors Trust, launched in 1924, is America's first and oldest mutual fund. In July 1924, its holdings included Island Creek Coal, Punta Alegre Sugar, General Motors, Union Pacific Railroad, and Edison Electric of Boston. One of its larger positions at the time was a whopping three shares of Boston Insurance Co., which was trading at $682 per share. General Motors, meanwhile, was trading at $13 per share, so the fund's managers scooped up 50 shares. The fund, which aimed to give average investors access to the market, was tested five years after its inception by the onset of the Great Depression. It stuck with its conservative strategy and has put up solid numbers since. So far this year, the fund is up 27 percent. Its annualized return over the past 10 years is 0.5 percent.
Worst Fund: Frontier MicroCap (FEFPX)
The story: In 1998, BusinessWeek asked the late Jim Fay, who at the time was managing Frontier MicroCap, if he ever felt like liquidating the fund. His response: "Every day." Elsewhere in the interview, he called the fund's expense ratio "ridiculously high" and dubbed its performance "extremely disappointing." Earlier this month, Fay's wish finally came true: The fund's shareholders voted in favor of liquidation. Before the shareholders decided to call it quits, not only did the fund have the industry's highest expense ratio (a mind-boggling 18.4 percent), it also managed to lose 99 percent of its value over the course of the decade. Frontier MicroCap generated a 10-year annualized return that, before the liquidation vote, was the worst among all actively managed funds. While Frontier MicroCap certainly isn't the most egregious fund ever created, it is likely the worst one that is still (in a manner of speaking) in existence. It will continue to earn that distinction until its liquidation wraps up.
Biggest Fund: PIMCO Total Return (PTTAX)
The story: Under the leadership of iconic manager Bill Gross, this fund, which has $192.6 billion under management, has been growing at an almost frightening pace. Investors have been particularly attracted to the fund in the aftermath of its 2008 performance: When almost every fund imaginable lost money, PIMCO Total Return's A shares gained 4.3 percent last year. The fund's burgeoning size has raised questions about whether it will become too bloated, but Morningstar remains confident that it will continue to be successful. "There's no question that as this fund has grown, so too have the challenges of managing it. Thus far, however, Gross and his crew have proven marvelously adept at keeping it near the top," analyst Eric Jacobson wrote last month.
Highest Turnover: GAMCO Mathers (MATRX)
The story: This conservative allocation fund's turnover ratio stands at an eye-popping 9,150 percent, roughly 145 times higher than its category average. To put the number in context, it would seem to indicate that the fund replaces its entire portfolio approximately every four days. But manager Henry Van der Eb says that's not the case. "Since the SEC's portfolio turnover formula excludes fixed-income securities with maturities of less than one year and short sale activity from its denominator, the fund's turnover rate may appear very high, which can be misleading. This was the case in 2008. The fund's U.S. treasury bill position was a very high proportion of assets and had a maturity of less than one year, while the average month-end dollar value of long stock positions (the denominator) was negligible," he wrote earlier this year in a letter to shareholders. "It's just one of those quirks of an antiquated SEC rule that hasn't been updated," he tells U.S. News. "The [9,000] percent number is just off the wall—totally misleading because it ignores 95 of the portfolio." By his calculations, the fund's turnover ratio is, for all intents and purposes, about 10 or 11 percent.