Funds Stage a Comeback: Time to Forgive and Forget?

Good funds that had a bad year, and those that have simply lost their mojo.

By + More

After spending much of last year in the doghouse, mutual fund managers have now had two quarters in 2009 to regain the faith of investors. Many of last year's losers are now posting solid gains over the S&P 500, including heavyweights like Harry Lange's Fidelity Magellan and Bill Miller's Legg Mason Value Trust. The latter stunned investors (and fund watchers) in 2008 with a 55 percent nose dive, but so far this year, the fund is up 12 percent—3 percentage points over the S&P. Should we call it a comeback? Not so fast, says Adam Bold, founder and chief investment officer of the Mutual Fund Store, an investment management firm with 65 U.S. locations. He says investors should look beyond a fund's recent performance and focus on how it has historically navigated downturns and bull markets (long-term record is also a factor.) Bold recently shared his perspective on fund performance with U.S. New s. Excerpts:

[See 5 Funds That Are Off to a Fast Start in 2009.]

Considering the big picture, how much weight should investors put on a fund's performance during 2008's market swoon?

My theory is that many of the best fund managers did the worst in 2008, and the reason it happened is that by definition, the best fund managers pick the best stocks. And last year, we had a liquidity crisis .... It turns out that the only things that were liquid in 2008 were fantastic stocks and high-quality bonds, so the best things got hurt the most because they were the most liquid. So as we return to a market with much more normalcy, stocks are being evaluated on future earnings, and bonds on the anticipated ability to pay interest and ultimately to pay their principal back. How do you determine which funds are worth keeping and vice versa?

I spend lot of time trying to find out which managers are good managers that had a bad year and which have lost their touch. I'm looking at calendar-year returns and how the fund did in 2000, 2001, and 2002, and I'm using that as a baseline for how I expect it to perform in poor years. Then I look at 2003 to 2007 for how I expect it to do in good years. I'm disregarding 2008. Some really good managers had a bad 2008 that messed up their track records, so you cannot look at average returns. I think conditions like we had in 2008 are unlikely to repeat themselves. I also look at how the funds have done since the March lows. I can forgive managers that have a long track record of consistently good performance but a bad 2008, but not those that are now lagging on the upside.

[See 10 Stock Funds for Tough Times.]

In your opinion, which funds have lost their touch?

Look at Fidelity Magellan. It's been bad a long time and was down 49.4 percent in 2008 when the S&P was down 37 percent. Now it's up 13 percent in 2009, so it's doing better. I call it the "I love the '80s" fund. It was better under Peter Lynch, and its track record has been bad for too long. Dodge & Cox was down 43 percent last year; it did poorly in 2007, really poorly in '08, and it's not great this year. I think they've lost their touch.

American Funds' Growth Fund of America is another. It was down 39 percent last year, and now it's up 9.8 percent, which is better than S&P 500. But they manage by committee, and when I look at their five-year track record, I can't tell if the same people that were making decisions five years ago are making them today.

Their performance has been pretty good overall. But certain people in this world are really gifted. Look at a guy like Tiger Woods, who's shown himself to be someone who wins year after year after year. That doesn't mean he will win every tour, but clearly, your odds will improve if you go with him. It's the same with managers who have historically done better than their peers—it tends to perpetuate itself, and that's also true for those that have done poorly. The SEC says past performance is no guarantee of its future success. I'd say that it's not a guarantee, but it's a darn good predictor.

Of the household names that have been rebounding in 2009, which would you say are good funds that had a bad year?