The 11 top performers' returns beat their category averages by an average of 7.4 percent in 2008, primarily thanks to some well-timed defensive positions. Some residual indicators of these funds' defensive stakes still linger, largely in their cash holdings. As recently as the end of last month, for example, Sextant International (SSIFX), the top-ranked foreign large blend fund, had roughly 40 percent of its portfolio stashed away in cash.
Many of the other top-ranked funds also have large cash stakes. "When we feel that we've filled up on the really good ideas … we'd just as soon sit on some cash. If the opportunities are there, we'll buy things. It's just a matter of if they aren't attractive enough, we'd rather just sit on some [cash]," says Yacktman, whose fund had upwards of 11 percent of its portfolio in cash at the end of last year.
The reason large cash positions helped during the downturn is that they shielded funds from losses in the stock and bond markets. "A lot of the funds with good cash stakes naturally lost less in 2008," says Kinnel. "I don't think there's anything inherently good or bad about running with a lot of cash. I think it's just what works for the manager."
Another way the 11 funds protect their investors during bear markets is through careful stock picking. "We spend a great deal of time protecting the downside by making sure we don't overpay for anything on the front end," says English.
Meanwhile, some of the top-ranked funds hold up decently during recessions because of the very nature of their mandates. Health funds, for example, are commonly considered to be among the most defensive of investments, and they tend to outperform their competitors during weak markets. In 2008, Fidelity Select Medical Equipment & Systems lost 23.4 percent. By comparison, the S&P 500 was down by 38.5 percent that year.