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Usually the first vehicle of choice for new investors is a mutual fund. In days of yore, which in the investment industry is more than five years ago, investors usually bought equity funds but in more recent times balanced funds have grown more popular and even bond funds have attracted money.
Oftentimes, the first mutual fund experience is a disappointing one. There’s a reason for this. People intuitively want to be associated with success, so their first mutual fund will have these characteristics:
A great track record of top quartile performance over at least three to five years.
Billions of dollars invested in it, so it is “safe.”
Offered by an investment firm with a long and “distinguished” history.
Many years ago, there was much less data readily available and few statistical tools at one’s disposal, but I was curious and decided to examine a group of funds over time to see what their performance looked like. What I discovered is represented in the chart. There were no exceptions; every fund in my sample followed this same pattern.
It doesn’t take a mathematician to interpret a picture. If you invest in the fund when it’s a dog (ranks very poorly compared to other funds), the odds are great that given time it will be a top performer soon enough.
The problem is that most investors will pick a top performer. However, the top performer will soon become a dog, and the investor will be unhappy.
A great track record might actually guarantee poor performance.
When it comes to your money, intuition sucks. You “intuitively” steer towards something that “feels good.”
There is enough publicly available data nowadays to help you find a few funds that suit your tastes and examine their performance patterns. What suits your tastes may include funds that are easy to buy in and out of, those you have read about in the press, whose portfolio manager sounds smart on TV, or you may prefer socially responsible funds. When one of the funds that does occasionally perform very well has been in a slump over the past year or two, buy it. After the performance has improved over the course of a couple of years and you’re happy with the results, consider selling (or redeeming) it when the fund is in the top of the rankings (or wins an award) and buy a different fund that is in a temporary slump.
Being a curious sort, I once had the urge to see if award-winning funds followed the same pattern. After all, if someone wants a top-performing fund, wouldn’t they head straight for the ones that have just won awards for their outstanding performance?
I looked at the award-winning funds in any given year, and then checked their performance just one year later. Rather than examine every category (there are just too many nowadays) I stuck to basic Canadian equity, U.S. equity, small cap, international equity. Included were “thematic” funds popular at the time, such as ‘precious metals’ and the ‘dividend and income’ funds. Here are a couple of examples of what I usually found:
100% of the winners were either 1st or 2nd quartile funds. The next year, 88% of these had fallen to 3rd or 4th quartile.
All the former 3rd quartile funds (dogs) rose to 1st quartile (stars) in the following year.
Winning an award (being a top performer) is not an indication of how that fund will rank in terms of its future performance, even in the following year. In fact, the odds are awfully good that your 1st or 2nd quartile pick will be below the median or worse one year later. Interesting! If there’s a lesson, I suppose it’s simply that funds should be bought because they meet your objectives, not because they’ve been performing well recently.
It’s not important to understand why this roller coaster occurs for mutual funds, it just does. Markets change, so, for example, when a growth fund invested primarily in technology stocks suffers, it’s no doubt because the upward trend in technology stocks, or their popularity among the herd, has either stopped or deteriorated. Apple is a prime example in the news right now.
Portfolio managers are just people working for people. I’ve witnessed the following scenario occur time and again:
Fund performance begins to soar.
Fund attracts lots of new money.
Marketing folks want more and more time from portfolio manager for meetings.
Money pours into the fund in droves.
Portfolio manager’s head swells (the “I’m a genius” syndrome).
Performance begins to deteriorate.
Money leaves the fund in droves.
Portfolio manager has to sell the fund’s best stocks (there are still buyers for these).
Performance sucks, and it takes two to three years for things to get back to normal.
Size really doesn’t matter…unless the fund is humongous.
A thinking person should be able to figure out that it doesn’t take a big fund or a big fund company to provide good performing funds. Think about it. Do you shop at the big box stores because the level of service is better? Is the quality of the merchandise better? No. You shop there because the economy of scale for the store allows them to buy products at a lower cost. They can order in bigger volumes and squeeze their suppliers. They then pass these savings to their customers.
Larger financial institutions enjoy similar economies of scale. Of course, the transactions and administration costs of the bank or insurance company are lower, and these benefits might come your way in the form of lower fees and expenses, but we’re not talking about buying lawnmowers. Rates of return on funds managed nimbly and intelligently can make those fees and expenses pale by comparison.
Bigger is safer possibly when you’re banking, but legitimate capital management companies are structured so that they never really touch your money. The custodial (where the money is physically held) and administrative (recordkeeping) functions are usually provided to these firms by big banks or huge financial institutions anyway—for safety and regulatory reasons and it makes the potential for fraud near impossible.
The reason why large financial services companies got into the fund management business was simply economics. They were providing banking, custodial, and administrative services to mutual fund and other asset management companies anyway, so why not also earn management fees by offering their own mutual funds and private wealth management services?
Take it from someone who knows from experience. Managing a massive quantity of money in one fund is much more difficult for a portfolio manager. You can only buy big companies. A portfolio manager will try to buy the best big companies, but since everyone else with big portfolios is doing the same thing, it’s not like you can outsmart them. It’s sort of like playing poker with jacks, queens, and kings being the only cards in the deck. If the three other players see three kings on the table, everyone knows you still have one in your hand.
Applying some discipline is important when directing your savings and will spare you much grief. For several years since the financial crisis, investors have swarmed into bond (see chart – it shows the net Sales of bond mutual funds) and balanced funds because of their strong relative performance and are considered to be less risky. Even today buying into income-oriented funds ‘feels good’ – everyone else is doing it, past performance is good and the fright we all experienced during the financial crisis still stings a bit.
Equity funds have been avoided for years – constantly redeemed – despite the fact the stock market returns have been outstanding since the crisis more or less ended (or at least stabilized). Now that the past returns are looking better, investors will be shifting money out of the bond funds (and perhaps balanced funds as well) and chasing the top performing equity funds.
This is an inferior strategy. If you examine the best ‘rated’ funds you will find they hold more dividend paying and income securities and will likely drop in the rankings very soon after you buy them.
With RRSP season comes a plethora of marketing campaigns and firms will be pushing us to buy their best performing funds (we are so quick to buy what ‘feels good’). Since you won’t see many advertisements for those not doing so well today, but are likely to do very well tomorrow, it would be wise to do a bit of homework before buying in. Good luck!
Let’s face it! In the battle for investment dollars the Canadian banks are clearly the winners! Is this a good thing?
Once upon a time, the investment business was more of a cottage industry. Portfolio manager and investment broker were ‘professions’ rather than jobs. Smaller independent firms specialized in looking after their clients’ savings. There were no investment ‘products.’ The landscape began to change dramatically – in 1988 RBC bought Dominion Securities, CIBC bought Wood Gundy and so on – when the banks decided to diversify away from lending and began their move into investment banking, wealth management and mutual funds.
Take mutual funds for example. Over the past few decades Canadian banks have continued to grow their share of total mutual fund sales* – this should not surprising since by acquisition and organic growth in their wealth management divisions they now own the lion’s share of the distribution networks (bank branches, brokerage firms, online trading).
An added strategic advantage most recently has been the capability of the banks to successfully market fixed income funds since the financial crisis. Risk averse investors want to preserve their capital and have embraced bond and money market funds as well as balanced funds while eschewing equity funds altogether. With waning fund flows into stock markets, how can equity valuations rise? It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Many of the independent fund companies, born decades ago during times when bonds performed badly (inflation, rising interest rates) and stocks were the flavor of the day, continue to focus on their superior equity management expertise. Unfortunately for the past few years they are marketing that capability to a disinterested investing public.
The loss in market share* of the independent fund companies to the banks continues unabated. Regulatory trends also make it increasingly difficult for the independent fund companies to compete. Distribution networks nowadays (brokers, financial planners) require a huge and costly infrastructure to meet compliance rules. Perhaps I’m oversimplifying, but once a financial institution has invested huge money in such a platform does it make sense to then encourage its investment advisers and planners to use third party funds? Not really! Why not insist either explicitly (approved lists) or implicitly (higher commissions or other incentives) that the bank’s own funds be used?
Stricter compliance has made it extremely difficult for investment advisers to do what they used to do, i.e. pick individual stocks and bonds. In Canada, regulators have made putting clients into mutual funds more of a burden in recent years.
To a significant degree, mutual fund regulations have contributed to the rapid growth of ETF’s (Exchange-Traded Funds). An adviser will be confronted by a mountain of paperwork if he recommends a stock – suitability, risk, know-your-client rules) or even a mutual fund. An ETF is less risky than a stock, and can be purchased and sold more readily in client accounts by trading them in the stock markets. Independent fund companies that introduced the first ETF’s did well enough for a time but not surprisingly the banks are quickly responding by introducing their own exchange-traded funds. For example:
TORONTO, ONTARIO–(Marketwire – Nov. 20, 2012) – BMO Asset Management Inc. (BMO AM) today introduced four new funds to its Exchange Traded Fund (ETF)* product suite.
In fact, the new ETF’s launched by Bank of Montreal grew 48.3% in 2011. When it comes to the investment fund industry, go big or go home! You’d think that Claymore Investment’s ETF’s would have it made with over $6 Billion in assets under management (AUM) but alas the company was recently bought by Blackrock, the largest money manager in the world with $29 Billion under management. It will be interesting to see if the likes of Blackrock will have staying power in Canada against the banks. After all RBC has total bank assets twenty-five times that figure. Survival in the business of investment funds, and perhaps wealth management in general depends on the beneficence of the Big Five.
Admittedly, the foray of insurance companies into the investment industry has been aggressive and successful for the most part. With distribution capability and scale they certainly can compete, but the banks have a huge head start. Most insurance companies are only beginning to build out their wealth management divisions. I can see a logical fit between insurance and investments from a financial planning perspective, but then the banks know this and have already begun to encroach on the insurance side of the equation. Nevertheless I would not discount the ability of the insurance companies to capture signficant market share.
So, is it a good thing that larger financial institutions own the investment industry? Consider the world of medicine. No doubt a seasoned general practitioner will feel nostalgic for days gone by when patients viewed them as experts and trusted their every judgement. The owner of the corner hardware store no doubt holds fond memories of those days before the coming of Home Depot. Part of me wants to believe that investors were better served before the banks stampeded into the industry but I’d just be fooling myself. Although consolidation has resulted in fewer but more powerful industry leaders, the truth is that never before have investors had so wide an array of choices. Hospitals today are filled with medical specialists, while banks and insurance companies too are bursting at the seams with financial specialists.
It is not fun becoming a dinosaur, but this general practitioner has to admit progress is unstoppable.
*The industry charts are courtesy of the third quarter Scotiabank research report Mutual Fund Review. The annotations are my own.