Mutual fund gimmicks no recipe for success

The Baltimore Sun

Unusual can be fascinating, but not necessarily profitable.

The past few years are littered with mutual fund innovation gone bad. Sometimes it is the portfolio that just doesn't cooperate.

The Golf Mutual Fund whiffed. The Westcott Nothing But Net Fund was an air ball. The Amerindo B2B Fund took investors on the road 2 nowhere.

Offering the fullest disclosure, the Fund posted all portfolio holdings in real time - before folding. The Open Fund was so open that it trained a Webcam on its portfolio manager so investors could watch him at his terminal. Unfortunately, results didn't merit sustained viewing.

Often a fund's basic premise gains no traction.

The Chicken Little Growth Fund, with a concentrated portfolio designed for people "afraid" of the stock market, proved their worries justified. It ran short of cash late last year and is unavailable for investment.

"Any time the marketing department is driving what the mutual fund's investment group is doing, it's going to end in disaster," said Russel Kinnel, director of fund research for Morningstar Inc. in Chicago. "A gimmicky fund often can't find enough stocks, so it uses lame rationalizations to broaden itself with other stocks."

Nonetheless, the new concepts abound.

The Blue Small Cap Fund and the Blue Large Cap Fund focus on partisan politics and what they deem to be progressive values. They invest in companies that "act blue" and "give blue," a reference to blue states that voted Democratic in recent elections. The funds hope to attain more assets by year's end so that they merit ticker symbols.

That's not to say a narrow fund concept can't keep rolling along.

Start your engines: The $6 million StockCar Stocks Index Fund invests in an index of 51 companies that support NASCAR racing teams or events, or that earn money from those races.

Its largest holdings include Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., Marathon Oil Corp. and RadioShack Corp. It has a three-year annualized return of 9 percent that sits at the back of the pack in large value funds.

Sin has provided profits throughout history, and one high-visibility fund proudly embraces it.

The $118 million Vice Fund invests at least 80 percent of its assets in stocks that derive a significant portion of revenues from products considered "socially irresponsible." In keeping with that mission, its largest holdings include tobacco companies Altria Group Inc. and British American Tobacco PLC, plus alcoholic-beverage firms Diageo PLC and Heineken NV.

This fund has a three-year annualized return of 19 percent, placing it in the top 2 percent of all large growth stock funds.

"Funds like the Vice Fund are plays on consumer discretionary stocks," said Phil Edwards, managing director of funds research for Standard & Poor's in New York. "Part of investing is entertainment and while these offer a large entertainment measure, they should at best be at the margin of an individual's portfolio."

The $44 million Meritocracy Masters 100 Fund is a "community intelligence" fund in which people build hypothetical portfolios online and the best of them actually get to run a portion of the fund.

Its largest holdings include Elan Corp. in health care, Valero Energy Corp. in energy, and MasterCard Inc. and Diamond Hill Investment Group Inc. in financial services. It has a three-year annualized return of 15 percent, which places it in the top third of small growth and value funds.

"There could be the tendency in the Meritocracy Masters 100 Fund to put together a large-cap growth portfolio and chase what's popular," said Paul Merriman, president of Merriman Berkman Next Inc. investment advisory firm in Seattle. "Rarely will out-of-favor companies be chosen this way, even though we know they can provide a better rate of return."

Sometimes a flashy name is jettisoned, as in the case of Gabelli Global Couch Potato Fund, introduced a decade ago to invest in all things entertainment-related. Renamed a more serious Gabelli Global Multimedia, this $247 million fund has a three-year annualized return of 22 percent, putting it near the bottom of specialty communications funds. Grupo Televisa SA, News Corp. and Rogers Communications Inc. are some of its largest holdings.

"Maybe they wanted a 'cutesy' name at first, but that particular fund is from a good fund family and we know its manager's background and investment style," said Tom Roseen, senior research analyst with Lipper Inc. in Denver. "But you always must ask if a fund is respectable or if its marketing department is playing investors like a xylophone."

Exchange-traded funds offer an opportunity to invest in the unusual, Roseen said. Claymore/Clear Global Vaccine Index and HealthShares Infectious Disease Fund are prime examples, though experts said such funds are best left to professional investors intentionally seeking a narrow focus.

Diversification is still the best policy, experts said, but investors will be investors.

"While I personally feel gimmicky funds have no real value, if investors are absolutely drawn to one they should ask what asset class it represents and make it a small portion of that asset class within their portfolio," Merriman said. "Then they can feel smart, like they've done something others don't know to do."

Andrew Leckey writes for Tribune Media Services.

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