Legg star Bill Miller, SEC deserve Lump of Coal Awards

The Baltimore Sun

Nothing gets me in the holiday spirit more than poking fun at the fund world's miscreants for a year's worth of blunders and buffoonery.

My annual Lump of Coal Awards recognize managers, executives, firms, watchdogs and other fund-world types for action, attitude, behavior or performance that is misguided, bumbling, offensive, disingenuous, reprehensible or just plain stupid.

The 2007 Lump of Coal Awards go to:

Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Christopher Cox.

Category: Failing to walk the talk.

Cox has talked like a champion of the consumer, speaking favorably on a number of issues, most notably on the reform of the 12b-1 fee. He promised to get these reforms done in 2007, and none of them is coming to pass this year. Some, such as the rule requiring an independent board chairman, now appear dead.

Putnam's Retirement Ready funds.

Category: Failing to be ready.

In Lipper's "mixed-asset target 2010 funds" category, Putnam Retirement Ready 2010 is dead last in year-to-date performance. Another Putnam target-maturity fund, Retirement Ready 2020, occupies the cellar in the 2020 group. Ditto for the 2030 fund in its category and the 2050 fund in the 2030+ group (thereby saving 2040 and 2045 from being the laggard in that group).

Having the bottom-feeder in target-maturity date -- even over a period as short as 12 months -- is tough to do. Until those numbers change, these funds are ready for nothing.

The Critical Math fund.

Category: Failing mutual fund arithmetic.

The idea here -- according to the firm's aptly named Web site unusualfund.com -- is to use a market-timing strategy based on an unemotional, quantitative approach. As of Nov. 30, the fund's 2007 loss of 6 percent ranked dead last in Lipper's "flexible portfolio" category, dragged down by operating expenses of roughly 3 percent. Apparently, someone at the fund forgot that costs and return numbers are the critical math for shareholders.

Monetta Young Investor.

Category: For giving investors funds with that Happy Meal.

This gimmick fund built for children declared July "McDonald's Happy Meal Month," giving anyone who opened a new account -- and all shareholders born in July -- a certificate good to receive a burger, fries, drink and small toy from Mickey D's. With a $250 minimum initial investment -- plus performance that has lagged three-quarters of all large-cap funds -- the cost on that burger is quite the whopper.

Directors of Franklin Real Estate Securities fund.

Category: Inability to recognize a bad fund when they see it.

Franklin Real Estate Securities is off more than 20 percent this year, but even when this fund has made money, it has badly lagged its peers. Directors acknowledged as much in the fund's annual report, noting that "the fund's total return for the one-year period, as well as for the previous three-, five- and 10-year periods on an annualized basis was in the lowest quintile" of its peer group. That's putting lipstick on a pig because the fund ranks in the bottom 5 percent of its peer group for all of those time periods, according to Morningstar.

Adding eye-liner, a party dress and a suggestion that this pig will dance, the very same paragraph said that "the board found such performance to be acceptable."

Investors in Franklin Real Estate Securities.

Category: Failing to recognize a porker.

There's a billion dollars in this stinker. How many years does a fund have to be at the bottom of its peer group -- with a board that finds such results acceptable -- before investors wake up?

The Securities and Exchange Commission.

Category: Failing to fight the good fight.

The SEC allowed former Putnam top dog Larry Lasser to settle a lingering fraud lawsuit for a $75,000 fine. The case was supposed to send a message to industry executives that their necks are on the chopping block if bad things happen on their watch.

Instead, it proved the opposite. Lasser had a $78 million severance package from Putnam -- on top of tens of millions earned over his years there -- and the company agreed to pay his legal fees. If the best the SEC could do was a one-fingered slap on the wrist (one-tenth of 1 percent of the severance deal), it should have tied this up in court for years, effectively keeping Lasser in a state of limbo. By settling on the cheap, the SEC sent a message that managers have no reason to fear being caught breaking the rules.

Bill Miller, manager of Legg Mason Value Trust.

Category: Ugly performance when his good thing came to an end.

Miller is an investing legend, thanks to a 15-year streak of beating the Standard & Poor's 500. That run ended in 2006 when the fund lagged the index by about 10 percent.

Legg Mason Value Trust is trailing the index by even more this year; the fund now ranks in the bottom 2 percent of its Morningstar peer group over the past three years, and its three- and five-year records now trail the S&P.; No one expected the streak to go on indefinitely, but the size of his underperformance has left shocked investors wondering if he has lost his touch.


Chuck Jaffe is senior columnist for MarketWatch. His mailing address is: Box 70, Cohasset, MA 02025-0070.

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