Mutual funds: When is it time to let go?

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Jake Moeller, head  of United Kingdom & Ireland Research at Lipper analyses when selectors should consider selling mutual funds. 

As a former fund-of-funds manager, I’m often asked what would constitute a sell trigger for a mutual fund. This question is quite amorphous; there are many factors that could result in a fund no longer being “fit for purpose,” but that depends on what the purpose is.

When investors blend funds into a portfolio, they have different tolerances for a sell decision than when, for example, they hold a single fund in isolation. When I managed a guided-architecture platform from which I constructed a number of portfolios, I would often sell a fund out of my portfolios but still keep it on the guided-architecture platform. Such decisions are uniquely a factor of what fund selectors call “style bias.” A large-cap fund, for example, might underperform considerably in a sustained mid-cap rally, but that doesn’t mean it is a poorly managed fund. What factors reflect a material drop in the quality of a mutual fund?

Fund manager departure

Fund managers move house for myriad reasons: ambition, retirement, redundancy to name a few. If the departure is restricted to a single manager, this is generally a “hold and wait” situation. Many investors will follow the new fund manager, but a large fund house should have contingency protocols in place and the performance of the old fund shouldn’t necessarily head south. Where a fund house is very quiet about a key departure, there may be a legal covenant underpinning a majorly unpalatable situation.

A single fund manager departure can also signal the start of distracting team restructuring and destabilization. Respect the fund house that gets information out early. The less that is said, the stronger the sell signal.

Activeness

A fund manager who closely tracks an index may be doing so for perfectly legitimate reasons: a lack of conviction, a portfolio restructure, or staff changes can result in emergency indexing. It is the duration of this positioning that matters. An active equity fund manager’s maintaining an index position for over three months, for example, would certainly be a red flag.

Marketing support

Often overlooked in importance: when a fund house stops marketing a fund or has another flavour of the month, this can often be a bad sign. “Legacy” funds are often poorly managed, and with little inflow they potentially leave investors languishing at a disadvantage. The retrenchment of sales directors can often be another leading indicator that funds might switch to legacy footing or that they are expecting less supportive inflows into their business.

Corporate activity

A takeover, acquisition, or merger requires considerable analysis, but it can be reduced to a very fundamental issue: cultural compatibility. Not many strategic bond managers, for example, would take well to a new parent company’s investment committee favouring utilities at any cost “because that’s best for our balance sheet.”

Capacity

A fund that becomes too large to maintain a manageable number of securities in its portfolio is likely to become either an index hugger or to compromise the technical expertise of its manager. There are so many quality boutique funds in the market that there is no excuse for holding an active fund that has say 2,000 securities in it.

Outflows

Outflows in and of themselves are not always a concern. However, when they coincide with a falling share price (where the fund manager is listed) and poor performance, you have a pretty strong sell signal. You will want to get out before all the cabs have left the rank.

Round peg, square hole

Has your fund house recently appointed a head of U.K. equities for your U.S. portfolio? Fund management is a specialized task and is only rarely truly portable. An expertise in one area does not guarantee expertise in another. Such an appointment warrants critical review.

Courage under fire

If fund managers are underperforming when their style should be in favour, an investor needs to question the skill of the managers; most fund managers make bad calls in their career but restore faith by sticking to their guns. If poor stock selection results in a fund manager “tweaking” the process or compromising philosophies, this should act as a warning flag.

Poor performance

Differentiate symptom and cause. Poor performance needs to be understood, not reacted to blindly. Where poor performance is a result of style biases or out-of-favor portfolio selection, one may likely end up selling just as the fund turns around.

Where poor performance coincides with any of the qualitative factors outlined above, it is unlikely to be coincidence. Serious consideration should be given to saying adieu to the fund.

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