Go anywhere funds that really go nowhere

I chuckled as I saw an article today posted on Fidelity.com titled “5 funds that ‘go anywhere’ for a smoother return.” It involves a new “type” of mutual fund. They are called ‘go anywhere’ funds, meaning the fund manager isn’t constrained to the usual set of restrictions, like only investing in certain types of asset classes, or adhering to a certain proportion of stocks vs. bonds. Some of the quotes are really quite telling.

“The so-called Lost Decade proved that we don’t need to rely on large equity allocations to seek meaningful returns,” says Rob Arnott, chairman and founder of Research Affiliates and manager of the PIMCO All Asset fund (PASDX), noting many investments, including high-yield bonds, emerging market debt and commodities, offer equity-like returns. Yet, because of the complexities of these assets, there’s value in having an expert calling the shots on when to move in and out of these alternatives.

Is it just me, or is this manager now telling us that asset allocation doesn’t work? Not wanting to put words in his mouth, let’s see what another manager quoted in that article says:

Because the funds potentially can go anywhere, they may throw a wrench in your overall asset allocation but “that’s not always the worst thing,” says Waddell, explaining there are times when it pays to have a good manager making big-picture calls on your behalf. Still, it’s not a bad idea to see how such a fund will mesh with your other holdings by taking a look at the manager’s track record and current holdings.

It seems both Arnott and Waddell are telling us that it wouldn’t be the worst thing if the fund manager was able to go out and simply pick what is best and had the best deal. From 10,000 feet, it sounds like the same approach taken by Warren Buffet. He seeks out companies that are different sectors, ranging from insurance to jewelry stores, to shoe makers, to brick manufacturers, to carpet makers (and that ain’t the half of it!) But people none-the-less keep throwing stones at Warren Buffet even though he consistently beats the S&P 500.

Looking towards the bottom of the article, I notice a matrix showing the performance of five such funds. Strangely, they didn’t list all the ones actually mentioned in the article. I guess it is only the “go anywhere” funds that are sold by Fidelity. Though they mentioned 10-year returns in the article, I only see 1, 3, and 5-year annualized returns in this matrix. Why is that? Is the 10-year performance not too hot? Well the best one only sports an 8.23% 5-year return. With a 0.76% expense ratio, it would appear that my total gain (before taxes) would be 7.47%! Subtract 30% in taxes (5.23%) followed by by 4% inflation, and all you get is 1.23% gain. Not too good for long term wealth building in my opinion! Not to rub salt into your wound, but the article touts that these funds are doing better than 85-95% of the other mutual funds. Yikes!

And why are they coming up with these new strategies? Because the other ones crashed and burned over the last decade! People jump ship when mutual funds nose dive, so the Wall Street salesforce needs to offer something “new and exciting” that people are willing to buy, causing a reaffirmation of our human nature to sell to stop losses, i.e. sell low, and then buy on the upswing, hitting the high point, and killing our overal wealth building performance.

Bottom line: if 1.23% gain is what I have to look forward to, then you can count me out of trying use mutual funds to build my retirement wealth. But let’s at least adhere to the tail end of the second quote: “it’s not a bad idea to see how such a fund will mesh with your holdings by taking a look at the manager’s track record and current holdings.” Indeed, let’s check what the managers track record looks like over a 20 year period. Because that is the traditional time window we really have.

UPDATE: Cross posted at http://www.turnquistwealthbuilders.com/2012/05/go-anywhere-funds-that-really-go.html, the site where I now post all wealth building opinion.

I am not a licensed financial advisor nor an insurance agent, and cannot give out financial advice. This is strictly wealth building opinion and should be treated as such.

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