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June 29, 2015

Monday Morning Memo: When Should You Sell a Mutual Fund?

by Jake Moeller.

Reuters/ Gary Hershorn

Reuters/ Gary Hershorn

As a former fund-of-funds manager, Lipper clients regularly ask me about sell triggers for mutual funds. 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 how the fund is being used.

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 managing 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 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.

The following factors are some key reasons to consider letting a fund go:

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 an 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.

Closet Tracker

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.

Capacity

A factor closely related to the above. A fund that becomes too large to maintain a manageable number of securities in its portfolio is likely to become either a closet tracker 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.

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.”

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. Furthermore, these factors may occur before performance starts to be affected. Such factors warrant serious consideration to saying adieu to a fund.

 


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Disclaimer: 
This material is provided for as market commentary and for educational purposes only and does not constitute investment research or advice. Thomson Reuters cannot be held responsible for any direct or incidental loss resulting from applying any of the information provided in this publication or from any other source mentioned. Please consult with a qualified professional for financial advice.

 

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