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Elephant-sized mutual funds slow but steady



Andrew Leckey

Andrew Leckey

Would you rather follow an elephant or a jackrabbit into the stock market? Elephant-sized stock mutual funds trumpet loudly and leave big footprints but often trail the more agile smaller funds that can hop around swiftly with the trends.

Nonetheless, these behemoths remain core components in an individual’s portfolio because reliability and brand-name holdings keep conservative investors coming back for more. They fit especially well in retirement accounts left alone to grow.

“It is easier to build a good track record when a fund’s assets are small, so a large fund with a good record is really something to remember,” said Mark Salzinger, editor of “The Investor’s ETF Report” (www.noloadfundinvestor.com). “The chance of a large fund outperforming is limited because it would have to take outsized risks in a sector to accomplish that.”

The $75.7 billion Fidelity Contrafund (FCNTX), up 28 percent over the past 12 months with a three-year annualized return of 4 percent, is Salzinger’s favorite biggie. Unlike many big funds that are computer-run indexes, it has a star portfolio manager.

The growth fund has been managed for over two decades by the somewhat contrarian investor Will Danoff, who has more than $1 million of his own money in it. As its assets became elephantine, Danoff shifted out of small- and mid-cap stocks to focus more on big-company stocks.

“Danoff will take moderate risks to beat the stock index, but not huge risks because that’s not what his investors expect,” explained Salzinger. “The huge stock funds aren’t going to set the world on fire, but there aren’t too many ways for investors to get hurt, and doing ‘average’ in these financial markets is actually pretty good.”

Its primary holdings are familiar: Apple Inc., Google Inc., Berkshire Hathaway Inc. A, McDonald’s Corp., Wells Fargo & Co., Coca-Cola Co., Walt Disney Co., Noble Energy Inc., Nike Inc. B and Amazon.com Inc. There are nearly 500 stock names in this “no-load” (no sales charge) fund that has an annual expense ratio of 1.01 percent and requires a $2,500 minimum.

There are pros and cons to the biggest stock funds.

“There is a lot of research available on the largest funds, and you can easily keep up on the banter that surrounds them,” noted Jeff Tjornehoj, senior research analyst with Lipper Inc. in Denver, Colo. “Because of their size, they usually have better economies of scale in terms of low expenses and they have a cadre of analysts so you don’t depend on the best ideas of just one person.”

The cons include the fact that it becomes difficult for the manager of a large fund with billions of dollars in assets to change direction quickly, he said. When there’s bad news, it becomes difficult to unload a stock quickly because selling would drive down the entire market. The result is that the very large funds usually have a hard time differentiating themselves from their benchmark index.

“The overall market has a greater effect on the large stock funds rather than stock-picking does because they are fairly limited in how far they can go outside their benchmark,” said Tjornehoj.

Some of the giants are index funds, such as the broad-based $155 billion Vanguard Total Stock Market Index (VTSMX), up 28 percent over the past 12 months and 3 percent the past three years. This no-load fund has a miniscule 0.17 percent expense ratio and requires a $3,000 minimum.

“Performance over the past three years of the biggest funds has been decent, if unexciting,” said Russel Kinnel, director of mutual fund research for Morningstar Inc. in Chicago. “Modestly positive numbers don’t seem exciting until you stop to think that people have recouped their losses from the market meltdown – which no one expected to happen so quickly.”

The roller-coaster ride that wound up producing a 1 percent three-year return illustrates the resilience of these big funds, he said.

“It is true that there is a limit as to how nimble these funds can be, since I seriously doubt that any of them have less than 100 holdings,” said Kinnel. “By definition, they must have a lot of holdings and a sizeable amount will be large-cap stocks.”

The American Funds carve up their enormous fund portfolios among several independent managers. The $164 billion American Funds Growth Fund of America (AGTHX), up 22 percent over the past 12 months with a three-year annualized return of 1.17 percent, is a large growth fund with nine managers.

Besides Google, Microsoft and Apple, additional holdings in its 300-stock portfolio include Oracle Corp., Union Pacific Corp. and Schlumberger Ltd. This 5.75 percent load fund has an annual expense ratio of 0.69 percent and requires a $250 minimum initial investment.

Looking overseas, the $109 billion American Funds EuroPacific Growth A (AEPGX), up 19 percent the past 12 months with three-year annualized return of 1.02 percent, is a foreign growth-and-income fund. It also has 300 stocks, with U.K./Western Europe representing nearly half of assets and Asia nearly one-third.

Its major portfolio holdings are Mexico’s America Movil SAB, Denmark’s Novo Nordisk, Switzerland’s Novartis AG, and German firms Bayer AG and Daimler AG. This 5.75 percent load fund has an annual expense ratio of 0.85 percent and requires a $250 minimum initial investment.

Andrew Leckey answers questions only through the column. Address inquiries to Andrew Leckey, 555 N. Central Ave., Suite 302, Phoenix, Ariz. 85004-1248, or by e-mail at andrewinv@aol.com.

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