Gallery:Step 5|Step 5: Manager Pickers

A Mutual Fund to Drool Over

Gallery:Step 5|Step 5: Manager Pickers

Bill Miller, the manager of the Legg Mason Value Trust fund, has managed to do what no other current manager has done - beat the S&P 500 index twelve years in a row. Surely that incredible feat cannot be attributed to random chance or luck. Therefore, it follows that you can rely on that stellar past performance alone as a predictor of future greatness.

However, before you come to that conclusion, you should at least consider a few bits of historical evidence. We'll take a look back at how some other active funds fared after dominating the S&P 500 index for at least a decade.

For each of the eleven years from 1974 through 1984, the Lindner Large-Cap Fund outperformed the S&P 500 index. (1)

Were investors rewarded if they waited eleven years to be sure they had found an outperforming fund and then invested in it? Over the next eighteen years, the S&P 500 returned 12.6 percent. Believers in past performance as a prologue to future performance were rewarded by their faith in the Lindner Large-Cap Fund with returns of just 4.1 percent, an underperformance of over 8 percent per annum for eighteen years. After outperforming for eleven years in a row, the Lindner Large-Cap Fund managed to beat the S&P 500 in just four of the next eighteen years, and none of the last nine. That's quite a price to pay for believing past performance alone is predictive.

Now consider the case of David Baker, and the 44 Wall Street Fund. Baker even outperformed the legendary Magellan Fund over the entire decade of the 1970s and was the top-performing diversified U.S. stock fund of the decade. Unfortunately, 44 Wall Street ranked as the single worst-performing fund of the 1980s, losing 73 percent. (2)

During the same period, the S&P 500 grew at 17.5 percent per annum. Each dollar invested in Baker's fund fell in value to just twenty-seven cents. On the other hand, each dollar invested in the S&P 500 index would have grown to just over five dollars. The fund did so poorly that in 1993 it was merged into the 44 Wall Street Equity Fund, which was then merged into the Matterhorn Growth Fund Income in 1996.

As evidenced by the examples of the Linder Large-Cap Fund and 44 Wall Street, belief in the "hot hand" and past performance as a predictor of the future performance of actively managed funds and their managers, even with fifteen years of evidence, can be quite expensive. Statistics tells us that with thousands of money managers playing the game, the odds are that a few, not just one, would have turned in a Bill Miller-like performance.

To paraphrase a famous quotation: Those who do not know their financial history are doomed to repeat it. In other words, while there will be likely be future Peter Lynch's and future Bill Miller's, we have no way to identify them ahead of time. Unfortunately, we can only buy their future performance, not their past performance.

05/27/2003

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(1) "Hedge Funds, Once for the Exclusive Only, Lure Less-Elite Investors -- but Also Scrutiny" by Karen Damato and Allison Bisbey Colter, The Wall Street Journal Fund Track, January 1, 2003.

(2) 25 Myths You've Got to Avoid If You Want to Manage Your Money Right: The New Rules for Financial Success by Jonathan Clements, p. 86, Simon & Schuster (April 1999).

Larry Swedroe is the author of three investment books: What Wall Street Doesn't Want You to Know, The Only Guide To A Winning Investment Strategy You Will Ever Need, and Rational Investing In Irrational Times - How to Avoid the Costly Mistakes Even Smart People Make Today. Larry is also the Director of Research for and a Principal of both Buckingham Asset Management, Inc. and BAM Advisor Services in St. Louis, Missouri. However, his opinions and comments expressed within this column are his own, and may not accurately reflect those of Buckingham Asset Management or BAM Advisor Services.