Slam-Dunk Mutual Funds

In the world of money managers, Bill Miller is a dominant player, the closest thing, I'd argue, that the industry has to NBA great Shaquille O'Neal. Miller has been at the controls of Legg Mason Value Trust (FUND: LMVTX  ) since 1982, and during each of the last 14 calendar years, he has regularly accomplished the fund industry equivalent of a triple-double: beating the pants off the S&P 500.

Over time, three out of four funds tend to lose to that benchmark, and so Miller's track record is downright remarkable -- as is the eclectic (some would say eccentric) stock-picking strategy he pursues. Miller's portfolio recently included buttoned-down companies such as Home Depot (NYSE: HD  ) and Fannie Mae (NYSE: FNM  ) , more-speculative plays such as Tyco International (NYSE: TYC  ) and AES (NYSE: AES  ) , and Internet poster children such as eBay (Nasdaq: EBAY  ) and Google (Nasdaq: GOOG  ) .

You can go your own way
In an industry that all too often rewards "index hugging" and cookie-cutter approaches to stock selection, I have no end of admiration for Miller's go-your-own-way strategy. And the manager's results speak loudly for themselves. Unfortunately, that's also true of his fund's expense ratio. Weighing in with a fat and unhappy 12b-1 fee of 0.95%, the price tag for Value Trust fund tops out at 1.70%, a fee that's just way too rich for my blood.

That hefty toll makes Miller's Shaq-like track record all the more impressive, of course, because it means that he and his team have a big rock to push down the court each year just to stay even with the S&P 500, let alone surpass it. Nonetheless, I'm not a shareholder in Miller's fund. I've been known to place a wager or two on an NBA playoff game, but when it comes to investing, I'm just not a gambling man. And despite Value Trust's winning record, I don't like its future odds. Talented as they so obviously are, Miller and his team aren't miracle workers.

Championship form
Finding future winners is what my Champion Funds newsletter service strives to do -- and so far so good. As a group, the Champs I've recommended have surpassed the S&P by nearly four percentage points, a significant margin in the world of funds.

Like Miller and Monsieur O'Neal, I like to beat up on the competition, and so, by necessity, I go my own way, too. I have a lot of respect for both Morningstar and Lipper, for example, but their star ratings and leader scores don't mean a whole heckuva lot to me. Instead, I look for great funds with built-in competitive advantages, such as...

1. Low fees
This one's a no-brainer. The rule of you-get-what-you-pay-for simply doesn't apply in fund investing, except maybe in reverse. Indeed, cheaper funds are often the best performers for a simple reason that practically reeks of common sense: They have less of a hurdle to clear relative to pricier peers. Not for nothing do most stock funds have a nearly impossible time beating the likes of a world-class index tracker such as Vanguard 500 Index (FUND: VFINX  ) . While the average stock fund will ding you around 1.5% each year for the "privilege" of investing in it, the Vanguard pick charges just 0.18%. That's quite a head start.

2. Talented, steady management
Value Trust has this one in spades, of course, and Miller certainly fits the profile I like to see. I'm a big fan of managers who've been around long enough to observe how their strategy plays out in various market cycles, and I especially favor those who stick to their guns even in the face of apparent adversity. For sharp stock pickers, "apparent adversity" practically screams "buying opportunity." Meanwhile, managers who go chasing after last year's returns often find themselves whipsawed by reality. Pity the poor money manager who loaded up on tech shares toward the end of 1999. (But don't pity him that much!)

3. Sound strategy
There's no one correct way to assemble a successful portfolio, but there are lots of incorrect ways. Any manager who makes top-down macroeconomic calls, for instance, or who makes big bets on distressed companies because he thinks they look "cheap" is destined to sit on the bench. I generally prefer bottom-up stock pickers who spend their time analyzing company fundamentals, not reading market tea leaves. I also gravitate toward buy-to-hold types. At the end of the day, though, I'm willing to consider any manager who has a clear game plan that he's executed successfully over the long haul. Which leads to...

4. Proven success
Past performance is overrated as a tool for gauging a fund's future prospects, if for no other reason but that a fund's track record may not belong to the guy who's currently calling the shots. Therefore, as I do my work for ChampionFunds, I hone in on the manager's track record, including what he's been able to accomplish at funds other than the one I'm considering. If the manager really is talented -- and if his strategy really is sound -- that ought to be borne out over time.

5. Shareholder friendliness
I have a strong bias toward managers who invest in the funds they run, because few other things can tell you as much about whether their interests are aligned with yours. Candid and forthcoming shareholder letters also get my attention, as do fund shops that eschew soft-dollar arrangements. Expense ratios that fall as assets under management rise are another winning attribute, and though it's true that several of the implicated firms have made strides, they still need to prove over time that they've changed their ways.

So, there you have it: the main principles I follow while zeroing in on the funds I recommend in the pages of Champion Funds. If they sound sensible to you, give the newsletter a try (free) for 30 days, and if in the unlikely event you feel that you can't benefit from it, just cancel without paying a thing. You can't get a lower fee than that.

In the meantime, I plan to keep a close watch on Value Trust. If and when its expense ratio comes down from the nosebleed section, that fund is destined to be a slam-dunk champ.

This column was originally published on June 1, 2004. It has been updated.

Shannon Zimmerman, chief analyst of Motley Fool Champion Funds, would also settle for being the Larry Bird of fund analysis. He doesn't own shares of any funds or companies mentioned above. The Motley Fool is investors writingfor investors and has a disclosure policy.

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