2 Giant Threats to the Manager of the Decade

Once, they were but learners. Now, they want to become the masters.

If you ask investing junkies who they'd like to have lessons from, Bruce Berkowitz would appear at the top of many people's lists. The leader of the Fairholme Fund won recognition last year from Morningstar as the fund manager of the decade, thanks to Fairholme's outstanding returns during the period.

Two men actually had that chance to learn from Berkowitz, and they made the most of their years at Fairholme. Recently, though, Keith Trauner and Larry Pitkowsky left Fairholme for good to start their own mutual fund, the GoodHaven Fund. Now that Fairholme has seen its returns drop precipitously, could it be that the students will soon pass their teacher by?

Leaving home
In the past year, Berkowitz has fallen from grace. Fairholme now ranks in the bottom 1% of funds for the past year. And although this isn't the first time that the fund has lagged badly behind its peers -- the fund underperformed during the bounce-back year of 2003 after the end of the tech bust -- Fairholme's 15-percentage-point underperformance is far worse than investors have seen over the past decade.

The reason: Berkowitz's big bet on financials. Four of Fairholme's largest big-financial holdings -- AIG (NYSE: AIG  ) , Bank of America (NYSE: BAC  ) , Morgan Stanley, and Citigroup (NYSE: C  ) -- are down 20% or more for the year. AIG has lost half its value. Even the fund's big foray into land developer St. Joe (NYSE: JOE  ) hasn't panned out well -- at least so far. Just about everything that could go wrong has gone wrong for Berkowitz.

Berkowitz has drawn fire for his stubborn belief that financials will eventually turn around. Granted, six months is a short period of time to judge a fund manager. But it hasn't stopped investors from pulling huge amounts of money from the fund -- $3.5 billion over the past four months alone, according to Morningstar, with $1 billion in June alone.

The better answer for the future?
In that light, it's interesting to see what GoodHaven's managers have chosen for their new fund. Perhaps most notably, you won't find any big banks among the fund's 13 listed equity investments. More broadly defined, financials don't completely get the boot: You'll find Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE: BRK-B  ) and White Mountains Insurance (NYSE: WTM  ) among its holdings, presumably as much for their float-inspired investment portfolios as for their core insurance businesses.

But GoodHaven's biggest bets are reserved for an unlikely choice: tech stocks. Microsoft is the largest holding in the fund, while Google and Hewlett-Packard (NYSE: HPQ  ) also make the top five.

In their first shareholder letter, Trauner and Pitkowsky explain how technology stocks have come to the forefront. For years, tech stocks were overly expensive and full of hype, making them bad bets for value-based investors. Along the way, many stocks fell by the wayside. But the survivors have largely seen their share prices stagnate as their fundamentals caught up to their lofty valuations.

Now, many of these stocks look attractive even to fundamentals-based investors. With huge cash balances, strong earnings, and impressive market shares of their respective industries, these stocks are at the pinnacle of their success -- yet they trade at reasonable valuations. They also believe that the pessimism about the survival prospects for stocks like HP and Microsoft is overly negative.

A big gamble
As a Fairholme shareholder, I see the logic of Berkowitz's position. If the financial industry can make it through this time of trouble without suffering too much more, investors may well ratchet up their share prices significantly.

But it's a lot easier to see the inherent value of tech stocks with real products rather than financial-product gimmicks. Despite the fact that bulls on Microsoft have mostly been dead wrong since the turn of the millennium, buying tech seems like a less risky proposition than counting on a still-shaky financial system to support banks.

With GoodHaven only a few months old, it's too early to tell who'll win this unofficial contest. But despite the impressive long-term record of the master, don't count the learners out just yet.

Meanwhile, many investors have decided that if even top managers can't post consistent outperformance, it's better to go with an index-tracking ETF. Here at the Motley Fool, we've found three ETFs with great prospects. Sign up here for our free special report to learn more.

Fool contributor Dan Caplinger never makes a threat he can't back up. You can follow him on Twitter here. He owns shares of Fairholme and Berkshire Hathaway. The Motley Fool owns shares of Berkshire Hathaway, White Mountains Insurance Group, Microsoft, and Google. The Fool owns shares of and has opened a short position on Bank of America. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Berkshire Hathaway, Google, and Microsoft. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Fool's disclosure policy protects you from threats near and far.


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