Now's a Great Time to Invest -- So Don't Blow It Like This

The past year has been as painful for my psyche as it has been for my portfolio. Stephen Colbert summed up my feelings about the recent market movements quite well. He said watching the Dow "is like a roller coaster, only you vomit your money."

While it's been painful to be a current investor, though, I believe it's a good time to be a prospective investor ...

Just don't do this
Through 401(k)s, IRAs, or taxable accounts, nearly 90 million Americans own mutual funds. But if you're thinking about adding even a penny to a new fund, hold that thought ... for now.

Why? Data suggests that the majority of mutual fund investors may be going about choosing funds in a way that could undermine their long-term wealth.

Author and professor Louis Lowenstein, in his superb book The Investor's Dilemma, outlined the sad state of affairs: "[W]hen one considers the fierce attention that consumers devote to the cost, and to the quality, of their weekly groceries or, say, to the purchase of a new washer and dryer, their nonchalance when it comes to mutual fund cost and quality is remarkable."

Nonchalance, you say? OK, readers of this website are undoubtedly better informed than the hordes of fund investors in our country. But even those in the know may be hitching their life savings to funds that -- apologies to Wayne and Garth -- aren't worthy.

First, the good news
According to the Investment Company Institute, investors look at two main characteristics when they're researching a mutual fund -- fees and performance: "Investors usually review a wide range of information before purchasing fund shares outside these plans. Most often, investors want to know about a fund's fees and expenses, its historical performance, and its associated risks prior to purchasing shares."

That's the good news, because focusing on those data points (which takes maybe 10 minutes per fund) will get you pretty far.

But when my colleague Tim Hanson and I looked back at the 10 best-performing mutual funds of the past decade, we found two factors that mattered most: low expenses/fees and long-tenured managers.

And according to the Investment Company Institute report cited above, investors aren't that interested in the fund manager. That's a big mistake.

And now the bad news
Incredibly, the ICI found that of the 19 characteristics fund investors looked for while researching prospective investments, "information about the fund's portfolio manager" ranked 17th. Just one in four investors researched the person actually managing the money.

What's striking is that nearly one in two (45%) investors wanted information about the fund company, which is a little bit like assuming that because MI6 sent them, 006 and 008 are just as good as 007.

In The Investor's Dilemma, Lowenstein explains why this tendency plays to the desires of the fund companies: "The chief economist of the Investment Company Institute ... recently explained that team management is popular because fund complexes have been creating marketing and brand identification more around the fund and the fund complex than around the manager."

The fund companies have very good reasons for this. The fewer star managers they have, the less they're tied to the whimsy, ego, and demands of said star managers. They want to establish a brand, not a personality. It's a sound business strategy for them -- but it's much less useful for us consumers.

Take Fidelity Magellan (FMAGX), for example. What's probably the most famous actively managed mutual fund in the world became so because of Peter Lynch's supreme talent in picking stocks. The fund gained nearly 30% per year during Lynch's 13-year tenure from 1977 to 1990.

But in 1991, after Lynch had left Magellan, what would you rather have known: Whether Peter Lynch was still in charge or whether Magellan was still a Fidelity fund?

Let's look under the hood
OK, enough with the hypotheticals. Let's look at Fidelity Growth & Income (FGRIX) as an illustration. The vital stats:

Fidelity Growth & Income

Vital Stats

Expense Ratio


Load Fees


12b-1 Fees


Annual Turnover


5-Year Annualized Return

(6.8%) (near the bottom of its category)

Major Holdings

Abbott Laboratories (NYSE: ABT  )
Corning (NYSE: GLW  )
Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL  )
Bank of America (NYSE: BAC  )
Occidental Petroleum (NYSE: OXY  )
State Street (NYSE: STT  )
Schlumberger (NYSE: SLB  )

Source: Morningstar.

Fidelity Growth & Income has low fees and no loads, but has only one star from Morningstar and a poor track record of performance. At least, its former manager did. See, the current manager has been on the job about seven months (since the end of January).

Which is to say: The lousy track record isn't his fault, just as stellar performance figures wouldn't be to his credit. That's no knock on James Catudal; he's a Fidelity veteran who has capably run other Fido funds.

But until he's been on the job at Fidelity Growth & Income a little longer -- and the performance numbers over one, three, and possibly even five years fully reflect his picks and not his predecessor's -- my money's staying on the sidelines.

What you can do about this right now
More than anything, when you invest in a fund, you're investing with a fund manager. Never lose sight of that as you entrust (via retirement accounts) ever-growing sums of money to mutual funds.

The takeaways, then, are as follows:

  1. Alongside fees and expenses, research and study the fund manager.
  2. The two things you'll want to look for are a manager's tenure and his or her track record during that tenure. Motley Fool Rule Your Retirement advisor Robert Brokamp likes to see at least five years at the same fund; although not a firm rule, that's a good starting point.
  3. Look at the fund's performance across the manager's tenure to get a sense of how he or she performed in both good markets and bad. Consistency of style is important.
  4. Read the fund's Statement of Additional Information (SAI) to see how much of the manager's own money is invested in the fund. If the manager eats his or her own cooking, then that manager's savings are on the line alongside yours -- and that's a good sign.

Here at The Motley Fool, long-term management is one of the key things we look for in a good mutual fund. Of course, if you want to see the hand-picked funds that have received the Fool stamp of approval, click here to check out our recommended funds and model portfolio picks at Rule Your Retirement. We offer a free trial with no obligation to subscribe.

Already subscribe to Rule Your Retirement? Log in at the top of this page.

This article was first published Nov. 11, 2008. It has been updated.

Brian Richards is frightened by the look in Mr. Donut-Head-Man's eyes. Brian doesn't own shares of any companies mentioned. Apple is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendation. The Motley Fool is investors writing for investors.

Read/Post Comments (8) | Recommend This Article (6)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On August 27, 2009, at 8:20 AM, mdtopper wrote:

    So perhaps Morningstar should develop the following table for each fund it evaluates and place it on the quick take page:

    annual turnover next prior year 60%

    annual turnover next prior year 80%

    annual turnover prior year 40%

    annual turnover current year 52%

    manager tenure in months 24

    estimated positions inherited - still remaining (turnover x turnover for all years managed) 21%

    Estimated portion of current portfolio selected by current manager (1 - est inherited - still remain) 79%

    Annualized performance for the period of current manager -5%

    So it would be easy to see that the current manager is responsible for 79% of the current picks and has generated -5% return on his watch.


  • Report this Comment On August 27, 2009, at 8:33 AM, vkatz wrote:

    Colbert is not on the Daily Show any more. He's on the Colbert Report. Please get your facts correct before posting. Thanks

  • Report this Comment On August 27, 2009, at 11:05 AM, TMFBrich wrote:


    Of course, you're right. And I watch the Colbert Report nearly every night ... so let's call it a momentarly lapse of memory. Or maybe I was just thinking back to 2005. Either way, thanks for reading, and for commenting.

    Best regards,

    Brian Richards

  • Report this Comment On August 27, 2009, at 6:21 PM, stockmenot wrote:

    Why is Paulson quietly buying Citi and BAC stock if there's going to be a correction..didn't he predict the last one?

  • Report this Comment On August 27, 2009, at 9:14 PM, plange01 wrote:

    we are near the end of the biggest false rally since the last far we are in our 9th month of a new depression. this is the second worse time in history to be in stocks you can guess the first foe yourself....

  • Report this Comment On August 28, 2009, at 12:40 PM, ozzfan1317 wrote:

    Plange somehow I doubt another crash is coming not saying things arent bad but I expect slow tepid growth for a few years while things heal. Back then we didnt have deposit insurance or social security.

  • Report this Comment On August 30, 2009, at 12:38 AM, TMFEdyboom223 wrote:

    This article never said that Colbert was on the Daily Show. Get your facts straight.

  • Report this Comment On August 30, 2009, at 2:50 AM, JibJabs wrote:

    Forget mutual funds. Index funds are the only vehicle for me if I'm not picking them myself.

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