As the Fool's resident fund geek, I spend an inordinate amount of time poring over mutual fund data. I gauge a fund's performance, for instance, relative to the broader market's and to that of like-minded peers. I check out calendar-year returns to get a sense of how the fund's strategy has fared during the market's various cycles, and I get down and dirty with the fund's risk/return profile, too.
When it comes to that part of the job, alpha, beta, standard deviation, and R-Squared are all important tools in the analytical toolbox I use to separate the fund industry's keepers from its duds in the Fool's Champion Funds newsletter service.
But you know what? As important as all of those data points are, they're virtually meaningless if you don't know how long the fund's head cheese has, um, been aging.
All the above, after all, are backward-looking measures, as are a fund's Morningstar and Lipper ratings. Indeed, if the manager who has compiled a fund's five-star record or earned its Lipper Leader ranking is no longer on the scene, those particular designations -- while they no doubt look good in the fund company's glossy brochure -- don't tell you a thing.
It's for that reason that I focus on the manager's track record when I'm doing the work that leads to a Champion Funds recommendation. In addition to interviewing the best and brightest the money management biz has to offer in each issue of the newsletter, here are three key managerial questions I ask and answer before welcoming a fund to our winner's circle.
1. How long has the manager been in charge?
There are exceptions, but generally speaking, a fund manager needs to have at least a five-year track record before I'll give him a second look. That track record, however, doesn't have to be at the particular fund I'm examining. For example, if value investing luminary Bill Nygren opts to open a new fund, I'll start giving that puppy a close look on day one.
Nygren, after all, has made gobs of money over the years for shareholders of Oakmark and Oakmark Select, choice mutual funds whose portfolios recently featured the likes of Washington Mutual
With a track record like that, why wait for a new Nygren-managed fund to be open for some arbitrary length of time? There's nothing inherently magical about a mutual fund. It's the manager's showing that counts -- and on that front, Nygren has plenty to show for himself -- and his investors.
2. Does the manager stick to his strategic guns?
Nothing irks me more than fund managers who go chasing after last year's returns. As I see it, the way they earn their keep is by looking ahead and trying to find tomorrow's winners today -- not looking in a rearview mirror at what worked last quarter.
With that in mind, I like managers whose track records indicate that they have the courage of their convictions. Typically, that involves sticking to a particular stock-picking game plan even through lean times. It's when an area of the market or a certain style of investing is out of favor that crafty fund managers can snap up shares of the kinds of companies they like on the relative cheap.
On this point, then, the upshot is this: If a manager who has generally fished in the large-cap pond suddenly starts trying to reel in smaller fry because that area of the market seems to be "hot," his fund isn't likely to make the Champion Funds grade.
3. Does he eat his own cooking?
I've saved the best for last because few details are more telling than this one. Indeed, if a fund manager plunks down his chunk of change alongside yours in the fund that he manages, you can rest assured that he's running the money with your best interests at heart. Yes, your interests are his interests as well.
It's for that reason that I ask all the fund managers I interview just how significantly invested they are in their own funds. You might be surprised at how candid the managers of our Champs are, but you shouldn't be. When you're running a fund that's among the cream of the fund industry's crop, why be shy?
So, those are some of the questions I investigate before giving the fund a nod, but there are certainly others. Strategy, fees, turnover, and shareholder friendliness are all essential components, too. If you think that sounds like a sensible, comprehensive approach, why not give Champion Fundsa risk-free spin? You'll have 30 days to check out the newsletter's market-beating technique -- not to mention all the recommendations I've made since we first opened for business back in March 2004.
A fair deal, no?
Shannon Zimmerman is a fund fan and a Fool of longstanding. He owns shares of Vanguard Total Stock Market and Oakmark Select. The Fool has a strict disclosure policy.