Is your money being run by a 2-year-old?

Yeah, silly question. But I'm not talking about toddlers, I'm talking about newbie fund managers  -- folks with less than a year or two of tenure on a fund. While some managers come to a new fund with great investing skills and years of experience, others ... really don't.

And just like a new young driver given the keys to a Ferrari, those neophytes could drive your portfolio into a ditch.

On the other hand, plenty of 16-year-olds turn out to be great drivers after they get some seasoning. The question, then, is whether you can spot the good ones in advance.

The Fidelity story
Fund giant Fidelity long had a system it believed excelled at spotting great talent. Its (in)famous "star system," in which portfolio managers essentially competed against each other to achieve superstar status, certainly succeeded in producing some outstanding returns back in the day, as I recall from my time working at Fidelity.

But it also produced some inconsistent performance, as those managers -- knowing all too well that another batch of new business-school graduates was right behind them, hoping to take their jobs if they failed -- had a strong incentive to take big risks in pursuit of gaudy quarterly numbers. Throughout the 1990s, high-risk strategies tended to get rewarded with good returns. But once the tech bust hit, risk-takers like Fidelity's Aggressive Growth Fund saw spectacular gains turn to huge losses, with the fund going from $22 billion in assets in early 2000 to less than $4 billion in late 2002.

Fidelity has since toned down its risk-taking, partly to soothe institutional 401(k) clients who wanted a little less rock-and-roll in their participants' accounts, and partly because, well, it made sense. Yet although the problem of manager turnover persists, a few Fidelity funds were never affected by it. Not surprisingly, those funds have turned out to be some of Fidelity's best products.

Why isn't that a surprise?
Foolish fund guru and Champion Funds lead advisor Amanda Kish likes to say that a manager's tenure is a great predictor of future performance. I look at the issue from a different angle, believing that managers who can hold onto their jobs at places like Fidelity have found the magic secret of sustained outperformance. But either way, one of the most important keys to picking a great fund is to look for a manager with more than five years' experience. This is about more than just career survival -- an experienced manager is a big plus, especially in challenging market conditions such as these.

Sticking with the Fidelity example, it's worth noting that two of its best-known (and just plain best) funds have managers approaching their third decade of service:


Manager's tenure

Sample top holdings

Relative performance over past 15 years

Fidelity Contrafund (FCNTX)

18 years

Google (NASDAQ:GOOG), Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE:BRK-A) (NYSE:BRK-B), Johnson & Johnson (NYSE:JNJ)

Outperformed 96% of large-cap growth funds

Fidelity Low-Priced Stock Fund (FLPSX)

20 years

Bed Bath & Beyond (NASDAQ:BBBY), Oracle (NASDAQ:ORCL), UnitedHealth Group (NYSE:UNH)

Outperformed 98% of mid-cap blend funds

Source: Fidelity Investments, Motley Fool Champion Funds.

These are two of Fidelity's very best funds -- they just haven't been talked about much in recent years, because they've been closed to new investors. But as Amanda notes in the new issue of Champion Funds, available online at 4 p.m. today, Fidelity recently reopened Contrafund and Low-Priced Stock to new investors for the first time in years. If you'd like to add some professional stock-picking to your portfolio -- something worth considering, if you think the bear hasn't left the house yet -- these two are worth a careful look.

But these Fidelity offerings aren't the only great choices out there. If you'd like to take a look at a much bigger menu of great funds, check out the new issue of Champion Funds. Amanda and her team have compiled a whole list of recommended funds covering nearly every corner of the market, many of which have been under the same management for a decade or more -- and you can get full access free of charge for 30 days, with no obligation. Click here to get started.

Fool contributor John Rosevear has no position in the companies mentioned. Google is a Motley Fool Rule Breakers recommendation. Johnson & Johnson is a Motley Fool Income Investor pick. Bed Bath & Beyond, Berkshire Hathaway, and UnitedHealth Group are all Motley Fool Stock Advisor selections and Motley Fool Inside Value recommendations. The Fool owns shares of Berkshire Hathaway and UnitedHealth Group. Try any of our Foolish newsletters free for 30 days. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.