Monday, January 2, 2017

Insights from Mutual Funds in 2016 and Their Influences in 2017

Mutual Funds are Important to all Investors

First, funds are an important part of many publicly traded markets around the world. On a global basis they hold more than $44 Trillion dollars today.

Second, funds provide more relevant disclosure than probably any other financial sector.

Third, much of the less well disclosed institutional investments are managed by people who received their early training in the mutual fund business. Large financial institutions often manage mutual funds in addition to their other accounts.

Fourth,  in most countries mutual fund boards include independent directors and in most cases those independent directors represent the majority of the directors. In the US the annual investment contracts must be approved by the independent directors. These directors  have civil liability for their actions (or the lack of action).

Fifth, most mutual funds are managed by privately owned management companies or are part of large multi-product organizations such as banks and insurance companies. However, in a number of global markets there are publicly traded mutual fund management companies. Their disclosures reveal important trends as to the profitability of money management and related information. From time to time we have found these companies to be worthwhile investments.

Sixth, with the world's growing retirement capital deficit, it is important to recognize that mutual funds are a major gatherer of retirement capital. Of the $16 Trillion invested in US mutual funds, $7.5 Trillion were in identified retirement accounts about equally divided between employer-sponsored Defined Contribution Plans and Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs). Upon exiting from employer plans, investors often place money into IRAs. 

The total US retirement market is $25 Trillion with the Defined Benefit Pension market flat and expected to decline as employers choose to shed the accompanying fixed and growing liability There is ample scope for Defined Contribution plans to grow and could lead to an increase in the size of the mutual fund share of the market. The average individual mutual fund is currently held between four and five years, more than twice the holding period for Exchange Traded Funds. Due to the lengthening of people's retirement period it is reasonable to expect that IRAs will remain open for at least twice to possibly four times the non-retirement money in mutual funds.  

Insights from 2016

1.   In the US market there was more money entering the fund business than leaving. From first glance, most of the net gain went into Money Market funds. However this gain occurred during a time when the number of funds declined. Due to changes in regulation most of the decline occurred in the Prime Retail Money Market funds arena. Considering the emotional turmoil caused by the US election and rising interest rates, it is not surprising that money flowed into Money Market funds. While a portion of the money in these funds will never enter the long-term mutual funds arena, some will.

2.   Due to automatic reinvestment of income and capital gains, distribution funds have another source of inflows other than net sales. For the first eleven months of 2016, reinvested dividends of about $42 Billion came in from this source to Long-Term funds which meant for the eleven months the flow into Long-Term funds was positive.  

3.   Appropriately in November there were net redemptions in bond funds for the first time. The redemption rate slowed for equity funds, particularly for World Equity funds.

4.   In the shortened time horizon that many advisors and brokers are using with their accounts, they are relying on the correlation among mutual funds and ETFs.  But these are not currently working. In the performance reports issued by my old firm, Lipper, Inc, now owned by Thomson Reuters, there are twelve investment objective averages of compound performance for the last five years (through December 29th) between +11.83% and +13.80% . Nine of the thirteen were clustered at the 13% level. A nice tight group. These are funds grouped first by the size of market capitalizations within their portfolios. These include Large, Multi-Cap, Middle-Cap and Small-Cap. They are further sub divided by investment objectives into large, core and growth.

In 2016 the close correlations exploded. The Large-Cap Growth funds averaged a gain of +2.49% and the Large-Cap Value funds gained +14.93%. Hardly a tight correlation. Thus the fund selection criteria became critically important. Market capitalization did not help meaningfully in terms of the Large Cap. Actually if one ranked performance within this subset of 12 investment objectives, Large Caps where most of the money is, came in fourth behind in rising order, Multi Caps, Middle Caps and the winner was Small Caps.

Within the market cap segments, the choice of investment objective was even more meaningful. In each case the Value funds did better than the Core funds which beat out the Growth funds. Thus in the 12 fund categories analyzed, the best was the Small Cap Value funds which averaged +27.25%, compared with the previously mentioned +2.49% Large Cap Growth.

The real lesson in owning the best performing funds in 2016 was selection not correlation.

Looking Forward to 2017

1.   Though we are in a period of annual forecasts, in many respects it should be called the period of extrapolation. Most people including analysts and other pundits  draw on what they call the use of the brains, but their real pattern is elongating some past trends into the future without limit. This is natural and is discussed in a book entitled Seeking Wisdom from Darwin to Munger which was sent to me by Charlie Munger. The book ties in with the work that I have seen from Caltech; that the brain is essentially a memory device of personal experiences. Really bright people are not limited by their own experiences, they seek to learn from others' experiences current and past. That is why I say that if you slice a vein in a good analyst, an historian will bleed. Many of the published forecasts that I have seen as of today either extend the 2016 trends or one from November 9th. In my mind neither group has learned the lessons of 2016 which could be summarized as follows:

  • Search for what is not in the data.
  • Events can change perceptions.
  • Many people are not forthcoming as to their plans.
  • There is a need to learn from others with different backgrounds.
  • Doubt much you have been taught.

2.   As one who is often described as a contrarian, I need to warn that after accruing the benefits of being a contrarian in 2016, there will be some times when the apparent majority will be right. (For a while and to a limited extent.)

3.   Unless you are primarily trading, looking at new highs is not often productive of big winners. My investment strategist son suggests one should look at the new low list which could be a better hunting ground for research. He is also more focused on industries rather than large segments of the market. For me, I focus on individual management of businesses that Charlie Munger and Warren Buffett would find of interest.

4.   Many Frontier market securities and some Emerging Market stocks have been beaten up pretty hard. In selected cases their prices have much less risk within them than before.

5.   The only two fixed income categories showing double digit gains for 2016 were High Yield funds +13.25% and Emerging Market Hard Currency Debt funds +10.75%. Be careful in 2017, these are taking on equity type risks without enough equity type gains.

6.   One possible way to gauge the level of excess enthusiasm is the cost to hedge against continued growth. It has been pointed out that the cost of hedging the enthusiasm for Small Caps is that the cost to hedge the Russell 2000 is very low. Options to protect against a decline in the iShares Russell 2000 ETF  haven't been this cheap since August 2015. While there could well be technical reasons for this, one should be on guard anytime it is too cheap to hedge.

7.    One of the lessons from the election campaign is that many in the middle class and the working rich feel that the economic future is limited. In the past many of these people would have been mutual fund buyers. It is their absence from the marketplace, not disappointment with results, which has impacted fund sales. To the extent that their post-election elation is real if they come back into the market, the bears on mutual fund management companies will once again be proven wrong.  
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