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Steering Fidelity Magellan back on course

David Guttenfelder—AP Kandahar Province, Afghanistan: Air Force pararescuemen ride in the back of a medevac helicopter with the bodies of two U.S. soldiers killed in a roadside bomb attack in Kandahar Province, October 10, 2010. Photographer Guttenfelder describes the scene: "When the pararescue guys were covering the bodies, they only had two flags with them. The wind was shipping through the open window...and the wind caught it and it blew out the window and they lost it. So they only had one flag. (But) one of the pilots had a flag that he kept behind the plate of his flak jacket, one that he'd kept with him for every deployment he'd ever done: Iraq, Afghanistan. He flew over Washington DC with it, his children had kissed it. He took it out and passed it to the back of the helicopter and that was one of the flags they used to cover one of the guys. The family of the soldier who died, who was covered by the donated flag, has reached out to me to ask for a contact for the pilot. They are hoping to give the flag back to him."

With over $14 billion in assets, Fidelity Magellan is a fairly large, widely owned portfolio. But in its heyday, Magellan was quite simply Wall Street’s best brand — a living advertisement for the notion that a gifted fund manager can consistently beat the market.

Peter Lynch, who ran the fund until 1990, earned an annualized return of 29% over his 13-year tenure. Subsequent managers failed to repeat his success, and under the last one, Harry Lange, performance was sometimes dismal.

Can new manager Jeffrey Feingold turn this ship around?

How the giant fell

The history of Magellan FIDELITY MAGELLAN FUND FMAGX -0.04% offers a lesson: A fund’s past successes can be a burden on current owners.

Lynch’s legacy kept the fund popular through the 1990s, and it ultimately hit a then-record $100 billion. Once a fund is that big, however, it can get trapped in a box.

The key to Lynch’s success, says mutual fund consultant Geoff Bobroff, was that he could bet big on just about anything. A giant fund, by contrast, can have a hard time finding enough winners on which to spread its billions.

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One Magellan manager, Robert Stansky, made the fund more like the S&P 500. Lange made big strategic shifts, such as a badly timed bet on financial and foreign stocks coming into 2008. By 2011, as investors left, size wasn’t such a problem.

So far, so good

Fund manager Feingold beat the majority of funds in Magellan’s large-growth category in 2012, his first full year on the job, and he’s so far on track to win again this year. This builds on Feingold’s solid record running Fidelity Trend FIDELITY TREND FUND FTRNX 0.02% , another fund that focuses on blue chips with high earnings growth rates and comparatively steep valuations.

Feingold says he finds growth in three “buckets.” Fast growth, like recent top holding Google GOOGLE INC. GOOG 0.22% ; pretty good growth with a strong financial position, such as Coca-Cola COCA-COLA COMPANY KO -0.03% (KO); and cheap stocks that are improving.

That last category has led Feingold to hold more than his rivals in financial stocks. “They’ve gone from bad to less bad,” he says. In this case, the timing worked: Financials are up over 38% in the past year.

Looking for small edges

Magellan’s smaller size gives it more flexibility now — the portfolio even has 5% in small stock. Still, under Feingold, “It’s a fund that isn’t so different from its benchmark,” says fund researcher Russel Kinnel of Morningstar.

Think of Magellan as a core stock fund with a growth tilt. Feingold has held less in tech and more in financials than the typical growth fund. So Magellan may not outperfom as much when the market favors classic growth stocks.

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That raises the question: Should you pay the added expenses for a portfolio not wildly different from an index fund? It helps that Magellan’s expenses are just 0.46% a year. But if the fund really comes back, it’s allowed to charge a performance bonus that could add a bit to its cost.

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