MONEY

5 Ways to Prosper in 2015

fortune cookie with money inside
Gregory Reid—Prop Styling by Megumi Emoto

The U.S. shines amid global worries. Here are five strategies for profiting from the economy's relative health in your investing, spending, and saving.

The pace of U.S. growth may be more minivan than Ferrari, but the economy is nonetheless motoring along. Gross domestic product is forecast by the International Monetary Fund to grow 3.1% in 2015. That will put the U.S. ahead of most of its peers, which are facing serious headwinds: Europe may slip into its third recession since the financial crisis, and Japan’s stimulus effort hasn’t revved up its economic engines. China, meanwhile, is trying to maneuver slowing growth into a soft landing.

To make sure growth here doesn’t stall out, the Fed will likely wait till late 2015 to raise rates, and any increase is expected to be small and gradual. That’s still good news, though. “The U.S. economy is in a position to withstand the beginning of interest rates rising—something our trade partners can’t do yet,” says Chun Wang, senior analyst at the Leuthold Group.

Our relative health should continue to lure global investors to U.S. stocks and bonds. That in turn should support the almighty buck. After rising about 5% against a basket of currencies of our major trade partners this year, the dollar could gain another 5% in 2015, Wang says.

A stronger dollar means cheaper overseas travel and cheaper imports—and the latter should keep inflation from picking up momentum as well.

Here’a five-step action plan for profiting off U.S. versus them.

Move to the middle on bonds. While bonds that mature in less than three years are usually considered the safest, “short-term high-grade bonds could be the most vulnerable in 2015 if the Fed starts raising rates as expected,” says Lisa Black, interim chief in­vestment officer for the TIAA General Account. Because the recovery here has been so much stronger than in the rest of the world, global investors will continue to favor 10-year Treasuries, putting upward pressure on prices and keeping a lid on yields. Thus short-term rates, over which the Fed has more influence, are likely to see a much bigger rise relative to their current level.

If you’ve kept a big chunk of bond money in short-term mutual or exchange-traded funds recently—­either to hedge inflation risk or to get more yield on cash—get back to an intermediate strategy in 2015. MONEY 50 fund Dodge & Cox Income ­DODGE & COX INCOME COM NPV DODIX -0.1439% yields 2.5%, vs. less than 0.8% for Vanguard’s Short-Term Bond Fund.

Bet on cyclical stocks. LPL chief investment strategist Burt White—who forecasts a mid- to high-single-digit return for the U.S. stock market in 2015—­expects to see above-average performance in sectors that do better when consumers and businesses have more money to spend. In particular, he says, industrial and technology stocks should benefit if the strong economy motivates corporations to invest in systems upgrades. He recommends Industrial Select SPDR ETF INDUSTRIAL SELECT SECTOR SPDR ETF XLI 1.9384% , as well as PowerShares QQQ ETF POWERSHARES QQQ NASDAQ 100 QQQ 1.7682% , which tracks the tech-heavy Nasdaq 100.

Eke more out of your cash. In 2014 the average money-market account paid a mere 0.08%, and that yield isn’t likely to grow in any meaningful way in 2015. But don’t just give up on your savings.

Move cash you need accessible—like emergency funds—to an online bank such as MySavingsDirect, which yielded 1.05% re­cently, suggests Ken Tumin of DepositAccounts.com. If you have $25,000-plus to deposit, you can earn 1.25% at UFB Direct. Use the rest of your savings to build a CD ladder. Divide the sum into five buckets and deposit equal amounts in one- to five-year CDs. As each comes due, roll it into a five-year to benefit from rising rates. Based on current yields, you’ll earn an average 1.6%.

Head south. The dollar now buys nearly 8% more euros and 13% more yen than a year ago. That will make travel to Europe and Japan less expensive, but it still won’t be cheap. For great value—and some stunning photos besides—consider Costa Rica, says Anne Banas, editor of SmarterTravel.com.

The dollar is up 7% against the colon in the past year, making the country more of a bargain than it already was. Located in the rainforests of Arenal Volcano National Park on the Pacific Coast, the five-star Tabacon Grand Spa Thermal Resort—one of TripAdvisor’s 2014 winners for luxury—starts at $260 a night, for example. And flights from major U.S. cities can be found for $400.

Expect the unexpected. When stocks were spooked in September by Ebola reaching U.S. shores and increased U.S. airstrikes against ISIS, the S&P 500 fell 7% but European shares sunk 13%. U.S. stocks continued to lead when investors returned to focusing on economic growth.

While it’s impossible to predict what will rattle the markets in 2015, what you can do is take stock of your fortitude. If you persevered and profited from this recent snap back, plan for another in 2015 and bet on U.S. outperformance.

On the other hand, if you panicked and sold stocks, dial back your equity ex­posure by, say, five percentage points if it will keep you hanging on to your allocation in rough seas. Redirect that money to U.S. Treasuries. Jack Ablin, chief in­vestment officer for BMO Private Bank, says that these should benefit from a crisis: “It’s remarkable how Treasuries and the U.S. dollar are the newly appointed safe-­haven vehicles for the world.”

MONEY mutual funds

Why Mutual Fund Managers Are Having a Bad Year

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iStock

Eighty-five percent of stock-pickers at large-cap funds are trailing their benchmark indexes — likely their worst performance in three decades.

Stock-picking fund managers are testing their investors’ patience with some of the worst investment returns in decades.

With bad bets on financial shares, missed opportunities in technology stocks and too much cash on the sidelines, roughly 85% of active large-cap stock funds have lagged their benchmark indexes through Nov. 25 this year, according to an analysis by Lipper, a Thomson Reuters research unit. It is likely their worst comparative showing in 30 years, Lipper said.

Some long-term advocates of active management may be turned off by the results, especially considering the funds’ higher fees. Through Oct. 31, index stock funds and exchange traded funds have pulled in $206.2 billion in net deposits.

Actively managed funds, a much larger universe, took in a much smaller $35.6 billion, sharply down from the $162 billion taken in during 2013, their first year of net inflows since 2007.

Jeff Tjornehoj, head of Lipper Americas Research, said investors will have to decide if they have the stomach to stick with active funds in hopes of better results in the future.

“A year like this sorts out what kind of investor you are,” he said.

Even long-time standout managers like Bill Nygren of the $17.8 billion Oakmark Fund and Jason Subotky of the $14.2 billion Yacktman Fund are lagging, at a time when advisers are growing more focused on fees.

The Oakmark fund, which is up 11.8% this year through Nov. 25, charges 0.95% of assets in annual fees, compared with 0.09% for the SPDR S&P 500 exchange traded fund, which mimics the S&P 500 and is up almost 14% this year, according to Morningstar. The Yacktman fund is up 10.2% over the same period and charges 0.74% of assets in annual fees.

The pay-for-active-performance camp argues that talented managers are worth paying for and will beat the market over investment cycles.

Rob Brown, chief investment strategist for United Capital, which has $11 billion under management and keeps about two thirds of its mutual fund holdings in active funds, estimates that good managers can add an extra 1% to returns over time compared with an index-only strategy.

Indeed, the top active managers have delivered. For example, $10,000 invested in the Yacktman Fund on Nov. 23, 2004, would have been worth $27,844 on Nov. 25 of this year; the same amount invested in the S&P 500 would be worth $21,649, according to Lipper.

Even so, active funds as a group tend to lag broad market indexes, though this year’s underperformance is extreme. In the rout of 2008, when the S&P 500 fell 38%, more than half of the active large cap stock funds had declines that were greater than those of their benchmarks, Lipper found. The last time when more than half of active large cap stock managers beat their index was 2009, when the S&P 500 was up 26%. That year, 55% of these managers beat their benchmarks.

Unusually Bad Bets

In 2014, some recurring bad market bets were made by various active managers. Holding too much cash was one.

Yacktman’s Subotky said high stock prices made him skeptical of buying new shares, leaving him with 17% of the fund’s holdings in cash while share prices have continued to rise. He cautioned investors to have patience.

“Our goal is never to capture every last drop of a roaring bull market,” Subotky said

Oakmark’s Nygren cited his light weighting of hot Apple shares and heavy holdings of underperforming financials, but said his record should be judged over time. “Very short-term performance comparisons, good or bad, may bear little resemblance to long term results,” he said.

Shares of Apple, the world’s most valuable publicly traded company, are up 48% year to date. As of Sept. 30, Apple stock made up 1.75% of Oakmark’s assets, compared with 3.69% of the SPDR S&P 500 ETF.

Investors added $3.9 billion to Nygren’s fund through Nov. 19, Lipper said.

Still, some managers risk losing their faithful.

“We have been very much believers in active management, but a number of our active managers have let us down this year, and we are rethinking our strategy,” said Martin Hopkins, president of an investment management firm in Annapolis, Md. that has $4 million in the Yacktman Fund.

Derek Holman of EP Wealth Advisors, in Torrance, Calif., which manages about $1.8 billion, said his firm recently moved $130 million from a pair of active large cap funds into ETFs, saying it would save clients about $650,000 in fees per year.

Holman said his firm still uses active funds for areas like small-cap investing, but it is getting harder for fund managers to gain special insights about large companies.

For those managers, he said, “it’s getting harder to stand out.”

MONEY funds

George Soros Bets $500 Million On Bill Gross

George Soros
Billionaire George Soros, 84, is giving Bill Gross $500 million to invest for him. Rex Features via AP Images

Hedge fund titan George Soros is wagering half a billion dollars that bond king Bill Gross will excel in his new role at Janus.

Things are looking rosy for star bond fund manager Bill Gross, whose September departure from PIMCO—the fund company he founded—was accompanied by reports of tensions between Gross and other executives at the firm.

Now that Gross has moved to Janus Capital, where he manages the $440 million Global Unconstrained Bond Fund, it seems he’s getting a fresh start—plus some.

Not only did Janus see more than a billion dollars of new investments flow in last month, following Gross’s arrival, but the company also announced Thursday that hedge fund titan George Soros would be investing $500 million with Gross.

Quantum Partners, a vehicle for Soros’s investment, will see its money managed in an account that’s run parallel to but separate from the Unconstrained Bond Fund. That’s so Soros will be protected from sudden inflows or outflows caused by other investors, S&P Capital IQ mutual-fund research director Todd Rosenbluth told the Wall Street Journal.

Gross tweeted: “I & my team will manage your new unconstrained strategic acct. 24h/day. An honor to be chosen & an honor to be earned as well.”

Watch this video to learn more about what bond fund managers do:

MONEY financial advisers

What Is a Fiduciary, and Why Should You Care?

Your investments are at stake, explains Ritholtz Wealth Management CEO Josh Brown (a.k.a. The Reformed Broker).

MONEY mutual funds

Why Your Money Is Still Not Safe Enough in Money Funds

The Securities and Exchange Commission's new rules to keep share prices stable help pros more than retail investors.

The law of unintended consequences often comes into play when regulations get too complex. Take the Securities and Exchange Commission’s new rules to reduce the risk of runs on money-market mutual funds.

A money fund is a strange animal. Unlike other mutual funds whose share prices rise and fall along with the value of their assets, a money fund is designed to act like a bank account: Every dollar you put in buys a share, and you’re supposed to be able to take out your money at least dollar for dollar no matter what happens in the market. For that reason, money funds typically hold safe, short-term investments.

Still, sometimes losses in a money fund’s underlying assets make each share worth less than a dollar. When that happens, a sponsor must fork over its own money to prop up the fund (as has happened many times) or it can “break the buck” and stick investors with a sudden, unexpected loss.

This unique structure gives investors a strong incentive to pull money out at the first sign of trouble. They can get their dollar while imposing even bigger losses on those left behind. (If they stay, they risk others imposing losses on them.) So they run. That happened during the 2008 financial crisis, when a large money fund broke the buck and triggered massive runs that stopped only when taxpayers stepped in with a bailout.

RACE TO THE BOTTOM

In response, the SEC could have required all money funds to act like other mutual funds and pay out only what their shares were actually worth. Or the agency could have let money funds keep a stable value only if fund sponsors backed it up with their own capital. Instead, faced with intense industry lobbying, the SEC has split the baby. Effective October 2016, money funds used by big institutions will have floating share values. Retail funds can maintain their $1 per share price, but they won’t have to commit capital to support the buck. Rather, the SEC decided to discourage runs by letting fund sponsors deny investors access to their money for up to 10 days or charge them a fee of as much as 2% to redeem their shares should assets fall precipitously. (This while the average money fund yields, well, almost nothing.)

To its credit, the SEC also mandated better disclosure, including daily publication of the market value of funds’ underlying assets. Alas, here comes the law of unintended consequences: Better information also increases the risk of runs because sophisticated holders will bail out before gates or fees are imposed if the value of a fund’s assets are falling.

So protect yourself, and if you need ready access to your money, keep it in an FDIC-insured bank account or use a good financial website to find a fund investing only in short-term government securities that carry almost zero risk of default. Safety first.

Sheila Bair is former chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.

MONEY

Most Financial Research Is Probably Wrong, Say Financial Researchers

Throwing crumpled paper in wastebasket
Southern Stock—Getty Images

And if that's right, the problem isn't just academic. It means you are probably paying too much for your mutual funds.

In the 1990s, when I first stated writing about investing, the stars of the show on Wall Street were mutual fund managers. Now more investors know fund managers add costs without consistently beating the market. So humans picking stocks by hand are out, and quantitative systems are in.

The hot new mutual funds and exchange-traded funds are scientific—or at least, science-y. Sales materials come with dense footnotes, reference mysterious four- and five-factor models and Greek-letter statistical measures like “beta,” and name-drop professors at Yale, MIT and Chicago. The funds are often built on academic research showing that if you consistently favor a particular kind of stock—say, small companies, or less volatile ones—you can expect better long-run performance.

As I wrote earlier this year, some academic quants even think they’ve found stock-return patterns that can help explain why Warren Buffett has done so spectacularly well.

But there’s also new research that bluntly argues that most such studies are probably wrong. If you invest in anything other than a plain-vanilla index fund, this should rattle you a bit.

Financial economists Campbell Harvey, Yan Liu, and Heqing Zhu, in a working paper posted this week by the National Bureau of Economic Research, count up the economic studies claiming to have discovered a clue that could have helped predict the asset returns. Given how hard it is supposed to be to get an edge on the market, the sheer number is astounding: The economists list over 300 discoveries, over 200 of which came out in the past decade alone. And this is an incomplete list, focused on publications appearing in top journals or written by respected academics. Harvey, Liu, and Zhu weren’t going after a bunch of junk studies.

So how can they say so many of these findings are likely to be false?

To be clear, the paper doesn’t go through 300 articles and find mistakes. Instead, it argues that, statistically speaking, the high number of studies is itself a good reason to be more suspicious of any one them. This is a little mind-bending—more research is good, right?—but it helps to start with a simple fact: There’s always some randomness in the world. Whether you are running a scientific lab study or looking at reams of data about past market returns, some of the correlations and patterns you’ll see are just going to be the result of luck, not a real effect. Here’s a very simple example of a spurious pattern from my Buffett story: You could have beaten the market since 1993 just by buying stocks with tickers beginning with the letters W, A, R, R, E, and N.

Winning with Warren NEW

Researchers try to clean this up by setting a high bar for the statistical significance of their findings. So, for example, they may decide only to accept as true a result that’s so strong there’s only a 5% or smaller chance it could happen randomly.

As Harvey and Liu explain in another paper (and one that’s easier for a layperson to follow), that’s fine if you are just asking one question about one set of data. But if you keep going back again and again with new tests, you increase your chances of turning up a random result. So maybe first you look to see if stocks of a given size outperform, then at stocks with a certain price relative to earnings, or price to asset value, or price compared to the previous month’s price… and so on, and so on. The more you look, the more likely you are to find something, whether or not there’s anything there.

There are huge financial and career incentives to find an edge in the stock market, and cheap computing and bigger databases have made it easy to go hunting, so people are running a lot of tests now. Given that, Harvery, Liu, and Zhu argue we have to set a higher statistical bar to believe that a pattern that pops up in stock returns is evidence of something real. Do that, and the evidence for some popular research-based strategies—including investing in small-cap stocks—doesn’t look as strong anymore. Some others, like one form of value investing, still pass the stricter standard. But the problem is likely worse than it looks. The long list of experiments the economists are looking at here is just what’s seen the light of day. Who knows how many tests were done that didn’t get published, because they didn’t show interesting results?

These “multiple-testing” and “publication-bias” problems aren’t just in finance. They’re worrying people who look at medical research. And those TED-talk-ready psychology studies. And the way government and businesses are trying to harness insights from “Big Data.”

If you’re an investor, the first takeaway is obviously to be more skeptical of fund companies bearing academic studies. But it also bolsters the case against the old-fashioned, non-quant fund managers. Think of each person running a mutual fund as performing a test of one rough hypothesis about how to predict stock returns. Now consider that there are about 10,000 mutual funds. Given those numbers, write Campbell and Liu, “if managers were randomly choosing strategies, you would expect at least 300 of them to have five consecutive years of outperformance.” So even when you see a fund manager with an impressively consistent record, you may be seeing luck, not skill or insight.

And if you buy funds that have already had lucky strategies, you’ll likely find that you got in just in time for luck to run out.

MONEY mutual funds

Big Tax Bill Looms for Mutual Fund Investors

Even if you don't sell any mutual fund shares this year, you might owe big taxes on capital gains. Here's why — and here's how you can avoid the problem.

If you are the kind of steadfast investor who buys a mutual fund and holds it forever, prepare to pay for your loyalty next April, when you settle up your 2014 tax bill.

At the end of this year, many mutual funds are expected to distribute sizeable capital gains to shareholders who will have to pay taxes on them.

That is true of stock mutual funds that sold off last week after carrying forward big gains from 2013, and also may be true of the popular Pimco Total Return Fund, which was thrown a curve when star manager Bill Gross left Pacific Investment Management Co. in late September and the Pimco Total Return Fund was forced to sell appreciated bonds to pay off shareholders who left in his wake.

Here is why: Mutual funds must distribute realized gains to their shareholders every calendar year. Managers of both bond and stock funds have seen sizeable gains for several years running, but have not had to sell shares and realize those gains. This year, there have been some big selloffs that may have forced the managers to sell winning securities and realize those gains for tax purposes.

For individual investors, those gains might hurt more than they would have over the last few years, because a lot of investors have been offsetting their taxable gains for years with losses they carried over from the 2008-2009 rout. Now, with most of their losses used up, they will have full exposure to the gains. Long-term gains are typically taxed at 15%; those in the top tax bracket face a capital gains tax rate of 20%.

The Pimco Total Return Fund, for example, saw $48.4 billion in outflows through September, according to data from Morningstar and Pimco, and some analysts believe that could result in unusually high taxable gains.

“If Pimco sold bonds to meet redemptions at a gain, the remaining shareholders could suffer an inordinately large tax consequence,” said Tom Roseen, an analyst with Lipper, a Thomson Reuters company.

Through September, research firm Morningstar was estimating that Pimco Total Return Fund would pay out 2% of its net asset value in taxable gains, a high figure but one not out of the fund’s long-term historical range.

That means a person with $50,000 in that fund would see a $1,000 taxable gain, and — at the most common 15% capital gains tax rate — owe $150 in federal taxes on it.

Last year, the Total Return fund distributed 0.66% net asset value in gains. The year before, it distributed 2.31%, Roseen said.

Stock fund investors could be harder-hit, said Morningstar analyst Russel Kinnel. He estimates that U.S. domestic stock funds might be sitting on gains of around 20% and could end up paying 16% or 17% of their value to shareholders as gains. (When that happens, fund shareholders do not actually cash in the gain; they end up with more shares at lower prices.)

Note that none of this affects investors who hold mutual funds through tax-favored retirement accounts. They do not have to pay annual taxes on fund earnings.

For everyone else, there are very few ways to minimize the impact of those taxable gains. Here are some strategies that might help.

  • If you bought recently, you might consider selling quickly. If you have not seen much of a gain in a fund you bought, or if you have actually sustained a loss, you can sell shares and either use your capital loss to offset other gains, or at least get out before the gain is distributed. That strategy will not work if you have been in the fund long enough to rack up your own gains – then you will just have to pay taxes on them when you sell.
  • Think before you buy. The people who will get hardest-hit by these year-end mutual fund taxes are people who have not owned the funds for long. They buy in just before the distribution, miss out on the actual gains, but get hit with the taxable distribution anyway. Do not buy any funds this year until you have checked with the fund company to find out when it is distributing 2014 gains. If you think it is a fund that is sitting on big gains, wait until that date passes before making your purchase.
  • Take losses. If you own any stocks or funds that have lost money since you have held them, sell and reap the loss. It can offset those fund gains.
  • Relax. At 15% for most people (20% for top tax bracketeers), the capital gains tax is still much lower than regular income taxes. And there are worse things than having to pay taxes because you made money.

 

MONEY bonds

Risky Puerto Rico Funds Are Still on UBS’s Menu

UBS
Matthew Lloyd—Bloomberg via Getty Images

Brokers, according to an October memo, can recommend clients buy bond funds at the center of a recent $5.2 million settlement and hundreds of arbitration claims.

UBS is sticking with its recommendations that some clients buy risky Puerto Rico closed-end bond funds, despite hundreds of arbitration claims by investors who blame the securities for huge losses, according to an internal document.

UBS told brokers that they may continue to recommend the funds to clients following a $5.2 million settlement last week with Puerto Rico’s financial institutions regulator about sales practices involving the funds, according to an Oct. 9 internal memo reviewed by Reuters.

However, brokers “should continue to evaluate investment recommendations in a manner consistent with UBS policies and FINRA rules,” the firm said in the four-page memo, written in a question and answer format. FINRA, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, is Wall Street’s industry-funded watchdog.

Brokers who have questions about whether a “particular investment recommendation” is suitable should contact their branch manager or the firm’s compliance department, UBS wrote.

It is unclear who wrote the memo, which is unsigned.

A UBS spokeswoman did not say whether the firm planned to give more specific guidance to brokers. She said brokers consider “each client’s entire range of wealth management needs and goals when devising their financial plans.”

She noted that Puerto Rico municipal bonds and closed end funds provided excellent returns for more than a decade, as well as tax benefits.

FINRA requires that investment recommendations be “suitable” for investors, based on factors such as risk tolerance and age.

Lawsuits have been mounting, and there are more than 500 arbitration claims against UBS following a sharp decline in the value of Puerto Rico municipal bonds last year. Investors in closed-end funds with heavy exposure to those bonds suffered deep losses.

Puerto Rico regulators interviewed a sampling of UBS clients while looking into the firm’s bond fund sales practices. Those interviewed were elderly with low net worth and conservative investment goals, according to the settlement with UBS, also on Oct. 9. UBS did not admit to any wrongdoing as part of the deal.

According to the settlement, six UBS brokers in Puerto Rico “may have” directed their clients to improperly borrow money in order to buy the funds. Lawyers handling the arbitration cases said the investors’ losses were magnified because they invested through the illegal loans, sold through UBS Bank USA of Utah.

Even without the added leverage, analysts say funds that invest heavily in Puerto Rico debt still carry significant risk. Ratings agencies have cut Puerto Rico’s debt to junk status because of significant default risks.

Puerto Rico has an onerous debt burden that faces headwinds of a weak economy and significant unfunded pension obligations, said Morningstar analyst Beth Foos. She declined to comment specifically on the UBS funds.

Analysts said investors continue to buy Puerto Rico bonds, drawn to tax advantages and attractive yields as high as 7.75 percent, even though there is a significant risk that the U.S. territory will not be able to repay its bond obligations.

MONEY mutual funds

The Incredible Shrinking Mutual Fund Manager

Adding machine with miniature financial managers
Zachary Zavislak—Prop Styling by Linda Keil

Index funds are winning big, but there’s still a small place for stock pros in your portfolio.

A generation ago, “actively managed” mutual funds—that is, portfolios run by traditional stock and bond pickers—weren’t just the norm; the managers themselves were larger-than-life figures such as Peter Lynch, John Neff, and Bill Gross.

Today you might not be able to name many of the pros who invest on your behalf, with perhaps the exception of Gross—though not for stellar recent performance, but rather due to the public spat between the “bond king” and Pimco, the firm that Gross put on the map.

This is to be expected. Over the past year, nearly 70% of the new money invested in mutual and exchange-traded funds has gone into index portfolios, like Vanguard Total Stock Market Index, now the biggest fund in the world.

Such funds aren’t really managed at all. They don’t try to pick and choose the “best” investments, but rather hold all the securities in a market benchmark like the S&P 500.

Individual investors aren’t the only ones rethinking their approach. The influential California Public Employees’ Retirement System recently indicated that it intends to embrace more indexing in its $295 billion portfolio.

Why? Countless studies show that forces are stacked against the fund pros, which explains their poor performance (see chart). Over the past five years only two in 10 funds that invest in blue-chip U.S. stocks and three in 10 foreign funds beat their benchmarks.

That doesn’t mean that fund managers no longer have a place in your portfolio. Some — like those in the MONEY 50, our recommended list of funds and ETFs—have beaten the odds. Yet even those managers should play a limited role in your strategy.

Build your portfolio’s foundation with index funds

It’s not that professional investors are all lousy at their jobs. A study of more than 3,000 actively managed stock funds from 1979 to 2011 found that managers on average generated risk-adjusted returns that were actually better than their benchmarks. Trouble is, that’s before factoring in fees.

“There is indeed skill, but the average extra return managers generate is not enough to offset the average extra fees that come with active management,” says Lubos Pastor, a professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Management, who co-wrote the study.

So use low-cost index funds and ETFs for the core part of your portfolio: your long-term stakes in U.S. and foreign equities and some bonds. While the average actively managed stock fund sports an annual expense ratio of 1.4% of assets, many index funds charge between 0.10% and 0.40%.

Rick Ferri, founder of the advisory firm Portfolio Solutions, suggests indexing at least 75% of your money. “Betting on the passive horse means you might not win every year,” he says, “but you know you are going to at least place.”

 

Index advantage

You can add managers to your core — but only the right kinds

“A low-cost actively managed fund can be as good as or better than an index,” says John Rekenthaler, vice president of research at Morningstar. He compared Vanguard’s low-fee actively managed portfolios in various categories with the firm’s index funds. All funds — both active and index — had total returns that ranked in the top 50% of their category for the past 15 years. But Vanguard’s active U.S. stock funds, international stock funds, and allocation funds actually had better returns than the index funds in those categories.

Examples of cheaper-than-average actively managed funds with a solid record in the MONEY 50 include Vanguard International Growth and Dodge & Cox International. Their annual fees are 0.48% and 0.64%, among the lowest for international equity portfolios. Even better, both are team-managed, which offers you protection in case one of the managers switches jobs or retires.

Treat active funds like specialty investments

There are some niche categories of investments where index funds themselves are costly to run and may not be that diversified. For those reasons, Ferri recommends you skip the index options for municipal or high-yield bond funds.

Also, there may be instances when you’d be willing to pay for unique strategies. FPA Crescent, with an expense ratio of 1.14%, mostly owns stocks. But lead manager Steve Romick is also willing to go to corporate bonds, preferred shares, or even cash if he sees better value.

That kind of flexibility makes it hard to use the fund for the bulk of your holdings. Still, in the past 15 years the fund’s 10% annual return doubled the S&P 500’s gains. And those are the kinds of big results you hope for when taking a chance on a fund manager.

MONEY mutual funds

Here’s What You Need to Know About the Pimco Stampede

The headquarters of investment firm PIMCO is shown in Newport Beach, California.
The headquarters of PIMCO, in Newport Beach, California. Lori Shepler—Reuters/Corbis

$10 billion left mutual fund giant Pimco in one day after "bond king" Bill Gross announced his departure. Should you head for the exits too?

The Wall Street Journal has reported that investors on Friday pulled out $10 billion from funds run by Pacific Investment Management Co., or Pimco. The redemptions came after news of the departure of Bill Gross, the company’s chief investment officer and manager of the $220 billion Pimco Total Return bond mutual fund.

For a sense of scale: Pimco is a huge, $2 trillion money manager, so that’s 0.5% of its assets. Even so, it’s a lot of money to go out the door in one day, and the company has been struggling to hang on to investors for some time, largely as a result of Total Returns’ recent mediocre performance.

Pimco’s funds are widely held in many 401(k) retirement plans. If you don’t watch Wall Street regularly, but are tuning in now because there’s a Pimco fund in your plan, don’t be too alarmed. Mutual funds don’t necessarily decline in value just because a lot of people sell.

A fund is designed to allow investors to redeem shares each day for the value of underlying assets, and its shares don’t rise and fall based on investors’ demand for the fund. You shouldn’t worry about getting out of Pimco “too late,” and nor is there any opportunity to be had in buying “on the dip.” (A nerdish caveat: A wave of redemptions can impact performance if it forces a fund to sell investments at a bad time in order to raise cash, but managers generally design their portfolios to handle the possibility of redemptions.)

Analysts expect even more money to leave Pimco. Thomas Seidl, who follows Pimco’s parent company Allianz for Bernstein Research, predicts that between 10% and 30% of the money Pimco runs for outside clients (that is, not related to Allianz) may eventually leave the company. That adds up to $170 billion to $530 billion.

Why is the departure of one man, even a star once known as the “bond king,” triggering so many to get out Pimco?

One reason for people to go is quite rational. As Money’s Penelope Wang argued on Friday, there isn’t a great case for buying an actively managed bond fund such as Pimco Total Return, as opposed to a low cost index fund that simply tracks the wider market.

The returns on bonds don’t vary as widely as they do on stocks, which gives even the best funds less room to outperform the market average. That means a fund that keeps annual expenses low, as index funds do, starts with a big built-in advantage. Gross’s departure from Pimco is a good time for current Total Return shareholders to reassess whether they want to spend the extra money for a manager who tries to outwit the rest of the market.

But not everyone running from Pimco is going the index route. DoubleLine funds, run by Jeff Gundlach, is reporting big inflows. Gundlach is the bond world’s new hot manager. The institutional share class of his DoubleLine Total Return Bond fund earned over 5% in the past 12 months, vs. 3.5% for the comparable Pimco Total Return fund. Other investors may go to Janus, Gross’s new employer.

Bernstein’s Seidl thinks most of the outflows he anticipates will come from retail investors concerned about performance. Although Pimco has a deep management bench and impressive research capabilities, most investors picking a bond fund are making a bet on a manager’s judgement and feel for the markets. With Gross leaving Pimco, investors may not feel they have much to go on in deciding whether to hold Pimco Total Return. “Performance builds up over time — it takes a number of years,” says Seidl.

Of course, that’s assuming even performance is a helpful guide. Gross built up a brilliant record, and then misjudged the bond market in 2011, and then again in 2013. Bad luck for him, but even more so for the typical Pimco Total Return investor. As the Journal‘s Jason Zweig observes, much of the money in Gross’s fund came in after his best years, and just in time for his mediocre ones.

In short, it may make sense to go now, if you want to get costs down and taxes aren’t an issue. (Your trade won’t trigger taxes if the fund is inside a 401(k) or IRA). But think twice about trying to find the next new bond star.

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