Style Drift: Hail Mary Investing

November 3, 2009 at 2:00 am 2 comments

Hail Mary

The mutual fund investing game is extraordinarily competitive. According to The Financial Times, there were 69,032 global mutual funds at the end of 2008. With the extreme competitiveness comes lucrative compensation structures if you can win (outperform) – I should know since I was a fund manager for many years. However, the compensation incentive structures can create style drift and conflicts of interest. You can think of style drift as the risky “Hail Mary” pass in football – you are a hero if the play (style drift) works, but a goat if it fails. When managers typically drift from the investment fund objective and investment strategy, typically they do not get fired if they outperform, but the manager is in hot water if drifting results in underperformance. Occasionally a fund can be a victim of its own success. A successful small-cap fund can have positions that appreciate so much the fund eventually becomes defined as a mid-cap fund – nice problem to have.

Drifting Issues

Why would a fund drift? Take for example the outperformance of the growth strategy in 2009 versus the value strategy. The Russell 1000 Growth index rose about +28% through October 23rd (excluding dividends) relative to the Russell 1000 Value index which increased +14%. The same goes with the emerging markets with some markets like Brazil and Russia having climbed over +100% this year. Because of the wide divergence in performance, value managers and domestic equity managers could be incented to drift into these outperforming areas. In some instances, managers can possibly earn multiples of their salary as bonuses, if they outperform their peers and benchmarks.

The non-compliance aspect to stated strategies is most damaging for institutional clients (you can think of pensions, endowments, 401ks, etc.). Investment industry consultants specifically hire fund managers to stay within the boundaries of a style box. This way, not only can consultants judge the performance of multitudes of managers on an apples-to-apples basis, but this structure also allows the client or plan participant to make confident asset allocation decisions without fears of combining overlapping strategies.

For most individual investors however, a properly diversified asset allocation across various styles, geographies, sizes, and asset classes is not a top priority (even though it should be). Rather, absolute performance is the number one focus and Morningstar ratings drive a lot of the decision making process.

What is Growth and Value?

Unfortunately the style drift game is very subjective. Growth and value can be viewed as two sides of the same coin, whereby value investing can simply be viewed as purchasing growth for a discount. Or as Warren Buffet says, “Growth and value investing are joined at the hip.” The distinction becomes even tougher because stocks will often cycle in and out of style labels (value and growth). During periods of outperformance a stock may get categorized as growth, whereas in periods of underperformance the stock may change its stripes to value. Unfortunately, there are multiple third party data source providers that define these factors differently. The subjective nature of these style categorizations also can provide cover to managers, depending on how specific the investment strategy is laid out in the prospectus.

What Investors Can Do?

1)      Read Prospectus: Read the fund objective and investment strategy in the prospectus obtained via mailed hardcopy or digital version on the website.

2)      Review Fund Holdings: Compare the objective and strategy with the fund holdings. Not only look at the style profile, but also evaluate size, geography, asset classes and industry concentrations. Morningstar.com can be a great tool for you to conduct your fund research.

3)      Determine Benchmark: Find the appropriate benchmark for the fund and compare fund performance to the index. If the fund is consistently underperforming (outperforming) on days the benchmark is outperforming (underperforming), then this dynamic could be indicating a performance yellow flag.

4)      Rebalance: By periodically reviewing your fund exposures and potential style drift, rebalancing can bring your asset allocation back into equilibrium.

5)      Seek Advice: If you are still confused, call the fund company or contact a financial advisor to clarify whether style drift is occurring in your fund(s) (read article on finding advisor).

Style drift can potentially create big problems in your portfolio. Misaligned incentives and conflicts of interest may lead to unwanted and hidden risk factors in your portfolio. Do yourself a favor and make sure the quarterback of your funds is not throwing “Hail Mary” passes – you deserve a higher probability of success in your investments.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

DISCLOSURE: No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP is a contributing writer for Morningstar.com. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

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