If past performance is any indication of future returns, it's not surprising that investors are skeptical of the mutual fund industry. In the past five years, more than two-thirds of the 5,000-plus funds followed by Morningstar have done worse than the underlying stock and bond indexes they're supposed to beat, or at least track. That sorry performance has left millions of people fuming and frustrated -- to the point where investors have yanked $340 billion out of stock funds since January 2008.
But that broad-brush assessment may miss one obvious but crucial fact: Some funds are still shining. Over the past year, for example, the managers at Wells Fargo Advantage Growth Investor fund have returned nearly 13 percent, thanks to some timely big bets on Apple and Whole Foods. Funds specializing in gold, commodities or other alternative investments also have had awfully good runs. During the past five years, in fact, dozens of funds have apparently made some rather intuitive market moves that have put their shareholders in the black. The challenge for investors, of course, is to find the managers who are most likely to do the same going forward -- a challenge that led us to our annual best-funds list, divided into four categories.
U.S. Stock Funds
Fidelity OTC Portfolio (FOCPX)
- Manager: Gavin Baker
- Assets: $7.1 billion
- Top Holdings: Apple, Google
This fund has plenty of big names, and it measures itself against the broad Nasdaq. It has been helped by owning Apple, but the decision to buy that tech giant was made before the current manager, Gavin Baker, took over in summer 2009. That makes some analysts question whether the fund's future will be as good as its past. The fund is up about 17 percent since Baker took the reins. Fidelity says the record speaks for itself. For his part, Baker says firms that capitalize on the shift toward centralized "cloud" computing will prevail in the current decade. Nearly half the fund's assets are in 10 names, including Qualcomm, Oracle and, yes, Apple. "That can cut both ways," says Jim Lowell, editor of the Fidelity Investor newsletter, but so far it's worked.
Reynolds Blue Chip Growth (RBCGX)
- Manager: Frederick Reynolds
- Assets: $207 million
- Top holdings: Apple, Baidu
SmartMoney asked Morningstar for a list of the top-performing funds over the past five years from four separate categories: U.S. Stocks, Foreign Stocks, Bonds and Alternatives. From there, we whittled down the list, eliminating funds that charge high annual expenses and have high minimum investments. We also wanted to highlight funds that any investor can get into, so we took out funds that are only available in retirement plans or are closed to new investors.
Frederick Reynolds runs his investment shop from his house a few blocks from the Las Vegas Strip. Back in late 2007, he sold stocks in earnest after worrying about consumers borrowing against their homes to finance their lifestyles. As a result, Blue Chip Growth lost only 5 percent in 2008, compared with the broader market's 39 percent slide. Today, however, Reynolds is bullish. He recently bought a home in Las Vegas, now America's foreclosure capital, because he says some real estate there is a good value. Stockwise, he prefers firms whose dominant market positions make it tough for competitors to gain ground, such as online retailer Amazon and Chinese Internet-search firm Baidu. Reynolds came to prominence with a string of big years at two other funds in the 1990s. But in the wake of huge losses during the dot-com bust, he shuttered two: Reynolds fund and Reynolds Opportunity fund.
- Manager: Donald Yacktman
- Assets: $6.3 Billion
- Top Holdings: PepsiCo, News Corp.
Austin, Texas, resident Donald Yacktman actually runs two top-performing funds. At first glance, the stocks Yacktman likes seem to have nothing in common. But Jason Subotky, who runs the fund with Yacktman p re and his son Stephen, says there's a pattern: Most holdings are global firms with multiple business lines that generate predictable revenue. The Yacktman fund owns PepsiCo -- about a tenth of its portfolio -- not for its soft drinks but for its snack-chip brands, which include Lay's and Doritos. Yacktman also favors News Corp. -- another 10 percent of the fund -- for its cable channels' share of stable subscription fees (News Corp. owns SmartMoney). In addition to stellar five-year returns, this fund also has beat the market over 10- and 15-year spans.
Intrepid Small Cap (ICMAX)
- Manager: Jayme Wiggins
- Assets: $684 million
- Top holdings: Bio-Rad Laboratories, CSG Systems International
This fund aims to own firms that have clear, simple business models, predictable cash flows and manageable debt loads. "We want to be able to predict what's normal for a company to earn," says lead portfolio manager Jayme Wiggins, whose portfolio includes billing software company CSG Systems International and medical instrument maker Bio-Rad Laboratories. Wiggins took over the fund's portfolio in 2010 after graduating from Columbia Business School (he ran Intrepid's high yield bond portfolios before grad school). Like his successful predecessor, Eric Cinnamond, Wiggins isn't afraid park money in cash if there's a dearth of undervalued securities. That's precisely what he did last year, putting roughly a fourth of the fund in cash. The tactic has helped of late, but "it's not always going to look good in every market," says Morningstar mutual fund analyst Katie Reichart.
T. Rowe Price Health Sciences (PRHSX)
- Manager: Kris Jenner
- Assets: $3.1 Billion
- Top holding: Alexion Pharmaceuticals
Portfolio manager Kris Jenner's fund has an assortment of mid-sized and large healthcare firms, but he's willing to take some chances on smaller companies whose drugs have lots of potential, such as Incyte Corp. and Pharmasset Inc. But sharp market swings can make trying to pick the right small company a dangerous game. "They have a lot of boom and bust periods. Making it up after a bust is hard," says Jenner, who landed at T. Rowe Price as an associate biotech analyst in 1997 after a career as a physician. To smooth out big swings, the fund mixes the volatile stocks with more-established ones, typically firms that Jenner says enjoy consistent earnings growth. Among his current favorites: McKesson, the drug and medical supply distributor, and insurance company UnitedHealth Group.
|American Century Heritage Investor||TWHIX||-2.3||6.7||101|
|Fidelity OTC Portfolio||FOCPX||7.1||6.3||92|
|Fidelity Select Consumer Staples Portfolio||FDFAX||9.6||7.5||86|
|Fidelity Select Retailing Portfolio||FSRPX||7.9||7.0||93|
|Fidelity Small Cap Discovery||FSCRX||5.3||6.5||104|
|Hancock Horizon Burkenroad||HHBUX||8.4||5.6||140|
|ING Large Cap Growth Portfolio||IEOSX||5.8||6.2||85|
|ING Midcap Opportunities Portfolio||ISMOX||3.9||7.6||104|
|Integrity Viking Williston Basin/Mid-North America Stock||ICPAX||14.9||8.2||150|
|Intrepid Small Cap Investor||ICMAX||5.1||12.6||140|
|Munder Growth Opportunities||MNNAX||-0.9||5.8||199|
|Pin Oak Equity||POGSX||5.0||5.4||125|
|Reynolds Blue Chip Growth||RBCGX||-1.4||11.8||180|
|Saratoga Technology & Communication Portfolio||STPAX||-3.2||9.8||267|
|SouthernSun Small Cap Investor||SSSFX||15.8||7.8||143|
|T. Rowe Price Health Sciences||PRHSX||16.4||7.8||84|
|T. Rowe Price Media & Telecommunications||PRMTX||3.3||7.4||84|
|Transamerica Systematic Small/Mid Cap Value||IIVAX||3.8||5.5||147|
|Wells Fargo Advantage Growth Inestor||SGROX||13.4||9.2||131|
Foreign Stock Funds
Westcore International Small-Cap (WTIFX)
- Managers: Jeremy Duhon and John Fenley
- Assets: $134 million
- Top holdings: IG Group, Credit Corp Group
Westcore managers John Fenley and Jeremy Duhon like to point out that with 10,000 small-company stocks around the world to choose from, they've picked just 36. The best of these small fries tend to be "fast-growing companies that can endure a weak environment," says Fenley. Among the current favorites: German electronic-payments processor Wirecard, which has managed to increase its profits despite the gloomy mood among European consumers, and IG Group Holdings, a British financial-trading firm. These days, nearly half the fund is invested in industrial firms, says Todd Rosenbluth, a mutual fund analyst at Standard & Poor's Capital IQ. "That's a pretty heavy bet."
Calamos International Growth (CIGRX)
- Managers: John P. Calamos and Nick Calamos
- Assets: $556 million
- Top holdings: Novo Nordisk, ARM Holdings
John P. Calamos, a son of Greek immigrants, cut his teeth investing in convertible bonds. But he and his nephew Nick have, for a decade, shown a knack for finding small-but-growing stocks -- and for knowing what to stay away from. One move that helped International Growth recently was the decision to avoid bank stocks, for example. "There's no way to get a handle on risks they're taking," explains Nick Calamos. He also worries that consumers in the U.S. and Europe are "tapped out" after years of overspending. So far, such instincts have paid off: Over the past five years, the fund has returned 28 percent.
Saturna Sextant International (SSIFX)
- Manager: Nick Kaiser
- Assets: $162 million
- Top holdings: Copa Holdings, Teck Resources
Nick Kaiser is charged with finding bargains all over the world, but investors could be forgiven for thinking of the manager as something of a homebody. While the average large-blend foreign fund has about 8 percent of its stocks in the Americas, Kaiser, who has run Saturna Sextant International since 1995, invests more than 40 percent of his fund's money here. Among the fund's largest bets: Toronto-Dominion Bank, Potash Corporation of Saskatchewan and miner Teck Resources, whose Vancouver, British Columbia, headquarters are about an hour's drive from Bellingham, Wash., where Kaiser was born and now works. What's to like about the great icy north? Kaiser praises Canada's relatively clean and stable politics, which he says makes it easier for him to assess and judge the country's companies. Says the 65-year-old fund manager: "We have a conservative outlook." Kaiser also manages the Amana funds, which invest in accordance with Islamic law.
Thornburg Global Opportunities (THOAX)
- Assets: $308 million
- Top holdings: Google, Microsoft
Co-manager Vinson Walden eschews big macro-economic calls, focusing instead on finding growing businesses that, for one reason or another, trade at cheap prices. "We kiss a lot of frogs," he says, although they end up buying only a relatively few. The, portfolio of between 30-40 stocks had a tradition of trouncing rivals until the financial crisis, but it was crushed in 2008 down 48 percent. It's bounced back well, even with a brutal 2008, its performance puts it in the top 7 percent of all foreign stock funds over the past five years. These days, Walden sees opportunity in Brazil, where he thinks investors who've sent Brazilian stocks tumbling over the past year this year are overreacting to inflation worries. His picks: Brasil Foods and homebuilder Cyrela Brazil Realty.
Wasatch World Innovators (WAGTX)
- Assets: $86 million
- Top holdings: Apple, Mastercard, Visa
This fund holds its share of tech giants like Apple, Google and Intel. But ultimately, says Wasatch chairman Sam Stewart, he's just looking for "companies that are doing things in a new and better way." Stewart, a former academic, is no stranger to questioning authority. He founded the Utah-based company in 1975 after listening to famed finance professor Eugene Fama deliver a lecture suggesting investors couldn't beat the market. About a third of the fund's stocks are outside the technology and healthcare sectors. Among them: World Fuel Services, a company that's carved out a business as a middleman between oil companies and large oil consumers such as airlines and InnerWorkings, which handles printing needs of businesses. "It's not just innovative products, it's innovative business models," says Stewart.
|Aberdeen China Opportunities||GOPAX||-12.2||8.4||188|
|Aberdeen Emerging Markets||GEGAX||-6.4||5.8||179|
|Alger China U.S. Growth||CHUSX||-13.4||2.2||212|
|Calamos International Growth||CIGRX||3.8||4.0||167|
|Fidelity Advisor Emerging Asia||FEAAX||-10.3||8.2||140|
|First Eagle Overseas||SGOVX||1.3||3.8||117|
|Henderson European Focus||HFEAX||-13.2||1.1||154|
|ING Morgan Stanley Global Franchise Portfolio||IVGTX||11.8||5.0||123|
|Janus Global Research||JANGX||-2.3||2.8||100|
|John Hancock Global Opportunities||JGPAX||-26.3||3.5||149|
|Matthews Asia Growth Investor||MPACX||-8.8||3.8||119|
|Matthews China Investor||MCHFX||-18.3||11.1||115|
|Oakmark Global Select||OAKWX||-1.2||2.3||124|
|Old Westbury Global Small & Mid Cap||OWSMX||-2.3||4.8||111|
|Oppenheimer Developing Markets||ODMAX||-10.5||7.3||130|
|Oppenheimer International Small Company||OSMAX||-12.1||1.2||122|
|Saturna Sextant International||SSIFX||-4.8||2.3||103|
|T. Rowe Price New Asia||PRASX||-7.4||8.6||96|
|Thornburg Global Opportunities||THOAX||-0.1||2.6||148|
|Virtus Global Infrastructure||PGUAX||10.6||3.1||133|
|Wasatch World Innovators||WAGTX||10.1||3.2||196|
|Wells Fargo Advantage Emerging Markets Equity||EMGAX||-6.7||6.9||189|
|Westcore International Small-Cap||WTIFX||2.6||2.8||150|
Taxable Bond Funds
Dreyfus International Bond (DIBAX)
- Manager: Dave Leduc
- Assets: $1.3 billion
- Top holdings: Government debt of sweden and Japan
Bets on the debt of U.S. blue chips such as Coca-Cola and IBM as well as savvy currency hedges have helped this fund leapfrog past peers since the financial crisis. Last year comanager Dave Leduc began trimming higher-yield holdings, including Spanish and Italian debt, when their gyrating prices signaled danger. He's now bullish on emerging markets like Mexico and U.S. corporate stocks outside the financial sector. For those who prefer less exposure to the euro and yen, Los Altos, Calif., adviser Don Martin suggests a sister fund, Dreyfus Emerging Markets Debt Local Currency (DDBAX).
Templeton Global Bond (TPINX)
- Manager: Michael Hasenstab
- Assets: $56.7 billion
- Top holdings: Korea national debt (various coupons)
This fund has been trading foreign debt for more than 25 years. It lost almost 9 percent when markets swooned late last summer, but it has beaten its benchmark bond index by, on average, more than five percentage points a year for the past 10 years. Kimberly Adams, chief financial officer of the financial-planning firm ProVise Management Group, says she has put some of her clients' money in the fund because while it's more volatile than most of what she owns, it tends to come out on top. Manager Michael Hasenstab, whom Morningstar named bond manager of the year in 2010, acknowledges the challenges of investing in a global market that's ever in flux: "There are developed countries that are becoming emerging ones and emerging countries that are becoming developed," he says. To help cut the risk, the 38-year-old manager seeks out emerging markets with both strong growth prospects and low levels of debt. Two favorites: Korea and Indonesia.
Metropolitan West Total Return Bond (MWTRX)
- Manager: Tad Rivelle
- Assets: $17.5 billion
- Top Holdings: U.S. Treasurys, Fannie Mae-backed mortgages
This $17 billion go-anywhere bond fund, run by a group of Pimco alumni, has roughly matched returns of the far larger and better-known Pimco Total Return over the past decade. In general, the MetWest fund displays a conservative bent, says Lipper analyst Jeff Tjornehoj. Tad Rivelle, one of the fund's three comanagers, says the MetWest fund "skinnied down" on corporate bonds after spotting a credit glut in 2007, then bought them back when these bonds' prices plunged a year later, during the financial crisis. About 40 percent of the fund is mortgage-backed securities, but Rivelle is also bullish on the debt of big U.S. financial companies, including Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase, which he sees as discounted because of the problems assaulting their European counterparts. "There's a certain amount of overreaction," he says.
AllianceBernstein High Income (AGDAX)
- Assets: $3.3 billion
- Top Holdings: AllianceBernstein Fixed-Income Shares, Republic of Venezuela 7.65%
This fund aims to find attractive yields, wherever they might be lurking. That means they tend to own debt that is "the low-rated of the low-rated" says Lipper analyst Jeff Tjornehoj, but "they've managed to find undervalued securities at the right time." After losing nearly a fourth of its value in 2008, the fund posted 62 percent gain in 2009, rocketing past peers. The fund had made a big bet on emerging market bonds but has cut back after a recent rally. Co-manager Gershon Distenfeld says he sees better value in U.S. high-yield "junk" bonds and the debt of U.S. financial firms, which trade at depressed prices. While the market remains wary of these high-yield companies, many have been cutting debt. The fundamentals are in good shape," he says.
Lord Abbett Income Fund (LAGVX)
- Asset: $1.3 billion
- Top Holding: Freddie Mac debt, Altria Group bond with 9.95% coupon, Time Warner Cable
This fund specializes in bonds rated "BBB," debt hovering just above investment grade. That stance has helped boost the fund's yield but poses risks in a down market, says S&P Capital IQ analyst Dylan Cathers. Lord Abbet's managers emphasize there is a big difference between their fund and alternatives that target junk bonds. "There's something special about that demarcation line," says co-manager Robert Lee. One area where managers see value right now: bonds of energy companies such as Canadian Oil Sands. While their profits can reflect swings in energy prices, the energy producers have enough reserves to pay the bonds.
|AllianceBernstein High Income||AGDAX||1.8||8.7||95|
|CM Advisors Fixed Income||CMFIX||5.0||6.3||90|
|Delaware Corporate Bond||DGCAX||5.1||7.2||95|
|Delaware Diversified Income||DPDFX||4.9||7.7||93|
|Dreyfus International Bond||DIBAX||4.3||9.1||109|
|Fidelity Capital & Income||FAGIX||-0.8||6.9||76|
|ING Pioneer High Yield Portfolio||IPHSX||0.2||7.6||96|
|Janus Flexible Bond||JANFX||4.9||7.3||59|
|Loomis Sayles Core Plus Bond||NEFRX||6.0||7.6||90|
|Loomis Sayles Investment Grade Bond||LIGRX||4.5||7.0||81|
|Lord Abbett Income||LAGVX||5.0||7.4||90|
|Metropolitan West Total Return Bond||MWTRX||3.9||7.4||63|
|PIMCO Foreign Bond||PFBDX||9.2||8.0||90|
|PIMCO Investment Grade Corporate Bond||PBDAX||5.0||8.0||90|
|Putnam American Government Income||PAGVX||4.6||7.5||85|
|Putnam U.S. Government Income||PGSIX||4.1||7.5||84|
|T. Rowe Price U.S. Treasury Intermediate||PRTIX||7.5||7.4||51|
|Target Intermediate-Term bond||TAIBX||4.0||7.4||66|
|Target Total Return Bond||TATBX||4.7||7.7||67|
|TCW Core Fixed-Income||TGFNX||5.4||8.0||78|
|TCW Emerging Markets Income||TGINX||3.0||10.1||125|
|TCW Total Return Bond||TGMNX||3.3||7.8||74|
|Templeton Global Bond||TPINX||-0.2||9.2||88|
|Thompson Plumb Bond||THOPX||2.4||7.3||80|
|Vanguard Intermediate-Term Treasury Investor||VFITX||7.2||7.2||22|
Permanent Portfolio (PRPFX)
- Manager: Michael Cuggino
- Assets: $15.4 billion
- Top holdings: U.S. Treasurys, gold
The fund, which keeps two-thirds of its portfolio in gold, Treasurys and Swiss francs, is designed to preserve investors' nest eggs rather than post big returns. But recently, it has been able to do both. While the heavy reliance on such assets concerns some financial planners (Douglas Kreps, principal at Fort Pitt Capital Group, says that strategy essentially bets on a "doomsday scenario"), manager Michael Cuggino says the remaining third of the fund, which includes real estate and energy stocks, should thrive in bull markets: "Each of the assets will be volatile, but by combining them, you smooth your returns."
Merk Hard Currency (MERKX)
- Manager: Axel Merk
- Assets: $563 million
- Top Holdings: Sweden's government debt, SPDR Gold Trust ETF
"The Fed will never say this, but they want inflation," says the Munich-born, California-based Axel Merk, who has bet on the dollar's decline over several years. The 42-year-old manager favors hard assets such as gold and currencies such as the New Zealand and Australian dollars, which he believes will benefit from higher commodity prices. Analysts say a number of low-cost exchange-traded funds can just as easily help investors bet against the dollar, which raises questions about whether the fund can continue to justify its 1.3 percent annual fee. "It's a really straightforward strategy that's well-suited to indexing," says Dave Nadig, director of research for IndexUniverse.com. Merk says the investors he serves want professional advice and will pay for it.
FPA Crescent (FPACX)
- Manager: Steve Romick
- Assets: $7.5 billion
- Top Holdings: Aon, CVS Caremark
This fund's manager, Steve Romick, holds quarterly conference calls for investors, much like a public-company CEO discussing quarterly profits. Romick often has a lot of explaining to do, since he has the leeway to stuff his fund with whatever he thinks will work. He then sticks with the picks: The fund's turnover is 20 percent, nowhere near the 55 percent average for alternative funds. These days, about two-thirds of the fund is invested in stocks, especially in those of large multinational corporations that Romick says will benefit from emerging markets' growth. "He doesn't hit a lot of home runs with stocks. He hits a lot of singles and doubles," says Ron Roge, a financial planner who invests in FPA Crescent for his clients. Among Romick's recent nonstock bets: loaning money to an office building, buying farmland and picking up pools of subprime residential mortgages.
Hundredfold Select Alternative Fund (SFHYX)
- Assets: $65 million
- Top holdings: Pimco High Yield Institutional, SEI Institutional High Yield Bond, Nuveen High Yield Muni Bond
Early in his career Ralph Doudera struggled to reconcile investing's underlying goal - making big bucks - with his Evangelical Christian faith. At one point he bought a Porsche, then sold it after a change of heart and gave the proceeds away. Today, he makes his living managing money for individual clients but donates Hundredfold Select's management fee to a non-profit he set up. While the fund is designed to be, in Doudera's words, "a slow and steady plodder" it does so using a complex investment strategy involves using a mix of mutual funds, ETFs and derivatives. Doudera's take on bond yields, along with avoiding some stocks, helped the fund adroitly maneuver the 2008 credit crisis.
James Balanced: Golden Rainbow (GLRBX)
- Assets: $1.3 billion
- Top Holdings, US Treasury notes
While this fund is designed to own a broad mix of stocks and bonds, it owes its recent success to it conservative bent. S&P Capital IQ mutual fund analyst Todd Rosenbluth calls Golden Rainbow's 2008 decline of just 5 percent "outstanding" for a fund of its type, although he notes it did lag the following year when markets took off. Today, the fund is staying conservative thanks to the nation's 8.5 percent unemployment rate and trouble in Europe. Co-manager Brian Shepardson thinks Treasurys still have room to appreciate, though not to the same extent that they did in 2011. At the same time, Shepherdsonsays the fund has been cutting its stock exposure and focusing on domestic-oriented companies like retailer DollarTree and utility Portland General Electric firms he says are unlikely to be hurt by trouble in Europe.
|API Efficient Frontier Income||APIUX||-4.0||7.0||171|
|FBR Balanced Investor||AFSAX||10.6||4.4||124|
|Hundredfold Select Alternative Service||SFHYX||5.1||6.1||255|
|Hussman Strategic Total Return||HSTRX||4.8||7.1||64|
|Intrepid Capital Investor||ICMBX||5.0||6.7||145|
|James Balanced: Golden Rainbow||GLRBX||4.8||5.3||112|
|Janus Moderate Allocation||JNSMX||-0.3||3.9||25|
|John Hancock Balanced||SVBAX||-0.1||4.2||117|
|Legg Mason Western Asset Managed Municipals||SHMMX||7.7||5.2||64|
|Marshall Intermediate Tax-Free Investor||MITFX||5.7||5.4||55|
|Merk Hard Curency Investor||MERKX||5.0||5.5||130|
|MFS Lifetime Retirement Income||MLLAX||4.2||5.4||28|
|State Farm Municipal Bond||SFBDX||9.6||5.9||15|
|State Farm Tax-Advantaged Bond A Legacy||SFTAX||9.2||5.6||68|
|USAA Precious Metals and Minerals||USAGX||-3.6||15.0||115|
|Van Eck International Investors Gold||INIVX||-7.4||14.7||125|
|Vanguard Wellesley Income Investor||VWINX||8.3||5.6||25|
|Waddell & Reed Asset Strategy||UNASX||-2.7||7.0||114|
|Waddell & Reed Continental Income||UNCIX||5.4||4.5||121|
|Waddell & Reed Municipal Bond||UNMBX||6.3||5.0||87|