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Will the market kill Bill?
Miller's Legg Mason Value Trust has beaten the S&P for 14 years but it's trailing the market now.
October 24, 2005: 2:19 PM EDT
By Paul R. La Monica, CNN/Money senior writer
Legg Mason Value Trust fund manager Bill Miller has beaten the market for 14 years in a row. Can he make it 15?
Legg Mason Value Trust fund manager Bill Miller has beaten the market for 14 years in a row. Can he make it 15?
And down the stretch they come! While both in the red, the S&P 500 is narrowly beating the Legg Mason Value Trust with a little more than two months left in the year.
And down the stretch they come! While both in the red, the S&P 500 is narrowly beating the Legg Mason Value Trust with a little more than two months left in the year.
INVESTOR RESEARCH CENTER INVESTOR RESEARCH CENTER upgrades & downgrades earnings & warnings public offerings INVESTOR RESEARCH CENTER INVESTOR RESEARCH CENTER

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) With only a little more than two months left in the year, fund manager Bill Miller finds himself in an precarious position...lagging the market.

Miller, whose Legg Mason Value Trust fund has famously beaten the S&P 500 for an astounding 14 years in a row, is down 2.9 percent year-to-date through Oct. 21. The S&P 500 is down about 1.4 percent on a total return basis, which includes dividends.

Can Miller turn things around?

Like last year, Miller needs a fourth-quarter surge. And like last year, it looks like one is possible, especially since one of his top holdings, Google (Research), appears primed for a strong finish.

Google, which as of June 30 was the fund's 8th largest holding, has surged nearly 15 percent since last week on strong quarterly results.

Miller's bet on Google, whose stock is up 80 percent this year, has helped the fund significantly. Other top 10 holdings, such as UnitedHealth (Research), Aetna (Research) and Sears (Research), have also been winners.

But Miller has been held back by investments in Tyco (Research), IAC/InterActive (Research) and JP Morgan Chase (Research), all double-digit percentage losers this year.

In fact, bets on tech (Google notwithstanding) and financial services appear to be the biggest reason why the fund has lost ground. In addition, Miller does not hold any oil stocks in the fund, and the energy sector has been one of the market's biggest winners this year.

Miller would not comment for this story. But judging from his most recent commentary to shareholders, it would appear that he's confident about extending the streak to 15.

Here's why.

4th quarter rally for techs and financials?

According to Miller's third-quarter commentary, published late Friday, he expects a rally due to a belief that oil prices have peaked and that the Federal Reserve will soon be done raising interest rates.

"Any indication the so far inexorable series of rate increases is not going to continue apace, coupled with oil prices that stay below $70, will send the U.S. stock market sharply higher," Miller wrote.

He added that the two sectors which could benefit the most are financials and technology. Miller, as of June 30, had about 17 percent of his fund in financial-services companies and nearly 25 percent in tech, telecom and media.

What's more, the recent slide in energy stocks could help Miller's performance relative to the S&P 500, which counts 29 energy stocks.

"If energy keeps going down or is flat, I think Miller will beat the market," said Christopher Traulsen, a senior analyst with fund-research firm Morningstar.

Lucky or good? Perhaps both.

But that would raise the question of whether Miller is lucky or good. After all, if energy keeps sliding, Miller could almost win by default.

"As long as the S&P 500 moves sideways or trends lower, Miller can squeak by in the end," said Jeff Tjornehoj, a research analyst with Lipper, another mutual-fund research firm. "But it's like he's still running the race and the other guy is starting to walk backwards."

But Tjornehoj thinks that the fund could also pull into positive territory because of holdings like Google and other online firms IAC/InterActive and Amazon.com. (Research) The Internet sector has tended to perform well towards year's end.

"This is manageable ground for Miller to make up. He has a portfolio that seems to do well in the fourth quarter," he said.

Still, there is one wild card. It is not public yet what moves Miller made in the third quarter. Traulsen said it will be particularly worth keeping an eye on what Miller did with his holdings in Nextel Communications, which completed its merger with Sprint in August. Nextel was Miller's largest holding as of the end of June, accounting for more than 8 percent of the fund's total assets.

But did Miller hold onto the new shares of Sprint Nextel (Research) or did he sell some and move money into other areas?

However, it's probably not wise to count out Miller. After all, it's worth noting that Miller is on familiar ground -- Tjornehoj points out that the Legg Mason Value Trust has lagged the market after three quarters in four of the past six years.

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