NEW YORK (CNN/Money) -
I have about $10,000 invested in three mutual funds (two growth, one income) with a company that the Wall Street Journal recently called one of America's worst performing mutual fund managers. Am I better off leaving my $10,000 in the existing accounts, or selling the funds and reinvesting the proceeds elsewhere?
— Mary Thompson, Duluth, Minn.
With all due respect to the Wall Street Journal, I would never unload a mutual fund solely because it popped up on some "Worst Performers" list. Similarly, I wouldn't buy a fund just because the media or some pundit touted it in a story or in a TV appearance. Let's not be too quick to start buying or selling funds simply because of publicity.
|More on Funds
I assume that the Journal had good reasons for whatever it said about the company running your funds. But keep in mind that the financial media has a tendency to suffer from two maladies that can cloud its vision.
The first malady is "Recent-itis," a condition that causes one to focus on recent performance rather than viewing an investment in its proper long-term context. The second, related condition is "List-itis," which is a psychological condition manifested by the overwhelming urge to create Best and Worst lists.
That noted, however, I do think that the fact that your funds have been singled out means you should take some time to evaluate their performance. After that review, you can decide whether you want to get out of all or some of your funds.
The first thing you should look at is whether the funds are behaving as you would expect. I don't mean whether they are losing money when you expected them to make money. After all, we all buy investments hoping to come out ahead.
What I mean is this: Has the fund's performance pretty much been in line with what you would expect given its stated investment strategy?
A large-company growth fund's trajectory, for example, should pretty much parallel that of large-company growth stocks (which have been down lately). A fund that holds bonds as well as stocks -- or invests in stocks that pay dividends -- should hold up a bit better during downmarkets. Bonds have outperformed stocks the past couple of years and dividend-paying stocks usually don't fall as hard as pure growth stocks.
In assessing performance, don't concentrate so much on a fund's raw return, but see how the fund has compared with funds with similar strategies, its peer group. Let's say you own a fund that specializes in small-company growth stocks. You may not be happy with the fact that it has lost 15 percent of its value over the past year. But the manager may actually be doing a pretty good job, considering that small-cap growth funds on average are down about 25 percent or so during that same period.
What's important isn't just the fund's total return, but its relative performance -- how the fund's record stacks up against that of its peers. You can easily check this by getting a free Morningstar report by entering a ticker into the quote box at the top of CNN/Money.
This report will show you how the fund ranks year-by-year over the past eight years. By scanning that performance history, you can get a good idea of where the fund typically ranks. It may be that you're dealing with a fund that's a consistent cellar-dweller, in which case you may want to jettison it. Or, your fund could be one that's had a pretty good record and is going through a rough patch. In that case, you may want to hold on for a while to see if it recovers.
How much time?
How much time should you give a struggling fund? There's no single correct answer, but I'd be reluctant to dump a fund until it has had at least two years of subpar performance. I might even give it a bit more leeway if I'm holding the fund in a taxable account and I have substantial taxable gains built up in the fund from its past glory years. Selling could trigger capital gains and, therefore, taxes on those gains.
If you do conclude that your funds are dogs and you sell them, use the opportunity to take a fresh look at your investment strategy. Are you thinking of how your investments will work as an overall portfolio rather than trying to find top-performing funds in isolation? Have you given thought to your portfolio's overall asset allocation — how much of your portfolio should be invested in stocks or bonds in general?
This decision is actually more important than the individual funds you buy, so it's worth taking some time to settle on a mix that makes sense for you given your investing goals and your tolerance for risk. Our Asset Allocator tool can help you, as can our guide to asset allocation.
Finally, don't go looking for replacement funds by scanning some publication's list of the Best Performing Funds. Funds that bubble to the top of such lists often are there not because of the manager's skill, but because their investment strategy happens to be well suited for current market conditions. When conditions change, many such funds fall off the gainers list.
Instead, look for funds that have good consistent performance relative to their peers over many periods. You can do that by going to Morningstar's Fund Selector, or you can try CNNMoney's Fund Screener.
While you're at it, throw in below-average costs as a criterion for your search. If you end up choosing excellent funds, then low costs will let you keep more of their returns. What if you pick more losers? Well, at least you're not paying top dollar for them.
-- Walter Updegrave is a senior editor at MONEY Magazine and is the author of "Investing for the Financially Challenged." He can be seen regularly Monday mornings at 7:40 am on CNNfn.