Monday, December 7, 2009

US News & World Report: The 10 Strangest Mutual Funds

With some 8000-ish mutual funds out there, I guess it takes some unique strategies to get noticed if you don't happen to exist in a major family like Vanguard, American Funds, or Fidelity.  US News & World Report had this interesting story on the 10 Strangest Mutual Funds.... do your own due diligence. ;)


When mutual funds step off the beaten path, there's no telling what will happen. In the past, for example, oddball funds have fought the war on terror (the Ancora Homeland Security Fund), tried to prop up the sky (the Chicken Little Growth Fund), and fantasized about swinging a presidential election (the Blue Fund). And although those three particular funds—all of which have been liquidated—failed, others have stepped in to carry the torch and preserve a long and proud tradition of eccentric investing styles. Here are the 10 quirkiest funds we could find:

  1. The Congressional Effect Fund (CEFFX). This fund exists to answer the question posed in enormous letters at the top of its website: "How much investment wealth does Congress destroy?" (hilarious actually) As the question suggests, the fund has a rather cynical view of the country's political leaders. In fact, its manager sees politicians' disruptive influences as so far-reaching that when Congress is in session, he pulls completely out of the stock market and moves the entire portfolio into treasuries, cash, and money market funds. "Over the very long haul, it's almost always bad for the market," manager Eric Singer says of congressional action. Unfortunately, those pesky politicians on Capitol Hill seem to think Congress needs to be in session every now and then, so the fund has largely missed out this year on the furious rally in stock prices and has landed in the bottom percentile year-to-date in Morningstar's moderate allocation category. Still, Singer says he has compelling research to back up his strategy. According to the fund's numbers for the period between Jan. 1, 1965, and Dec. 31, 2008, the S&P 500 registered a paltry 0.31 percent annualized gain when Congress was in session, compared with a 16.15 percent annualized increase when Congress was on vacation.  (damning evidence? one wonders how well the market would do if Congress was disbanded)
  2. The StockCar Stocks Index Fund (SCARX). At first glance, this fund, which tracks an index of companies that support NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series, is a dream come true for racing fans. But a more careful look reveals a different story—most of its holdings are only tangentially related to NASCAR. Investors might be surprised to see that aside from car-related names, the fund's top holdings include Disney, Target, Coca-Cola, and Sony. "[You have] two or three legitimate NASCAR plays, and then you have to go into all sorts of whacky stuff like Target and Coca-Cola because they sponsor someone's car," says Russel Kinnel, Morningstar's director of mutual fund research. Over the years, the fund's performance has been a touch erratic, but its returns year-to-date are enough to land it in the top quartile of Morningstar's large value category.
  3. The Blue Chip Winery Fund. Jokingly called the best "liquid" investments on the market, wine funds once enjoyed some popularity. But unlike a good glass of wine—or investment, for that matter—these funds have usually not gotten better with age, and most of the ones that were around several years ago have since crashed and burned. Nevertheless, this fund, which was launched in October and is based in the Bahamas, takes a bit of an untraditional approach to wine investing: Instead of buying actual bottles of wine, it will invest exclusively in real estate holdings like wineries and storage facilities. In particular, the fund's management is looking to take advantage of the cheap property prices created by the recession. "Given the current economic environment, there are a lot of [opportunities]," says comanager Bruce Ramsey. Aside from the chance for capital appreciation, investors can look forward to the perks that this quirky fund offers, including discounts on food, hotel rooms, and spa treatments at select wineries. According to the fund's website, shareholders also get first dibs on the wine produced at these properties and the chance to "help pick grapes, prune vines, and taste-test the wines as they progress from juice to bottled wine."
  4. The Herzfeld Caribbean Basin Fund (CUBA). While most managers talk about investing with long time horizons, few are willing to stake large chunks of their fortunes on an event that may never happen in the lifetime of their funds. But for the past 15 years, fund manager Thomas Herzfeld has been doing just that as he patiently waits for the Cuba embargo to come crashing down. Along the way, Herzfeld has chosen stocks for this closed-end fund based largely on companies' prospects for success should the embargo be lifted. While he also holds significant positions in Mexico, Herzfeld is particularly keen on investing in U.S. companies that could explode in value if the United States and Cuba begin trading. Gimmicks aside, the fund looks for companies that can also hold their weight in the current political environment. Its top holding, for example, is Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold, the share price of which has more than tripled year-to-date.
  5. The Marketocracy Masters 100 Fund (MOFQX).  (Marketocracy is actually where I had my track record in 2007/2008 until switching to something that allowed both long and short, and option positions) If you're a mutual fund investor, chances are there has been a time when you've loudly ranted about how you can do a better job than your fund manager. (hand raised)  With this fund, you get the opportunity to be your own manager—at least kind of, and only if you beat out thousands of other investors. On, investors create hypothetical online portfolios; currently, there are roughly 30,000 active users. Of the portfolios they produce, Marketocracy takes its favorites—up to 100 at a time—and uses them to select the Masters 100's actual holdings. If your model is used, you get a small piece of the action. Manager Ken Kam says the fund's team vets the model portfolios thoroughly to weed out investors who are successful only by way of a fluke. "There's a lot of checking to make sure that it's not the result of one or two great stock picks over the last five years. We like to see good stock selection and good trading ability," he says. Overall, this quirky approach, which looks to achieve unparalleled diversity by blending many styles, has paid off at times, but its annualized returns over the past five years put it in the bottom quartile of Morningstar's mid-cap blend category.  (sounds like a good concept anyhow - too many cooks in the kitchen?)
  6. The Vice Fund (VICEX). As its name suggests, this fund invests in "sin stocks," and its list of top holdings is littered with companies that conscientious investors love to hate: Philip Morris, Lorillard, British American Tobacco, and Altria. Mixed in with these big names in tobacco are defense and weapons giants like Lockheed Martin and Raytheon, beer companies such as Carlsberg A/S and Molson Coors, and some gambling picks. While sin stocks are often thought of as recessionproof, the fund has struggled quite a bit recently; year-to-date, it's in the bottom 3 percent of Morningstar's large blend category. Still, there have been some bright spots since the fund launched in 2002. Its annualized returns over the last five years rank it in the top third of its category. "I think this has been a pretty good decade for sin stocks," says Kinnel. Even so, he remains skeptical about the fund's narrow focus, pointing out that its bread-and-butter picks could easily fall out of favor over the next few years.
  7. The Monetta Young Investor Fund (MYIFX). Ever wonder what would happen if you put your third-grade child in charge of a mutual fund? Chances are it would include plenty of Disney and McDonald's shares. It's no coincidence that those companies are among this fund's top holdings. And while Monetta doesn't literally have an army of elementary school students serving as its stock pickers, one of its stated purposes is to act as if it did. That's because the fund, which invests half of its portfolio in exchange-traded funds and other index funds and the other half in companies that are familiar to young children and teenagers, looks to help parents get their kids interested in investing. Apart from picking stocks that kids readily recognize, the fund offers to mail shareholders finance-related games and activities for children and lets families accumulate rewards points that can help pay for college tuition. (neat idea)  If its recent performance holds up, Monetta Young Investor's returns can also go a long way toward anchoring college savings: So far this year, the fund is up 48 percent.
  8. The Timothy Plan Aggressive Growth Fund (TAAGX). Have you ever wanted a complimentary moral audit? On this fund's website, that's only one of several services offered to potential clients who are interested in investing in accordance with Christian values. There's also a "Hall of Shame," which lists companies the fund avoids, and a section to help parents identify potentially offensive video games. Like the other Timothy Plan funds, the Aggressive Growth Fund stays away from companies that are connected to alcohol, tobacco, gambling, abortions, pornography, or same-sex marriage. While the Timothy Plan funds have plenty of company in the religious and moral investing space, their offerings stand out for their rigorous screens and strong wording: The company explicitly evokes the "culture war" that its funds are fighting. (Bill O'Reilly Fund?) While these commitments offer a reasonable outlet for shareholders who prefer to invest in accordance with their religious beliefs, the strategy has not been particularly profitable for the Aggressive Growth Fund. Its annualized returns over the last one, three, and five years all place it in the bottom quartile of Morningstar's mid-cap growth category.
  9. The Adaptive Allocation Fund (AAXCX). With its website, which is, this fund seems to be begging for inclusion in this list. Since the fund's adviser is a company called Critical Math, it unsurprisingly takes a rather formulaic approach to investing. In fact, the fund, which launched in 2006, uses upwards of 80 "fundamental" models—in addition to a number of "technical" models—to decide where to invest.  With these models, the fund's managers take the jack-of-all-trades approach to a new level, giving themselves the ability to invest any portion of the portfolio in essentially any type of security for as long of a time period as they see fit. (sounds like my style, but I only have my head rather than 80 models cross referenced with a number of technical models - computers over man!) In its brochure, Critical Math proudly declares, "Because we are so flexible, and our investments can be invested in almost any combination of assets, the funds we advise could, at any point in time, be classified as money market funds, or government securities funds, or large cap growth funds, or large cap value funds, or mid cap growth or value funds, or small cap growth or value funds, or balanced funds, or growth and income funds, or, even rarely, long-short funds!" (might have to steal that for my prospectus - I was going to go with the more simple 1 word: "Anywhere") Whew! Despite the fund's attempts to avoid characterization, Morningstar lumps it in with mid-cap blend funds. In 2008, the fund's returns ranked it in that category's top percentile.
  10. The Women's Leadership Fund. Swiss company Naissance Capital will launch this fund next year with the goal of promoting gender-conscious investing. When the fund opens its doors, it will focus on companies that have significant female representation in their leadership teams. And while the fund is largely idealistic in nature—20 percent of the fees it collects will be set aside for promoting opportunities for financially disadvantaged women—it also points to research claiming that companies that embrace gender diversity in their boardrooms tend to perform better. (estrogen > testosterone?) Still, like all socially screened funds, this one will come with some risks. "Any time you buy a fund that has investment restrictions on it—whether they be social or religious or industry-related—you have to be willing to accept lower returns in exchange for things that are important to you," says Adam Bold, founder of the Mutual Fund Store, an investment management firm with more than 65 U.S. locations. "That doesn't mean that you'll get lower returns, but going into it . . . you have to be willing to accept them."

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