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If you're looking for a top-notch foreign stock fund, take a close look at Harbor International (symbol HIINX).
Its long-term performance has been superb. Over the past ten years through March 4, the fund returned an annualized 12.7%. That’s an average of 3.3 percentage points per year better than the MSCI EAFE index of stocks in developed foreign countries. Over that period, the fund ranks in the top 5% of foreign funds that invest in stocks with a mix of value and growth attributes. What’s more, Harbor International has beaten its benchmark index in every year over the past decade except in 2004.
See Also: The World's 10 Best Stocks
There's a big caveat, however. Longtime manager Hakan Castegren, who launched Harbor International in 1987, died in October 2010. The obvious question: How much of the fund's success was due to Castegren?
The answer: It's hard to say. The four remaining co-managers are hardly rookies. Edward Wendell was hired in the late 1980s. James LaTorre started in 1992 as the fund’s research director. The other two started in 2002. "Not only did we share in the secret sauce. We helped define the secret sauce," LaTorre says.
At any rate, the fund hasn’t missed a beat since Castegren’s death. It landed in the top 20% of its category in each of the past two calendar years.
The fund is unusual in its management structure. The four co-managers are all generalists, and they must reach consensus before the fund buys or sells a stock. "We all take full responsibility for every stock," LaTorre says.
What’s more, all the captains co-own the management firm, Northern Cross, and that business does just one thing: It invests in shares of large foreign companies. The firm, which manages the fund for Harbor, also employs two analysts.
On average, Harbor International owns a stock for ten years—much, much longer than most funds. The mangers try to identify industry leaders that will continue to grow over the coming ten years. They are willing to pay modestly premium prices to get premium companies. They spend a lot of time analyzing industries and companies, but not so much trying to predict "where the global economy is going to be," LaTorre says. "We spend all day trying to understand how industries and companies will change over the next ten years."
Take Diageo (DEO), the world’s largest seller of whiskey and one of the fund’s largest holdings. LaTorre particularly likes the outlook for whiskey sales in India, which currently imposes a high import tax that discourages consumption. The tax will come down over time, and Scotch sales will boom in India, LaTorre predicts. (Like all but one of the companies mentioned in this article, London-based Diageo trades in the U.S. in the form of an American depositary receipt, or ADR.)
Harbor has about 10% of its assets in emerging markets, but it generally buys only global leaders. For instance, holding Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing (TSM) conducts 70% of the world’s outsourced semiconductor manufacturing.
The managers are bullish on emerging markets, especially China. "The industrialization of China is one of the biggest things happening in our lifetimes," LaTorre says. "It's not complete."
But he and his cohorts prefer to get access to emerging markets mostly through multinational companies based in the developed world. Over the past few years, the fund has trimmed the percentage of its assets directly in emerging-markets stocks. "We let our multinational companies do most of the emerging-markets work for us," LaTorre says.
For example, Switzerland’s Nestlé (NSRGY), which the fund has held for many years, does a huge and growing business in emerging markets in such products as infant formula, coffee and bottled water.
The fund is also bullish on copper through holdings such as BHP Billiton (BHP), an Australian company, and Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold Class B (FCX), the fund’s only U.S. stock. Copper is used in many industrial products, especially electronics, and LaTorre predicts that demand will continue to outstrip supply, largely because of China's growth.
This is a good fund, but it's not particularly low risk. It has been about 5% more volatile than its benchmark index.
Harbor International, a member of the Kiplinger 25, has $41 billion in assets. That’s a fair chunk, but it shouldn't be big enough to give the managers too many problems, given their focus on large-company stocks. The annual expense ratio for the Investor share class, which requires $2,500 to start, is 1.14%. If you can afford the $50,000 minimum, buy the institutional share class; its expense ratio is 0.77%.
Steven T. Goldberg is an investment adviser in the Washington, D.C. area.