Mutual Funds


Follow the Star Fund Manager Out the Door?

Let's say you were fortunate enough to identify a talented fund manager and stick around for the ride. What happens when your wealth builder retires or quits? It happens. In recent months, Jeff Gundlach, the mortgage maven who had run TCW Total Return Bond (symbol TGLMX) since 1993, and his co-manager, Philip Barach, left TCW to set up their own shop. Anne Gudefin and Charles Lahr, the skilled duo in charge of Franklin Mutual Global Discovery (TEDIX), decamped for Pimco. The inimitable Bob Rodriguez, longtime manager of FPA Capital (FPPTX), is taking a one-year sabbatical.

The first question to ask is, How important was the manager in the first place? If it's a one-man show, like Ken Heebner's CGM Focus (CGMFX), then the loss is critical. Fidelity Magellan (FMAGX) never really recovered after the legendary Peter Lynch called it quits in 1990. But if it's a fund in a family -- think American or Dodge & Cox -- that deploys teams of seasoned managers on each fund, then one manager's departure shouldn't make a huge difference.

Analyze the family. You should also consider the organization and culture behind the fund. For example, although Fidelity and T. Rowe Price are both large outfits with abundant resources, Russel Kinnel, director of fund research for Morningstar (and a Kiplinger's columnist), gives higher marks to Price when it comes to manager transitions.

Price manager changes are telegraphed well in advance, a long transition period ensues, and a fund's investment strategy is unlikely to change. For example, when Rob Bartolo took the reins of T. Rowe Price Growth Stock (PRGFX) in 2007, the fund hardly missed a beat. With Fidelity, says Kinnel, you often get a new strategy with a new manager. If you intend to stick with a Fidelity fund after a manager change, watch the new portfolios carefully for six to 12 months, advises Kinnel.

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Company culture matters. As with Price, Mutual Series -- which was bought by Franklin in 1996 -- has a long-term, team-oriented culture. For now, Global Discovery is in the able hands of Pete Langerman, chief investment officer of Franklin Mutual and manager of Mutual Shares (TESIX), and Philippe Brugere-Trelat, manager of Mutual European (TEMIX).

FPA is a similar story, except that Rodriguez announced his sabbatical long ago and groomed his successors, the co-managers of his two funds: FPA Capital and FPA New Income (FPNIX). Don't expect any major changes in this value shop, where the investing professionals care deeply about preserving capital. "At FPA, they all think like Rodriguez," says Kinnel.

With TCW, it's harder to predict the future. For one thing, Los Angeles-based TCW has merged with a crosstown company, Metropolitan West, which will manage Total Return. That means two cultures will have to blend. Plus, Gundlach's talents may be hard to replicate. He is an idiosyncratic manager who navigated the fund brilliantly through the tumultuous markets of the past few years.

One strategy you might consider is to stick with the jockey, not the horse. That's what we did when we followed Chuck Akre from FBR Focus (FBRVX) to his new fund, Akre Focus (AKREX), and switched our Kiplinger 25 pick accordingly. Akre had a long record of success. You may get a similar opportunity with Gundlach.

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