What to Do When a Fund Manager Leaves

When do you stick with the old fund, and when do you move your money to a new one? It's often a difficult choice.

One of the toughest decisions a mutual fund investor has to make is what to do when a manager departs. Should you stick with the fund you've liked for years, or should you follow one of the managers to his or her new shop? What about when a manager retires or dies? Should you hold your shares or sell?

All of a fund's past returns are called into question. How much of the good returns was the work of the manager who's no longer there? You have to make a judgment call, and often it's not easy.

Take Matthews Asian Growth & Income (symbol MACSX) and Seafarer Overseas Growth & Income (SFGIX). Last year, Andrew Foster left the Matthews fund, which he had co-managed since 2005, to launch Seafarer. Foster had also served at various times as acting chief investment officer and director of research at Matthews.

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Foster, 38, is smart, has a lot of experience investing in emerging markets and strikes me as a savvy investor. But Matthews has been around for many years and boasts a deep and talented team of analysts and managers -- and none have yet followed Foster to Seafarer. I see little reason to unload Matthews Growth & Income or my favorite of the firm's low-risk funds, Matthews Asia Dividend (MAPIX), a member of the Kiplinger 25 (see Emerging Markets Are Still a Bargain for more on Matthews Asia Dividend). Seafarer, which invests in emerging markets all over the world, not just in Asia, is worth watching.

It's a different story, I think, with Wasatch and Grandeur Peak, both based in Salt Lake City. Wasatch was terrific when it was smaller, and it still boasts some first-rate funds that specialize in small, fast-growing companies. But when Robert Gardiner, who had 30 years experience at Wasatch, left the firm and launched Grandeur Peak Global Opportunities (GPGOX) and Grandeur Peak International Opportunities (GPIOX) late last year, his staff of nine included eight former Wasatch employees. All four of his analysts came from Wasatch.

The new firm pledges to stay small. Global will likely close to new investors at $400 million in assets, and International at $350 million (they currently have $159 million and $65 million, respectively). The firm should be able to manage $2 billion without encountering the problems usually associated with asset bloat. This is just what you want to hear from managers specializing in small companies, which can be hard to trade in large quantities.

Sometimes the decision is pretty easy. Primecap Odyssey Growth (POGRX), a favorite of mine, lost one of its founding managers, Howard Schow, who died last April. But Schow left behind his co-founders. What's more, the old team has trained a new generation of analysts and managers. Odyssey Growth is a keeper.

It was a different story when Richard Aster, who had managed Meridian Growth (MERDX) since its inception in 1984, died last February. The team now running the fund all have Meridian experience, but Aster was the fund's guiding light. It's hard to know how the fund will do over time. I'd look elsewhere.

The same goes for Columbia Value & Restructuring A (EVRAX), which Dave Williams ran for almost 20 years before retiring last April. His two co-managers have been on the job since 2009, but the fund is now a question mark. I see little reason to stay with it.

When Jeffrey Gundlach was fired as manager of TCW Total Return (TGMNX) in December 2009, it presented investors with a different set of issues. A bitter legal battle ensued after Gundlach launched DoubleLine Total Return (DBLTX), another member of the Kiplinger 25 (see Is DoubleLine Total Return Bond Fund Too Risky?).

Gundlach had managed the TCW fund since 1993. Moreover, a large number of people left TCW to join him at DoubleLine. Gundlach's returns since 1993, including those at DoubleLine, give him reason to boast.

Sometimes departures leave you with nearly impossible decisions. Since Michael Price left Franklin Mutual Series funds in 1998, the firm has had a succession of managers. With every departure, I've struggled to figure out how much talent walked out the door and how much remained at Mutual Series.

Among the alumni, David Winters, manager of Wintergreen Fund (WGRNX), has put up superb numbers. But David Marcus launched Evermore Global Value (EVGBX), and it hasn't done so well.

My choice? I still like Mutual Global Discovery, one of the original Price funds, particularly if you can buy the no-load class Z shares (MDISX). Franklin Mutual Series funds (except the grandfathered Z shares), as well as Evermore, carry a sales charge. Mutual Series has a deep bench of analysts, who I think still have the mojo.

But Winters has done a bang-up job, too, so I could be wrong. As I said at the outset, these decisions aren't easy ones. Don't expect to be right all the time.

Steven T. Goldberg is an investment adviser in the Washington, D.C. area.

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Steven Goldberg
Contributing Columnist, Kiplinger.com
Steve has been writing for Kiplinger's for more than 25 years. As an associate editor and then senior associate editor, he covered mutual funds for Kiplinger's Personal Finance magazine from 1994-2006. He also authored a book, But Which Mutual Funds? In 2006 he joined with Jerry Tweddell, one of his best sources on investing, to form Tweddell Goldberg Investment Management to manage money for individual investors. Steve continues to write a regular column for Kiplinger.com and enjoys hearing investing questions from readers. You can contact Steve at 301.650.6567 or sgoldberg@kiplinger.com.