Where Are The Wise Money Managers?

The hallowed names of value investing haven't done well lately. So we introduce three new kids on the block.

You quit believing in Santa Claus long ago. Ditto for the Easter Bunny. Later on, as you grew up, you learned that life isn't always fair and that bad things really do happen to good people. Perhaps now is the time to lay to rest an article of faith among investors and own up: There are no geniuses in this business, after all.

R.I.P., Bill Miller (Legg Mason Opportunity fund, -59% for 2008 through October 30). And Mason Hawkins (Longleaf Partners, -47%), Bill Nygren (Oakmark Select, -36%), Chris Davis and Ken Feinberg (Selected American Shares, -36%), Ron Muhlenkamp (-37%) and the guys and gals at Dodge & Cox Stock (-41%).

They were the cream of the crop of value-oriented investors, and they all got creamed this year. Turns out that too many of the stocks they deemed undervalued were actually overvalued. Miller, for instance, rode Freddie Mac all the way down. Nygren was too smitten with Washington Mutual. Davis held on too long to Merrill Lynch and AIG. Muhlenkamp's portfolio at last look was loaded with energy stocks about to deflate.

Yes, some of these Former Genius Investors will come roaring back when the current unpleasantness ends. Nothing would please me more. But it's also true that as elements of the investment landscape change, some prominent investors believe their press clippings a bit too much and lose their touch. Now they have to get it back.

Do you remember Rod Linafelter? He was Bill Berger's protégé, and Berger credited him with propelling Berger One Hundred fund to an 88% gain in 1991. Trouble was, what worked for Linafelter in 1991 didn't work in subsequent years. He finally left to sell shoes in Las Vegas, and Berger One Hundred faded into the woodwork of the Janus fund family.

Who among the fund managers today still has the touch? I'm going to name three whose reputations for deft investing survived the crushing Panic of 2008. The first is Bruce Berkowitz, a name that has appeared a lot in the past year on and the pages of Kiplinger's Personal Finance. To give you an idea of his sense of humor, Fairholme fund (symbol FAIRX) is named for the street in London where his family lived two decades ago.

Now working out of Miami, Berkowitz is the rarest of value investors -- one who resisted the siren song of the banking stocks. He simply concluded several years ago that bank finances were black boxes that neither he nor the bankers themselves understood, and he avoided them. "Companies thought that by slicing, dicing, securitizing, they were getting rid of the risk, but they weren't," he says. "It always comes back."

Right now, he is "selling what is cheap to buy what is cheaper." He's bothered a bit that the stock market's downdraft in October took Fairholme from almost break-even in 2008 to a total return of -30% in about the blink of an eye. On the bright side, "This has been a bargain hunter's dream," he says. "This is when you make your money. But you don't know it at the time, and sometimes you feel like an idiot." As of October 30, Fairholme was down 24.8% for the year.

David Winters got his higher education in investing from the legendary Max Heine, an Austrian Jew who fled the Holocaust and started Mutual Shares fund in 1950. Heine's investing model was a three-legged stool-one leg an arbitrage of companies being acquired by other companies, another the bonds of bankrupt firms and the third deeply undervalued shares of small companies. Winters was hired in the 1980s when he made a cold call to Heine and gave a convincing case for buying the shares of an obscure Virginia railroad that was later scooped up by CSX.

Winters ultimately ran Mutual Shares and its sister funds on Heine's investing model, but he left to start Wintergreen fund (WRGNX) late in 2005. After returning 20% in 2006 and 21% in 2007, Wintergreen was down 36% through October 30. But because it fishes in global waters, Wintergreen's results were a lot better than those its peers reported.

At last report, the fund had about one-third of its assets in Asia-almost twice its allocation to U.S. stocks. "We still believe the future of the world is going to be in the Far East, and Asia has been pummeled," Winters recently told columnist Steve Goldberg. "People have liquidated everything." And Winters is more than happy to take what they're throwing away.

At Hussman Strategic Growth fund (HSGFX), John Hussman is so close to making his shareholders money this year that you can smell the bacon cookin'. Despite his fund's name, he's a value rather than growth investor, and he sells indexes short to protect his shareholders when he thinks the market is overvalued and also to magnify the potential gains when he deems it undervalued. Year-to-date through October 30, the fund lost a minuscule 1.8%.

A couple of decisions based on Hussman's big-picture analysis spared shareholders a considerable amount of pain. Strategic Growth had zip invested in financial stocks at midyear, and not a penny in energy. That last bit sure helped when the bottom fell out of the energy stocks in the second half of this year.

Keep your eyes on these three guys. I wish only the best for those Former Genius Investors. From now on, however, they'll face heavy competition from this trio of rising stars.

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