investing

The Five Ingredients in a Winning Fund

With four out of five, the new BBH Global Core Select Fund holds great promise.

Want a recipe for picking a successful fund? Start with top-notch returns. Focus on risk-adjusted returns, not simply raw performance. Look for proven managers. Hunt for a fund they run that's new or, for some other reason, has a small asset base. Avoid paying too much for fees. Then buy and hold patiently.

BBH Global Core Select (symbol BBGRX) boasts four of these five ingredients. Having them doesn't guarantee that a fund will beat the market, but they're hallmarks of a winner. Let's consider all five of these traits, including the one BBH lacks.

Great returns. Global Core Select has an older sibling with a similar name, a sterling record and essentially the same investment style. Since October 2005, when BBH Core Select (BBTEX) underwent a major shift in strategy and personnel, the fund returned an annualized 9.0%, putting it in the top 1% among funds that invest in large companies. Over that period, the fund has beaten Standard & Poor's 500-stock index by an average of 3.6 percentage points per year. (Returns are through April 22.)

Good risk-adjusted returns. Core Select has held up relatively well in awful markets. During the 2007-09 bear market, Core Select lost 41.1%, compared with 55.3% for the S&P 500 — good enough to put it in the top 3% among its peers. Core Select is about 20% less volatile than the S&P. So you get the combination that fund pickers like me always search for: above-average returns accompanied by below-average risk.

Proven managers. Managers and analysts on the 12-person investment team work together closely. Tim Hartch and Regina Lombardi, managers of the new fund, have been part of the team that has run BBH Core Select since the fund was retooled. Hartch and colleague Michael Keller will continue as co-managers of Core Select. Richard Witmer, the other co-manager of Core Select for many years, now runs the entire money-management business for Brown Brothers Harriman (the BBH in the funds' names).

A small asset base. All things being equal, managers generally do better with fewer assets than with more assets. Global Core Select, launched on March 28, holds a mere $19 million. What's more, BBH closed Core Select to new investors last year when assets totaled $3.5 billion, a relatively modest figure for shutting a fund. So Global Core isn't likely to get too big, either.

True, once you include both global and domestic stock assets, BBH manages $19 billion in large-company-stock products. But given the blue chips that BBH focuses on, along with the managers' tendency to hold stocks for long periods, $19 billion is an acceptable amount. The funds can be pretty nimble.

A low expense ratio. Superb risk-adjusted returns have proved to be good predictors of a fund's success, but so have low expenses—the lower the better. Global Core Select charges 1.50% annually. That's too much. But you can't always have everything—and four out of five indicators of success are enough for me to recommend this fund.

Global Core Select doesn't try to be a fund for all seasons. I fully expect it to lag in most bull markets. It takes a slow and steady approach. The managers first look for the highest-quality companies they can find. Then they wait patiently for them to fall to 75% or less of what they compute as a stock's intrinsic value. Once they buy a stock, the managers hold on for an average of five years. “We look for companies with demonstrable competitive advantages,” says Hartch. “We think of where a business is likely to be in five years.”

Why did BBH launch a global fund? The managers found that they were doing slightly better with the 10% to 20% of Core Select's stocks that were typically domiciled overseas than with their U.S. stocks. They've been planning a global fund for more than two years. As part of that effort, the firm has hired four new analysts, one of whom specializes in international finance.

The investment team is based in New York City, but the managers and analysts have always visited companies overseas. What's more, the blue chips that the funds specialize in all disseminate a lot of data that can be obtained from just about anywhere on the planet.

Hartch doesn't think Europe or Japan currently offer great bargains compared with the U.S. “We don't see a huge difference in valuations,” he says. In fact, Global Core Select doesn't yet own any Japanese stocks.

But a global fund offers more choices. Just now, about half of the fund's assets are overseas. Many of the global companies are familiar names: spirits distributor Diageo (DEO), food giant Nestlé and drug maker Novartis (NVS). But other holdings are new to me: Canadian property and casualty insurance firm Intact Financial, French billboard company JCDecaux SA and German lubricants manufacturer Fuchs PetroLub AG.

A word about Brown Brothers Harriman, which has been in business since 1818. Unlike J.P. Morgan and others, BBH never went public. It's still owned by its partners, currently numbering 41. They profit from the firm's success but also stand to lose from its missteps.

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

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