4 Funds That Are Getting Riskier

08/29/2011 8:30 am EST

Focus: FUNDS

Moving from an investors’ market to a traders’ market means some funds’ betas are rising to cautionary levels, says Bridget Hughes of Morningstar FundInvestor.

Even two years after the end of the most recent and destructive bear market (2007 to 2009), investors seem skittish about equities.

Proof of that can be found in fund-flow trends during the past several years—bond funds have been raking it in, while stock funds have seen redemptions.

One solution might be to look for a low-beta fund. Beta measures how a portfolio has reacted to changes in the overall market, represented by an appropriate index.

A higher beta means the portfolio’s moves have been more exaggerated than the index’s, while a lower beta means its changes have been more subdued. A beta of 1 means it is equal to the index. Choosing a low-beta fund may mean accepting smaller gains in rallies, but also smaller setbacks in down markets.

While the following funds might seem like good candidates based on their reputations or their long-term history, their three-year betas have actually been rising in the past decade.

Fairholme Fund (FAIRX)
Over the past ten years, Fairholme’s beta has nearly tripled. In fact, its beta since the end of 2008 has been greater than 1.

One culprit is manager Bruce Berkowitz’s investments in financials, which have been particularly volatile over the past several years. Berkowitz has long been a value-oriented contrarian, and his current portfolio shows his stripes haven’t changed.

In addition, redemptions have cut the fund’s cash position dramatically. The fund’s recently wild performance pattern and bold, highly concentrated portfolio suggest a long-term investment horizon and greater risk tolerance are warranted.

Fidelity Magellan (FMAGX)
Under previous manager Bob Stansky, Fidelity Magel­lan’s beta hovered right around 1. Stansky had run the gigantic fund as more of a closet indexer, so it’s not surprising that things changed when Harry Lange took the reins in late 2005.

With experience investing in smaller companies, Lange is more of a growth investor. He has thus added slugs of small- and mid-cap stocks, as well as technology issues, so an increased beta over Stansky’s version of Magellan isn’t too much of a surprise.

Nonetheless, Magellan’s beta under Lange has continued to creep up, and its current beta of 1.22 suggests its moves will be about 20% greater than those of the S&P 500. What’s been disappointing, however, is that the fund hasn’t compensated shareholders for the additional risk that comes with growth investing.

NEXT: 2 More Funds

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Mutual Beacon (TEBIX)
For many years, Mutual Series’ funds were, well, beacons of stability. But the betas of this fund and Mutual Shares (TESIX) have risen in the past decade.

In mid-2004 its three-year beta hovered around 0.60; today, it’s around 0.90. That suggests more-moderate returns than the S&P 500, but is a meaningful increase.

As is the case with Fairholme, the fund’s financials stake, long a staple here, deserves part of the blame. The fund’s increasing ventures overseas, while diversifying the portfolio some, have also intro­duced some volatility. (In the past several years, the fund’s foreign stake has been bumping up against its 35% maximum allocation.)

Lately, the fund has been buying more US health-care names, which could bring the volatility and beta back down.

TCW Dividend Focused (TGIGX)
Investors likely expect less risk from funds that focus on dividend payers, and this fund used to fit that bill.

But its beta has risen during the past ten years, especially in two meaningful jumps: toward the end of 2005 and toward the end of 2008. Today, its 1.15 beta is a far cry from its 0.80 beta of yesteryear.

This dividend fund is different, though, in a couple of ways. First, its main goal is total return, which means it doesn’t have the yield cushion that other dividend funds have. In addition, its relatively compact, 56-name portfolio means greater issue risk than you see at most dividend funds.

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