Which Fund Managers Get a Lump of Coal this Year

Representing Investors Nationwide

Chuck Jaffe of the San Francisco Chronicle, in his December 14 article “Pointng Out Bad Players in the Fund Business” gives out this year’s Lump of Coal Awards.

The following is a reprint of the article: Please note the Morgan Keegan Funds are prominently mentioned as they have been on this site for months.

“After years of expecting a little something extra around the holidays, most people in the fund world are getting nothing extra for Christmas this year. That said, it’s my job to fill some of those holiday stockings: It’s the 13th annual Lump of Coal Awards, my annual two-week holiday tradition of finger-pointing at the bad boys and girls of the fund business, the ones who should get nothing more than an inky chunk of carbon from Santa this year.

The Lump of Coal Awards recognize managers, executives, firms, watchdogs and other fund-world types for action, attitude, behavior or performance that is misguided, bumbling, offensive, disingenuous, reprehensible or just plain stupid.

With the average equity fund down by more than 40 percent, it would be easy to carpet bomb the entire industry with insults this year, but the losing has made it harder to pick “winners” – the buffoons and miscreants who added insult to injury by blunder, ignorance or arrogance.

The 2008 Lump of Coal Awards go to:

Bruce Bent, co-founder of the first money-market fund and chairman of the Reserve funds. Category: Forgetting that talk is cheap. For years, Bent railed against money funds holding anything riskier than Treasury bills and bank certificates of deposit. He ridiculed competition for buying commercial paper – short-term corporate debt that’s routinely unsecured.

But, in 2006, when Reserve’s money funds were lagging the field in yield, Bent’s firm started buying the same things he once described as “garbage.” Reserve’s money-fund yields climbed the charts; meanwhile, Bent continued ranting well into ’08 about the horrible investment behavior of others, ignoring the fact that his funds had become the most dangerous of the bunch.

Holding $785 million in Lehman Bros. Reserve’s Primary fund was forced in mid-September to “break the buck.” After that, the paper was officially declared garbage in light of Lehman’s financial troubles.

The Investment Company Institute. Category: Doing too little, too late.

The money-fund crisis came into full bloom in mid-September. The ICI – the fund industry’s trade association – established its money-fund working group in November, long after the focus of the economic crisis had moved on to other parts of the financial world.

Every 2010 target-date fund. Category: Missing the bull’s-eye.

At the very time that investors most needed life-cycle and target-date investing to work, it failed. Target-date funds are all-in-one portfolios built to age with an investor, so that the closer they get to the target date, the more conservative they become. As such, 2010 funds – built for investors less than two years from hitting retirement age – should be a comparatively safe haven. Instead, the average 2010 fund, is down nearly 30 percent this year.

Oppenheimer’s target-date funds. Category: The year’s most off-target performance.

Oppenheimer is dead last in its peer group for funds targeted for 2010, 2015, 2020 and 2030. By comparison, Oppenheimer 2025 is a star, standing next-to-last in its category. And Oppenheimer 2040 and 2050 didn’t start until March, but since their inception date, both rank dead last in their peer groups, too. With performance like that, Oppenheimer may not be running “life-cycle funds,” so much as “death-spiral funds.”

Second place in this category goes to AllianceBernstein. Were it not for Oppenheimer’s misery, Alliance Bernstein would be dead last in every target-date category tracked by Lipper.

Regions Morgan Keegan. Category: Not knowing when to quit.

Two former high-fliers, RMK’s Select Intermediate Bond fund and Select High Income, may have been the industry’s biggest travesties over the last two years. Manager James Kelsoe - the Lump of Coal (Mis)Manager of the Year in 2007 – had a huge slug of money in subprime paper, so that both bond funds lost more than 50 percent last year, then watched things go from bad to worse in ’08.

High Income is down nearly 80 percent and Intermediate Bond has lost 85 percent this year. For every $1,000 invested in the funds at the start of ’07, there’s less than $100 left now. You would be hard-pressed to find two funds more deserving of liquidation,

Regions Morgan Keegan finally got rid of Kelsoe but inexplicably kept the funds open, with a new subadviser running the money.

Ron Fielding of the Oppenheimer Rochester Municipal funds. Category: Sticking to your guns when they’re aimed at your own feet.

The Rochester funds have traditionally flown high on the muni-bond performance charts, largely because of Fielding’s penchant for diving headlong into the riskiest portions of the bond market – notably sectors like tobacco, housing and airlines – to gain extra yield. As a result, Fielding’s funds – and he’s ultimately responsible for 18 Oppenheimer-owned issues – took on a lot more credit risk than the competition.

Predictably, results have been a horror show. Most of the Rochester single-state funds are down more than 35 percent this year, and Oppenheimer Rochester National Muni (ORNAX) is down 48 percent, which is far more abysmal than the average stock fund in 2008.

Fielding has remained bullish, but a combination of redemptions and the continued credit crunch is likely to make things worse before they get better, which in turn could cripple the entire Oppenheimer family. Oppenheimer’s target-date funds are suffering because of their bond exposure through Fielding’s national muni fund.”