Fighting the tide aided fund investors in the first quarter

04/04/2014 9:04 PM

04/04/2014 9:04 PM

It’s after the crowd thins that the party gets interesting.

Such was the case with mutual funds last quarter. The types of funds that did best were often those that investors rushed to exit in 2013.

Mutual funds that invest in the stocks of mining companies were the headliners. They made an average of 12.1 percent, the most among the 103 fund categories that Morningstar tracks and more than six times the return of the Standard Poor’s 500 index. The jump came after investors pulled a net $2.1 billion from the category last year. The top of the leaderboard for first-quarter fund returns provides another example of how sharply fortunes can swing.

Many of the top-performing fund categories in the first quarter were ones that tend to be popular when worries are rising, such as gold-related and bond funds. The VIX, an index that measures how nervous investors are about big price swings upcoming for the S 500, jumped in February to its highest closing level since 2012.

Even though the S 500 index had its smallest quarterly move in the last six, various mutual fund categories still posted big moves in both directions.

“I think we’re into a stock picker’s market and a bond picker’s market and a country picker’s market,” said Jack Rivkin, chief investment officer at Altegris, which runs several alternative mutual funds. Unlike last year, when 91 percent of the stocks in the S 500 rose together, Rivkin said, “we’re going to see some difference in performance among individual countries, individual sectors and individual companies.”

Here’s a look at some of last quarter’s biggest winners and losers.

Winners

• Gold mining stock funds: Last year, when the price of gold had its worst annual performance since 1981, the average precious metals stock fund lost 48.8 percent. But managers said that helped make gold mining stocks look more attractive, and they bounced back even higher than the price of gold. Of the 25 mutual funds at the top of the rankings for first-quarter returns, 12 specialize in gold mining stocks.

• Municipal bond funds: Detroit’s bankruptcy filing last year spooked investors away from municipal bonds, which are issued by local governments. But those fears were unwarranted, at least during the first quarter. Interest rates fell, and the default rate remains low. That helped the average long-term national municipal bond fund return 4 percent last quarter. Muni bond funds attracted new money in the first two months of the year, and preliminary figures suggest they did so again in March, according to the Investment Company Institute. It would be the first positive three-month streak for muni bond funds since the fall of 2012.

• Other bond funds: Increased anxiety among investors pushed up demand for bonds, which in turn pushed down their yields. The yield on the 10-year Treasury note fell below 2.6 percent in early February after starting the year at close to 3 percent. That helped intermediate-term bond mutual funds, the largest type by assets, deliver an average return of 1.9 percent.

Losers

• Latin American funds: After investors yanked a net $1.4 billion last year, the funds have continued to disappoint and lost an average of 1.1 percent last quarter. Investors are worried about how the region will deal with a global economy that’s supported by less stimulus from the Federal Reserve, among other concerns. The U.S. central bank in December began paring back its program to buy $85 billion in bonds to support the economy.

• Asian funds: Worries about slowing economic growth in China reverberated across Asian stock markets. Chinese stock funds lost an average of 4.3 percent last quarter. Japanese stock funds, which also struggled with worries about how effective economic reforms in the country will be, lost 3.8 percent.

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