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Scrutinizing Large-Cap Value Funds: Mutual Fund Focus, July 2010

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A core holding for many portfolios is the large-cap value fund, an investment style so ubiquitous that there are more than 400 of them available to U.S. investors alone. As a core holding, however, these funds tend to be held over long periods of time, and thus can escape the scrutiny that more tangential holdings tend to attract.

While that wouldn’t matter if their performances didn’t vary much, that is not the case. Over the past five years, the returns from large-cap value funds have varied from an average annual gain of 4.1% to an average annual loss of 6.15%. A $10,000 investment in the best fund would be worth more than $12,200 over that period, while a similar stake in the worst-performing fund would be worth less than $7,300. Obviously, the difference between a top performing fund and a laggard is considerable.

To identify attractive large-cap growth funds, we screened for funds that had Standard & Poor’s highest five-star rank, which narrowed the field to less than 100 funds. We then eliminated all funds with less than $20 million in assets, funds designed for institutional investors, funds that are not open to new investors, funds that charge a front end load, funds with an annual expense ratio of 1% or more, and funds that require more than a $10,000 initial investment.

That left just 16 funds to choose from. Of these, we chose three with varying combinations of strong five-year performance, low annual fees, and large asset bases indicative of investor confidence.

For those who don’t mind paying a higher annual fee in return for strong historical performance, Milwaukee-based Fiduciary Management’s Large Cap fund is the clear standout. Not only is it the best performing fund over the last five years of the funds that passed the screen, it is the second best performing fund for that period of all domestic equity large-cap value funds that have a five-year track record. In business since December 2001, it had $2.7 billion in assets at the end of March, 2010.

FMI’s fund had just 24 holdings at that time and aims to own somewhere between 20 and 30 names, making it one of the most concentrated of all large-cap funds–just three funds have fewer than 50 holdings. That concentration is a deliberate part of its strategy; FMI says that it believes the benefits of diversification “drop dramatically” with more than 15 stocks, though it also acknowledges that such high concentration tends to make the fund “somewhat more volatile than the typical large-cap value fund.” Its top three holdings were Bank of New York/Mellon, Berkshire Hathaway, and Wal-Mart Stores, which together accounted for about 14% of the fund’s assets. While BP was also one of its top 10 holdings at the time, FMI received so many inquiries regarding the stake that it announced it sold its BP shares on June 1.

From a cost perspective, the Vanguard Windsor II fund leads the field with the lowest annual expense rate of the funds passing the screen and one of the five lowest among all large-cap value funds. This $31.4 billion behemoth has gained obvious popularity among investors, though its recent performance has not kept up with prior years. Its five year average annual return of -0.73% is third worst among the companies passing the screen, and on the low end of other large-cap value funds, but for long-term holders it has delivered a robust 9.86% average annual return since its inception in 1985. It also has a $10,000 minimum initial investment.

The Windsor II fund owns more than 200 different stocks, with the 10 largest accounting for about 27% of the fund’s assets. Its largest sector exposure is to financials, at just shy of 20%, followed by information technology at 16% and health care at 14%. Its top three holdings as of June 30 were IBM, ConocoPhillips, and Wells Fargo.

Another fund that fits the above criteria and offers a solid blend of cost and performance is the Edgar Lomax Value Fund. While it is small, at just $21.6 million in assets as of March 31, its performance as of the end of June has beaten its peer average consistently over the past one-, three-, five-, and 10-year periods. It even managed to post a 7.48% gain in 2008, and has been profitable every calendar year going back to 2000. The fund looks for undervalued, conservatively run companies with high dividends and low debt. Its top three holdings as of June 30 were Kraft, Merck. and McDonald’s.