At the Morningstar Investor Conference in 2006, one breakout session panelist noted the 40 long-short funds in existence, predicting the number would increase tenfold in the next two years.
A little over a year later, Morningstar analyst and director of personal finance Christine Benz added them to her list of trendy funds to avoid.
“It’s a stretch to call long-short funds a gimmick, but most of the new long-short funds are simply not a good value proposition,” she wrote at the time. “When you consider that the average long-short fund launched over the past year has an expense ratio of more than 2%, it’s hard to see how anyone would be better off in a long-short offering than in a plain-vanilla bond fund. The case for long-short funds is even weaker for investors’ taxable assets, because the strategies tend to be tax-inefficient.”
Long-short funds hold positions in both long and short investments. Some are market neutral, meaning they have an equal weight on both sides, and some tilt one way or the other depending on perceived market opportunities.
As the financial crisis worsened, so too did the prospect of long-short funds achieving their promised returns. Chalk it up to another investment product that failed its hype when the bubble burst. Like so many other products, they severely disappointed investors when it all went bad, threatening the very idea of employing hedging strategies in mutual funds as a whole.
Yet make the argument to Mike Buckius and he’ll take it head on.
“Well, I agree,” says Buckius, portfolio manager of Gateway Fund (GATEX). “There have certainly been a lot of long-short products that have come out over the last few years, and they’ve performed all over the mark.”
But, as he’s quick to note, while Gateway technically resides in the long-short category, it’s different in that he and his co-managers aren’t stock pickers. They’re not trying to pick good ideas and short bad ideas and earn return along way.
“We’re using broader options markets and market volatility to generate cash flow and reduce risk,” he explains. “We’re akin to a long-short fund in terms of goals, which are steady return and reliable performance with reduced levels of risk, but we’re coming at it from a wholly different direction than most long-short funds.”
And it’s working. Despite Benz’s previous analysis of the space overall, Gateway is a Morningstar Analysts’ pick in the long-short category, partly because of its long track record. Over 20 years, Gateway has delivered average annual returns of 7.5%. Sure, the S&P 500 has returned 9.5% annually over the same period, but Buckius and his co-managers have done it with 40% less risk. And over the past 10 years, the fund outperformed the S&P 500 Index. Analysts rate it as the most tax-efficient fund among the lowest cost funds in its category.
Investors have taken notice: With $5.3 billion in assets currently, the fund has quadrupled in size over the past decade.
A fund of that size isn’t one that typically rates as “overlooked,” but it’s largely flown under the radar. Is it a deliberate strategy?