For a quarter of a century the name Mark Mobius has been synonymous with investing in developing markets. A bald, energetic, New York native who often dresses in white suits, Mobius is constantly tweeting and appearing on television from St. Petersburg to São Paulo encouraging investors to put money into fast-growing developing economies.
A Mark Mobius comic book published in Asia in 2007 chronicled his globe-trotting exploits. (Really.) In the U.S. he was voted by his peers onto a list of the top 10 investors of the 20th century, putting him alongside Warren Buffett, Julian Robertson, and George Soros. What Bill Gross was to bonds, Mobius was to emerging markets: the King.
His reign may be coming to an end. Like Gross, Mobius, 78, has posted mediocre numbers in recent years and seen investors depart. While they still make money, 11 of the 13 largest funds that Mobius oversees at Franklin Templeton Investments have underperformed their benchmarks over the past five years. At their zenith, those funds held $39 billion in 2011.
Today that figure is down to $26 billion. And in December, his flagship Asian Growth Fund lost its long-held position as the region’s largest to First State Investments’ Asia Pacific Leaders Fund. “He’s one of the few well-known managers in emerging markets,” says Todd Rosenbluth, director of mutual fund and ETF research at S&P Capital IQ. “Unfortunately, the track record is below average. Investors are more frustrated.”
In an e-mail, Mobius said his strategy of investing in undervalued stocks can falter in “sentiment-driven” environments, where investors focus more on the overall economic picture than on company fundamentals. “As value investors, we have to have the patience and conviction to weather sometimes long periods of volatility,” Mobius wrote. “We go into markets when others are fleeing, and while some of our fund performance has struggled at certain points in time, we believe that with our contrarian approach, our shareholders will be rewarded in the long term.”
Born in Hempstead, N.Y., to a German father and a Puerto Rican mother, Mobius got his Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He joined Templeton, Galbraith & Hansberger in 1987, when investing in developing countries was still a novel idea. After being tapped by firm founder John Templeton to manage the Templeton Emerging Markets Fund, the company’s first foray into that territory, Mobius developed a reputation for sniffing out stocks that are undervalued relative to their growth potential.
He still crisscrosses continents 250 days a year, feeding on-the-ground research to his team of 50 money managers, analysts, and researchers in 18 offices worldwide handling day-to-day operations of the more than 30 funds he oversees.
The last half-decade has been a struggle for the group, which has made ill-timed bets on energy and mining companies while underinvesting in technology stocks. As of March 31, Templeton Asian Growth held 33 percent of its assets in energy and material stocks, which account for only 9 percent of the fund’s benchmark, the MSCI AC Asia ex Japan index.
The fund has gained 4.3 percent annually over the past five years, compared with 8.1 percent for the index. It’s trailed 44 of 46 similar funds with assets of at least $500 million over that same time span, while charging investors 2.2 percent annually, the second most in the group. The MSCI AC Asia ex Japan index slipped 1.5 percent on May 7.