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The End of Mark Mobius’ Reign as King of Emerging-Market Stocks

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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.”

Many emerging-markets fund managers have floundered as China’s expansion slows and former standouts such as Brazil and Russia post disappointing growth. Seventeen of the 33 U.S.-based developing-nation stock funds with more than $1 billion in assets have trailed their benchmarks over the past five years, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
“It hasn’t been a great period for any emerging-markets manager,” says Peter Walls, a money manager at Unicorn Asset Management who invests in Mobius’s funds. “He’s going to make a comeback.”

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.

“We go into markets when others are fleeing … we believe that with our contrarian approach, our shareholders will be rewarded in the long term.” —Mark Mobius

One of the fund’s largest holdings, the stock of Sesa Sterlite, India’s top aluminum producer, has tumbled 51 percent over the past five years as slowing growth in China cut short a global commodities boom. Another, Yanzhou Coal Mining, a Chinese company, has fallen 66 percent since the end of April 2010, while the Chinese market surged. “They have a big team, but it’s not generating performance,” says Germaine Share, an analyst at Morningstar in Hong Kong.

Even with the recent under-performance, an initial investment of $100,000 in the Templeton Emerging Markets Fund 28 years ago would be worth about $3.3 million today, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Mobius has yet to announce any plans to retire or scale back his workload. In the last days of April, he wrote a blog on foreign reserves, talked about Greece’s finances on CNBC, and celebrated the debut of Templeton’s new Romanian fund on the London Stock Exchange. Countries such as Romania and Mongolia could be the next frontier that enriches investors, he said.

“It’s clearly worrying when you have a period of three, four years that hasn’t been particularly good,” says Charles Cade, head of investment companies research at Numis Securities in London. “The track record isn’t as good as it used to be. Emerging markets is more of a mainstream play now. Adding value is a lot tougher, and it’s much harder to maintain performance.”

—With assistance from Charles Stein, Shana Albuquerque, Mark Jones, Ryan Kreger, and Andrew Bachmann.

The bottom line: Mobius’s flagship fund has gained 4.3 percent annually over the past five years, trailing 44 of 46 similar funds.

(A previous version of this story was corrected to clarify that assets under management refer to Mobius’s 13 largest funds.)

— Check out Mark Mobius: ‘Rupee Rout’ Close to Bottom on ThinkAdvisor.