I was reading in the Financial Times over the weekend about the Mainstay Marketfield mutual fund. It gathered the most money of any mutual fund in the US during 2013, $13 billion, but it is now apparently suffering sharp redemptions after very badly underperforming in 2014.
Mainstay Marketfield is the leader among “liquid alternative” funds, which purport to provide the hedge fund experience to ordinary investors like you and me through a mutual fund. Why exactly that’s a good thing is another issue, since hedge funds as a class appear to underperform an S&P index fund on a regular basis (on top of this, the information the public has about them comes from their voluntary self-reporting, whose accuracy academic research has shown to be suspect).
Anyway, on the idea that one can learn a lot by examining things that go wrong, I thought I’d take a look at Marketfield.
Here’s what I found by spending a couple of hours looking at the fund’s SEC filings, the managers’ backgrounds, the Mainstay fund family site and charts of the fund’s performance. The picture may not be complete, but it’s what I think a careful observer would come away with:
–the lead manager has worked in finance, mostly as a strategist, for 34 years. His colleague has 21 years in the business. As far as I can see, neither had any training/experience/supervision in portfolio management before they opened the Marketfield fund in 2007.
–the fund opened to the public in March 2008. It had a period of strong outperformance vs. the S&P 500 during the stock market decline of late 2008-early 2009, when its losses were only about half those of the market. From the bottom in March through mid-2013 it matched very closely the performance of the S&P 500.
–in 2012, Marketfield sold itself to the Mainstay fund family of New York Life. NYL retained the Marketfield managers as subadvisors–meaning the two continued to run the fund. Sales of fund shares skyrocketed once Marketfield hitched itself to the NYL salesforce.
–in late summer 2013, the fund began to underperform the S&P fairly steadily. From the beginning of September 2013 though last Friday, the A shares were down by 8.9% vs. a gain by the S&P of 25.6%. Factor in a 5.5% sales charge holders paid to obtain shares and the results are that much worse.
The managers appear to me to be envisioning a world of runaway inflation of the type that beset the US in the late 1970s. In such an environment, it would be important to own shares of companies that could raise prices at an inflation-beating rate and to avoid those that could not. In the Seventies, the “bad” sectors were Healthcare, Utilities, Staples and Consumer Discretionary. The “good”: ones were those that held hard physical assets, like industrial plant and equipment, real estate or mineral resources.
In the 1970s, financials were losers; they issued mostly fixed-rate loans, and they were constrained by government regulations that capped the interest rate they could pay for deposits. In today’s world, those restrictions are gone; loans are typically floating-rate; and the banks can be involved in brokerage/investment banking. So, arguably, financials would be winners if inflation were to accelerate strongly.
Whether this was their thinking or not, this description fits the portfolio they created.
my look at the portfolio
on the long side
The Marketfield portfolio held/holds Financials, Industrials and Materials.
It has no Healthcare, little IT, no Staples, no Utilities (all of which have been the stars of 2014). It also has little Consumer Discretionary and almost no Energy, both of which have been good things.
on the short side
The fund shorted Utilities, Staples, and Retail. It also appears to have winning bets against the euro and the yen, the latter offset by significant holdings in Japanese stocks.
What I find striking is that while the market has been going against Marketfield for over a year, the portfolio strategy I see is basically unchanged.
more going on
There’s also more going on than I’ve been able to see. Everything I’ve said until now would lead me to believe that the fund’s year-to-date return should be around zero …not -12+%. The long US stocks should be up 5% -10% (the only sector in negative territory is Energy). I’m figuring that shorting industries that are, say, +20%, wipes out those gains, but does little more damage because the shorts are a lot smaller than the longs.
So something else is happening. I don’t know what. Broadly speaking, the reasons may be staring me in the face in the quarterly SEC filings I’ve seen (the stock selection looks uninspired, and maybe a little weird–of the holdings, I own only INTC and SPLK–but it’s almost impossible to lose 12 percentage points through bad stockpicking, particularly with the large number os stocks the fund holds). Or there could be transactions that are opened and closed within the quarter and therefore don’t appear in the quarter-end statements.
Th Mainstay site contains a Barron’s reprint from October in which the author touts Mainstay Marketfield as having double the returns of similar long-short funds since the market bottom in 2009. Hard to believe that other long-short funds have lagged so far behind the S&P.
I find the $5 billion in redemptions (about 30% of peak assets) the FT says Marketfield has had ito be a stunningly large amount for a load fund. My experience is that even in deep bear markets load funds have redemptions of maybe 10%. This implies to me that neither the financial advisers who recommended the fund nor the clients who purchased it really understood what they were buying.
What I find most odd is that NY Life, which presumably has an older and more risk-averse clientele, should have chosen Marketfield to offer to its customers. What’s odder still is that the move was spectacularly successful as a marketing move–until the wheels came off the performance.
It will be interesting to see if Marketfield can stage a comeback. If the FT is right about the extent of redemptions (I presume it is; I just don’t know), the first indication will be whether the managers use the selling they have to do to reshape the portfolio. Standard procedure would be to take some of the edge off the losing bets. To my mind, “staying the course” would be the worst thing to do (personally, I think the runaway inflation idea is just wrong). We’ll see when the next SEC filings come out next month.