Mutual Fund Honor Roll ? Buy High, Sell Low by Chasing Performance

Buy high and sell low -- It's not a typo.

Millions of investors guarantee their failure by selecting mutual funds and stocks based on quarterly or annual performance records. Do you chase performance? You might be buying high and selling low!

As the year draws to a close, millions of mutual fund investors begin an annual event to divine next year's winners. Yet most of these individuals rely heavily on a time-honored ? but terribly wrong ? method of evaluating strength. Whether analyzing screening tools from websites, reviewing fund honor rolls in magazines, or using star ratings from fund analysts, normally savvy business people foolishly chase the returns of last year's hottest investments.

This begs the question: Can top performing mutual funds lead two years in a row? Consider a study commissioned by Vanguard Investments Australia and released by Morningstar. The five best performing funds were analyzed from 1994 to 2003. Here are the results:

-- Only 16% of top five funds make it to the following year's list.

-- Top five funds average 15% lower returns the following year.

-- Top five funds barely beat (by 0.3%) the market the following year.

-- 21% of all top five funds ceased to exist within the following 10 years.

Academic studies and market statistics confirm the typical investor acts in direct opposition to the sage advice ? buy low, sell high. It's only after high returns are realized and reported that investors pour money into both stock and bond mutual funds. In fact, Financial Research Corporation compared investor cash flows into mutual funds. Purchases immediately following best-performing quarters exceed 14 times those immediately following their worst-performing quarters. In other words, you are 14 times more likely to buy funds at their highest price than at it's lowest. Buy high and sell low.

Just what kind of damage are they inflicting to their investment returns? DALBAR, Inc., conducted a well-known study called Quantitative Analysis of Investor Behavior. The study confirms investors' poor timing and the resulting financial carnage. Investors buy funds immediately after a rapid price appreciation. This just happens to be right before investment performance wanes. Prices fall soon after and the investors quickly dump their holdings to search for the next hot fund. The resulting returns fail to even beat inflation! When measured over the last nineteen years, the average equity investor earned a meager 2.6% annual return. Compare that to a 3.1% inflation rate and a 12.2% return from the S&P 500 over the exact same time period. Not only did investors fail to keep up with the market, they also lost money to inflation.

We've all seen the warnings on packages of cigarettes. Even smokers understand their relevance; smoking is not a healthy activity. So why do investors not heed warnings about mutual fund returns? You've all seen those statements too. But can you remember what is said? Past performance is not a guarantee or indicator of future results. Research and studies have proven this fact, yet the majority of investors choose to ignore this warning. Yes, it's an easy means of comparing funds. It also happens to be completely irrelevant. Let me evangelize these words for you. Past performance does not predict future results!

Here's how you can stop chasing short term performance and stay focused on your financial goals. Identify appropriate long-term investments by evaluating the following:
(1) Leadership: How does the fund perform relative to similar size and similar style funds?
(2) Tenure: How long have the managers and advisors been at the fund?
(3) Management: Managers well-known, highly-regarded (e.g. remember Peter Lynch)?
(4) Consistency: Are the 3, 5, and 10 year returns all above average?

Finally, measure returns based on your entire portfolio. History shows that no single investment success repeats. Accept the fact every year is different and brings new leaders and laggards. Use an asset allocation strategy to guarantee balance and increase long term returns among all your investments. Invest in a diversified portfolio to meet your financial goals - and stick with it.

Not yet learned your lesson? Consider this: Fourteen mutual funds topped the 2003 charts with returns over 100%. In 2004, these fourteen funds lost over 4% while the S&P 500 gained 3%. Congratulations, chasing performance lost 7% of your money this year.

Tim Olson
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Mr. Olson is the editor of The Asset Advisor, a financial investment service providing proven strategies for no-load mutual fund investors. He brings 26 years of education and experience from Stanford University, Ernst & Young financial consulting, personal wealth management, and venture capital investing.

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