As many investors turn to experts for guidance in a shaky stock market, Morningstar Inc. is making recommendations that may surprise some: It's recommending fund managers with stock portfolios that posted negative returns in the past year.
The Chicago firm announced its 2002 fund managers of the year in the U.S.-stock, foreign-stock and fixed-income categories. Only the fixed-income funds finished the year with positive returns.
* For domestic stock funds, Joel Tillinghast of the $15.5 billion Fidelity Low-Priced Stock Fund.
* For international stock funds, Rudolph-Riad Younes and Richard Pell of the $833 million Julius Baer International Equity Fund.
* For fixed-income funds, the 11-member management team behind the $1.9 billion Dodge & Cox Income Fund -- James Dignan, Thomas Dugan, Dana Emery, John Gunn, Jeffrey Klein, Peter Lambert, Charles Pohl, Kent Radspinner, Larissa Roesch, A. Horton Shapiro and Robert Thompson.
It was the first time in Morningstar's 16-year history of issuing the awards that managers with losing returns were cited.
"2002 was one of the most challenging years for mutual fund managers -- but one where rigorous analysis and disciplined investing paid off," said Russ Kinnel, Morningstar's director of fund analysis.
Given the fact that the vast majority of funds lost money last year, "we wanted to recognize that a lot of great work is being done by people who were limiting losses rather than completely avoiding them," he said.
Tillinghast has been manager of the Fidelity Low-Priced Stock Fund since its 1989 launch, investing in nearly 900 stocks of smaller companies with good earnings prospects.
Although the fund had a negative return of 6.2 percent in 2002, its first annual decline, it still beat the 16 percent negative return for its average peer in the small-cap blend category. Over 10 years, the Fidelity fund was Morningstar's top performer with a 14.2 percent annualized return, beating the Standard & Poor's 500-stock index's return of 4.9 percent over the same period.
"Steadiness has meant that Tillinghast has been a perennial runner-up for the award because he rarely posts monster returns," Kinnel said. "Yet, when we look back at the fund's long-term performance, he dwarfs the competition."
The Julius Baer International Equity Fund, led by Younes and Pell since 1995, has been willing to make big changes in its sector and country stakes, serving investors well during both bull and bear markets, according to Morningstar.
In 1999, for example, the fund's large holdings in technology and telecommunications shares helped rake in a 76.6 percent return. But the managers quickly changed their stakes in the following years, helping to minimize losses when those sectors fell. In 2002, it had a negative return of 3.6 percent, compared with the average foreign stock fund's negative return of about 16 percent.
Over five years, the international fund outperformed its average peer with a return of 10.5 percent.
"They aren't speculative momentum investors. They managed to stay one step ahead of the markets," Kinnel said.
The management team that leads the Dodge & Cox Income Fund, meanwhile, was the only Morningstar winner with positive numbers in 2002, bringing in returns of 10.8 percent, which beat its average peer in the intermediate-term bond category by 2.9 percentage points.
Over 10 years it was one of Morningstar's top performers, with a return of 8 percent.
Financial planners say Morningstar's winners are worth considering when picking a mutual fund, particularly since good managers make a difference in securing good returns.
"Managers as individuals do bring to the table a skill and expertise that I would say is the most important criterion in searching for a good mutual fund," said John T. Blankinship Jr., a certified financial planner in Del Mar, Calif.
But planners advise against investors' putting undue emphasis on a manager who might perform particularly well in certain economic conditions, such as a bear market, while remaining untested in different situations.
"We look to see how long they've been on the job, their track records, and how they perform in down markets and up markets," Blankinship said. "We're also looking to see if they're sticking to their knitting. If it's a large-cap manager, we don't want them buying value stocks."