By Chuck Jaffe, MarketWatch
Many people feel like the number of celebrity deaths rose in 2016. There certainly is no shortage of famous people to mourn.
There’s also no shortage of mutual funds that perished in 2016, as some 425 traditional funds were liquidated in the past 12 months, more than double that of 2015, according to Morningstar Inc. More than 125 exchange traded funds bit the dust — up more than 25% — and nearly 700 other funds were killed off through mergers.
No one mourns the death of a fund. The majority of the issues that shuffled off their mortal coil were some combination of uninspired, unloved, unlucky and unfortunate. In short, they deserved their fate.
Yet investors can learn from the misadventures of the departed. Thus, in the spirit of year-end retrospectives showing famous people who died in the past 12 months, we go whistling past the mutual fund graveyard telling stories of for whom the bell tolled.
Here are some of 2016’s most-notable stiffs:
Once the flagship of the Putnam lineup — and the star of my own 401(k) in the mid-1990s — the 47-year-old Voyager fund was merged into Putnam Growth Opportunities /zigman2/quotes/200861534/realtime POGAX +0.59% in mid-July.
At its peak in 2003, Voyager had $46 billion in assets, but that was also the point when Putnam was one of several firms tainted by a trading scandal. The ensuing heavy redemptions hurt performance and the fund’s record was forever tarnished.
Despite the occasional stellar year since then, Voyager sank in the large-growth peer group. Morningstar analysts described performance as “dismal”; assets shrank to $3.2 billion.
Robert Brookby , manager of the $600 million Growth Opportunities since 2009, took the helm at Voyager in February. In the paperwork that ended the fund’s voyage, Putnam noted that the funds also “have identical investment objectives and substantially similar investment strategies.”
Over its lifetime, Voyager posted annualized average gains of 10.4%, according to Morningstar, better than the returns of the average large-cap stock fund and average diversified stock fund over the same period. That’s impressive, but not enough in a fund world consumed by “What have you done for me lately?”
Valley Forge Fund
One of the weirdest funds ever, Valley Forge was started in 1968 as a partnership by Bernard Klawans , an engineer who wanted to give himself something to do when he retired from General Electric /zigman2/quotes/208495069/composite GE +3.44% . Upset that it cost $35,000 in legal fees to convert the partnership to a mutual fund in 1972, Klawans did nearly everything himself from then on.
He was fund manager, customer-service rep, transfer agent and largest shareholder; he met with fund auditors around the kitchen table of his four-bedroom split-level home/headquarters.
Running the fund so tightly — with a below-average expense ratio as a result — allowed him to make money with just a few million in assets, pretty much all the fund ever had, peaking at around $10 million.
Klawans frequently held cash while the market was rising; the fund seldom lost money, but often lagged behind the market badly.
In his 80s, Klawans brought in a successor, trained him and then retired, just months before his death. When the successor died unexpectedly months later, the fund’s directors should have shut down. Instead, they ran Valley Forge themselves for two months in 2013, despite zero experience as fund managers.
The managers they hired, ultimately, proved worse; before closing late this spring, Valley Forge ranked dead last in Morningstar’s large-value category over its last one, three and five years.
Dunham Alternative Strategy
Born in 2009, this managed-futures fund sported an annualized average loss of 1.3% during its lifetime. It also carried a turnover rate of 4,800%.
That’s not a typo. Effectively, it means the fund turned over its entire portfolio nearly once every five days.
While managed futures don’t trade like stocks and trading activity should be radically higher, investors should recognize that there has never been a superior long-term fund with astronomical turnover.