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July 5, 2009, 12:03 p.m. EDT

New and unproved

Commentary: T. Rowe Price fund is one to watch -- but not necessarily buy

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By Chuck Jaffe, MarketWatch

BOSTON (MarketWatch) -- Mutual-fund firms come up with new ideas all the time.

But every now and again, a firm comes out with an old idea, creating a product that overlaps its current line-up. The new fund always sounds promising, but investors should wonder if the new issue is as good an idea for customers as it is for the managers.

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New Mutual Fund? Better Off Waiting

T. Rowe Price introduced its new Large-Cap Core Fund this week. MarketWatch's Chuck Jaffe says there's no need for investors to jump in just yet.

The latest example of this is T. Rowe Price U.S. Large-Cap Core Fund /zigman2/quotes/208686396/realtime TRULX +1.15% , which launched last week.

This isn't an absolute-value fund, a leveraged fund or an issue based on a newfangled strategy. Nor does it appear to be a case of a firm trying to bury bad track records in a new fund; T. Rowe has many funds in the large-cap space, typically with good records and outstanding ratings from the likes of Morningstar Inc. and Lipper Inc.

But U.S. Large-Cap Core isn't replacing any of those.

In a world of thousands of funds -- and at a company that operates more than a hundred of them -- this new fund appears to be completely dispensable and inessential.

That said, investment firms create funds to sell them.

'Go-anywhere' style

U.S. Large-Cap Core's selling points are compelling: First, the fund will buy the "top picks" of the firm's 30-plus analysts, without regard to investment style. That means the fund will try to tilt toward whichever investment style -- growth or value -- is in favor, but will hold both types of stocks at any given time. Next, the portfolio is concentrated, at least by T. Rowe Price standards. Large-Cap Core will hold 50 to 75 stocks, about half of the number held by sister funds investing in the same space.

Typically, a "focused fund" holds no more than about 33 stocks, so that each pick represents about 3% of the portfolio. That rewards management and investors for making fewer picks, but getting them right.

And the "top picks" strategy raises questions too. After all, if this fund has Price's best ideas, what the heck are the firm's other funds holding?

Jeff Rottinghaus, manager of the new fund, explained that the "best ideas" concept is about the smaller number of holdings and being "unencumbered by style." T. Rowe Price Growth Stock Fund /zigman2/quotes/206327560/realtime PRGFX +0.78% , for example, must live by its mandate, which means investing only in growth stocks and holding more than 100 of them. Likewise, T. Rowe Price Value Fund /zigman2/quotes/209574122/realtime TRVLX +2.06% rides entirely on the value edge of the style coin.

"It's not that those funds have something other than the top picks, it's that they have to hold more stocks and are style-specific," Rottinghaus said. "One owns the top large-cap growth stocks and the other owns the top large-cap value stocks, but we're just trying to buy the top large-cap stocks. Sometimes, that may mean owning more growth stocks, other times more value."

Whether the fund can achieve that mission is something that even Rottinghaus said will take several years to prove. Outsiders suggest that investors may want to avoid the fund until such prowess is clear.

Mark Salzinger, editor of the No-Load Fund Investor newsletter, noted that T. Rowe Price previously created a global "best-ideas" large-cap stock fund, T. Rowe Price Global Stock Fund /zigman2/quotes/200134866/realtime PRGSX +1.50% , which he recommended to his subscribers and still has high hopes for. After a hot start, however, the fund's performance has cooled and Salzinger notes that a 50-50 split between two pre-existing funds would have actually outpaced Global Stock.

"Price hasn't proven that the best-ideas approach works as well as investing in their other funds," Salzinger said.

Mixed and mediocre

Industry-wide, funds filled with purported "best ideas" have been a mixed bag. Performance at most shops has never shown that a portfolio of "top picks" actually outperforms the other funds from the family.

David Snowball, the Augustana College professor who writes the "new fund page" at FundAlarm.com, said that Price's last "entirely superfluous launch" was "T. Rowe Price Overseas Stock Fund /zigman2/quotes/209618002/realtime TROSX +2.33% , which offered no particular distinction from T. Rowe Price International Stock Fund /zigman2/quotes/206968619/realtime PRITX +1.93% , except that it wasn't saddled with International's embarrassing track record." The fund, since opening at the end of 2006, has produced "distinctly mediocre results," Snowball said.

One plus may be "new fund phenomenon" -- the idea that a new fund typically starts hot because it is small and nimble -- but research shows that the effect is muted in large-cap stocks. In this case, it shouldn't inspire an investor to change from an existing holding to an unproven fund; even investors looking for a new fund may want to give Rottinghaus time to prove the concept.

"So now you can buy one [T. Rowe Price] fund and let the manager decide how much should be in value or growth at any given time for your large cap allocation ... sure, makes some sense," said Gregg Brewer, executive director of research for Value Line. "At the very least, it's a compelling sales pitch and they aren't out to create a poorly performing fund. ... But, in the end, the new fund comes off as just another story to use to sell a product."

That's the fund industry for you -- and it's why investors need to be cautious, no matter how promising any new fund appears.

/zigman2/quotes/208686396/realtime
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Chuck Jaffe is a senior MarketWatch columnist. His work appears in dozens of U.S. newspapers.

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Chuck Jaffe is a senior columnist for MarketWatch. Through syndication in newspapers, his "Your Funds" column is the most widely read feature on mutual fund...

Chuck Jaffe is a senior columnist for MarketWatch. Through syndication in newspapers, his "Your Funds" column is the most widely read feature on mutual fund investing in America. He also writes a general-interest personal finance column and the Stupid Investment of the Week column. Chuck does two weekly podcasts for MarketWatch, and frequently makes guest appearances on television, and on radio shows across the country. He is the author of three personal-finance books. His latest, “Getting Started in Hiring Financial Advisors,” was published in the spring of 2010 by John Wiley & Sons.

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