The buoyant market toward the end of 2019 made investing look easy. There were tempting opportunities just about everywhere.
Managers of three of the better-performing mutual funds of the fourth quarter made successful wagers of many kinds, like bets on small companies in Japan and a retailer in Canada, and investments in at-home fitness in the United States and the millennial generation’s love of pets.
Fidelity Low-Priced Stock
Joel C. Tillinghast, lead manager of the Fidelity Low-Priced Stock Fund, is a value investor — he hunts for stocks trading for prices well below his estimate of their worth. Value investing is the style of stock picking made famous by Warren E. Buffett of Berkshire Hathaway.
The approach requires patience, Tillinghast said. “Value is the present value of future cash flows,” he said. “You have to wait around for those earnings and cash flows to come through.”
And wait he will. The turnover of Tillinghast’s fund is 17%, meaning he sells less than one-fifth of the portfolio in any given year. The average actively managed stock fund tracked by Morningstar turns over 60% of its portfolio a year.
Among Tillinghast’s top 10 holdings is Metro, a Canadian retailer and distributor, which he first bought in 1997.
Tillinghast’s commitment to the value philosophy has been tested in the current bull market. For much of the last decade, many investors have fancied growth stocks — those increasing their earnings at above-average rates — and growth names like Amazon and Netflix have soared.
Partly in response, Tillinghast has looked abroad for low-priced bets, especially in Japan. (Fidelity defines “low priced” as $35 a share or less at the time of purchase or as having an earnings yield at or above the median for the Russell 2000 index.)
The Japanese stock market, Tillinghast said, “is like the Galápagos Islands — a parallel universe connected to the rest of the world but a thing unto itself.” Japanese holdings account for about 10% of the fund’s assets.
Japan has six times as many cheap, small companies, judged by their price-earnings ratios, as the United States does, Tillinghast said. But “nobody is paying attention” because Japan’s Nikkei stock index “is still a third below its peak in 1990.”
Tillinghast’s fund, with an expense ratio of 0.52%, returned 12.46% in the quarter, better than the 9.07% total return of the S&P 500-stock index. Tillinghast has overseen his fund for 30 years, returning an annual average of 13.34%. The S&P 500 returned almost 10%, annualized, during that period.
Miller Opportunity Trust
Samantha M. McLemore, co-manager of the Miller Opportunity Trust fund, calls herself a value investor, too. But she and her co-manager, Bill Miller, approach the job differently than Tillinghast. They’ll buy what looks like a growth stock if they believe it’s undervalued by the market.
Miller was one of the first well-known value managers to stray from strict definitions of value and buy technology stocks. Today, Amazon is one of Opportunity Trust’s top holdings.
He made his name at Legg Mason in Baltimore, running a fund called Value Trust. McLemore also worked at Legg Mason, where the fund originated in 1999. Miller completed a buyout of the fund in 2017, according to Elizabeth Goodier, a spokeswoman for his firm. Still based in Baltimore, Miller was traveling and unavailable for comment.
Opportunity Trust is a go-anywhere offering; the managers are unconstrained in what they can buy. “We’re mostly in U.S. equities, and most of the time that will be most of the fund,” McLemore said. Domestic shares lately accounted for 86% of the assets.
Lately, one of McLemore’s favored holdings has been an object of mockery. Peloton Interactive, which sells exercise bikes and online fitness classes, was widely ridiculed in the news media for a holiday season television ad. The ad — derided by some as sexist — portrayed an already trim woman who said she had been changed by the Peloton bike she received for Christmas.
Investors are divided over the company’s merits, and the stock has been on a roller coaster since its initial public stock sale in September.
“Controversy creates opportunity,” McLemore said. “We bought it on a decline.”
She said she likes Peloton not for its expensive bikes — they sell for more than $2,000 — but for its subscriptions to online spin classes and other fitness offerings, a source of recurring revenue.
“They’re the pioneer in fitness as a service and bringing that capability into the home,” she said.
Opportunity Trust, whose A shares have an expense ratio of 1.4%, returned 18.84% in the quarter.
Virtus Zevenbergen Innovative Growth Stock
The Virtus Zevenbergen Innovative Growth Stock Fund doesn’t shy from growth stocks; it chases them.
“We want to be long innovation and entrepreneurs,” said Joseph E. Dennison, who manages the fund as part of a team led by Nancy A. Zevenbergen.
The managers favor outfits like Amazon, Tesla and Facebook run by their founders, Dennison said.
“We place a large emphasis on the people running companies,” he said. “We want them to be managing the business for the next decade, not the next 90 days.”
The fund emphasizes technology, a focus that, to some extent, reflects its base in Seattle, Dennison said, which gives the managers easy access to the technology hubs of greater Seattle, where Amazon and Microsoft are also based, and Silicon Valley.
“Consumers on the West Coast tend to be early adopters, so we see these new markets forming and evolving,” he said.
The managers are especially interested in how young people are spending their money. One way they’re distinguishing themselves is with a willingness to lavish treats and toys on their pets, he said. “Millennials, as they’ve put off forming families, have used pets as a substitute,” Dennison said.
That’s partly why the Virtus Zevenbergen fund bought Chewy, an online retailer of pet products, he said. Chewy makes reordering easy, which matters because many pet products like food and treats are repeat purchases.
The Virtus Zevenbergen fund, whose A shares have an expense ratio of 1.26%, returned 15.97% in the fourth quarter.