In an investment world where image is everything, what’s in a name matters, but what is in a fund is a lot more important.
American Century, the investment firm, recently announced that it will be renaming its target-date funds effective May 31, dropping the name Livestrong from its popular and successful line of funds.
Since 2006, American Century has been associated with the Livestrong Foundation, contributing more than $8 million to promote cancer research.
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But the Livestrong name was significantly tarnished last January, when Livestrong founder Lance Armstrong admitted to using performance-enhancing drugs while building his reputation as a champion bicyclist who had recovered from a battle with cancer.
From that moment on, it seemed inevitable that a name change for the funds was in the offing, although American Century positioned the move as a means of consolidating and simplifying its retirement offerings under the brand named One Choice, which it was already using for its target-risk funds.
Truthfully, the name change is a nonissue for consumers, unless they actually purchased the funds because of the affiliation with Livestrong.
That would have been a bad idea from the start, for reasons I will expand upon in a moment.
A fund’s name matters only in that it represents the management firm, and in that it may represent the assets in the fund.
By rule, if a fund says it invests in a certain asset class — such as technology or financial-services companies, or large-cap growth stocks — it must keep 80 percent of its assets in the kind of securities it is named for.
But give it a name that has no specific connotation — like Explorer, Discovery, Opportunity or, well, Livestrong — and it can go wherever the prospectus says the manager can take it.
In the 1990s, for example, American Century itself was known as Twentieth Century; it changed named to reflect the new millennium, but that change had zero impact on funds.
That’s precisely what will happen with the Livestrong Funds; come June 1, shareholders will find that they own One Choice funds, but there will be no other change beyond the branding.
Likewise, ING U.S. — which is spinning off from its Dutch parent company via an initial public offering later this year — announced recently that the brand name for its new firm will be Voya Financial, a name the company said is derived from the word “voyage” and “brings to mind bright, vivid colors.”
The re-branding process won’t start until next year — and Voya sounds to me like a yogurt or health-care supplement — but it ultimately will not affect the firm’s funds except in cosmetic ways.
The Livestrong issue, however, has other interesting tentacles because while investors might have been drawn to the cancer-support identity of the funds, they might have missed the cancer-research element that is a fundamental tenet of American Century at a corporate level.
American Century is owned in part by the Stowers Institute for Medical Research, which works to combat cancer and other gene-based diseases.
Company founder James Stowers Jr. and his wife, Virginia, are both cancer survivors; they started the institute with money generated by the fund company, and the firm now pays more than 40 percent of its profits to the institute.
Since 2000, that has amounted to roughly $1 billion.
American Century spokesman Chris Doyle noted that the firm “will continue to look for opportunities to support Livestrong,” but he noted that the focus that the fund name put on that organization “did not tell the full story of [American Century’s] more expansive approach to the cause.”
The interesting side of the entire approach, however, is that it’s not something the company spends much time pumping.
Investors have plenty of opportunities to buy social-investment funds, issues that take a specific approach or that support a cause, but they may not recognize that funds which do not brand themselves as “socially responsible” should not be seen as uncaring or irresponsible.
Moreover, it’s not necessarily the branding or the image that makes a fund good.
While the Livestrong funds have been stellar performers — among the best in their respective categories since they were started, according to Morningstar — Livestrong had nothing to do with that. Instead, it was sound structure and savvy management.
Even when it comes to solid management firms — where the name of the company implies performance consistent with the brand — what matters is the underlying fund.
Every good fund company has a dog or two somewhere in its lineup; the fund that just doesn’t live up to its name.
That’s why fund names matter less than fund management.
“I am sure that people liked the idea that the funds supported the efforts of Livestrong,” said Doyle. “But I’m sure what they liked the most was that the funds themselves did well. Hopefully, that’s not changing, even as the name does.”
Chuck Jaffe is senior columnist for MarketWatch. He can be reached at email@example.com or at P.O. Box 70, Cohasset, MA 02025-0070.
Copyright, 2013, MarketWatch