NEW YORK — It’s after the crowd thins that the party gets interesting.
Such was the case with mutual funds this past quarter. The types of funds that did best were often those that investors rushed to exit in 2013.
Mutual funds that invest in the stocks of mining companies were the headliners: They made an average of 12.1 percent, the most among the 103 fund categories that Morningstar tracks and more than six times the return of the Standard & Poor’s 500 index.
The jump came after investors pulled a net $2.1 billion from the category this past year. The top of the leaderboard for first-quarter-fund returns provides another example of how sharply fortunes can swing.
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Many of the top-performing fund categories in the first quarter were ones that tend to be popular when worries are rising, such as gold-related and bond funds. Investors have felt more reason to worry this year as concerns flared about tensions in Ukraine and about disappointing economic reports in China and the United States. The VIX, an index that measures how nervous investors are about big price swings upcoming for the S&P 500, jumped in February to its highest closing level since 2012.
Even though the S&P 500 index had its smallest quarterly move in the last six, various mutual fund categories still posted big moves in both directions.
“I think we’re into a stock picker’s market and a bond picker’s market and a country picker’s market,” says Jack Rivkin, chief investment officer at Altegris, which runs several alternative mutual funds. Unlike last year, when 91 percent of the stocks in the S&P 500 rose together, Rivkin says, “we’re going to see some difference in performance among individual countries, individual sectors and individual companies.”
Here’s a look at some of last quarter’s biggest winners and losers.
Gold-mining stock funds
Last year, when the price of gold had its worst annual performance since 1981, the average precious-metals stock fund lost 48.8 percent. But managers say that helped make gold-mining stocks look more attractive, and they bounced back even higher than the price of gold. Of the 25 mutual funds at the top of the rankings for first-quarter returns, 12 specialize in gold-mining stocks.
Muni bonds come back
Detroit’s bankruptcy filing last year spooked investors away from municipal bonds, which are issued by local governments. Such bonds offer income that’s generally free from federal income tax, but investors worried about the financial strength of local governments. Fears about rising interest rates also hurt: A jump would knock down prices for all kinds of bonds because their yields would suddenly become less attractive. Investors yanked a net $58.1 billion from muni-bond funds in 2013, in contrast to the $146.2 billion that they plugged into foreign stock funds.
But those fears were unwarranted, at least during the first quarter. Interest rates fell, and the default rate remains low. That helped the average long-term national municipal bond fund return 4 percent last quarter. Investors noticed, and they’re returning. Muni-bond funds attracted new money in the first two months of the year, and preliminary figures suggest they did so again in March, according to the Investment Company Institute. It would be the first positive three-month streak for muni-bond funds since the fall of 2012.
Bond funds rose
Last year, many analysts heralded the “Great Rotation” of investors into stock mutual funds from bonds, where they had been focusing almost exclusively since the financial crisis. Rising interest rates sent the bond market in 2013 to its first annual loss since 1999, as measured by the Barclays U.S. Aggregate Bond index.
But increased anxiety among investors pushed up demand for bonds, which, in turn, pushed down their yields. The yield on the 10-year Treasury note fell below 2.6 percent in early February, after starting the year at close to 3 percent. That helped intermediate-term bond mutual funds, the largest type by assets, deliver an average return of 1.9 percent. To be sure, many analysts don’t expect such gains to continue. They still expect interest rates to rise, a result of the continued improvement in the economy that they’re forecasting. Shortly after the end of the first quarter, the yield on the 10-year Treasury climbed back to 2.8 percent.
Latin stock funds
The party continued to disband for Latin American stock funds. After investors yanked a net $1.4 billion last year, the funds have continued to disappoint and lost an average 1.1 percent last quarter. Investors are worried about how the region will deal with a global economy that’s supported by less stimulus from the Federal Reserve, among other concerns. The U.S. central bank in December began paring back its program to buy $85 billion in bonds to support the economy.
Asian stock funds
Worries about slowing economic growth in China reverberated across Asian stock markets. Chinese stock funds lost an average of 4.3 percent last quarter. Japanese stock funds, which also struggled with worries about how effective economic reforms in the country will be, lost 3.8 percent.