Sacking a solid manager with a superior record is nearly unheard of, precisely because it makes investors want to leave.
Here’s one of very few certainties to investing in mutual funds: If a fund company fires your money manager, it’s a bad thing.
At the very least, you will have to decide whether to stick with the fund. At the worst, you already have suffered through performance so bad that the fund’s sponsor ultimately gave up hope that the manager could recover.
But when a fund company makes a change that seems inexplicable, shareholders should wonder what’s gone wrong.
That’s precisely what is happening now to shareholders in the AdvisorShares TrimTabs Float Shrink exchange-traded fund, which is about to go through a manager change almost certain to make shareholders angry and disappointed.
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The Float Shrink ETF (TTFS) is a buyback fund, investing in companies that are using a positive free cash flow to repurchase shares of their own stock. It aims to beat the Russell 3000 Index with less volatility and, since inception in late 2011 has done just that, generating annualized returns north of 19 percent compared with less than 17 percent for the benchmark index.
It has earned a five-star rating from Morningstar; gets a “very attractive” strong buy rating from New Constructs Inc., a Nashville research firm; was named by On Wall Street — an information service for financial advisers — as the top-performing actively managed ETF over the last three years; and has no shortage of other evaluators extolling its virtues.
That’s why some investors have chosen it over the $1.6 billion big boy in the buyback space — PowerShares Buyback Achievers (PKW) — as well as the big-name new-kid-on-the-block, the SPDR S&P 500 Buyback ETF (SPYB).
In a world where lots of new funds fail to achieve critical mass levels like $25 million — which many industry watchers say is the minimum size needed for average buy-and-hold investors to consider a purchase — the Trim Tabs fund has grown to $175 million in assets in less than five years.
That’s what makes the dismissal of TrimTabs so surprising.
“AdvisorShares has the right to get rid of us without cause, and that’s what it looks to me like they are doing,” said Charles Biderman, founder of TrimTabs Investment Research. “It’s not that unusual for a fund company to change managers or sub-advisors, but there’s usually a pretty obvious reason why it’s happening.”
Truthfully, fund firms don’t fire managers often enough, mostly allowing managers to stay on the job despite years of mediocrity or underperformance. Even when a fund is managed by a subcontractor from an outside firm — called a sub-advisor — it typically takes a stretch of dreadful to prompt a change.
By that time, investors who have stuck with a fund are eager for change, hoping new blood will turn things around.
Sacking a solid manager with a superior record is nearly unheard of, precisely because it makes investors want to leave. When star managers exit — especially when shareholders were attracted to their name or methodology — investors follow; the most recent proof was the billions of dollars that moved from PIMCO to Janus when star bond jockey Bill Gross switched firms.
Costs are the likely salve for AdvisorShares investors, who otherwise must choke down the loss of their manager’s methodology in a backroom business deal presumably made for the economic benefit of the fund sponsor.
Wilshire Associates will take over the Float Shrink fund — renamed the AdvisorShares Wilshire Buyback ETF — and cut expenses to 0.9 percent (from 0.99 percent) on July 1. The methodology will be similar, but can’t be based on the same algorithm Biderman’s company developed years ago; still, an investor looking at the revised prospectus is likely to come away thinking the methods are the same.
AdvisorShares’ boss Noah Hamman didn’t shine any light on the reasons for the change, noting by email that “We believe that investors will be excited about the selection of Wilshire as the new sub-advisor for this fund.”
Time will tell.
Investors who specifically wanted TrimTabs will have their chance to get it back, as Biderman promises to open a new Float Shrink fund as soon as practicable.
“When a fund that has been going fine changes managers for no reason, you should be nervous,” said Michael Ball of Weatherstone Capital Management, a tactical money manager who has used TTFS. “If I owned the fund and performance deteriorates relative to what it has done to the S&P 500 and relative to the PowerShares ETF, I pull the trigger and leave. If I’m not in the fund, this change makes me gun-shy until they have 12 to 18 months under new management. Either way, you’re not thrilled right now.”