As stock-market analysts were starting to tally up Wall Street's first-quarter performance, they came up with a bleak but unsurprising result...
NEW YORK — As stock-market analysts were starting to tally up Wall Street’s first-quarter performance, they came up with a bleak but unsurprising result: Stock mutual funds in just about every corner were a losing proposition.
With few exceptions, such as gold funds or those that bet on stocks falling, most investors saw steep declines in their holdings in the quarter.
Figures from fund tracker Lipper Inc. show negative returns that approached or reached double digits in most stock-fund categories; Lipper’s calculations included results through last Thursday.
From large-cap value funds (down 9.2 percent) to small-cap growth funds (down 14.4 percent), many investors emerged from the first quarter with less money than at the start of the year.
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“With a few exceptions across a couple of nontraditional asset classes like short-bias funds, investors are likely to feel very disappointed by this quarter’s returns,” said Lipper analyst Jeff Tjornehoj, making reference to “short” funds that profit when stocks fall.
While occasional declines confront any long-term investor, the latest quarter’s pullbacks could leave many people hesitant to open the statements that will soon arrive.
The market gyrations that stole headlines and a bit of Wall Street’s swagger during the quarter left many investors casting about for areas of safety. But the quarter’s statistics show there were few options, beyond shifting holdings to government bonds or cash.
And investors who simply retreat to the sidelines often risk missing rebounds and generally end up faring worse than those who stay invested.
Economic fears that began to percolate in the summer and fall took on greater urgency in the first quarter after a worrisome parade of data on areas like employment, housing and consumer spending. Investors’ discomfort grew in recent weeks with the near collapse of a liquidity-starved Bear Stearns.
Interest-rate cuts and stopgap measures by the Federal Reserve to encourage wary lenders into extending credit might have corralled some of Wall Street’s fears, but the moves weren’t able to shield most investors from a dismal quarter.
The Dow Jones industrial average is off its lows but still down 7.5 percent for the quarter. And the broader Standard & Poor’s 500 index — the yardstick for evaluating many mutual funds — is down 9.9 percent.
The problems radiating from the U.S. housing market and fears of a global economic slowdown clearly seeped further into the world’s financial markets during the quarter.
China region funds, for example, had a negative return of nearly 23 percent. While the once-hot funds had a negative return of 3.3 percent in the fourth quarter of 2007, they’d shown a gain of 55 percent in 2007.
Even as gas and crude-oil prices set new highs during the quarter, natural-resources funds saw their returns falling 4.7 percent after rising 7.1 percent in the fourth quarter and 40 percent last year.
While analysts had flagged such funds as benefiting from unsustainable run-ups, funds that have kept to more measured gains in recent years also saw losses. Multi-cap value funds, for example, had a negative return of 9.6 percent in the first quarter.
Overall, U.S. diversified equity funds, which tend to have varied holdings rather than focusing on a particular sector, saw their returns fall 9.9 percent.
The smaller stable of sector funds, which focus on specific areas like financial services or real estate, had a negative return of 7.8 percent.
World equity funds — focused on investments often beyond U.S. borders — had a negative return of 9.7 percent.
And even the few areas to manage gains didn’t help many investors. Dedicated short bias funds saw an 11.7 average return for the quarter. But there are only about $15 billion in assets in such funds, well below the $488 billion in multi-cap growth funds, for example.
Funds focused on gold, a volatile holding that some investors turn to for safety, had a 7.9 percent return for the quarter.
“Gold is on a tear but then again, with $50 billion behind it, mutual-fund investors are not participating in the gold rally,” said Tjornehoj, referring to the low amount of assets in these funds.
Despite a messy start to the year, Tjornehoj said long-term investors should pause before making hasty changes to their holdings.
“With the right horizon, a storm like this is an event you should be able to weather. If this has gotten you way too upset then you probably should pare back on your equities over that horizon,” Tjornehoj said. “But understand you might miss out when stocks come roaring back.”