Dark days for investors as fund stars lose their shine

Some stellar performers have seen their touch desert them in the global market turmoil

When a football team performs badly, you rarely see the manager making a public apology for his own strategy and player selection.

It's also rare that, in the world of finance, you find a fund manager who concedes some investment decisions were wrong and apologises to investors for the fund's poor performance.

But earlier last week, Anthony Bolton, one of the UK's most renowned investment managers, apologised after his Fidelity China Special Situations fund lost 28.9 per cent in value over just six months.

As with football, fund management is a results-driven business and pressure builds if performance is not great, even for those managers who have built a stellar reputation over the years by running highly successful funds. Some of them have seen the tables turn recently, with their funds among the worst performers.

Mr Bolton is highly regarded for his 28 years of managing Fidelity's Special Situations, but the past 12 months have been tough for his China fund. Advisers say this could be typical of a manager moving into an investment area which is not their primary expertise. Adrian Lowcock, a senior adviser at Bestinvest, says: "The message for investors is a manager can excel in one area but the expertise does not necessarily translate in another, as the manager sometimes lacks understanding of the culture, a network of contacts and experience in the region."

But there are other top managers who have seen their funds fall more than other, less experienced and renowned managers over the past year. By taking over the reins of Bolton's Special Situations fund, Sanjeev Shah was always going to have a tough job matching performance.

Darius McDermott, the managing director of Chelsea Financial Services, says: "Shah had run Fidelity UK Aggressive successfully and then had a couple of years running European funds. His first year running Special Situations placed him in the top 10 per cent of UK managers."

However, over the past 12 months, Shah's fund is down around 10 per cent, faring worse than other similar funds. This performance is due to a number of reasons: not owning stock in some of the more highly priced sectors, such as energy company Shell, has had an impact, as has his high exposure to Lloyds Banking Group.

Mr McDermott adds: "We continue to have faith in Shah, believing his style has not been suited to the market conditions over the past 12 or so months and that he will return to the top end of performers in the UK All Companies sector."

It has not been a good year for investors in Mark Lyttleton's BlackRock UK Absolute Alpha fund, which is down around 4 per cent. Ben Willis, the head of research at Whitechurch Securities, says the fund's lacklustre performance may be due to its size, with Lyttleton managing around £1.5bn of investors' money. Running this much can make it difficult to buy a meaningful amount in any one stock and affect the fund's performance.

Advisers agree that Felix Wintle, at Neptune Investment Management, is another highly respected manager with an excellent long-term track record. But over the past year, he is among the worst performers compared with other funds investing in North America, with his fund down more than 3 per cent. According to Mr Willis, the fund was impacted by Mr Wintle's large purchase of "defensive" stocks, such as pharmaceutical companies, at the wrong time. However, Mr Willis says: "Wintle's longer-term fund performance has been excellent and it is not unreasonable to expect a return to form and for this fund to start delivering again."

Despite these slips by top managers, it is important investors do not place too much store on short-term performance. Patrick Connolly, from independent financial advisers AWD Chase de Vere, says: "It would be wrong to assume that just because a fund manager underperforms in the short-term that they are a poor fund manager. Some very good managers have performed poorly in the short-term when their investment style is out of favour. It is better to judge fund managers over a longer period."

On the other side of the coin, some less prominent fund managers are now being tipped as rising stars. Ariel Bezalel, the manager of the Jupiter Strategic Bond fund, has proven adept at seeking out the best opportunities within global debt markets. Mr Willis says: "We have invested with Bezalel for over two-and-a-half years and the manager has produced some truly excellent returns over the period."

Another manager who has flourished is Julie Dean, who runs a few funds including Cazenove UK Opportunities. Mr Willis says: "We have been impressed with the investment process and results of Dean's management of the Cazenove UK Opportunities for some time. Recently her reputation was further enhanced as Cazenove appointed her co-manager on both its UK Growth & Income and UK Absolute Target funds as of July this year. Since being appointed she has already made a positive impact on both funds."

While keeping an eye on these rising stars, though, investors would do well to remember that established and renowned managers have built their reputation on past successes, and should not be dismissed for recent lagging performance.

Emma Dunkley is a reporter at citywire.co.uk

Expert View

Adrian Lowcock, Bestinvest

'Stock markets are unpredictable and there will be periods where even the star fund managers will not consistently perform. Indeed, some of the very best managers will often have times where they disappoint – this does not mean that they have lost their skills, but that the market may not be behaving rationally, and that they are looking through the noise.'