Spotlight on the best and worst of funds

Our list of winners and losers could help you make the right choice for your investment.

Anyone who put their money into the AXA Framlington Biotech fund a year ago has every right to be cracking open the champagne after seeing their investment rise 27 per cent. However, those that backed the SF t1ps Smaller Companies Growth would have lost almost 40 per cent.

Such a stark difference in fortunes illustrates the importance of making the right asset allocation and fund selection calls. Choose wisely and your annual investment can soar in value, but pick the wrong areas and you can just as easily see its value disintegrate before your eyes.

We have teamed up with specialists Morningstar to draw up a list of the best and worst sectors – and individual funds – over the past 12 months, consulted experts to put these performances into perspective, and identified which areas look the most promising for the coming year.

Now it's fair to say that past performance is certainly no guarantee of future returns. In fact, this point is continually drummed into investors, but such data is still important because it can give a very good indication of a fund manager's ability to deliver the goods in various market conditions.

Top sectors

Of the 34 sectors into which investment funds are categorised, 25 have made it into positive territory over the past year as far as average performances are concerned, while nine have lost money, according to Morningstar data compiled from 1 March to 28 February.

The best performers have been the UK index-linked gilts sector, which is up 20.41 per cent; UK gilts, which rose 16.25 per cent; £ corporate bond, after a 6.9 per cent increase; global bond, which went up 6.23 per cent; and the 5.23 per cent rise of £ strategic bond.

According to Patrick Connolly at AWD Chase de Vere, there are clear reasons why fixed-interest sectors have out-performed equities – although he doesn't believe this will remain the case and suggests there's already evidence of investors jumping back into equities.

"Investors have been scared to take risks," he explains. "These fears have been driven by economic concerns, particularly surrounding the eurozone."

Bottom sectors

Unsurprisingly, the Europe excluding UK sector is bottom of the class with an average loss of 7.2 per cent, but Japan (-6.06 per cent) has only done marginally better. China/Greater China comes next with a 4.5 per cent loss, followed by Japanese smaller companies (-4.22 per cent) and European smaller companies (-3.82 per cent).

According to Dennis Hall, founder of Yellowtail Financial Planning, Europe has struggled as a result of the huge uncertainty surrounding the ongoing debt crisis, while the disasters that have befallen Japan in recent years have taken their toll on manufacturing and associated supply chains.

"There have also been fears that China will experience a hard landing because its internal market isn't as strong as the one it has with trading partners," he adds. "Most of the stuff they manufacture is exported and if these countries are in recession there will be less demand for their goods."

Sector analysis

While particular sectors have risen – or fallen – in value, it's dangerous to automatically presume all the funds in an area which has, on average, risen sharply, have had good years. Similarly, there may well be individual portfolios that have done well even though the sector it's in has underperformed.

For example, even though Europe excluding UK has been the worst-performing sector over the past year, it contains funds that made decent returns. Threadneedle European Select has delivered 7.17 per cent and Allianz RCM Continental Europe is up 6.27 per cent.

The China/Greater China sector is another that's down on average figures, but which contains a number of funds that are in positive territory for the year. These include Skandia Greater China Equity, which is up 6.34 per cent, and Aberdeen Global Chinese Equity, which rose 5.19 per cent.

The sectors that have done well also contain poorly performing funds. At one end of the UK index-linked gilt sector, for example, you have the UBS Lg Dated Fxd-Int UK Plus fund delivering almost 25 per cent, while at the other sits the Premier Strategic High Income Bond, which is down 8.4 per cent.

Stand-out funds

Our data shows that funds investing in long-dated gilts and biotech companies have strongly outperformed over the past 12 months. In fact, the funds operating in these areas dominate the top 10 best-performing funds across all sectors, with stand-out performers such as AXA Framlington Biotech and Franklin Biotechnology, being up more than 27 per cent.

According to Darius McDermott, managing director of Chelsea Financial Services, long-dated gilts have done so well as a result of the volatility experienced during the summer of 2011, which was caused by the eurozone crisis and surprise ratings downgrade of the US from AAA to AA by S&P.

"Investors fled anything they perceived as risky and headed for the apparent safe havens of German bunds, the Swiss franc, Japanese government bonds, US treasuries and UK gilts," he says. "Long-dated gilts are extra sensitive to market moves in yields, and so did better than short-dated gilts."

As far as biotech is concerned, any company connected with hepatitis C has done very well in the past year, especially manufacturers being bought out by larger companies, as these are moves which have signalled good returns for shareholders, points out Mr McDermott.

"There is some concern that these companies are now overvalued though," he adds. "It's a difficult sector and IPOs have disappointed in the past so it's not the case that any old stock will do – fund managers have to pick the right ones."

So what does the future hold?

Stock markets look set to remain turbulent while yields on higher-quality corporate bonds look little better than cash, so cash is probably king for cautious investors in the current climate, according to Justin Modray, founder of website Candid Money.

"Those who find cash ISAs too dull might consider absolute-return funds but they should bear in mind these can still lose money," he says. "Funds investing in solid companies paying healthy dividends should also fare better than most in difficult markets."

Investors with longer-term horizons could also look towards emerging markets, he suggests, although they will need to stomach potentially high volatility along the way.

"Immediate prospects look a bit grim, but it's a difficult region to predict so investing and sitting tight is generally sensible," Mr Modray adds.

Markets closer to home are also likely to experience volatility, warns Andy Gadd, head of research at Lighthouse Group, who flags up continuing European unrest, the potential for further quantitative easing by the Bank of England, and elections in France and the US as key issues.

"My view is that 'risk' assets have underperformed recently, so for investors with an appropriate risk profile and investment time horizon, I believe it is appropriate to focus on investments that produce a sustainable dividend yield," he says.

Mr Gadd suggests the Thames River Distribution Fund is worth a look.

"It aims to provide good, consistent income payments plus long-term preservation of capital," he says.

"Thames River believes that the best way to achieve an attractive and reliable income is to derive it from as many sources as possible."

It's also important not to dismiss areas that have had tough times, according to Patrick Connolly at AWD Chase de Vere, who highlights the Europe-ex UK sector, which has performed poorly because of the economic problems in the eurozone and investors unwilling to take risks.

"The uncertainty around how the eurozone crisis will be resolved has impacted on share prices around the world, but particularly on European equities," he explains.

"However, many European companies continue to make consistent profits, have large amounts of cash on their balance sheets and derive a large proportion of their revenue from outside of the eurozone.

"These companies have been oversold and could now represent very good value for investors."

Dennis Hall of Yellowtail Financial Planning predicts the UK stock market is likely to do okay over the coming year as it's isolated, to some extent at least, from the problems affecting other European nations.

He also suggests the commercial property sector might be attractive on the basis of being able to deliver good rental yields.

"Commodities may struggle a bit," Mr Hall adds. "China has already stockpiled what it needs and this could affect demand."

So where does this leave investors? Well, it's clear there are likely to be winners and losers in the year ahead, so it's important not to try to time the market – or put all your money into one area, argues Jason Witcombe, a director of Evolve Financial Planning.

"We can all have our opinions but no one has a crystal ball," he says. "I would encourage investors against spending too long agonising over which sector looks best.

"Instead, they should build a diversified buy-and-hold strategy and stick with it. Rebalance it every now and again by buying more of assets that have done less well and taking gains on ones that have turned a good profit."

Independent Partners; request a free guide on NISAs from Hargreaves Lansdown

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