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FPA Mutual Funds Not Afraid to Hold Cash

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Eric Ende, portfolio manager of FPA Perennial (FPPFX), would be considered an odd duck at most fund companies. While his typical competitors stick primarily with stocks, Ende sometimes has double-digit positions in cash. Most managers stay broadly diversified, holding stocks from a range of sectors in the S&P 500. But Ende has no interest in matching the benchmark's allocations. Recently FPA Perennial had no assets at all in financials, software, telecom and utilities.

As a result of the eccentric approach, Ende does not track the benchmark closely. Some years, the fund soars past competitors and other times it lags badly. That record can unnerve shareholders who prefer more conventional approaches. But long-term investors have been richly rewarded. During the past ten years, the fund has returned 9.7% annually, outdoing 99% of mid growth competitors, according to Morningstar.

Though he might appear unconventional, Ende is right at home at FPA. The managers of the company's six funds are a contrarian lot. Seeking to protect shareholders, the funds often hold big cash stakes and take positions that other managers might consider outlandish.

Among bond funds, FPA New Income (FPNIX) may be unique in its willingness to go against the crowd. After junk bonds crashed in 2002, the fund loaded up on discounted securities and scored big gains when markets recovered. More recently, portfolio manager Tom Atteberry has plowed his assets into high-quality short-term securities, which should prove resilient if inflation and interest rates rise.

FPA Crescent (FPACX) resembles few of its competitors in the moderate allocation category. Portfolio manager Steven Romick roams widely, buying junk bonds one year and high-quality blue-chip stocks the next. When he couldn't find bargains, Romick has held more than 40% of assets in cash.

All the FPA managers can be crochety. In speeches and shareholder letters, they have railed against Washington for mismanaging the economy. To protect shareholders from hazardous markets, the funds have all been defensive lately, keeping plenty of cash and sticking with holdings that appear to have limited downside.

Like his fellow FPA managers, Eric Ende has long taken a cautious approach. He has an extreme aversion to companies with heavy debt, and most of the 30 stocks in his portfolio have no debt at all. That is very different from typical managers who argue that effective use of debt can boost earnings. "Some investors prefer businesses that keep the pedal to the metal," he says. "We feel more comfortable with companies that have very conservative management teams. If you have lots of cash, you are not at the mercy of banks or the capital markets."
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