Asking a mutual fund manager if the market has hit bottom is a little like posing any question to a politician -- you'll get a lot of hemming and hawing, but no real answer.
But money managers who look for undervalued stocks can easily tell you if stocks are cheap enough to buy. And that's really what you want to know.
If you sit on the sidelines waiting to spot the bottom, you'll miss it, and in the meantime miss out on great opportunities to buy stocks at good prices.
The following fund managers can't or won't definitively say if the market is going straight up from here. But they can definitely talk about the cheap stocks they're finding.
Wrong but Right?
Oakmark manager Bill Nygren thought the market had reached a nadir in July. "My personal judgment was we'd seen bottom," Nygren says in his usual cool, measured voice. "It was a combination of things: The relative value of stocks to Treasuries, valuations at the company level -- stock after stock was looking attractive to us -- and the pessimism of the media."
The pessimism of the media?
"I was getting calls almost daily from reporters sayings that risk-averse investors should be looking to cut equities and add to bonds. When I would tell someone that was ludicrous, magically I wouldn't get quoted."
Nygren admits that he was wrong about July. The market did wind up breaking through those lows recently. But he still thinks now is a good time to invest. He can tick off several reasons why, including the fact that the overriding opinion in the market is extremely negative. "When you've gone so far in one direction, one opinion becomes compelling -- and it's usually wrong."
But leave it to this value manager to fall back on, well, valuations. "I just think all the indications are that this is a time you are really getting paid well to take on the risk of owning equities," Nygren adds. "We're finding many more undervalued stocks that we have room for in our portfolios."
In the past, he's certainly found some good ones. His
Oakmark Select fund, which is closed to new investors, has a five-year annualized return of 14%, making it the best-performing mid-cap value fund tracked by Morningstar. He took over as manager of the
Oakmark fund in March 2000, and despite being down 12.3% in the past 12 months, that fund ranks in the top 20% of large-value funds over that period.
In the last quarter, Nygren was snapping up stocks for the Oakmark fund that he wouldn't have touched during the boom times:
Yep. That's a tech stock.
"At its peak in 2000, Sun was $65 a share. We didn't think it was ever worth $65. But at $2.50 you don't need to have a very high number to justify owning it. We think its business value is north of $5 a share," Nygren says.
He can quickly list the reasons he likes the stock: It's a good business. Its cash is almost half its equity value. And the stock's selling at a slight premium to tangible book value. (To see what the broader fund world makes of Sun Micro,
check out this story.)
Nygren's arguments in favor of this stock and the overall market sound compelling. Let's hope he's right.
Don't Know. Don't Care
Bob Millen doesn't mince words when asked about a market bottom. "I don't know and it doesn't matter," he says. "It may not be the bottom, but it's a wonderful time to be buying companies we've been buying."
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As one of the managers on the impressive
Jensen fund, he will gladly talk about the strong companies that make up the 26-stock portfolio. And the hurdle to make it into this portfolio is high.
The managers first sift through about 10,000 publicly traded U.S. companies with returns on equity of at least 15% in
of the past 10 years. That screen cuts the list to about 100. Then they cut that list down to about 50 worth investigating. The Jensen managers come up with their own estimate of each company's worth. And the team will buy only stocks trading at a discount of at least 40% to that calculation.
Think of someone who shops only at Saks -- during blowout sales.
The result is a fund full of consistently strong growers that have held up well during the market's two-and-a-half-year rout. The Jensen fund is down just 0.2% in the past 12 months -- one of the best performances for any large-cap growth fund.
The portfolio itself isn't much different than it was three years ago. "We had 26 companies just like today. Most of them are the same," says Millen. "But back then for price reasons we could only buy nine. Today we can add to all of them."
Johnson & Johnson
, was one stock the managers were adding to the day I spoke to Millen. The fund first picked up J&J last May and it's now a top-10 holding.
The company's had 18 successive years of double-digit earnings growth. It's strong in consumer products, pharmaceuticals and medical devices. And with an eye on valuation, the stock's trading at least at a 50% discount to the company's intrinsic value, Millen says.
"It's one we've always wanted to own," says Millen. "The downdraft put it in the range where we could buy it."
And they're patient, too -- something every investor needs if you're going to ride out this volatile market.