NEW YORK (
) -- For most mutual funds, the past decade has been miserable. The
lost 0.7% of its value, on average, every year, and large-blend funds barely eked out a gain, returning 0.3%.
But some funds managed to deliver decent results. Buying stocks that many investors hated,
increased 7.2% annually, outdoing all its large-blend competitors, those that invest in growth and value shares.
, another contrarian, rose 12.3% annually. Among foreign funds, Longleaf Partners International finished near the front of the pack, advancing 7.5%.
Will those funds maintain their winning records during the next decade? Perhaps. But investors should take note that many of the leading funds have more than $1 billion in assets, and their strong records are likely to attract more cash. That will make it more difficult for veteran managers to repeat their success. Many academic studies have shown that large funds tend to lag behind small ones.
Huge funds face a handicap because it's cumbersome for them to trade. To appreciate the problem, consider
, which has $61 billion in assets. About 2% of the portfolio, or $1.2 billion, is in shares of
, the credit-card company. That's more than double the amount of the stock that trades every day. Say the shares start slipping, and Contrafund wants to exit. It could take days or weeks to complete the sale, and all the while the stock could be dropping. In contrast, a fund with $100 million in assets could sell a 2% position in an hour.
To find nimble champions, I searched for funds that had strong 10-year returns and less than $300 million in assets. My screen turned up some little-known funds that are well worth considering.
Among the most notable is
Permanent Portfolio Aggressive Growth
, which returned 3.5% annually during the past decade, outperforming 95% of large-growth funds. Manager Michael Cuggino has gained a following for his flagship fund,
, which rose 10% during the decade, beating all of its competitors in the conservative-allocation category. While the flagship portfolio has $5 billion in assets, the growth fund has remained in the shadows with only $19 million.
For the smaller fund, Cuggino seeks dominant companies that have the potential to grow for years. Once he buys, Cuggino rarely sells. The fund's annual turnover is a minuscule 3%.
Cuggino emphasizes industries that seem poised to deliver the greatest growth. While it has a big stake in software, the fund owns no utilities, since those tend to show only tepid growth.
A favorite holding is
, the giant maker of printers and personal computers. "Management has proven that it can cut costs while taking steps that will increase revenue," Cuggino says.
He also likes
. The recession has hurt revenue, but the company remains an efficient operator with an unchallenged position. Cuggino says earnings will be revived as the economy recovers.
Investors with a taste for contrarian funds should consider
, which has climbed 5.3% annually for the past decade, exceeding 95% of large-blend funds. Manager Kent Croft buys a variety of unloved shares, including shaky growth stocks and value issues that have collapsed. "When a stock sells at a big discount, we get intrigued," Croft says.
Lately, Croft has been buying timber companies. While sales of lumber and pulp have slipped during the recession, the value of timber in the ground will grow over time, Croft says. He says timber stocks sell at a discount compared to what private buyers are paying to acquire assets.
A favorite holding is
Plum Creek Timber
, a real estate investment trust that owns 7 million acres. Although sales of lumber and plywood are weak, the company remains profitable.
Croft also likes timber giant
. He says the shares sell for a 40% discount to the value of the underlying assets.
Another contrarian fund is
Federated International Leaders
, which increased 7.6% annually during the decade, thrashing the Morgan Stanley Capital International EAFE index by 6 percentage points. Veteran manager Marc Halperin favors dividend-paying stocks that have fallen out of favor.
He began buying financial stocks after they collapsed last year. That has helped the fund score big gains in 2009 as financials soared. Lately, Halperin has been investing in hotel stocks. With the global recession hurting leisure and business travel, hotel revenue has tanked. "Everybody is very negative on hotels, but we are already starting to see some signs that business travel is improving," Halperin says. "When the economic cycle turns up, hotels should be strong."
, a French company that owns Motel 6 and European luxury chains. He also holds
, a Singapore real estate company that owns hotels.
One of the most successful managers of the decade has been Nicholas Kaiser. He ranks among the handful of stars who have excelled with both domestic and foreign funds. Kaiser's
outdid 96% of large-growth competitors, and his
surpassed 95% of large-value funds. Attracting new investors, each of those funds has more than $900 million in assets.
Investors who prefer a little-known choice should consider Kaiser's
, which has $90 million in assets. The fund gained 4.9% annually, outperforming 92% of foreign large-blend funds.
Sextant favors companies with little debt that can grow consistently for years. While Kaiser likes stocks that sell for modest prices, he steers away from troubled businesses that trade at steep discounts. "If you buy very cheap things, you run the risk that they won't come back," Kaiser says.
A big holding is
, a Chilean carrier that dominates its growing home market. "This company has strong financials, and it does not face a lot of competition," Kaiser says.
Kaiser recently has been emphasizing Canadian commodity companies that stand to benefit from exports to Asia. A holding is
Potash Corp. of Saskatchewan
, a big fertilizer producer. With farmers around the globe struggling to increase production, fertilizer sales should climb for years, Kaiser says.
Stan Luxenberg is a freelance writer who specializes in mutual funds and investing. He was formerly executive editor of Individual Investor magazine.