With the market down so much over the past two years, selling a mutual fund these days is about as easy as peddling the new Eminem CD at a church social.
Weary investors don't want or need another money-losing fund. But the fund companies keep right on pitching. And some of them have come up with some creative but lame marketing gimmicks to attract investor interest.
Of course, mutual fund firms have to keep pushing their products regardless of what the market is doing. They are, after all, in the business of running and selling funds.
But if fund companies really wanted to improve their sales, they could cut their fees to attract investors back to the market. Those zero-percent financing deals worked wonders for the auto industry. Instead, some firms have resorted to some spin tactics that couldn't possibly work.
Remembering the Good Old Days
had a lot to brag about during the late-1990s bull market. Jim Callinan, manager of its
Emerging Growth fund and other portfolios, was named Morningstar's Manager of the Year in 1999. That year his aggressive growth fund was up 183%.
The firm is obviously still clinging to that memory. On the firm's
Web site, that accolade is prominently displayed. If you click on that headline, you pull up the Morningstar article announcing the two-year-old award.
And a lot has changed since then. Callinan's RS Emerging Growth fund fell more than 25% in both 2000 and 2001. This year the fund is down another 25.4%, ranking in the bottom 6% of mid-cap growth funds. (This fund closed to new investors in the spring of 2000.)
Callinan looks for small, fast-growing companies that will -- hopefully -- turn into big, fast-growing companies. But as the tech market collapsed, Callinan got stuck holding Internet duds like
. And if you look at the fund's performance, you'll see that Callinan is having some trouble finding some solid stocks.
But RS Funds is doing what it can to put a positive spin on weak performance. On the Web site, the firm crows: "Large Tax-Loss Carry Forward Benefits Available in Some RS Funds for Current and Future Investors."
Mutual funds have to distribute all net realized capital gains to shareholders every year. But losses can be used to offset any gains and reduce or eliminate any taxable distributions to shareholders. Those losses can also be carried forward for eight years.
But by pointing out that some of its funds have big tax-loss carry forwards, RS Funds is basically saying: "Our funds have lost money. But that's still a great reason to buy them."
The firm does admit on the site that "it's hard to find anything positive about a bear market." But that certainly doesn't stop this fund company from trying.
Get In While You Can
Quite often a fund that's investing in a hot sector will take in too much money too fast and be forced to close its doors to new investors. Over the past year, small-cap value stocks have been outstanding performers in an otherwise terrible market. In turn, people have been piling into small-cap funds, many of which have been forced to cut off the flood of new cash. The
Fidelity Low-Priced Stock fund is closed for the time being. The
Buffalo Small Cap fund closed in mid-April.
When a firm announces it's going to close a fund, it might give investors a week or two before the doors are actually locked -- maybe a month if the firm's being generous.
announced in late May that it's planning to close two of its funds,
Gabelli Small Cap Growth and
Gabelli ABC, on Oct. 1. That's right. October. Fall. Football season.
This sure seems like an attempt to drum up extra demand for these funds. The announcement that a fund is going to close certainly helps create the appearance that it's a hot property. But if the funds are getting too big, why not go ahead and close them now? Or wait to see how big they are a few months from now?
Maybe the firm is hoping that investors will think they have to get in these two Gabelli funds before it's too late. The two announcements have certainly gotten some extra press for the funds.
It's not unusual for a fund company to say that it will close a fund at a certain asset level. But on a certain date four months from now? That's rare. And kind of silly.
When All Else Fails, Get a Gimmick
A catchy name is an age-old way of attracting attention. Cher certainly sounds a lot better than Cherilyn Sarkisian. And some fund companies do their best to come up with the names that will draw the biggest crowds.
Mutuals.com, an investment adviser in Dallas, is planning to launch the Vice fund, which will invest in alcohol, tobacco and gambling stocks.
Now a good gimmick makes a great sales hook. But for the gimmick to work, it also needs to be narrowly focused, something you don't want in a mutual fund.
In keeping with TSC's editorial policy, Dagen McDowell doesn't own or short individual stocks, nor does she invest in hedge funds or other private investment partnerships. Dagen welcomes your questions and comments, and invites you to send them to