NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Just because big-bank stocks have been struggling doesn't mean investors should avoid the financial sector, says Andrew Sleeman, manager of the Mutual Financial Services Fund (TFSIX), who is bullish on insurance stocks.The $405 million mutual fund, which garners four of five stars from Morningstar ( MORN), has returned 15% over the past year, putting it in Morningstar's 15th percentile for financial funds. During the past 10 years, the Mutual Financial Services Fund has risen an annual average of 3.6%, placing it in the 26th percentile. Welcome to TheStreet's Fund Manager Five Spot, where America's top mutual fund managers give their best stock picks and views on the market in a five-question format. Financials have lagged the broader stock market this year. What are your expectations for the sector in the second half? Sleeman: When you have a challenging economic situation as we do here in the United States as well as in Europe, then financial stocks will generally be under pressure. That said, there are still financial stocks worth buying in areas like the property-and-casualty insurance space. We think interest rates are going to rise, which will benefit the life insurers in the back half of the year. What is so attractive to you about reinsurers such as RenaissanceRe (RNR), PartnerRe (PRE) and Validus (VR)? Sleeman: As we move into a riskier world, we see that these guys understand risk very well and are able to price for that risk. We've started to see it in the property catastrophe area, where unfortunately we've seen quite a lot of tragic events in the last 12 to 18 months. We're starting to see prices move up and we think those three names should be able to benefit very well. What does MetLife (MET) do well that other insurers don't? Sleeman: MetLife is one of the best life insurance franchises in the world. Their acquisition of Alico in Japan enables them to diversify the risk in their portfolio and without a great deal more investment exposure. We are quite bullish on life insurers because we think interest rates are bound to rise over the next few years, and life insurers should be able to get better investment returns on their assets. So we own a fantastic franchise with a creative transaction that hasn't been priced in and possibly better fundamentals as we move forward.
Why do you see a positive result for the merger between Deutsche Borse and the New York Stock Exchange (NYX) ? Sleeman: There are significant synergies. You've got two very interesting franchises. Both not only have equities exposure but Deutsche Boerse is also strong in fixed-income, currency and options trading. Putting those two businesses together creates a global franchise that's unsurpassed. If you are wary of the big banks, why are you still positive on PNC (PNC)? Sleeman: Smaller banks and the banks with less-complicated business models like PNC won't be under as much regulatory pressure as some of the big guys that have to hold additional regulatory capital. It's a solid bank with a fairly simple story. -- Reported by Gregg Greenberg in New York.
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