Funds That Can Shine During Washington's Deadlock

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- With Washington lurching toward the debt-ceiling deadline, stocks have been moving erratically. Unless Congress finds a solution, markets will not settle down.

To protect your portfolio, consider a steady mutual fund that focuses on high-quality stocks. Top choices include Becker Value Equity ( BVEFX), FAM Value ( FAMVX) and Harding Loevner Emerging Markets ( HLEMX). During the turmoil of 2008, those funds outperformed peers by wide margins. Though the steady performers follow different strategies, they all focus on companies with solid balance sheets and strong niches.

While the emerging markets can be volatile, Harding Loevner delivers a smoother ride by focusing on companies that can thrive in harsh times. The portfolio managers look for stocks that can deliver above-average growth for long periods. Typical holdings have high returns on equity and little debt. During the past 10 years, the fund returned 13.1% annually, outdoing 82% of emerging markets funds, according to Morningstar.

In roaring bull markets, the high-quality strategy can lag as investors gravitate to riskier stocks. But the Harding Loevner fund has excelled in difficult markets. "Quality stocks generally outperform in downturns," says portfolio manager Rick Schmidt.

Schmidt looks for businesses that have secure niches. Such companies can grow, even in times when economies become sluggish. A favorite holding is 51job ( JOBS), which provides human resources services for Chinese companies. Besides operating a Web site that is used to recruit white-collar employees, 51job helps clients with payroll processing and tax reporting. "They will continue growing as China employs more white-collar workers," says Schmidt.

Another holding is Copa Holdings ( CPA), which operates an airline in Panama. The Panamanian airline has grown as traffic surged throughout Latin America. For many travelers, Panama serves as a key hub.

Becker Value aims to buy solid companies when they have fallen out of favor. Many holdings have above-average growth rates and below-average price-earnings multiples. During the past five years, the fund returned 15.7% annually, outdoing 69% of large value peers.

In 2009, the portfolio managers bought health insurers, including Aetna ( AET) and WellPoint ( WLP). At the time, the S&P 500 was soaring, but the health insurers were declining because investors feared that health reform would punish earnings. "We thought that health reform might hurt the insurers on the margins, but it would not decimate companies like Aetna with strong business models," says portfolio manager Marian Kessler.

Early this year, the fund bought Coach ( COH) after the handbag maker reported disappointing sales during the holiday season. While some of the company's lines flopped, sales remained strong in key markets such as China, says Kessler. Coach continues to maintain very strong returns on equity and a rock-solid balance sheet.

A low-risk choice is FAM Value. While the fund often trails peers in bull markets, it topped the average mid-growth competitor by 15 percentage points in 2008. The fund managers seek growing companies with strong cash flows. The aim is to buy when the shares sell for discounts to the fair values.

In recent years, the fund has been buying property and casualty insurers. Profits were hurt as companies lowered premiums in a bid to gain market share. But now the destructive price competition is abating as the industry moves into a cycle of rising premiums, says FAM portfolio manager John Fox. In addition, rising interest rates are boosting bottom lines. This is happening because the insurers invest much of their cash flow into bond portfolios. When rates climb, the bonds provide more income. "The companies will earn more on their assets," says Fox.

An insurance holding is Markel ( MKL). In the past, the stock has sometimes sold for 1.5 times the book value. But the shares currently trade for around 1.1 times book.

This article was written by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.

Stan Luxenberg is a freelance writer specializing in mutual funds and investing. He was executive editor of Individual Investor magazine.

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