Can Mutual Funds Invest Like George Soros?

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- George Soros and other star hedge fund managers famously made fortunes by betting on global trends. Global macro funds can range widely, holding foreign currencies one year and U.S. stocks the next. But the macro strategy is hard to execute, and not many managers have succeeded. Most mutual funds that have tried the macro game have failed and shut their doors. For mutual funds, the strategy is particularly difficult because managers cannot use the leverage that hedge funds employ.

Now two Wall Street veterans are trying their hands with macro mutual funds, and both managers are off to strong starts. Richard Bernstein, former investment strategist of Merrill Lynch, operates Eaton Vance Richard Bernstein All Asset Strategy EARAX. Brian Singer, former chief investment officer of UBS Americas, oversees William Blair Macro Allocation (WMCNX).

In recent months, Bernstein and Singer both made a series of on-target calls. Bernstein recorded big gains with small-cap U.S. stocks, while Singer scored with Japanese equities. During the past year, Bernstein's fund returned 11.5%, outdoing 90% of its peers in Morningstar's conservative allocation category. The William Blair fund returned 13.7%, topping 97% of competitors in the multialternative category. These days the two funds are following very different approaches. Bernstein is pounding the table for U.S. stocks, while Singer is emphasizing unloved European issues.

Each December Bernstein publishes his outlook for the coming year. In 2012, he made an on-target forecast, saying that U.S. stocks would climb while the emerging markets would lag. Bernstein based his prediction on the profits picture. During the 12 months that ended in November 2012, profits of the U.S. small stocks of the Russell 2000 grew 10%, while the emerging markets declined 3%. Since then, U.S. profits have continued climbing.

Bernstein now forecasts that the U.S. will again outdo emerging markets in the coming year. In recent months, many U.S. companies have been matching or outdoing Wall Street's earnings estimates. In contrast, the emerging markets have been delivering earnings disappointments. In his mutual fund, Bernstein has 32% of assets in U.S. stocks and very little in the emerging markets. "We continue to believe that the U.S. stock market may be in the midst of one of the biggest bull markets of our careers," he says.

Bernstein says that U.S. companies are increasing profits and gaining market share because of changing cost structures. In the U.S., wages are stagnant, and energy costs are among the lowest in the world. Meanwhile, wages are soaring in China and other emerging markets. Until they develop hydrofracturing and other efficient energy techniques, the emerging markets will pay higher costs for fuel.

Bernstein says that the bull market can last considerably longer. He compares the current cycle to the giant rally that began in 1982. That earlier upturn occurred after a decade when the market went nowhere. Then as economic conditions improved, stocks rose. Until 1987, many investors remained wary, fearing a return to hard times. In recent years, investors have stayed on the sidelines because the economy has seemed weak. Bernstein concedes that there are many economic problems, but he says that stocks can rise as long as conditions are improving. He says that the bull market will continue until the economy is booming and confident investors are bidding stocks up to excessive levels.

Bernstein has 8% of his assets in high-yield municipal bonds. Those were pounded when Detroit's bankruptcy unnerved investors. Bernstein argues that high-yield municipals have become excessively cheap. He says that the sector could rebound and lead the bond markets in 2014. "While investors seem quite wary of municipals, municipal finances are generally getting stronger," he says.

Singer estimates future cash flows of countries, and he emphasizes areas that seem cheap. The William Blair fund currently has 47% of its assets in Europe. Singer says the stocks became cheap as investors worried that Europe could never emerge from recession. Now markets should rise as the European Central Bank continues boosting the economy by holding down interest rates. "Stock prices in Europe are low because investors believe that growth will be nonexistent, and the political environment is uncertain," Singer said.

Singer worries that bonds are too expensive. He is shorting bonds from Germany and Japan, betting that their prices will fall. This year the short positions have proved profitable because rates have risen in many countries. When rates rise, most bonds fall.

Whether or not Bernstein and Singer hit the mark again this year, the two funds could be intriguing long-term holdings because they provide diversification. Both portfolios have the capacity to climb when typical stock funds fall.

At the time of publication the author held no positions in any of the stocks mentioned.

This article is commentary 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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