Steady Mutual Funds That Beat the S&P 500

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Cash has been pouring into index funds of all kinds, but the biggest flows have gone to portfolios that track the S&P 500 and other large blend benchmarks.

During the past year, SPDR S&P 500 ETF (SPY) had inflows of $14 billion, while Vanguard Total Stock Market ETF (VTI) attracted $6 billion, according to IndexUniverse.com. The Vanguard portfolio now holds $307 billion when the exchange-traded fund and all the share classes of the related mutual fund are included. No other fund is that big.

Altogether more than $1 trillion is in large blend index funds and ETFs. According to Morningstar, the passive funds now account for 64% of all the assets in large blend funds. In comparison, passive portfolios are only 10% of large growth funds and 16% of large value funds.

At the same time that they have raced to index funds, investors have made huge withdrawals from actively managed large blend funds. Academic researchers support the move, arguing that most active managers trail the market over the long term. That is true enough. But there are some active large blend managers who have topped the benchmark over the long term.

Among the most intriguing winners are First Investors Growth & Income (FGINX), MFS Equity Opportunities (SRFAX) and Parnassus Equity Income (PRBLX). Can these stars continuing shining in the future? Probably. The managers enjoy an edge because they all follow unusual disciplines that have succeeded in a variety of market conditions.

Among the steadiest choices is Parnassus Equity Income. During the past 10 years, the fund returned 9.5% annually, compared with 7.2% for the S&P 500. What is particularly notable about Parnassus is that it has often excelled in both up and down markets. During the meltdown of 2008, the fund outpaced the S&P 500 by 14 percentage points. In the sharp rally of 2009, Parnassus topped the benchmark by 2 percentage points.

Portfolio manager Todd Ahlsten runs a compact portfolio of about 40 stocks. Many concentrated funds tend to be volatile, but Parnassus limits rough patches by sticking with sturdy companies that dominate niches. Instead of taking highflyers, the fund often favors steady businesses that can grow 4% to 6% a year. Ahlsten aims to buy when the shares are temporarily depressed. "We want companies that can survive recessions and grow in expansions," he says.

One holding is Xylem (XYL), a producer of water pumps and filtration systems. Ahlsten bought the shares in 2012 after soft European sales caused the stock to dip. "This is a great long-term story because water is a huge global issue," he says.

Ahlsten also owns Applied Materials (AMAT), which makes equipment used to build computer chips. The company serves growing markets, including makers of smartphones and tablets.

MFS Equity Opportunities also maintains a focused portfolio of about 40 stocks. MFS limits volatility by emphasizing high-quality stocks that command modest valuations. During the past 10 years, the fund returned 9% annually.

The MFS fund relies on two sets of analysts. A quantitative team uses computer models to search for stocks that show promising signs, such as strengthening prices and improving earnings. A second team performs old-fashioned fundamental analysis, looking for businesses that are growing and have catalysts to continue improving. The fund doesn't buy anything unless both teams agree on the purchase.

MFS portfolio manager Matt Krummell says the two groups of analysts complement each other because they often excel at different times. The quant analysts tend to do best during steady rallies. But they can miss the target when the market shifts direction and the recent past does not provide a reliable guide for future performance. While the fundamental team does better at inflection points, it can trail the quants in strong bull markets.

"By blending the two approaches, you can get steadier results across long time periods," Krummell says.

One MFS holding is FleetCor Technologies (FLT), which provides prepaid cards that can be used by truck drivers to purchase fuel and lodging. "They have a lot of international expansion opportunities," Krummell says.

Another holding is Grand Canyon Education (LOPE), which offers college degrees. By charging lower fees and offering appealing courses, the company is recruiting a growing number of students, Krummell says.

First Investors Growth & Income stays broadly diversified. The fund has 135 holdings and keeps less than 2% of assets in each stock. Portfolio manager Edwin Miska favors steady growers that sell at modest prices. The price-earnings ratio of the fund tends to be a bit below the figure for the S&P 500. During the past 10 years, the fund returned 7.5% annually.

Many of the biggest holdings are rock-solid blue chips. Miska is partial to such giant technology companies as Microsoft (MSFT) and International Business Machines (IBM). "They have good balance sheets and reasonable earnings growth," he says.

The aim is to buy stocks that can grow for years. The fund turns over only 20% of its portfolio annually, and some stocks have been in the fund for more than 10 years.

At the time of publication, the author had no position in any of the stocks mentioned.

This article represents the opinion of a contributor and not necessarily that of TheStreet or its editorial staff.

More from Mutual Funds

The 'New' Market Volatility: How to Handle it

The 'New' Market Volatility: How to Handle it

How to Pay 90 Cents for $1 Worth of Stocks Using Closed-End Funds

How to Pay 90 Cents for $1 Worth of Stocks Using Closed-End Funds

60 Seconds: What's the Difference Between an ETF and a Mutual Fund?

60 Seconds: What's the Difference Between an ETF and a Mutual Fund?

High-Flying Mutual Funds Begin to Favor Energy but Tech Still Reigns Supreme

High-Flying Mutual Funds Begin to Favor Energy but Tech Still Reigns Supreme

Mutual Funds on Track for Record Year

Mutual Funds on Track for Record Year