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.

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