Mutual fund company is banking on meaningless facts

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Mutual funds aren't horses. You don't pick them by name, color or by the celebrity who is involved in the ownership group.

Yet two recent stories making headlines in the fund business make it clear that irrelevant details distract some people. The two stories have a common moral, a lesson that amounts to: "Keep your eye on the ball."

To see why that is, let's go behind the headlines and determine how the news translates to the bottom line for an investor.

FOR THE RECORD - A reference in Charles Jaffe's column in Sunday's business section should have referred to the American funds surpassing Fidelity for the top spot in assets under management, not the American Century funds.
The Sun regrets the errors.

The first news story involves the world's top cyclist, seven-time Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong, teaming with American Century Investments to create the LiveStrong funds.

The second story broke the news that the American Century funds had surpassed Fidelity to take the top spot in assets under management, a move that purportedly shifts the center of the mutual fund universe from Boston to Los Angeles.

Both stories make for good conversation but lousy investing.

American Century took an interesting step in riding tandem with Armstrong; it will open the LiveStrong funds in May.

The new funds will be designed to let investors cruise to their finish line with one fund, so that a 25-year-old investing in the 2045 product today will have an aggressive fund that grows conservative as the retirement target date approaches.

Plenty of life-cycle funds take that approach, so it's the tie to Armstrong that's unique.

Consider that when Paul McCartney linked up with Fidelity last year, it wasn't to create a fund tied to the concept of some Beatles song. (He was back singing over Fidelity commercials recently, but it's not like he reworked lyrics to get the word "Contrafund" in there.)

Likewise, former football great Joe Montana worked with the Franklin Templeton funds a few years back (the Securities and Exchange Commission actually stopped that ad campaign), but it's not like he was fronting for the Touchdown Fund.

American Century is telling investors to "Put your Lance face on."

The link extends beyond the ads, as the multiyear deal calls for annual contributions from American Century to the not-for-profit Lance Armstrong Foundation. While specific details have not been worked out, the money will be used to promote education, advocacy and support for cancer patients.

That may make for compelling advertising, but it's no reason to invest in a fund. Life-cycle funds are an acquired taste, and can be a great choice for someone who basically wants to let someone else make all of the investment decisions; they're not right for knowledgeable investors who have built a portfolio and control their own asset allocation.

American Century is a good fund company and there is no reason to think that LiveStrong funds won't succeed. But there is also no reason to think that these will be the best funds ever within the genre.

The fund firm has to convince you that it can inspire your trust and confidence, and the affiliation with Armstrong really has nothing to do with that.

About the only celebrity whose endorsement an investor might care about would be Warren Buffett, and that's not likely to happen.

But Buffett is also living proof of why investors should not care about the city that their investment managers call home. The Oracle of Omaha, of course, is considered one of the world's best investors, but it's not like there is something in the water there to make other money managers from the area any good.

In fact, the man largely considered to be the worst mutual fund manager in history, Charles Steadman, has Omaha, Neb., roots too.

If the center of the fund world has moved 3,000-plus miles west of Boston - due among many reasons to the explosive growth of the American and PIMCO funds, coupled with events like an asset decline at Putnam Investments - you're not seeing any significant change in the way the money is managed because of it.

It's not like football, where a "West Coast offense" involves more passing because the better weather allows teams to throw the ball more in the late fall and early winter. At that time of year, teams in the East tend to play more conservatively because they have to deal with weather issues.

In mutual funds, location means nothing, unless the investment objective requires management to invest only in a specific part of the country or world.

You'll find outstanding fund firms in places like Memphis, Tenn. (Longleaf), or Salt Lake City (Wasatch), and they're not well run because of the quality of the local water supply, the barbecue or the nearby skiing.

In the end, investors should focus on things that matter, not on advertising, hype or any other outside influence. Items that don't impact performance don't merit consideration.

Charles Jaffe writes for MarketWatch. He can be reached by mail at Box 70, Cohasset, MA 02025-0070.

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