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Sam Subramanian

Mutual Funds: What Investors Need to Know About Morningstar Fiduciary Grades

Sam Subramanian PhD, MBA

Morningstar is now providing Fiduciary grades on mutual funds. How are these grades determined? How can investors benefit from these grades?

Mutual funds investors use Morningstar Rating™ as a sign post of mutual fund performance. These ratings have proved to be a valuable tool for objectively comparing the performances of different mutual funds.

In 2003, New York Attorney General, Elliott Spitzer launched actions against some mutual fund companies for allowing their privileged clients to profit from improper activities such as late trading.

In the aftermath of these developments, investors realize that they need more than the historical performance based Morningstar Ratings to evaluate mutual funds. The Morningstar Ratings do not get at critical intangibles such as how seriously the mutual fund company takes its fiduciary responsibility to mutual fund investors.

To address this need, Morningstar has embarked on a system called the Fiduciary Grade. Morningstar has so far graded about 635 mutual funds, including 500 of the largest ones. Morningstar plans to provide Fiduciary Grades for a total of 2000 mutual funds over time.

The Basics of the Morningstar Fiduciary Grade System

The Morningstar Fiduciary Grade is based on the evaluation of five areas critical for mutual fund governance and operations. Morningstar generally assigns to mutual funds points ranging from 0 (Very Poor) to 2 (Excellent) in increments of 0.5 for each of these five areas.

1. Regulatory Issues: Morningstar examines if the mutual fund company has had any regulatory issues within the past three years. If so, what corrective action has the mutual fund company implemented? Unlike the other four areas, the minimum score here can be a minus 2.

2. Board Quality: Morningstar looks for a demonstrated track record of the mutual fund board protecting the mutual fund investor's interests. Mutual funds get kudos if their independent directors invest in the mutual funds.

3. Manager Incentives: This score is based on Morningstar's evaluation of mutual fund ownership and compensation structure. Mutual funds where the fund's manager owns a meaningful stake in the fund score high on the fund ownership dimension. A compensation structure that rewards the mutual fund manager for long-term mutual fund performance is favored.

4. Fees: Mutual funds are rewarded for having expense ratios lower than that of their peers and for effectively reducing their expense ratios with growth in their assets.

5. Corporate Culture: Morningstar looks for tangible evidence that the mutual fund company takes its fiduciary responsibility seriously. Among the factors Morningstar considers are softer issues like whether the company closes mutual funds when they get too large and whether the company starts trendy mutual funds to garner assets.

The points scored on each of the above areas are aggregated and the Fiduciary Grade is assigned based on the total: A=9-10, B=7-8.5, C=5-6.5, D=3-4.5, F=2.5 or less.

How Investors Can Use the Morningstar Mutual Funds Fiduciary Grade

Here are some ways investors can use the Morningstar Fiduciary Grade.

"The first step for buy and hold mutual fund investors is to examine how mutual funds held in their portfolio stack up on the two dimensions, Morningstar Rating and Fiduciary Grade. The utility of the Morningstar Fiduciary Grade will be significantly enhanced if superior Fiduciary Grade either by itself or in combination with the Morningstar Rating becomes a better indicator of superior future performance."

1. Buy and Hold Investors: The first step for buy and hold mutual fund investors is to examine how mutual funds held in their portfolio stack up on the two dimensions, Morningstar Rating and Fiduciary Grade.

Mutual funds that rank favorably on both dimensions may be retained and those that rank unfavorably on both dimensions may be replaced by ones that rank favorably.

For mutual funds that rank favorably in one dimension but not in the other, the answer is not clear-cut. Retaining a fund with strong Morningstar Rating but lower Fiduciary Grade is a matter of personal choice. Conversely, a mutual fund's Fiduciary Grade may be satisfactory but the Morningstar Rating may be unfavorable. This may just be a case of the mutual fund manager going through a temporary bad patch. Investors have to weigh these factors along with tax consequences before deciding to sell a mutual fund.

Given the number of mutual funds available, investors seeking new mutual funds to add to their portfolio should in general have no trouble in finding mutual funds with favorable Morningstar Rating as well as Fiduciary Grade.

2. Tactical Asset Allocators: A tactical asset allocator uses an active investment strategy and typically invests in mutual funds such as sector funds. For example, AlphaProfit uses its ValuM investment process to periodically alter the mix of its mutual fund model portfolios to take advantage of specific trends (e.g. rising natural gas prices, introduction of new wireless technologies).

Since tactical asset allocators seek superior performance during their mutual fund holding period, factors such as superior long-term performance which determine Morningstar Ratings are less important to them. However, these investors typically seek to own mutual funds within a single family such as Fidelity Investments for purposes of administrative ease. As such, these investors will find the Fiduciary Grade useful in evaluating and choosing mutual fund families to implement their strategies.

Our Take on the Morningstar Fiduciary Grade System

The Fiduciary Grade system is a blend of several metrics. The grading of mutual funds on regulatory issues is backward looking rather than a prognosticator of potential future trouble. The grading system includes a quantitative dimension in mutual fund fees. Also included are qualitative dimensions such as mutual fund corporate culture, manager incentives, and board quality.

The Mutual Fund Fiduciary Grade ranking provides mutual fund investors with much needed insight on the governance and operations of mutual funds. The Morningstar Fiduciary Grade System is a good first step. We believe Morningstar will refine the Mutual Fund Fiduciary Grade system over time, just as they refined the Morningstar Ratings system.

While Morningstar Ratings do an excellent job of objectively evaluating past performance, financial markets by their very nature do not allow the investor to predict future performance based on these ratings alone. Many times, funds with Morningstar Ratings of 4- or 5-star do not live up to their expectations.

The utility of the Morningstar Fiduciary Grade will be significantly enhanced if superior Fiduciary Grade either by itself or in combination with the Morningstar Rating becomes a better indicator of superior future performance. We believe the Morningstar Fiduciary Grade has the potential to become a worthy metric of mutual fund stewardship over time.

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Related Links:
Mutual Funds Newsletter
Mutual Fund Basics: Analyzing Mutual Fund Returns
Best No Load Mutual Funds: Looking at Mutual Fund Fees and Expenses the Right Way


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