But not all advisors have been seduced.The study of absolute return funds might be likened to quantum physics. Just as you can't determine a particle's momentum and its position at the same time, you also can't tell which way absolute return funds are going by their relationship to traditional funds or benchmarks-or even to each other.
That's the not-so-complimentary view among critics and, increasingly, the media. But the trend will not be stopped, and a slew of these funds are hitting the shelves anyway (there are 101 funds classified as "absolute return" in Lipper's database. Eleven of these have launched just this year, says the company, and only 16 or so have been around long enough for five-year track records). Morningstar despairs altogether of creating a category since these funds all pursue such radically different investments. Instead, the Chicago fund monitor shunts varying absolute return funds into such categories as "nontraditional bonds" and "long-short" categories.
Critics put it more acidly: "They're black boxes. No one knows what they're getting into," says financial advisor Robert Schmansky, the founder of Clear Financial Advisors in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. "The idea behind these funds is that they can turn over their entire portfolio strategy on a dime. So while we're looking at what appears to be a solid, backwards-looking strategy, tomorrow's strategy could be something entirely different." He also believes many of the companies hawking these products now were poor performers to begin with. "Some of them were at the core of the mutual fund scandals," he says.
Liken the absolute return idea to a Disneyland ride. While everybody else in the market rides a stomach-churning Space Mountain roller coaster, absolute return funds aim to slowly rise above cash-offering a smooth funicular cable car trip up the mountain, as well as buoyancy when everything else is crashing into the river. Lipper refers to them as "mutual, pension or insurance funds that aim for positive results in all market conditions." They only have to do better than cash.
But that's just a goal, not an asset class, which is why so few absolute return funds look alike. Pimco launched one last year with investments in global credit sectors. Eaton Vance has five different funds, pursuing varying ideas from global macro to methodical option sales of the S&P 500. The Dreyfus Global Absolute Return Fund invests in global equity, bonds and currencies through long and short holdings in options and futures and forward contracts.
Because managers in these funds can go anywhere and often short securities, these are sometimes called poor man's hedge funds-or worse yet, marketing stunts, offering a promise already inherent in a cheaper, simpler, less-opaque asset: a bond.
"Absolute return as a starting point, it's a goal, it's not an investment asset class or investment type, so there are a lot of ways of going at that goal," says John Rekenthaler, head of fund research at Morningstar Inc. in Chicago. "What's more, it's a fuzzy goal. Because it's not achievable, technically. If we take absolute returns to mean making a profit every month, or even every quarter, you can't do that with risky assets. If you really want absolute return, you buy Treasurys. None of these funds do turn out a profit every month in a row or every quarter. The only way to do that, besides being in Treasurys, is to have Madoff next to your name."
He says that if you compared these funds to more traditional styles, they often come up short. He takes for example two Putnam funds, the Absolute Return 500 and 700 funds (named for their basis point targets over cash). While the 700 fund's appealing three-year return of 6.4% (as of late July) bests cash and maybe even other absolute return strategies, it wouldn't beat the typical 60/40 fund in the past three years, which on its stock/bond wings falconed back with 11% annual returns, he says.
Critics have, incidentally, called Putnam's marketing strategy questionable-of a 100, 300, 500 or 700 basis point return over cash, why wouldn't investors simply go with 700, asked advisor Dan Moisand of Moisand Fitzgerald Tamayo LLC in a Financial Advisor online column (not mentioning Putnam by name). The idea seems gimmicky, critics say, and reaffirms their worst notions of the whole category.
"Advisors need to seriously assess how likely it is that the potential result [of these funds] will be good enough to overcome the added complications, added risks, added costs, tax inefficiency etc.," Moisand added in an e-mail interview. "We think it is downright unlikely."