August 21, 2000
Legg Mason's Bill Miller is in a slump, and while investors are not happy, the company is hoping that a baseball analogy will help to soothe frayed nerves.
His Value Trust is trailing the S&P 500 this year, down 3.43 percent as of July 31.
"We sort of say to client[s], do you really want to fire Bill Miller? This guy has a Mark McGuire-type track record. Why are you firing this guy for four months of bad performance?" said Talbot Daley, director of Legg Mason Fund Marketing in Baltimore.
Through the end of last year, Miller's $12 billion Value Trust mutual fund had beaten the S&P 500 Index for nine consecutive years with an average annual return of 26.71 percent. Wall Street practically crowned Miller after the feat. Morningstar dubbed him "Fund Manager of the Decade."
But the new millennium has been different for Miller and many of Legg Mason's stock funds. Value Trust was down and so is his Special Investment Trust.
There has been one bright spot, however, in Opportunity Trust, Miller's new fund, which was up 4.4 percent, one of only a few Legg Mason equity funds to have positive returns this year. Overall, a total of ten of Legg Mason's 14 stock funds were down for the year.
With the poor performance has come disgruntled investors. Legg Mason's mutual funds have had $90 million in net outflows from its funds so far this year after taking in $3 billion last year, said Daley.
Daley said that $90 million is just a drop in a very large bucket and could be made up in a matter of days.
But Legg Mason has had to pay special attention to investors as they experience a sour market for the first time in a while, he said. The firm is depending on its brokers to calm frayed nerves and stop the outflows. Daley said brokers are being told to emphasize Miller's stellar track record with clients and even compare him to baseball's McGuire.
Legg Mason runs a regional brokerage through its Legg Mason Wood Walker subsidiary.
The company has also developed some innovative marketing with phony classified ads its in-house "Privileges" magazine, which it sends to its brokers. The classified ads seek long-term investors looking for the "expertise" of a financial advisor.
"We've been poking a little bit of fun at people who are chasing performance," Daley said.
Christopher Traulsen, a senior analyst at Morningstar of Chicago, says that $90 million in outflows is not something that Legg Mason should worry about, even if that all came from Value Trust. He says that Value Trust's heavy weighting in technology stocks - about 25 percent - has made it difficult for Miller this year. The Nasdaq Composite Index, which encompasses much of the technology stocks on the market, is down eight percent for the year through July 31.
"Right now those bets are working against him," Traulsen said. "Value Trust has taken it on the chin with respect to the technology holdings."
However, when people question him about Miller's performance this year, Traulsen points to Opportunity Trust, which has not only beat the S&P 500, but posted positive returns in a tough market.
"I don't see how you can say that Bill Miller has lost his touch when you look at Opportunity Trust," Traulsen said.
Opportunity Trust has a lighter technology bet than Value Trust - 11 percent - and is performing in the top half of the mid-cap blend category this year, Traulsen said.