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Kicking The Tires Of Multi-Asset Class Funds

 February 17, 2012 02:20 PM

Actively managed asset allocation products are hot. The supply is growing rapidly and there's a broad variety of strategies to choose from. The product designs range from conservative balanced funds to aggressive trading-oriented strategies and they're available in open-end mutual funds and ETF formats. But some things never change, and so it's still hard to beat a passive benchmark of all the major asset classes. That headwind alone doesn't necessarily mean that you should shun actively managed multi-asset class funds, but it's a reminder that there's no free lunch in this corner of investment products. In other words, all the standard caveats that apply to active single-asset class funds apply here. Your mission, if you choose to accept it, is figuring out if you can overcome the odds.

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One of the main hurdles with multi-asset class funds is sorting through the list and figuring out who's offering what and which strategies soar or crash. A recent Morningstar report notes that assets in ETFs that own a mix of other ETFs have grown 43% for the year through January 2012. By Morningstar's reckoning, there are 370 ETF products with $27 billion in assets in this field. The list is much longer if you include open-end mutual funds, which includes the popular target-date funds.

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There's also a lot of interest in the sub-category of tactical asset allocation funds, but definitions can get hazy. "There's much debate over what's tactical and what's not," Michael Herbst of Morningstar writes. "Unfortunately there's not yet an easy, quantitative way to identify tactical funds or classify their strategies." Herbst goes on to advise:

In many cases, you won't be able to tell what a tactical fund is actually doing to pursue its goal. Tactical funds are apt to adjust their holdings quickly and in many cases dramatically, so it's tough to know exactly what the fund owns or is exposed to at any given time. Many adjust their market exposure by taking long and short positions with derivatives such as futures, forwards, and options, as well as interest rate, credit default, and total return swaps. Derivatives themselves aren't necessarily problematic because managers can use them to adjust portfolios more nimbly and cheaply than they could by buying and selling stocks and bonds.

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