Whistling past the mutual fund graveyard for 2013

Mutual funds that are gone typically are quickly forgotten.

Fund companies count on that, killing off their mistakes, blunders, weak efforts, their marketing miscalculations and the hallmarks of their ineptitude.

But investors who forget those errors of the past may be condemned to live them again, as the fund industry almost never comes up with something new, but rather recycles old ideas over and over.

The market's strong performance in 2013 allowed death to take a bit of a holiday, as the number of liquidations for traditional funds and exchange-traded funds was down, as was the count of funds that were merged out of existence.

No one is shedding tears for these departed efforts - a mix of the uninspired, goofy, mediocre and unloved that deserved the big dirt nap - but some of them created legacies or lessons that investors should remember. With that in mind - and in the spirit of year-end retrospectives about famous people who died in the past 12 months - let's dip into the dead pool for tales from the fund crypt.

Among the funds that passed in 2013:

• Leeb Focus, which proved to be a bad bet for nervous investors. Shareholders liked what celebrity manager/author Stephen Leeb wrote in his 2008 book The Coming Economic Collapse . Fortunately for the rest of us, the economy was pretty much done collapsing by the time the book came out; the fund, on the other hand, had merely begun its descent into hell.

From its launch in 2006 through its death in late June, the fund lagged 98 percent of its peers.

• Tilson Focus , another example of a celebrity manager/talking-head expert proving that playing the game is different from analyzing it. Money manager Whitney Tilson is known for poipular books, television appearances and a newsletter; a hedge-fund manager, he opened a two-fund family that appealed to his fans.

There was Tilson Focus, a laggard he ran himself, and Tilson Dividend, run by an outside manager, perhaps explaining why it had good performance. Focus liquidated in June; with Tilson out of the fund business, the dividend fund was re-christened Centaur Total Return (TILDX) in November, named for its long-time sub-adviser.

• Compak Dynamic Asset Allocation Fund reinforced the same point about celebrity. Liquidated in July, it was a small fund-of-funds co-managed by Moe Ansari, a syndicated radio host who talks a good game but who could not overcome high costs and mediocre performance.

• FCI Value Equity Fund liquidated in September under the delusion that the problem was conditions in the fund industry. According to its liquidation notice, the board of this fund noted "the Fund's small size and the increasing costs associated with advising a registered investment company" as its reasons for shutting down. Of course, size might not have been an issue if the fund hadn't lagged more than 95% of its peers over the last five years, including at least two 12-month periods that should have sent investors scurrying for life rafts before this ship sank.

• Mitchell Capital All-Cap Growth was dead-on-arrival, if not sooner. This fund only opened in March of 2013, and it was gone seven months later "due to the adviser's business decision that it no longer is economically viable to continue managing the Fund because of the Fund's small size, the increasing costs associated with managing the Fund, and the difficulty encountered in distributing the Fund's shares." Sadly, it's not an uncommon tale. Management should have recognized the hurdles it faced before starting the race, but a lot of small money managers don't; they figure a fund will be a boost to the firm's image, and it's only after they open - when the money does not gush in - that they realize their mistake and kill the fund.

• Guggenheim MSCI Equal Weight, S&P MidCap 400 Equal Weight, and S&P SmallCap 600 Equal Weight proved that sometimes management doubts its own thinking. Guggenheim has been the champion of equal-weight indexing, where the holdings are amassed evenly rather than, for example, giving the most weight to the biggest stock in the index.

The concept has merit, and has shown such particularly this year, but Guggenheim gave up on issues that simply hadn't gathered sufficient assets after 18 months. That should have shaken investors just a bit; if a fund company won't stick to its principles and keep running money in a style it believes in, you have to wonder how long to hang onto it during times when that strategy doesn't look so hot.

• Equinox Abraham Strategy, Equinox Absolute Return Plus Strategy, Equinox Eclipse Strategy, Equinox John Locke Strategy, Equinox QCM Strategy and Equinox Tiverton Strategy all shuttered in December, with less than $750,000 in assets between them. The largest of these issues had $600,000 meaning the other five averaged about $25,000, which is noteworthy because that was the minimum investment amount for the funds.

That would certainly suggest that some of these funds were only able to attract one investor. Of course, investors might expect that one shareholder to be the fund's manager - and there's always something positive to be said about managers who have skin in the game. Unfortunately, the paperwork on these funds shows that management didn't put money into these funds, and when management doesn't trust its start-ups enough to seed them, it's no wonder they don't grow.

• Huntington Income Equity, which was combined with another fund when a merger-suicide would have been more appropriate. The problem here was not that Income Equity, a laggard, died, it's that it was merged out of existence by having its assets thrown into

Huntington Dividend Capture. That fund (HDCAX) is in the bottom five percent of its peer group for the year, according to Morningstar, and trails more than 80 percent of the category for the last decade.

Killing off both funds would have helped shareholders more than murdering the one fund but saving the other.

• TEAM Asset Strategy proved that there's a difference between "poor performance" and "making you poor." Management at TEAMX gave an honest reason for their liquidation this summer, saying they were making the move "because of a decline in assets due to continued poor performance and significant redemptions."

But "poor performance" typically is a few points below the peer group or being down near the bottom of the performance category; in a year when the market reached record levels and a blind monkey with darts could have picked winners out of the stock tables, TEAMX was so bad that it was off the performance charts.

By the time it liquidated, the fund was off roughly 75 percent this year.

Chuck Jaffe is senior columnist for MarketWatch. He can be reached at cjaffe@MarketWatch.com or at Box 70, Cohasset, MA 02025-0070.

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