Fund managers who called oil debacle say they’ll stay away for years

NEW YORK: A number of mutual fund managers who dumped their shares in energy companies before oil slid to 12-year lows now see themselves avoiding the sector for years to come rather than picking up shares trading at their cheapest levels in years.

Their continued pessimism contrasts starkly with a more bullish attitude among analysts in the most recent poll by Thomson Reuters. That early January poll showed analysts expecting the price of Brent crude to average $52.50 a barrel this year, or about 70 percent more than Monday’s trading price near $31 a barrel.

On Jan. 4, the day Reuters published the poll, Brent settled at $37.22. A total of 28 diversified mutual funds are now avoiding energy stocks entirely, up from 17 funds at the end of 2014, according to Lipper data, even though diversified funds typically would hold some shares of the sector that makes up 6 percent of the S&P500.

Graham Tanaka, portfolio manager of the Tanaka Growth Fund, sold all his energy stocks in early 2015, partly because he expects innovations in fracking technology will keep the market oversupplied for the foreseeable future. At the same time, technological improvement allows companies to produce oil at lower and lower prices, making it easier to bring mothballed rigs back on line quickly, he said.

His decision to sidestep the 30 percent decline in the S&P 500 Energy sector over the last 12 months was one reason why his fund has outperformed the broad index by 7.5 percentage points over that time. Some energy stocks, such as Chesapeake Energy Corp and Marathon Oil Corp, are down more than 28 percent for the year to date.

He is not close to buying back in, he says, because even after the steep drops, investors remain too optimistic for quick recovery.

“If most people still think oil is going to go to $50, then we’re going to see further downside. We might have to wait until expectations get down to $20 and it’s clear that nobody wants these companies before we move back in” Tanaka said.

It is unusual, but not unprecedented, for diversified fund managers to completely avoid one sector, said Todd Rosenbluth, director of mutual fund research at S&P Capital IQ. Funds typically need exposure to at least six of the 10 market sectors to be considered diversified, he said. At the same time, the dwindling market caps of energy companies now means they account for just 1.3 percent of the weighting of the S&P 500 Growth index, he said.

“Energy has become a value sector and even some of those managers don’t want to take on the risk,” he said.

Some funds avoid energy exposure as a matter of course. The Polen Growth fund, for instance, has not owned any energy stocks since it launched in 2010 because even well-run energy companies are ultimately dependent on the price of a commodity that is hard to forecast, said portfolio manager Daniel Davidowitz. The Jensen Quality Growth fund, meanwhile, has not owned energy stocks in over 10 years because they have not passed the fund’s screens that focus on consistent earnings growth, said co-portfolio manager Eric Schoenstein.

Even some managers who would typically buy energy say that now is not the time. Robert Watson of the Destra Focused Equity fund said that, with the US business cycle nearing the end of its expansion from the depths of the Great Recession, energy stocks likely will not recover until after the next recession.

Bob Doll, portfolio manager of the large-cap blend Nuveeen Concentrated Core fund, has not owned energy stocks since his fund launched in 2013 because of the rising level of oil supply. He is not going to move back in until global economic growth improves significantly, even if that means missing the bottom with oil prices, he said. “It is not about time, it is about fundamentals changing,” he said.

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