When big tech stumbles, the market can fall hard. These 5 funds can help.

  • By Reshma Kapadia,
  • Barron's
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It is possible to have too much of a good thing. After riding five megacap technology stocks to new highs after new highs, investors’ portfolios may be uncomfortably concentrated in these winners at a time that some strategists see a potential turn ahead in the markets.

Owning the Big Five— Apple (AAPL), Microsoft (MSFT), Amazon.com (AMZN), Facebook (FB), and Alphabet’s Google (GOOGL)—has been lucrative: These companies have logged gains of 125% to 245% since the beginning of 2019. These stocks are widely held, not just by index investors, but also among all kinds of active fund managers—including those who don’t typically own growth companies.

Together, the five companies account for almost 22% of the S&P 500 index (.SPX). Of course, the Nifty Fifty stocks dominated the 1970s, and blue-chip stalwarts such as IBM (IBM) and AT&T (T) ruled the 1980s. Those companies may have wielded even more influence over the broad economy than today’s biggest companies do, but the level of market concentration is higher now, and the Big Five’s impact on the broad market is much greater because of their size, according to Howard Silverblatt, senior index analyst at S&P Dow Jones Indices. Apple and Microsoft are the first U.S. stocks whose market values have soared past $2 trillion. Though it has slipped a bit this year, Apple hit peak concentration for a single stock in the S&P 500 last year at about 7%, higher than IBM’s in its heyday.

There are signs that investor appetite for risk is waning, which could hurt the prospects for the growth of Big Tech. There has been a selloff in speculative corners of the market, such as cryptocurrencies and special purpose acquisition companies, better known as SPACs. And, of course, there is the rising consternation about both inflation and interest rates moving higher. If the Big Five slow down or tumble, the entire market—including all index investors—will feel it. If these stocks decline by 10%, for instance, in order for the S&P 500 to keep trading flat, the bottom 100 stocks in the index would have to rise by a collective 75%, according to Goldman Sachs. This dynamic explains why narrow market breadth has often preceded big losses.

Investors’ portfolios are chock-full of these stocks, leaving them less diversified for a possible turn in the market. These companies are already beginning to slow down. Take Amazon, which accounts for roughly 4% of the S&P 500—more than the energy, real estate, materials, or utilities sectors. Amazon hasn’t hit an all-time high this year, and has underperformed the S&P 500 by 25 percentage points since September 2020 amid questions about the company’s e-commerce growth. Add in regulatory pressure, which could make the path ahead for these companies rockier, such as a House panel’s approval of sweeping legislation last month that could curb the dominance of companies like Google and Facebook.

A global recovery could also make the Big Five stocks less special. “The story line with megacap tech stocks has been that economic growth has been hard to find and rates so low that you wanted to own powerful growth stocks,” says Scott Opsal, director of research at Leuthold Group. “But for those who think the economy has room to run, you don’t have to pay up for the growth that investors were willing to pay for in 2018 or 2019.” For Opsal, the changing backdrop is reason for a barbell approach, owning some of the technology winners but also diversifying into a wider array of more value-oriented and smaller stocks.

With the market so concentrated in a handful of megacap tech stocks, Opsal says that investors may want the type of funds that do what the fund consultants advise against: be willing to drift out of their lane, and be willing to not fit neatly into a growth or value category.

It isn’t easy finding good fund managers with the acumen to pick the right stocks beyond the other 495, the grit to avoid the crowd, and the track record that demonstrates to investors that they can be different and correct. Performance doesn’t look all that great for managers whose wariness led them to own less of the technology darlings that drove the market to highs over the past several years. And the decision to not own any—or even just less—of these companies sometimes pushed managers out of their Morningstar category into areas like large-cap blend.

High active share has often been a go-to gauge for finding fund managers who look different than their benchmarks. That’s a good place to start, but different doesn’t always lead to outperformance, so Morningstar strategist Alec Lucas recommends understanding what is in the managers’ portfolios and the thinking behind the picks—as well as when they buy or sell the stocks.

Barron’s looked for large-cap growth-oriented managers that don’t usually stick too close to an index and have long, and strong, track records. We turned up both diversified and concentrated funds; some didn’t own any of the Big Five, while some owned a bit, albeit less than their peers. All may offer investors a way to tweak rather than overhaul their portfolios, giving them some more diversification while still tapping into large, growing companies.

A concentrated approach

The Akre Focus fund (AKREX) falls into the concentrated bucket. It owns about 20 well-managed companies that the managers, John Neff and Chris Cerrone, think are superior businesses and adept at reinvesting in the companies. The fund has just a 4% turnover, so it holds on to its investments for years. That has been a winning long-term strategy: Akre Focus has an 18% average annual return over the past decade, beating 84% of its peers.

The past few years have been tough, though: The fund hasn’t owned the Big Five, and has just 13% of its assets in any kind of technology company, whereas most of its peers have close to a third in tech. It has averaged 22% annually over the past three years; not too shabby on an absolute basis, but landing it midpack among competitors. The managers are resolute in finding growth elsewhere. “They are tremendous businesses, but how many more times can they double in value, given their current size? Maybe many times, but it’s an important question,” says Neff. “We’ve generally focused on smaller businesses with ostensibly longer runways with which to compound.”

The tech investments that the managers have made are largely in software companies like Constellation Software (CNSWF), Adobe (ADBE), and CoStar Group (CSGP) that have long paths to growth ahead of them as more companies rely on their products. The fund also looks for companies with the type of “network effect” that makes Google and Amazon attractive—the business model gets stronger as more people use it, and makes the company that much harder to replace. Top holdings like Mastercard (MA) and Visa (V) fit that description.

Many of the companies the duo favors are positioned to hold up, stand out, or even benefit from difficult times, like auto-parts retailer O’Reilly Automotive (ORLY), which recently reported its best comparable same-store sales in 25 years. Given the market backdrop, co-manager Neff says they aren’t finding that many bargains today—and they are willing to hold cash if that continues. Today, cash sits at just 2%. “We frankly wish we had more cash than we do today,” Neff says. “We’re not bearish, but we think we will be presented with better opportunities.”

Underappreciated growth

The $10.1 billion Primecap Odyssey Growth fund (POGRX) hunts for companies with above-average earnings growth, but not one of the Big Five tech stocks can be spotted in their top 10 holdings.

That underweight has been painful; the fund’s 19.6% annual average return over the past five years puts it in the bottom third of large growth funds. But the managers’ willingness to stick with companies with above-average growth for the long haul, often adding to their shares in downturns, wins them fans.

The fund’s managers are investing in some of the broad trends driving the Big Five—like e-commerce and cloud computing—but doing it differently, says Morningstar’s Lucas. For example, the fund owns Alibaba Group Holding (BABA) instead of Amazon, opting for China’s version of an e-commerce and cloud-computing giant that also trades at a meaningful discount to the U.S. company, Lucas says. Primecap declined to comment.

About 18% of the fund is invested outside the U.S. and its average price/earnings ratio is 20, cheaper than the 29 for the large growth category, according to Morningstar. Though the fund isn’t concentrated in the Big Five tech stocks, it has double the stake in healthcare, almost 30% of assets, than other large growth funds. Its top 10 positions include Eli Lilly (LLY), Biogen (BIIB), Abiomed (ABMD), and Amgen (AMGN).

Lean profit machines

The $10.3 billion Jensen Quality Growth (JENSX) focuses on companies that generate 15% return on equity for 10 consecutive years—a metric that co-manager Eric Schoenstein sees as a gauge for foundational excellence and fortress-like competitive advantages. Amazon and Facebook don’t make the cut. Alphabet, Microsoft, and Apple rank among the top holdings, but Schoenstein holds roughly a third less than in the Russell 1000 Growth index (.RLG). Schoenstein says he is trying to be conscious of the risk of concentration if the momentum trade reverts or regulation puts a target on these companies’ backs.

Schoenstein’s caution and a focus on quality companies have pushed the fund toward the bottom decile of the large blend Morningstar category year to date, with a return of 11.6%. But the fund’s 17.3% average return over the past five years puts it in the top 35% of large-blend funds tracked by Morningstar. Plus, the fund’s risk-adjusted, long-term performance stands out, losing about 77% as much as the S&P 500 and Russell 1000 Growth indexes when stocks have fallen since Schoenstein began co-managing the fund in 2004, according to Morningstar.

Lately, Schoenstein has been adding to quality stocks that may not be growing as fast but are more attractively priced as investors have left them behind, such as Starbucks (SBUX)—a stock that had been too pricey until the pandemic hit. “What better business is there to be in than branded addiction?” Schoenstein asks.

While offices in New York City may not get to 100% occupancy, Schoenstein sees hybrid work situations continuing to drive business to Starbucks, potentially with fewer customers but higher sales, as one person buys for multiple people. The company is also closing stores to become more efficient and moving more toward quick-serve and grab-and-go in some locations rather than an all-day café experience.

Insurance is another area that Schoenstein has been adding to, with companies like Marsh & McLennan (MMC), which is dominant in multiple businesses—insurance brokerage, health benefits, and retirement asset management with Mercer. Switching costs are high in the world of insurance, and the company benefits from new trends in cybersecurity and data privacy, as well.

Another recent purchase: Data-analytics provider Verisk Analytics (VRSK), which serves property and casualty insurers and gets about 80% of its revenue from subscriptions and long-term agreements. The company helps take raw data and analyze it to help insurers, for example, underwrite policies. Says Schoenstein: “Some recovery is still needed because business has struggled over the past year, with business failures and companies putting [projects] on hold. So, it’s a small position, but I think about companies that are super-entrenched with their customers.”

Multiple managers

Unlike the Jensen and Akre funds, which typically own 20 to 30 stocks, the $87 billion American Funds Amcap fund (AMCPX) is well diversified, with more than 200 holdings, as managers hunt for the best ideas regardless of size. Abbott Laboratories (ABT), Broadcom (AVGO), EOG Resources (EOG), and Mastercard are top holdings along with four of the megacap tech quintuplets.

But the fund is valuation-sensitive, and its allocation to the Big Five is lower than other growth managers, hurting its performance over the past five years; its average annual return of 17.3% puts it in the bottom decile of performance. For investors looking for diversification, the fund is a relatively cheap option—charging an expense ratio of 0.68%—that isn’t beholden to a benchmark and is run by multiple managers who can hunt for their highest-conviction ideas.

Managers favor companies with strong competitive positioning, which can allow companies to boost prices and better weather near-term inflationary periods. While that includes a healthy helping of healthcare and technology stocks, managers have also gravitated toward cyclical growth companies, including semiconductor firms, travel-related companies, auto suppliers, retailers, and financials benefiting from secular growth as well as getting an additional boost from the Covid recovery.

“It’s very consistent, and a good core fund with a lot of good stockpickers behind it,” says Russel Kinnel, Morningstar’s director of manager research. “You want a fund to have some good technology exposure because it’s a dynamic sector.”

Growth on the cheap

The $357 million Cambiar Opportunity fund (CAMOX) is a concentrated fund that owns roughly 40 stocks. The fund looks for relative values among industry winners that boast strong long-term demand prospects and pricing power that differentiate it from some of its peers. The fund’s 16% average annual return over the past five years helped it beat 94% of its large-value peers.

The fund holds Amazon, which it bought for the first time in early 2020 when the market wasn’t giving the e-commerce behemoth much value for its cloud business. It has been harder to own other megacap technology stocks, says Ania Aldrich, an investment principal at Cambiar. That’s in part because of their high valuations, but especially as exchange-traded funds continue to receive record-high inflows—$400 billion in the first half of 2021, versus $507 billion for all of last year, according to ETF.com—which contributes to the market concentration.

Instead, the fund has focused on areas such as financials, including JPMorgan Chase (JPM) and Charles Schwab (SCHW), that can grow in this economic environment. Both would benefit from higher interest rates, but Aldrich says that wasn’t the reason to buy the stocks. Schwab, for example, is taking market share in wealth management, and its recent acquisition of Ameritrade gives it more heft and the ability to be more cost-efficient.

Also attractive are companies that haven’t yet seen a full reopening of their businesses, like casino operator Penn National Gaming (PENN), which Aldrich says is well positioned as states look for more revenue and allow online gambling, and food distributor Sysco (SYY), which has yet to benefit from colleges and conferences getting back into full swing. While Sysco’s shares are up 43% in the past year, Aldrich sees more room for gains, noting that the company is a market leader and can take market share as smaller firms consolidate. Plus, it has pricing power to pass on higher commodity costs since it is a distributor.

Another recent addition: Uber Technologies (UBER), which Aldrich says isn’t just a reopening beneficiary but also has increased the reach of its platform by moving into food delivery and opening the door to other services. “In the past, it was hard to outperform when you weren’t involved in the [concentrated stocks], but we see these trends as transitory. As growth normalizes, the value of other stocks should be recognized.”

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