Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Are Morningstar Mutual Fund Analysts Taking Happy Pills? Ratings Breakdown.

UPDATE: 8/1/12 - You can see updated ratings as of 6/30/12 here.
So Morningstar has released new "Analyst Ratings" on 349 US based mutual funds as of 11/15/11. According to Morningstar
"The new scale runs from Gold, Silver, and Bronze on the positive end to Neutral and Negative. Expressed as medals, the top three tiers are reserved for funds our analyst team thinks have sustainable advantages that position them well versus peers and a relevant benchmark on a risk-adjusted basis over the long haul (at least the next five years)"

Morningstar considers Gold, Silver and Bronze to be positive analyst ratings. And obviously the other two are self explanatory. The exact definitions of each are below
Gold: Best-of-breed fund that distinguishes itself across the five pillars and has garnered the analysts’ highest level of conviction;  
Silver: Fund with notable advantages across several, but perhaps not all, of the five pillars—strengths that give the analysts a high level of conviction;
Bronze: Fund with advantages that outweigh any disadvantages across the five pillars, and sufficient level of analyst conviction to warrant a positive rating; 
Neutral: Fund that isn’t likely to deliver standout returns, but also isn’t likely to significantly underperform; and 
Negative: Fund that has at least one flaw likely to significantly hamper future performance, and is considered an inferior offering to its peers.
However, one has to question the way these ratings have been given out for this first batch of 349 funds. 

These must be the parents of Generation Z giving out these ratings because apparently they think you deserve a metal just for showing up. Of the first 349 funds rated, a full 311 or 89% received a "positive" rating deserving of a "metal". Another 30 they are indifferent about and they only have a negative view on 8 or about 2%. 

However, many studies have shown that the majority of actively managed mutual funds actually underperform their benchmarks. Below is a chart from Mclean Heuristics using data from Standard and Poor's Indices verses Active Funds Scorecard.

Clearly that is a sad showing for active managers as a whole. But lets get one thing clear.....I am NOT a supporter of index investing. In fact, I believe index investing (particularly using cap-weighted indexes) only adds to market inefficiency (but that's a rant for another day). 

However, what that chart does show is that if Morningstar was properly distributing it's ratings, it would likely be an inverted version of what they put out. With the majority falling in the "negative" category and the least falling in the "gold" category.

We'll see how the distribution of ratings turns out as Morningstar rolls out more over the next year, but so far it looks to be just as ridiculous as stock ratings given out by the industry. Analysts as a whole in the financial industry are not in short supply of happy pills. After all, Happy Sells!

Updated: 11/17/11 10:20pm ET


  1. Hello anonymous blogger: As we indicated in our press materials, because our initial focus is on the biggest and best funds, our initial coverage will skew more positively and become more balanced over time as we ramp up. It’s important to point out that under our Analyst Picks and Pans (a precursor to the Analyst Ratings), less than 3% of all funds offered in the United States qualified for an “Analyst Pick” designation. Also, some of the funds we rated are index funds, so your assertion is incorrect. As always, we’d be happy to walk you through the methodology, the performance of the Analyst Picks, or answer any questions you may have.

  2. The very fact that you have given index funds a "Gold" rating at all is kind of the point!

    You guys say the top three tiers are reserved for funds your analyst team thinks have sustainable advantages that position them well versus peers AND A RELEVANT BENCHMARK on a risk-adjusted basis over the long haul.

    It is IMPOSSIBLE for an index fund to have a sustainable advantage over the index it is tracking!! By your own definition a cheap index fund should be given the NEUTRAL rating. In fact, it fits your definition of neutral perfectly

    "Neutral: Fund that isn’t likely to deliver standout returns, but also isn’t likely to significantly underperform"

    Not only is an index fund unlikely to deliver standout is essentially guaranteed! It also isn't likely to significantly underperform...except because of some terrible sampling method or high fees.

    The reality is by your very own definitions only funds your analysts think can BEAT their indexes on a risk-adjusted basis should receive metals...which goes towards my point....only a very select group should receive "metal" ratings at all. The rest should be neutral and negative.

  3. Nice work on this distribution of "metals." Wall Street equity research got into trouble for the conflict of interest which led to every dog being "Market Perform." What do you suppose explains this distribution of ratings?

  4. @Eapen Well they claim that it is because their first batch was focused on the "biggest and best funds" and say that it will "become more balanced over time" as they ramp up the number of funds rated.

    However, a realistic look at the way they have given out these "metal" ratings should leave everyone pretty skeptical of that claim. After all, their first batch included 18 index funds (12 gold, 4 Silver, 2 Bronze, 0 neutral, 0 negative). Again how can an index fund have a sustainable advantage over the index it is tracking? That's their own requirement for a metal rating......yet not only did every index fund not get neutral as their definition would imply (or lower if it had a bad sampling method) but they ALL received 'metals'!

    I can't really speculate too much on the reasoning for this bias at this point. However, there are those that point to their advertising relationships. But I have not looked deep enough into that.

  5. Nice to see someone pointing out the weirdness of the large numbers of Gold ratings. How can so many funds be superior? On a related front, how strange is it that "Parent" is one of the "5 Pillars" of the rating scheme. It implies that the parent of a fund has an influence on its performance. It seems to be good to be a part of Fidelity or Vanguard.

    One of the other beauties of this new rating system from Morningstar's point of view is that it can be touted for years before there is any possible assessment of its reliability, Many investors never understood that the star system was not an assessment of future performance. After all, why would someone consider the ratings for any reason other than to find those funds likely to outperform?

    We need some objective rating schemes that can find funds likely to outperform,

  6. @Anthony DuBon I agree, and while I am not against Morningstar's attempt to give a forward looking indicator (In fact the more groups that do this the better -- as long as they are not blindly accepted)....however, in Morningstar's attempt there are obvious flags that are going up from the start. I also don't think too much weight should be given to the parent company...seems a convenient way to add bias without it appearing as such.

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