Top 2015 U.S. stock funds stay defensive heading into 2016

December 22, 2015 02:44 PM

Top stock-picking fund managers won 2015 by aiming for brand name companies and avoiding the sector bets that brought down biotech and energy investors.

Now, as they look ahead to 2016, these active investors expect to be even more defensive, picking companies like Hersheys Co and General Electric that they say will be able to weather the combination of slow global growth and the first U.S. interest rate hike in a nearly decade.

"We're looking for companies that have some competitive advantage that makes them the standard in their industry," said Dennis Lynch, a co-portfolio manager of both the Morgan Stanley Institutional Advantage fund and the Morgan Stanley Institutional Growth Portfolio fund--the fifth and sixth best performing large-cap funds of this year with returns of 11.5% through Monday's close.

Lynch's Institutional Advantage fund, for instance, added positions in consumer companies including Hershey, Estee Lauder Companies Inc and Colgate-Palmolive Co in the quarter ending Sept. 30.

These types of consumer companies with strong brands tend to withstand volatile markets, Lynch said. At the same time, he trimmed positions in top holdings Inc and Facebook Inc that rallied this year.

Other active fund managers that are looking for big names with lots of downside protection in 2015 include Daniel Davidowitz, co-portfolio manager of the $804 million Polen Growth fund--the year's top performer in the large cap category--and Douglas Rao, portfolio manager of the $2.4 billion Janus Forty fund.

"There's a lot of noise and volatility in the market right now, and we're in the position of trying to find companies that are less sensitive to the macro environment," said Rao.

Rao's fund gained 10.7% for the year through Monday, a performance that was the 10th best among large-cap funds tracked by Lipper during a time when only 24% of large-cap funds have been able to outperform the 0.1% gain in the index this year, according to Lipper data.

Much of Rao's performance came from his top holding, Google parent Alphabet Inc, which has gained 44% for the year to date, and Amazon, which more than doubled this year and accounts for his 8th-largest position.

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David Randall, Reuters