Bruce Berkowitz has not exactly been a household name (he apparently is not even Wikipedia-worthy). With his boyish looks, nasally voice, and slicked-back hair, one might mistake Bruce Berkowitz for a graduate student. However, his results are more than academic, which explains why this invisible giant was recently named the equity fund manager of the decade by Morningstar. It’s difficult to argue with long-term results, especially in the roller coaster market like we’ve experienced over the last ten years. The Fairholme Fund (FAIRX) fund earned a 13% annualized return over the ten-year period ending in 2009, beating the S&P 500 index by an impressive 14%.

Bruce Berkowitz
Bruce Berkowitz

 Click here to view Bloomberg invterview with Bruce Berkowitz

How He Did It

Berkowitz states the stellar performance was achieved by

“Ignoring the crowd and going towards stressed areas that many people are running from…We make our judgments based on the cash that securities generate.”

 

Fairholme is effectively a “go anywhere” fund that adheres tightly to the value-based philosophy. Berkowitz’s portfolio is centered on equity securities, but his team has also shown willingness to go up and down the capital structure, if they find value elsewhere.

The Fund and its History

Berkowitz started the fund in 1999 as an extension of his separate account business, which was created in his previous life at Smith Barney and Lehman Brothers. The Fairholme fund tends to concentrate around 15 to 25 securities on average, with some holdings accounting for more than 10% of the portfolio. An example of Fairholmes concentration is evidenced by its favorably timed trade in the energy sector, which resulted in a 35% weighting in the fund. Fortunately Berkowitz redeployed that winning position – before energy prices cratered in 2008 – into unloved areas like healthcare and defense stocks.

Berkowitz models his investment style after Warren Buffett, focused on good businesses with prolific cash flows. Like many value investors, Berkowitz fishes for contrarian based ideas residing in pockets of the market that are out of favor. He also likes to have a significant weighting in “special situations,” which are limited to about 25% of the portfolio. In order to take advantage opportunities, Berkowitz is not shy or bashful about carrying around a good chunk of cash in his pocket. He likes to keep about 15% on average to scoop up out of favor opportunities.

The Future of Fairholme

I commend Berkowitz for his admirable record, but I caution investors to not go hog wild over outperforming funds. He has crushed the market over an extremely challenging investment period, but investors need to remember that “mean reversion,” the tendency for a trend to move towards averages, applies to investing styles too. Concentrated, go-anywhere, large cap value, market timing funds that outperform for ten years at a time may underperform or outperform less dramatically over the next ten years. Just ask Bill Miller (see also Bill Miller Revenge of the Dunce article), concentrated value manager at Legg Mason, about mean reversion. Miller beat the market for 15 consecutive years before recently ending up in the bottom 10-year decile (1-star Morningstar rated) after some bad concentrated bets and poor investment timing. Another challenge for Fairholme is size (currently around $10.5 billion in assets under management). Having managed a multi-billion fund myself (see also my book), I can attest to the complexities Berkowitz faces in managing a much larger fund now.

Regardless, Berkowitz’s performance should not be ignored given his sound philosophy and achievement over an unprecedented period. Already, just a few weeks into 2010, Fairholme is ranked #1 in its fund category by Morningstar.

This is one invisible man you should not let disappear off your radar.