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Medalist Managers Buy SPACs, Airlines, and Oil in 2021's First Quarter

Top managers looked ahead to a post-pandemic economy.

Top mutual fund managers positioned their portfolios for a post-pandemic economy in the United States in the first quarter. Reopening trades, including retail-focused REITs, airlines, breweries, luxury brands, hotels, and homebuilders were popular among U.S.-focused active equity funds with Morningstar Analyst Ratings of Gold, Silver, or Bronze. Top managers also showed an appetite for special-purpose acquisition companies--the "blank check" companies that have exploded in popularity since the beginning of 2020.

Here is a look at some of the medalists’ most popular stock purchases in the period, broken out by industry. The following data represents funds with at least one medalist-rated share class and a reported first-quarter portfolio as of May 11, 2021. It includes: 130 large-cap strategies, 51 mid-cap strategies, and 52 small-cap strategies covering more than $3 trillion in combined assets. The data is adjusted for fund-level cash inflows and outflows to distinguish changes managers’ chose to make from those they had to make to meet redemptions or put new money to work.

Shell Companies/SPACs

SPACs rose to prominence in 2020 as an alternative route to taking companies public. They raise capital through a shell company and then use it to purchase or merge with an existing operating company. SPACs have stumbled recently, but many medalist managers joined the party while it was still raging in 2021’s first three months. They increased their collective SPAC stake by nearly 50% as 30 separate medalists bought at least one SPAC. Wells Fargo Global Small Cap Fund (EKGAX) went on a SPAC shopping spree, buying six of them, including two (Poema Global Holdings (PPGHU) and Tailwind International Acquisition Corp (TWNI)) that have yet to announce a merger. A lot of managers won’t invest in a SPAC until it announces a definitive merger agreement with an operating company. MFS New Discovery (MNDAX), for example, was another active buyer, but the four SPACs it added each had announced mergers before the fund purchased them.


Ad Agencies

Active stock managers also snapped up advertising companies like Magnite (MGNI), Omnicom (OMC), and WPP PLC (WPP). An open economy should bolster these businesses as they derive significant revenue from live event marketing. However, Magnite, the most popular buy, focuses on helping digital publishers sell ad space. Seven medalists bought the agency’s shares. Most of them were growth managers, although Goldman Sachs Small Cap Value (GSSMX) also bought it. The stock is volatile: It jumped from $30 per share in January to $62 in February and fell to $42 by quarter-end.

Airlines

Medalists increased their aggregate airlines holdings by more than an estimated $1 billion, as the likelihood that people would soon resume personal and business-related travel increased. Medalists increased their collective position in Southwest (LUV) by nearly a third, more than any of the other largest U.S. airlines by passenger volume, including American (AAL), Delta (DAL), and United (UAL). Six T. Rowe Price funds initiated new positions in the company, with T. Rowe Price Value (TRVLX) buying the most--more than $250 million worth. American was the only major airline that medalists sold. Fidelity Blue Chip Growth (FBGRX) shed its stake in the airline while adding to its position in discount carrier Spirit Airlines (SAVE).

Brewers

Continuing a 2020 trend, top managers bellied up for breweries. Medalist managers increased their combined stake in them by 15% in the first quarter. A single fund accounted for the bulk of the increase. American Funds Growth Fund of America (AGTHX), the largest actively managed mutual fund in the world, initiated a more than $350 million position in Heineken (HEINY), and was the only medalist to own the Dutch brewer. Boston Beer Company (SAM) remained a medalist favorite: Eight funds increased their stakes by at least 10% on a flow-adjusted basis in the quarter. Twenty-nine medalist funds collectively own more than 15% of the company.

Copper

A couple of copper miners attracted a lot of new interest as the price of copper climbed nearly 85% from March 2020 through the end of 2021’s first quarter. Twenty medalist funds established new positions in two copper-related companies, including nine that bought FreePort McMoRan (FCX), the largest copper miner in the world. A swath of Fidelity funds, including Fidelity Contrafund (FCNTX) and Fidelity Blue Chip Growth (FBGRX), bought First Quantum Minerals (FM), a Canadian mining company that derives the bulk of its revenue from copper. American Funds Fundamental Investors (ANCFX), however, cut its stake in the company by more than 50%, resulting in a net decrease in the aggregate medalist stake in the company.

Oil and Gas

Medalist managers have jumped back into energy companies after the sector’s brutal start to 2020. The Morningstar U.S. Energy Index dropped more than 56% in February and March of last year. It has rebounded and then some; since the March 2020 market trough, the index has gained more than 120%, much more than the Morningstar U.S. Market Index’s 76%. The index is still far below its 2014 peak, though, and medalist managers continue to buy. Blend and value funds bought the most energy. BNY Mellon Dynamic Value (DAGVX) and T. Rowe Price Mid-Cap Value (TRMCX), for example, bought Exxon Mobil (XOM) and National Fuel Gas (NFG), respectively.

Jack Shannon does not own (actual or beneficial) shares in any of the securities mentioned above. Find out about Morningstar’s editorial policies.