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Income trust mutual funds
Top picks from today's hottest fund group

The class of income trust mutual funds is something of a mixed bag with some investing exclusive in income trusts and others with a healthy dose of bonds and cash (like balanced funds). Morningstar Canada counts thirty-two funds in the category in all. If we exclude segregated funds (i.e. sponsored by insurers) and others in the category with rich management expense ratios (MERs), the category shrinks to ten. A final screen excluding funds that are no longer accepting new money and those with lacklustre performance leaves just a handful standing. This week, I'll profile my favourites - in order of preference.

Saxon High Income

One of the first funds to be launched in this sector, this one's also the cheapest (MER of 1.25 per cent). But don't be fooled by the low price tag - it's not at all indicative of this fund's quality. Lead manager Rick Howson has always talked about preferring trusts that had the brains (i.e. management) housed inside of the body (i.e. the trust) - rather than outsourcing management. The reason is a closer alignment of interests between management and shareholders.

This along with broad diversification, and Howson's keen insight and sensitivity to valuations has been beneficial to fund investors. Howson's target income trust exposure is rising from 70 to 90 per cent due to the growth of the income trust sector. The impact of this change will be twofold: a) a slightly higher yield; and b) slightly higher volatility. This fund remains my top pick among this class. (And it's worth noting that this fund pays a trailing commission to financial advisors.)

CI Signature High Income

Eric Bushell is a great talent among Canadian money managers. His shift to managing this fund (launched in 1997) was a natural transition after years of managing interest sensitive portfolios (starting with BPI Dividend Income several years ago - now known as CI Signature High Income, which he still runs). With less than 60 per cent in equities, this is structured more like a balanced fund.

Bushell doesn't buy into the idea that the market is shifting to favour "growth" investing. He says that the economy will disappoint next year since many industries are operating well below capacity. Since he thinks companies simply don't need any more capacity at the moment, he doesn't foresee business spending returning anytime soon. However, he's bullish on the energy sector and, as a result, has about 40 per cent of this fund in royalty trusts. Nearly 1/4 of this fund is also positioned in corporate bonds; which represent good value today.

Dynamic Focus Plus Diversified Income Trust

Lead manager Oscar Belaiche says income trust valuations are fair but adds that a demographics-driven demand for higher yields will keep income trusts from its volatile past. He maintains that the attractive yield on quality trusts will act as something of a self-pricing mechanism. If prices rise so high that yields don't offer enough of a premium over guaranteed products, prices may fall. If prices drop too much, yields will be so attractive that investors will jump in and start buying. This only holds, of course, if the yield is sustainable and somewhat predictable.

Belaiche targets about 1/3rd into each of royalty trusts, real estate investment trusts (REITs), and general business trusts. He'll over- and under- weight each area according to his outlook, but the focus remains on finding quality investments. Belaiche's wealth of operational experience allows him to recognize quality management - and more importantly, bad management. Hence, he's careful to avoid the junk this sector has to offer.

GGOF Guardian Monthly High Income II

GGOF was the first firm to launch a dedicated income trust fund back in October 1996; so lead manager John Priestman has already seen two major contractions in the relatively young income trust market. Words of caution about lower quality issues will get no argument from Priestman, but he chuckles at the idea of a valuation-induced bubble in the sector.

Income trusts were absolutely slaughtered from late 1997 through to late 2000 - to the extent that Priestman says today's valuations represent nothing more than a return to more normal valuations. This fund was launched after the original was closed to new money. This won't be a clone of the original - but one that is small enough to buy some of the better, but smaller, income trusts in today's market.

Talvest Millenium High Income

Barry Morrison of Morrison Williams Investment Management runs this fund, which is more of a balanced fund. Roughly 60 per cent is positioned in equities (nearly all of it in income trusts) with the remainder sitting in cash. Morrison guides this fund with the firm's top-down view of the economy. His Calgary base gives him easy access to the oil patch's big players and properties - a sector which forms the core of this fund's holdings.

The big cash balance is the result of both strong sales into the fund as well as some recent 'sells'. He's happy to hang onto some cash for the time being since he acknowledges the possibility of price weakness in the income trust sector - and will use the cash to seize buying opportunities as they present themselves.

Other good funds no longer taking new money

Bissett Income and GGOF's original Guardian Monthly High Income are two excellent funds no longer available to new investors. But if you already hold either of these, I'd hang tight. If you need to rebalance, consider doing so by redirecting new money into other investments rather than selling units in these capped funds.

Whatever you do, don't go overboard on these funds because their returns have sizzled over the past year. Return chasing is the vicious cycle in which investors have been caught for many years. Use these funds as they're designed - as part of your equity allocation but to boost cash flow taken from your overall portfolio.

Dan Hallett, CFA, CFP is the President of Dan Hallett & Associates Inc. in Windsor Ontario. DH&A is registered as Investment Counsel in Ontario and provides independent investment research to financial advisors. He can be reached at dha@danhallett.com
 
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