Warren Buffett’s Latest Challenger Will Fizzle Like the Rest

“Move Over, Warren Buffett: This Is the Star Investor You Should Be Following.”

So read the headline on a year-end article from retail investing advice site Motley Fool touting the performance of fund manager Cathie Wood. Variations on the “Buffett is done” theme have been around since at least the tech bubble, while the cult of star mutual-fund managers goes back to the 1960s. Such commentators have eventually eaten their words.

Not that Ms. Wood’s performance is anything to sneeze at. Her largest exchange-traded fund, the ARK Innovation ETF , surged by almost 160% last year, growing assets 10-fold—unprecedented inflows for an active fund of that type. She made concentrated bets on hot stocks such as Tesla , Roku, Square and biotechs boosted by the Covid-19 pandemic. An ARK Invest spokesperson wouldn’t elaborate, but Ms. Wood told an interviewer last month that she expects to nearly triple unit holders’ money over the next five years.

That is unlikely. In fact, similar star managers’ performance has tended not only to be mean-reverting but actually worse-than-average after their runs end. Bill Miller, who famously beat the S&P 500 from 1991 through 2005, drawing huge inflows into Legg Mason Value Trust, spent the next few years as one of the worst fund managers in the country.

Comeuppances are especially harsh when a manager has ridden a hot category as Ms. Wood’s firm has done. The fate of mutual-fund firm Janus is instructive: Between the end of 1998 and the end of March 2000, it went from being the 20th largest mutual-fund firm to the fifth largest—an incredibly rapid ascent. It bet big on tech highfliers such as Cisco Systems and AOL. As the bubble burst, some of its funds lost two-thirds or more of their value.

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