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Bruce Berkowitz Fortune Interview - 'The return of a star fund manager'

Holly LaFon

Holly LaFon

257 followers
FORTUNE -- Only a handful of mutual fund managers have ever had the sort of epic run that Bruce Berkowitz (and his investors) enjoyed. In the first decade of this century, his 13.2% annual returns obliterated the S&P 500 (SPX), which averaged 1% yearly losses. He was crowned U.S. stock manager of the decade by Morningstar, and Fortune anointed him "the Megamind of Miami" in a late-2010 profile. Then came 2011. Berkowitz's Fairholme Fund (FAIRX) plunged 32% amid huge losses in stocks like AIG (AIG), Sears (SHLD), and Bank of America (BAC). Clients yanked $7 billion, and critics said Berkowitz, 54, was finished. But instead of retreating in 2012, he doubled down on his favorite stocks. Today he looks like a genius again: Fairholme has roared to a 37% return this year, tops among U.S. stock mutual funds. Is his comeback for real? Berkowitz made his case by phone from his home near Miami. Edited excerpts:

You were criticized last year for poor performance. Was that fair?

I think it's fair. What's not fair is to believe that a manager or a businessperson is in such control of companies that they can control any one-year period or two-year period. I've not seen it done. There's a reason Warren Buffett judges Berkshire Hathaway's (BRK.A) book value against the S&P 500. He doesn't use Berkshire's stock price. My question to you is, Can someone like me or anyone else avoid a 2011?

What were you expecting?

I always knew we'd have our day of negative performance. I'd be foolish not to think that day would arrive. So we had billions in cash, and the fund was chastised somewhat for keeping so much cash. But that cash was used to pay the outflows, and then when the cash started to get to a certain level, I began to liquidate other positions.

Was 2011 beyond your worst-case scenario?

The down year was definitely not outside of what I thought possible. I was not as surprised by the reaction and the money going out as I was by the money coming in. When you tally it all up, we attracted $5.4 billion in 2009 and 2010 into the fund and $7 billion went out in 2011. It moves fast.

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