The Best of American Century

If you're thinking about the 800-pound gorillas of the mutual fund world, companies like Vanguard and Fidelity immediately come to mind. However, there are a fair number of fund shops that clock in below those juggernauts in terms of assets under management, yet are still big players in the industry, with an expansive array of mutual fund offerings.

American Century Investments, with roughly $100 billion in assets under its roof, is one of these companies. American Century offers around 85 different funds, so there's a lot for investors to pick from here. In this two-part series, I shine a spotlight on what I think are some of the best funds around from this industry heavyweight.

Finding middle ground
Without a doubt, my favorite fund offering from American Century is American Century Mid Cap Value (ACMVX). This mid-cap gem is run by a management trio -- Kevin Toney, Phillip Davidson, and Michael Liss -- all of whom have been serving on the fund since its early 2004 inception. The team here looks for mid-sized companies that are trading at discounted valuations due to a problem that the investing public has overstated. As a result, the fund can take a contrarian bent, often leading it to move out of step with the wider market. So while the fund ranks in the top 11% of all mid-value funds over the past five-year period with an annualized 3.6% return, it also fell toward the bottom of its peer group in years such as 2009 and 2010, when the market really took off.

Perhaps not surprisingly for a fund that's willing to go against the grain, its largest sector weighting is to financials, at roughly 23% of fund assets. Earlier this year, management added to their existing holdings in financial names that they felt had high-quality businesses and solid balance sheets -- this included Northern Trust (NAS: NTRS) and Hudson City Bancorp (NAS: HCBK) as well as Comerica (NYS: CMA) .

Ultimately, this fund won't excite in years when the market is on a tear, but its cautious approach ensures that it will protect better on the downside than the vast majority of its competition -- in 2008's roaring bear market, the fund only lost 24%, roughly 14 percentage points better than the benchmark Russell Mid Cap Value Index. This fund is a good complement to racier, more growth-oriented mid-cap funds. With a long-tenured and talented team behind it, a solid performance track record, and reasonable 1.01% expense ratio, American Century Mid Cap Value is an excellent choice for mid-cap investors of any age.

More from this team
There are two more American Century funds I like that are run by the same management trio as Mid Cap Value -- American Century Equity Income (TWEIX) and American Century Value (TWVLX). Both funds have track records under current management dating back to the mid-1990s. As one might expect, the two portfolios contain many of the same low-P/E, blue-chip dividend producers, including energy plays such as ExxonMobil (NYS: XOM) , Chevron (NYS: CVX) , and French oil firm Total (NYS: TOT) . Similar to their mid-cap sibling, both of these funds can look contrarian at times and also tend to outshine their peers and benchmarks in down markets. So if you're looking for a highflier of an investment, keep on walking. These funds are steady, long-term large-cap winners that make the most of management's cautious investing style.

Over the past 15-year period, Equity Income has posted an annualized 8.9% return, while Value weighed in with a 7.2% gain. That's in comparison to a 6.1% showing for the S&P 500 Index. Equity Income ranks in the top 3% of all large-value funds in that time period, while Value lands in the top 16%. Both funds have similar profiles, but Equity Income usually dedicates a hefty portion (usually around 20% or so) of its portfolio to convertible bonds to fulfill its dividend mandate. While Equity Income has a slightly better track record and a slightly smaller expense ratio, it also boasts higher turnover -- to the tune of 146% annually, compared to Value's 76%. So if you're investing in a taxable account, Value may be the better proposition.

Ultimately, investors should pick one of the two funds for their portfolio, not both. If you're looking for a dividend-focused fund, Equity Income is probably your best bet. If you prefer a long-term capital gains-focused option, you may want to consider the Value fund. But either one would make a good choice for cautious value investors.

Stay tuned for part 2 of this series, in which we'll highlight a few more American Century funds that investors should consider making a part of their portfolio.

At the time thisarticle was published Amanda Kishis the Fool's resident fund advisor for the Rule Your Retirement investment newsletter. At the time of publication, she did not own any of the funds or companies mentioned herein.Motley Fool newsletter serviceshave recommended buying shares of Chevron and Total. Tryany of our Foolish newsletter servicesfree for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has adisclosure policy.

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