Dan Martino, manager of the T. Rowe Price Media and Telecommunications Fund, has two big advantages over competing fund managers.
First, his fund has wider investing latitude than most rival funds with straight-up communications mandates. Second, he works at T. Rowe Price, which for years has been well regarded for its authoritative grasp of tech, telecom and media.
"This fund really is right in T. Rowe's wheelhouse," said Kevin McDevitt, senior mutual fund analyst with Morningstar Inc.
And, like sluggers who are continually thrown fat pitches down the middle of the plate, Martino and his predecessors have put up impressive numbers over the years.
The fund has outperformed peers in its category since 1999, according to Morningstar; in early October the fund was once again beating its category average in 2010, with a gain of 14.75%, compared with 13.55%, based on Morningstar data.
Martino went from being an analyst on the fund to managing it about a year ago. He can still get advice from its previous three managers, who are with T. Rowe running other funds.
Unlike rival funds, T. Rowe Price Media and Telecommunications tends to go relatively light on stocks from usual-suspect companies like AT&T and Verizon. It's more apt to be invested in transmission-tower businesses along with everything from Disney to Amazon to Apple. "It takes a far broader view of the world," McDevitt said. "That frankly has played a role in its success."
One of the oft-remarked aspects of the fund is how it can invest a portion of its assets in areas that are distantly related to media and telecom. It recently held a significant position, for instance, in Wynn Resorts — the casino and hotel company.
"If you're looking for a pure-play communications fund, this is not it," McDevitt said. "But it certainly has been a fantastic fund."
The fund's real strength has been the analysis behind it, Martino said. Investments are made from among the best ideas of T. Rowe's analysts on the fund — it has a core team of about a dozen. Those analysts are far flung, from Baltimore to Europe to Asia, and their turnover rate is low.
And the research isn't only about numbers. To help understand where demand is headed, T. Rowe hosts panel discussions each year with young consumers. The goal is to gain insights about how they're consuming media and how they think technology and media are changing. "We will get five or six college students in a room and pound them with questions for two hours," Martino said.
As an analyst himself, Martino studied wireless telecommunications tower businesses, and companies in that area are still a mainstay of the fund. Two of its top holdings are American Tower Corp. and Crown Castle International. Crown is trading at an attractive 18 or 19 times 2011 free cash flow, Martino said. He noted that former PRMTX manager Rob Bartolo was among the first to recognize the potential of the towers.
PRMTX is not constrained in terms of market cap; it invests in small, midsize and large companies and is fairly concentrated, Bartolo said — its top 25 positions typically account for 75% of the fund's assets.