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At the risk of stating the obvious, the past decade has been a bad one for stocks. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index ($INX) is essentially flat over the past 10 years.

As real as that feels, evidenced by the continued dearth of investor flows into equity funds, it's an unusual occurrence: A look at rolling 10-year returns since early 1980 shows that the S & P has recorded negative 10-year returns only about 6% of the time, and each occurrence has been in the past couple of years.

But investors should be willing to consider stocks today, based on a variety of indicators, including valuations for large-cap stocks and low interest rates.

In assessing fund performance over the past decade, there are a few no-brainers, such as Fairholme (FAIRX), tops among large-blend funds with an annualized return of 15.5% over the decade, thanks to manager Bruce Berkowitz's concentrated approach to value investing.

But many other funds have produced meager results at best, while others are still in the red over the past decade.

In an attempt to gauge investment acumen over a more-normal long-term period for stocks, investors can extend their evaluation period. Try 15 years, which includes two bull phases for stocks as well as two bear periods.

Overall, the S & P 500 gained an annualized 6.6% in that period. While that's still below the long-term historical range of 8% to 10%, it's at least respectable.

We were happy to find a number of equity funds that through the end of October had great 15-year performance records. Their returns, though, weren't their most-salient points; rather, solid investment processes and stable managements proved to be important virtues.

The Delafield Fund and First Eagle Fund of America

Managers of both the Delafield Fund (DEFIX) (15-year return: 11.8%) and First Eagle Fund of America (FEAFX) (15-year return: 11.1%) ply a stock-picking approach, looking for special situations to exploit, such as corporate spinoffs, management changes or other restructurings that result in a mispricing in the markets.

Neither fund is slave to an index. Both have largely avoided financial stocks. According to First Eagle's managers (who work for subadvisor Iridian Asset Management), such companies are out of their competency core -- and they don't think they need them to succeed.

True, they invest in smaller companies, which has provided a tailwind over the past 10 years, but they've also been successful by simply keeping their noses to the grindstones, tuning out noise in the markets and sticking to what they know.

Brown Capital Management Small Company

The Brown Capital Management Small Company Fund (BCSIX) (15-year return: 10.5%) also focuses on small companies. However, this fund hardly resembles any small-cap index, and could not be described as representative of the small-cap market. Instead, it maintains one of the small-cap categories' more-compact portfolios, with fewer than 50 stocks, and it has long concentrated its holdings in the technology and health care sectors.

The fund's turnover rate is regularly less than 20%, and the managers thus tend to hold on to small companies as they grow -- as long as they sustain their competitive advantages. They bought Dolby Laboratories (DLB, news), for example, shortly after its early 2005 IPO, when it was about one-fourth its current market size.

The fund's eclectic portfolio means that investors can expect periodic dry spells, but it's a winner for the long term.


Yacktman (YACKX) (15-year return: 10.4%) has recently shown what can happen when you are dogged about valuation but bold about portfolio construction. A lack of financials and a regular cash stake helped this fund in late 2007 and throughout 2008, but it's hardly a wallflower.

Managers Don Yacktman and Stephen Yacktman followed that performance with a 59.3% gain in 2009's recovery. That year, the Yacktmans' nose for cheapness led them to a number of media companies.

The managers' approach can backfire -- it stunk in the late 1990s and was one of the few U.S. stock funds to post a double-digit loss in 1999 -- but those who can adopt a long-term investment horizon have a solid value hound here.

One other note: Over the past 10 years, management responsibility has gradually shifted from Don Yacktman to Stephen Yacktman.

Sequoia Fund

At more than $3 billion in assets, Sequoia Fund (SEQUX) is hardly a hidden gem. But considering its powerful long-term, risk-adjusted performance (15-year return: 10.0%), its experienced management team and its straightforward stock-picking approach, it's tough to understand why it isn't raking in new money after reopening in 2008, after being closed for the previous 25 years.

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Sequoia reopened because it saw opportunities in the wake of the most-recent bear market and thus spent a good deal of its cash hoard on new stocks and existing holdings.

Cash is back up to 20% of assets now, so there is a risk that it closes again, perhaps sooner rather than later.

Like Yacktman, this one posted a double-digit loss in 1999, so investors should expect it to look out of step at times. But over the long term it is an easy choice.

This article was reported by Bridget B. Hughes for Morningstar.