* MFS Utility Fund manager looks for beaten-down stocks
* Big bets made amid credit crunch paid off this year
By Aaron Pressman
BOSTON, Dec 23 (Reuters) - Maura Shaughnessy, manager of the MFS Utilities fund, has bicycled across New Zealand and Italy and in the Grand Canyon, not to mention completing an annual 192-mile charity ride in Massachusetts 16 times.
She’s just as relentless in her investing. The $2.7 billion MFS fund, which she has led since it opened in 1992, is the top performer in its category over the past year, three years and five years, according to Lipper data.
In 2009, the fund is up 32 percent, compared with 15 percent for the average utility fund.
Shaughnessy’s tenure has been defined by steely contrarian bets amid market meltdowns. In 2002, the collapse of Enron and other power companies crushed bond and stock prices across the sector. Shaughnessy scooped up shares of bankrupt California utility PG&E (PCG.N) and bonds of near-bankrupt AES Corp (AES.N). Both companies recovered and the securities zoomed.
Later, prosecutors investigating the accounting scandals turned to Shaughnessy as a possible expert witness. She helped explain balance sheets of Enron, Charter Communications and others, though she never ended up on the witness stand.
The 2008 credit crunch provided a second “once in a lifetime” opportunity. After banks starting slashing dividends, investors panicked and sold many utilities for fear they might be forced to cut dividends, too.
Shaughnessy scooped up battered high yielders like pipeline operator Spectra Energy Corp (SE.N) and gas utility NiSource Inc (NI.N). “I remember thinking this is just crazy,” she said. While paying yields of 10 percent and up, many of the stocks have also doubled in price.
Utility executives across the industry have learned to respect Shaughnessy’s experience and her forthrightness. David Crane, chief executive of NRG Energy Inc (NRG.N), remembers his first experience with Shaughnessy after he took the top job at the New Jersey-based power producer in December 2003 as it emerged from Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.
Four months into the job, Crane and his staff were doing due diligence on some power plants that were for sale. Shaughnessy heard rumors and called to tell Crane the company had to rebuild trust with investors before any dealmaking.
“If this was true, she said she’d be dismembering a significant portion of my anatomy,” Crane recalled. “With Maura, there is no b.s. and no spin.” (A member of NRG’s investor relations department recalls Shaughnessy’s quote differently -- she’d “kick David in the shins.”)
In a December interview at her Boston office, Shaughnessy, just back from a trip visiting a dozen companies in Brazil, was as focused as ever. She argues that an investment she has made in a tiny Brazilian water utility, Copasa (CSMG3.SA), is less risky than owning many of the largest American power producers that run mainly coal-burning plants.
“They’re just dead,” she says, mincing few words. “They’re not doing anything. I’d rather buy little water companies in Brazil.”
MFS lists the fund’s benchmark as the Standard & Poor’s 500 Utilities Index .GSPU, but it is almost irrelevant to Shaughnessy. She says she doesn’t know the sector and country weightings of her fund on any particular day after assembling her portfolio by selecting individual stocks.
After graduating from Maine’s Colby College, where she majored in math and economics, Shaughnessy got her start as an analyst at the Federal Reserve in Washington. The job of trying to forecast interest rates and GDP wasn’t appealing, and she headed off to Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business for an MBA.
At the Fed, “the only thing I learned was that no one can do macroeconomic forecasting with any consistency,” she says. Now she tries to make investment decisions that don’t rely on such broad prognostications.
Shaughnessy next got a job as a stock analyst at the Harvard University endowment. Robert Atchinson, who headed the equities area at the time, remembers Shaughnessy’s skill as well as her intensity.
Back in the late 1980s, everyone at Harvard shared a single Quotron terminal to check stock prices. If Shaughnessy was at the machine and her stocks weren’t doing well, she’d let her frustration show, Atchinson recalled.
“If it wasn’t going well, we’d all just kind of disappear back into our offices,” he said.
The grind eventually wore her down and she quit to go on a three-month backpacking trip in Nepal. If she had stayed with Atchinson at Harvard, Shaughnessy says she might now be with the $8 billion Boston hedge fund, Adage Capital, that he and other members of his team opened in 2001. “That may be the most expensive trip I ever took,” she quips.
Atchinson, who says Shaughnessy “has a great nose for stocks,” says he’d have her back any time.
Lately, Shaughnessy has been buying shares of gas processors like Questar Corp STR.N that benefit from low natural gas prices. Almost everyone on Wall Street also predicts low gas prices.
“It’s such a consensus call it nauseates me,” Shaughnessy says. (Reporting by Aaron Pressman; editing by Ros Krasny and John Wallace)