Mutual funds are beating coin flippers when it comes to picking stocks so far this year. Far more mutual funds are beating the market than last year. The bad news is that stocks are returning one-tenth as much.

According to a Fundstrat Global Advisors survey of 3,265 funds, more than half posted gains that exceeded benchmark indexes in 2015 through March 6, for their best start to a year since 2012. Managers are finding it easier to profit from stock picking as lockstep moves among shares unwind and the market endures swings not seen since 2011.

"Factors aiding active manager performance are improving in 2015, suggesting the positive start for funds will continue," Thomas J. Lee, managing partner and co-founder of boutique research firm Fundstrat, wrote in a note Monday. "We could potentially be returning to the early ’90s and 2000 to 2007 eras, when active managers routinely beat their benchmark."

Whether anyone will care is another question. While volatility has been good for active managers, so far it isn’t doing much for the bottom line. The S&P 500, up 1.1% this year through Monday after rising 44% the previous two years, is poised for its worst first quarter since 2009. Investors pulled more than $10 billion out of mutual and exchange-traded U.S. equity funds in January and February, according to data compiled by Bloomberg and Investment Company Institute.

"Benchmarks matter to institutions, like school endowments competing against each other," Matt Maley, an equity strategist at Miller Tabak in Newton, Mass., said. "People are not competing against anyone else. They just want to make money. That’s how mutual fund investors are."

MOVING INDIVIDUALLY

The S&P 500 slid 0.6% to 2,069.57 at 9:56 a.m. in New York.

Managers’ outperformances this year could be tied to stocks’ inclinations to move independently of each other, according to Lee. The CBOE’s S&P 500 Implied Correlation Index, which uses options to measure expectations about whether stocks will move in unison, plunged 17% this year through March 5, to the lowest level since 2012.

Funds that outperformed in January and February benefited from underweighting shares of utilities and financials, Lee wrote. These S&P 500 groups lost at least 1.7% in the first two months of 2015 as the broader index rose 2.2%.

Last year, only 25% of actively managed equity mutual funds beat their benchmarks, the lowest rate since 1995, according to data from Morningstar. The S&P 500 climbed 11% in 2014.

YEARLY RETURN

While strategists remain bullish on equities this year, they’re predicting returns in U.S. stocks won’t be as robust. The S&P 500 will increase 7.5% from where it closed Monday to 2,237 by the end of the year, according to the average of 21 equity strategists surveyed by Bloomberg.

The S&P 500, which never went more than three days without a gain in 2014, has twice fallen five straight times since January. Daily equity moves exceeding 1% have jumped 50% from last year and shares tumbled 3% or more over four different stretches in the first quarter, the most retreats of that magnitude since 2011, Bloomberg data show.

"The environment year-to-date has been better than last year for active management," Kevin Divney, chief investment officer at Beaconcrest Capital Management, said by phone. "Investors want to make the most amount of money. Risk-adjusted returns matter. Fee-adjusted returns matter. When you start to compound that, it starts to get much more impactful."

Callie Bost is a reporter with Bloomberg News.

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