As the mutual fund business grows, fund company executives are voicing concern that there is not enough management talent to go around.
"There is an incredible shortage of talented people who have any experience in this industry," Bridget Macaskill, the president and chief executive of OppenheimerFunds, said during a panel discussion last week at the Investment Company Institute's annual conference in Washington.
Ms. Macaskill said the industry has failed to produce enough generalist executives, as opposed to those with expertise in a single area such as investment management or marketing.
Lawrence Lasser, Ms. Macaskill's counterpart at Putnam Investments, suggested that the proliferation of mutual funds-there are now about 8,500 of them-has outstripped the supply of "competent" portfolio managers.
"The results would suggest I'm right," he said during the same panel discussion at the conference.
But not everyone agrees.
Donald Phillips, president of Morningstar Inc., the fund rating agency in Chicago, called Mr. Lasser's comments, which were relayed to him by a reporter, "nonsense."
Portfolio managers simply do not fall into "superior" and "inferior" categories, he said. If they did, the better ones would consistently "beat up on" the others, which is not the case, he said.
"It would be the Yankees and the Marlins," he said. "The facts just simply don't back up what Lasser is saying."
Mr. Phillips acknowledged that 80% of stock mutual funds have trailed the Standard & Poor's 500 index in the past five years. But he argued that fund expenses had cut into returns.
And he said the dominance in recent years of large-cap growth funds is an anomaly: In picking small-company stocks with a value orientation, portfolio managers are simply following the conventional, long-term wisdom. And that does not make them poor managers, Mr. Phillips added.
Ms. Macaskill called for fund companies to hire more leaders from outside the industry who can bring a fresh perspective. She spoke from experience: Before joining Oppenheimer in 1983 she was marketing director of a dairy products company in the United Kingdom.
Mr. Phillips said Ms. Macaskill's comments about the dearth of generalist managers "make a lot of sense."
He added that after the bear market of 1973 and 1974, the best business school graduates avoided the investment industry for about 15 years and have only begun to return.