FORTUNE -- Only a handful of mutual fund managers have ever had the sort of epic run that Bruce Berkowitz (and his investors) enjoyed. In the first decade of this century, his 13.2% annual returns obliterated the S&P 500 (SPX), which averaged 1% yearly losses. He was crowned U.S. stock manager of the decade by Morningstar, and Fortune anointed him "the Megamind of Miami" in a late-2010 profile. Then came 2011. Berkowitz's Fairholme Fund (FAIRX) plunged 32% amid huge losses in stocks like AIG, Sears, and Bank of America. Clients yanked $7 billion, and critics said Berkowitz, 54, was finished. But instead of retreating in 2012, he doubled down on his favorite stocks. Today he looks like a genius again: Fairholme has roared to a 37% return this year, tops among U.S. stock mutual funds. Is his comeback for real? Berkowitz made his case by phone from his home near Miami. Edited excerpts:
You were criticized last year for poor performance. Was that fair?
I think it's fair. What's not fair is to believe that a manager or a businessperson is in such control of companies that they can control any one-year period or two-year period. I've not seen it done. There's a reason Warren Buffett judges Berkshire Hathaway's (BRKA) book value against the S&P 500. He doesn't use Berkshire's stock price. My question to you is, Can someone like me or anyone else avoid a 2011?
What were you expecting?
I always knew we'd have our day of negative performance. I'd be foolish not to think that day would arrive. So we had billions in cash, and the fund was chastised somewhat for keeping so much cash. But that cash was used to pay the outflows, and then when the cash started to get to a certain level, I began to liquidate other positions.
Was 2011 beyond your worst-case scenario?
The down year was definitely not outside of what I thought possible. I was not as surprised by the reaction and the money going out as I was by the money coming in. When you tally it all up, we attracted $5.4 billion in 2009 and 2010 into the fund and $7 billion went out in 2011. It moves fast.
AIG's stock, which makes up 40% of your fund, has returned 50% this year. What does it need to do to deliver the 20% a year you think is possible? Will Hurricane Sandy claims prevent that?
It's too soon to tell, but it's not critical. AIG (AIG) is priced for 10 Sandys. More broadly, the company needs to reduce expenses, which will naturally occur. There's been a huge amount of time and energy placed in dealing with the Federal Reserve and the U.S. Treasury, and building new information systems. So you'll start to see significant cost reductions over time.
They're also moving away from low-frequency, high-severity insurance, which, in my opinion, is picking up pennies in front of a steamroller. But I think Peter Hancock, who runs their property-and-casualty business, understands that the one-in-100-year storm happens every five years.
The value of Sears (SHLD) [which trades near $60] would be over $160 a share if the land on the books was fully valued. You can look back at recent transactions and ask a question: How can Sears close stores and generate hundreds of millions of dollars of cash? It gets at the inventory. The liquidation value of its inventory approaches its stock price. Forget the real estate.
You make Sears sound like a liquidation play, not a retail recovery.
The retail recovery is a potential upside. Regardless, you'll see gigantic cash flows from the closing of locations, the pulling-out of the cash from inventory, work in process, and distribution centers. They're not idiots when it comes to real estate. They understand that today's standalone store can be tomorrow's multi-use hotel/residential-retail center. I think Eddie Lampert will end up being one of a few unbelievable case studies on what it means to be a long-term investor.
You own shares of both Bank of America and MBIA. When will they settle their multibillion-dollar lawsuit?
Bank of America's legal issues are the only thing stopping its rise right now. [MBIA's suit accuses BofA (BAC) of fraud related to bad home loans underwritten by BofA's Countrywide unit; BofA denies the allegations.] I know BofA doesn't want shareholders to overpay, but I'm one large shareholder who says, "Settle up!" And yes, it's in part because I'm a large MBIA (MBI) shareholder, but it's also because it's time to move on. I've e-mailed [BofA CEO] Brian Moynihan and said, "Settle." BofA is now the best capitalized bank in the U.S. It generates $5 billion of cash every three months. Its book value is $20 a share, but the stock trades near $10. Everything else is pretty obvious. Moynihan has done a really good job of moving to the Wells Fargo (WFC) model: client-centered. BofA has a huge franchise in the form of a trillion-dollar deposit base. They are America's bank.
Your portfolio is concentrated [see chart, above]. If you get new money to invest, will you buy different stocks?
Are there other investments out there? Yes. Better than what's in the fund today? No.
This story is from the December 3, 2012 issue of Fortune.
Sears Holdings one of the top performers in the stock market this year, but that's not because its outlook is bright. What's the end game?
FORTUNE – It can almost be said that Sears Holdings Corp. (SHLD) is one of the best and worst stocks today. The Hoffman Estates, Ill.-based retail conglomerate has been battered amid declining sales and profits. But as CEO Eddie Lampert scrambles to raise cash and calm MORENin-Hai Tseng, Writer - Apr 4, 2012 12:53 PM ET
Bruce Berkowitz's Fairholme Fund is back atop the mutual fund universe after many investors bailed. Will they come back?
FORTUNE -- To say Bruce Berkowitz of the $8-billion Fairholme Fund faced adversity last year is an understatement.
"Time to Sell Fairholme?" asked the Wall Street Journal on Nov. 6 (Its answer: yes).
"Not to pick on Bruce Berkowitz too much," read a Kiplinger.com column on Dec. 8, "but hubris is such a dangerous MOREScott Cendrowski, writer-reporter - Apr 2, 2012 9:22 AM ET
Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan faced questions from investor Bruce Berkowitz -- it was a big gamble, and it seems he broke even on it.
FORTUNE -- Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan seems to understand one of the key lessons of the financial crisis: you have to be open with your shareholders. Now he just needs them to believe what he's saying.
Moynihan took to the airwaves today on a MOREScott Cendrowski, writer-reporter - Aug 10, 2011 3:21 PM ET
Larry Pitkowsky and Keith Trauner sat out the first bubble. Now the value investors justify why Google is a top holding and Microsoft is more exciting now than a decade ago.
FORTUNE -- Some splits in the mutual fund world are acrimonious, some aren't. This one fell somewhere in the middle. Larry Pitkowsky and Keith Trauner were happy working with Bruce Berkowitz at the Fairholme Fund. The fund's record was enviable MOREScott Cendrowski, writer-reporter - Jul 25, 2011 8:00 AM ET
Probably not. But that's not stopping the rumor mill from spinning full speed about the investor and the future of the Fairholme fund.
FORTUNE -- The scuttlebutt among some investors at the annual Morningstar investment conference this week in Chicago is that Bruce Berkowitz is toast. All well-known managers go through rough times, especially value investors who buy stocks others hate. But when you're named fund manager of the decade by MOREScott Cendrowski, writer-reporter - Jun 10, 2011 9:51 AM ET
The investor admitted he misjudged the government's intentions with the insurer. What does that mean for Berkowitz's giant stake?
FORTUNE -- With AIG stock cratering nearly 50% this year, all eyes have turned to investor Bruce Berkowitz, AIG's largest private shareholder. The 52-year-old fund manager looked especially smart last year while amassing 40 million shares of the insurance giant. Back then, AIG shares were skyrocketing and embarrassing hedge fund managers like Steve Eisman MOREScott Cendrowski, writer-reporter - May 10, 2011 2:42 PM ET
In the latest development at the sleepy Florida landowner, Florida's former governor has been nominated to join St. Joe's Board.
The news is still swirling around St. Joe Company. Yesterday, investor Bruce Berkowitz announced that he and his partner Charlie Fernandez were stepping down as St. Joe directors after serving for little more than a month. It appears as though Berkowitz was defeated by the board in his attempt to become MOREScott Cendrowski, writer-reporter - Feb 15, 2011 6:10 PM ET
Bruce Berkowitz is proposing to become chairman of the Florida developer. That could spell trouble for short seller David Einhorn.
Last week, the investor Bruce Berkowitz of Fairholme Capital was onstage at Columbia University's annual Investment Management Conference in New York when he got a question about St. Joe Company (JOE), one of the most debated stocks among certain moneyed circles. Ever since noted short seller David Einhorn publicly bashed the MOREScott Cendrowski, writer-reporter - Feb 7, 2011 12:38 PM ET
Bruce Berkowitz, the mutual fund star and St. Joe's largest shareholder, is now on its board. But don't bet on a Berkowitz buyout.
St. Joe Company is grabbing a lot of headlines for an obscure residential real estate developer in Florida's Panhandle. If you haven't followed, here's a quick recap: noted short seller David Einhorn gave his idea of what the company is worth during a hedge fund conference back in MOREScott Cendrowski, writer-reporter - Dec 17, 2010 12:10 PM ET
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