Large-cap U.S. stocks reached all-time highs in February before retreating in March and ending the first quarter with slim gains. Corporate merger activity, reduced energy costs, low interest rates, and massive quantitative easing efforts in the eurozone and Japan overcame concerns about a stronger U.S. dollar and some mixed economic data. Natural resources stocks fell modestly, but the pace of the decline slowed somewhat from last year's second half. Although the recent stabilization is encouraging, a stronger U.S. dollar, slowing global growth, and an unfavorable supply/demand dynamic continue to weigh on commodities and energy stocks.
The New Era Fund returned −0.64% in the quarter compared with 0.95% for the S&P 500 Index and −1.18% for the Lipper Global Natural Resources Funds Index. For the 12 months ended March 31, 2015, the fund returned −11.14% versus 12.73% for the S&P 500 Index and −18.24% for the Lipper Global Natural Resources Funds Index. The fund's average annual total returns were −11.14%, 2.20%, and 5.28% for the 1-, 5-, and 10-year periods, respectively, as of March 31, 2015. The fund's expense ratio was 0.66% as of its fiscal year ended December 31, 2013.
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Our construction materials stocks turned in strong absolute gains and were among the portfolio's best-performing industries. Stocks in companies exposed to oil prices were a mixed bag. Our U.S. oil exploration and production stocks, as well as our refining and marketing stocks, outperformed the broader market. However, overseas exploration and production stocks fell. We favor energy exploration and production companies that are moving down the cost curve and accelerating growth through the development of their assets. The best example of this is North American shale producers. We also like commodity-related companies whose input costs are declining while product sales are increasing, including specialty chemicals and packaging.
The challenging environment for commodities, particularly oil, could last for some time. Within this environment, however, we expect to see wide dispersion among industries and companies and are mindful that cyclical dislocations could give a boost for select commodity prices. We are heartened by the fact that we are seeing new investment opportunities, in part driven by the volatility in the space, despite our view of a relatively challenging environment for broader commodities. We remain committed to our bottom-up stock selection process and philosophy of buying and holding a diverse selection of fundamentally sound natural resources companies with solid balance sheets and talented management.