Major U.S. equity indexes were narrowly mixed in the first quarter of 2016, as sharp gains in the second half of the period erased earlier losses. As the year began, world markets lurched lower as last year's Chinese and global economic growth concerns intensified and oil prices plunged below $30 per barrel. By mid-February, several non-U.S. markets were firmly in bear market territory, commonly defined as a decline of at least 20% from recent highs. Equities and other risk assets rallied sharply through the end of March, as the Bank of Japan and the European Central Bank, whose monetary policies are already very accommodative, unveiled new stimulus efforts that pushed certain interest rates into or deeper into negative territory. Also, oil prices bounced off 12-year lows amid speculation that OPEC producers could act to freeze or cut production at an April 17 meeting.
The New Era Fund returned 8.47% in the quarter compared with 7.81% for the Lipper Global Natural Resources Funds Index and 1.35% for the S&P 500 Index. For the 12 months ended March 31, 2016, the fund returned −11.32% versus −15.13% for the Lipper Global Natural Resources Funds Index and 1.78% for the S&P 500 Index. The fund's average annual total returns were −11.32%, −5.51%, and 1.15% for the 1-, 5-, and 10-year periods, respectively, as of March 31, 2016. The fund's expense ratio was 0.67% as of its fiscal year ended December 31, 2015.
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The investment opportunity set has narrowed somewhat as balance sheets in the energy and materials sector already continue to feel the pressure of a long-term downturn in global commodities prices. That said, we continue to see compelling investment opportunities. Areas of interest include energy exploration and production companies that are lowering their cost of production and accelerating growth through the development of their assets. North American shale producers are the best example. We are also looking at commodity-related companies whose input costs are declining while product sales are increasing due to the health of their end markets. Regulated utilities that can realize durable growth in this low interest rate environment are another area of focus, with a particular interest in gas utilities.
We continue to believe the natural resources market is in the initial years of a secular down cycle for oil and other commodities. Within this challenging environment, however, we expect to see wide dispersion among industries and companies and are mindful that cyclical dislocations could boost select commodity prices. We maintain the structural integrity of our portfolio in the context of our longer-term downcycle view, while being mindful of short-term trading rallies and will make tactical portfolio shifts as appropriate. We currently have a focus on companies with lower financial leverage and no hidden counterparty risk, given the presence of wide credit spreads and bankruptcy potential in the commodities marketplace.